Philip K. Dick, “Dr. Bloodmoney” (1965): The Failure of Technocracy

There is no shortage of post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, even within Philip K. Dick’s writing.  In many of his novels, the war is in the distant past and humanity has come to terms with the war and created new social and political structures.  By setting, Dr. Bloodmoney in the more or less immediate aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, Dick is able to examine human nature without the burdens of civilization, culture, and the political order.  It is perhaps strange that a novel that centers on the devastation of  most of the world emerges as one of Dick’s most optimistic works.  We are awash in post-apocalyptic film and literature that assumes that after some devastation, we will more or less descend into barbarism.  Sure, you might have a few “good” people left, but their goodness will be challenged by the horrible conditions.  They will inevitably need to do horrible things to survive.  The Walking DeadThe Road, and Fallout all are based on the fragility of community, cooperation, and solidarity.  By setting these tales after a disaster we are told that in some way it is civilization and the political order that keep us from each other’s throats.   Dr. Bloodmoney is not without its share of opportunistic figures, but by and large people’s better natures survive in take.

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Take one example.  In Dr. Bloodmoney, after the bombs fall, Eldon Blaine – an eyeglasses repairman – arrives in Marin County, where our story takes place.  He needs antibiotics for his dying daughter but has eyeglasses to sell.  In most post-apocalyptic literature this exchange would be plagued with anxiety, hostility, mistrust, and would probably end in violence since both eyeglasses and antibiotics are valuable.  Blaine meets some people who need glasses but lack antibiotics.  He moves on to another group that has something to exchange.  Dick is not a utopian.  Blaine later died when trying to steal away Marin’s most skilled repairman, the phocomelus Hoppy Harrington, for his own community.  Evan after the bombs drop (or the aliens comes, or the zombies walk the earth, of the eco-system collapses) we are still humans, capable of empathy, cooperation, and mutual aid.  This is refreshing when so many messages tell us we are only capable of these things through the imposition of external force.

The plot is simple enough.  Dr. Bruno Bluthgeld, during his nuclear testing experiments, caused the “Bluthgeld Catastrophe” which led to widespread radioactive fallout and the increase in genetic abnormalities.  Three characters, Hoppy Harrington, Edie and her symbiotic fetal twin Bill are likely products of this catastrophe.  Bluthgeld is turned paranoid by this experience.  He thinks he can will changes in the world as well as being the direct cause of its ills.  An accident causes the bombs to drop.  The story picks up seven years later.  Communities have been reestablished.  The world is united in part through the selfless work of Walt Dangerfield, an attempted settler to Mars whose emigration was cut short.  He orbits the Earth with no means to return but plenty of supplies.  He becomes a DJ for the entire planet, even reading famous works from his library – he was well-stocked for the long and lonely voyage.  Meanwhile, Hoppy Harrington, who has the power to control matter with his mind, rises to prominence in the local community through violence and manipulation.  He causes Dangerfield to experience a psychic illness in hopes that he can take over this unifying role.  Hoppy’s plans is driven by his experience of humiliation from his condition.  He has no arms or legs and rides a mechanical device with artificial arms.  Ironically, his skills are much needed in the post-war world but his resentments remain.  Edie and Bill put an end to Hoppy’s rise.  Bill also has psychic powers and uses them to transfer minds with Hoppy, which kills the novel’s antagonist.  And, the world goes on.  Dangerfield’s health improves, the communities continue their rebuilding efforts, major characters find places for themselves in the new world.  Bluthgeld’s death at the hands of Hoppy even allows his psychiatrist Dr. Stockstill to move on treating humanity through the same means Dangerfield uses.  Edie and Bill’s mother Bonny Keller, a beautiful and truly good woman with a tendency for serial monogamy and serial adultery continues her love affairs.  Goodness seems victorious and there is no ambiguous ending to keep us up at night.

Something that is quite striking is that the war was seen as a positive force for some of the characters.  Dangerfield rises to become a unifying force.  Hoppy Harrington and the African-American Stuart McConchie are able to escape some of the discrimination they faced in the pre-war world.  Bill Keller is able to explore his psychic talents, as it Hoppy.  In the best example of this Andrew Gill, a tobacco and alcohol delivery man experiences the war with joy.  First, his truck load of tobacco and booze means the way made him rich.  He was also able to escape his apparently oppressive family, something he consummated with some random sex with a beautiful girl.  “As he drove along he began to whistle with relief and glee.”

The book is called Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb to build off of the success of Dr. Strangelove.  Nevertheless, Dr. Bluthgeld is a major figure in the story and essential to one of the arguments Dick is presenting.  This novel is an unabashed critique of the technocracy, for this is what Bluthgeld signifies.  Like all technocrats, he believes he is responsible for all the goodness that exists in the world.  In a fascinating scene after the bombs drop, Bluthgeld walks through the streets willing people to be good to one another and for repairs to the town.  “Let his building be restored.  When he saw injured people he said, Let these people be adjudged innocent and so forgiven.  Each time he made a motion with his hand which he had devised; it indicated his determination to see that things such as this did not recur.  Perhaps they have learned a permanent lesson, he thought.”  His arrogance is without limits.  Later when he sees people being deloused.  “I thought I had fixed that, he through.  Or did I forget about disease. Evidently I did.  He began to walk in that direction, bewildered by his failure to have taken everything into account.  I must have left out a variety of vital things, he realized as he joined the line of people waiting to have their heads shaved.”  This is the delusion of all technocracies, that they are capable of all the good in the world.  This is the sentiment (not often stated, of course) of many on the technological frontier.  If there is a social problem, it is because we have not created an app to solve it.  Poverty in Africa?  Do not worry, my new gravity-generator lamp will bring light to the poor.  Drug resistant gonorrhea?  Do not worry, Bill Gates is offering a prize for a better condom.  If there is anything redeeming in Bluthgeld’ character, it is that he also takes the blame for the ills, something very few technocrats accept.  Certainly it was not the industrial world that caused poverty in Africa.  There is no connection, of course, between, us putting antibiotics in everything and the rise of drug-resistant strains. Certainly, the potential of nuclear war is the fault of populist, jingoistic politicians not us scientists who simply created the device.  (We formed a movement against the bomb, don’t you know.)

In contrast to Bluthgeld, paranoid and self-absorbed, it is the post-war communities that take the leadership in rebuilding society.  It is the teachers, salespeople, repairmen, DJs, humble physicians, liquor salespeople, adulteresses, and genetically-deformed children who take over where people like Bluthgeld failed.  In Marin, this motely crew created a grassroots democracy with full participation.  The self-sacrifice of Walt Dangerfield is the symbol of the new world for good reason.  Dick thinks that the crises we face requires love, sacrifice, community, and cooperative.

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5 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “Dr. Bloodmoney” (1965): The Failure of Technocracy

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. Aw, this was a really nice post. In idea I would like to put in writing like this additionally taking time and actual effort to make a very good article but what can I say I procrastinate alot and by no means seem to get something done.

    • Thanks movers. I have surprised myself, nearing 40,000 words on PKD over the last two months. I might write it up into a book soon.

      I hope you enjoy my other PKD posts as well.

  3. Pingback: Planet for Transients | Philip K. Dick Review

  4. DB was the last in a quartet of masterpieces of one sort or another,he wrote between 1961 to 63,which was in a period of “renaissance” for sf,and Dick was one of those that spearheaded this movement.Unfortunately at the time,it remained unpublished,and it would be another two years before it see print.Eventually it was published by Ace,his regular publisher,who were too afraid of it at the time it was completed,it seems!

    I know you prefer to eschew the metaphysical theme in Dick’s weird stuff,which is pertinent here,in a novel that concentrates on the shared relationships of people struggling to survive in a remote outpost of a devastated California.However,there seems to be discrepancies,and much of the explanation for the “dull” scenario,lies in the psyches of the two more maverick characters,which unfortunately,appear half-baked.

    Hoppy Harrington is not unlike Manfred Steiner in “Martian Time-Slip”,in that both are young and possess precognitive powers.In a fugue state,before the atomic explosion,he predicts with uncanny accuracy,an event in which one of the characters later indulges in a barbaric but unfortunately necessary act to survive in the nuclear aftermath!

    There’s nothing wrong with that,but it seems Hoppy’s nightmarish vision,is a wish fulfillment dream of a place where he thrives,which becomes true of course,and indeed he does.However,he doesn’t share the power to control the future that Manfred Steiner possesses,and does nothing of the sort throughout the course of the novel,so it’s difficult to see how he could be responsible for his ambitions.

    The second catalyst is of course Bluthgeld,whose paranoid conspiracies supposedly parallel Hoppy’s catatonic predictions.At least Hoppy’s precognitive powers are genuine however,but the Teutonic named scientist has no such ability.There is a weakness here in metaphysical theology,assuming it was necessary!

    David Pringle in his book,”Science Fiction The 100 Best Novels”,in his essay for inclusion of DB,says,”Bob Dylan once sang,”you can be in my dream if I can be in your’s”,and essentially dreams are what this is all about”,but he offers no explanation for how this occurs,in his critique.I can’t believe he meant us to take it literally or seriously,and hopefully his thoughts about it,are actually closer to yours.

    It can only be best viewed as coincidental then,in a drama of fully realized social and political concerns.The novel has great strength of characterization and structure.Walt Dangerfield is an unusual character,being the only astronaut ever in Dick’s canon of believable people.The frontier theme seemed strong here though,with Dangerfield’s expedition to Mars,which would have given hope to the struggling colonies within the pages of a literary society,but unfortunate circumstances doom this to failure,and strength and faith come oddly enough from the musings of Dangerfield,who has now taken-on the more Dickian “trade” of a DJ! The only frontier to breach now,is isolation and frustration

    Edie’s twin brother Bill,who becomes the malevolent Hoppy’s nemesis,has geniune psychic powers to commune with the dead,which are only really hinted at in the novel,but are more concrete than Harrington’s or Bluthgeld’s.That is and would have been very exciting,but more of that another time.

    It is one of his best books though.He took on the task of looking at humanity at it’s precarious worst,and presented it with courage and farce.It seems however,that technocracy has no long term benefits,and is controlled by technocrats who have no empathy.

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