Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year puts in an Earth stuck involved in a Cold War like conflict between two superpowers. In this setting, however, the Earth is not one of the major powers. Instead the Earth is a vassal state of one of the major belligerents. This is, of course, the place millions of humans found themselves in between 1945 and 1990, forced to chose between two odious alternatives. Through this position, Dick explores the consequences and obligations of commitment at the geopolitical stage and in personal relationships.
Our hero is a surgeon named Eric Sweetscent. who constructs artificial organs and transplants them into patients, often old and rich people who can afford this expensive procedure. He works for Virgil Ackerman, the boss of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which used to make consumer goods through a replication process using microorganisms that tend to copy nearby objects. The company has been recruited into serving the needs of the war. For, Earth has been recruited by the ‘Starman in their war against the non-humanoid reegs. The ‘Starmen, although fully authoritarian, seemed a better ally because they looked human. Eric’s estranged wife is a likely adulterer and certainly uses drugs. Her job is to create replicas of earlier times by collecting antiques. Consumerism has merged with nostalgia and Katherine Sweetscent is an expert.
Soon, Eric is asked to work for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Gino Molinari (The Mole). His job is to keep him barely alive. The Mole is a laughable figure. Politically savvy enough to become the leader of humanity, but he presents himself as chronically ill and a fool. In fact, The Mole is an ideal figure to navigate the horrible position the Earth is in. The ‘Starmen want to fight to the last man and the Mole attempts to save as many lives as possible. In one humorous meeting, Molinari dies at a critical moment at a negotiation in order to avoid committing 1.5 million humans to almost certain death in the war effort. The context is horrific, but the only resistance is through absurdity. Perhaps there is some truth to this dilemma. We often try to resist our bosses and overlords but forget Melville’s lesson. “Now, as you well know, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours- watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he had a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.” Like the slave feigning ignorance, Molinari evades human being made into a little heap of dust.
At the same time, Katherine become addicted to a new drug called JJ-180, which has the interesting effect of moving the user along the timeline, but often in parallel universes. It gives the user some predictive powers. Molinari uses it to help see the consequences of his political decisions as he tries to either get the Earth out of the war or switch sides without facing the wrath of the ‘Starmen. This drug is highly addictive and leaves its victims in a debilitated state with significant brain damage. Eric uses these to locate a cure for the addiction (which exists in the future) and gain information on the war effort. All of these political machinations fail, however. At the end of the novel, the ‘Starmen invade to prevent Earth from defecting to the reegs and the war changes to a struggle against occupation (although this long struggle is only foreshadowed).
The core of the novel is the struggle over two promises. Earth’s promise to the ‘Starmen and Eric’s promise to Katherine. Dick seems to think that one of these is illegitimate and the other is absolutely essential. The ‘Starmen acquired the help of the humans through some physiological manipulation and maintained their authority through brute power. They looked on humans as simple fodder for their war and were willing to use or break Earth law to get their way. In their view Molinari’s purpose was simply to stamp their policies on behalf of the humans, who are all but slaves. Dick argues that this type of relationship must be resisted. The promises made under these conditions are illegitimate. Eric’s embrace of the resistance against the invading ‘Starmen symbolizes Dicks support for opposition to authoritarian power and slavery.
Eric and Katherine’s relationship seems at first glance no less exploitive. Katherine makes more money than her husband but still overspend, depending on this salary. Katherine uses her sexuality to make her husband jealous. She uses drugs, breaks the law, and torments her husband at work. She is the typical PKD succubus. Yet, by the end of the novel, Katherine is completely dependent on Eric for basic survival. Eric resists an affair (again we see his insistence on serial monogamy) and almost kills himself. In the final, touching scene, Eric discusses his situation with an automotive cab. The cab (a robot) suggests he stay with his wife because “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”
However, we can ask, how is the relationship that different. Did Eric choose to be tormented by a psychological abusive woman, a wastrel for a wife? In the same way, Earth did not know they were entering in on the losing side of a war. Like Eric, they entered the abyss without all the information. Could not robot’s same logic apply to Earth? Yes, you want to switch side in this war now that the going is rough. By what right do you have to change reality to suit your needs? You should remain committed to your choices?
In truth, I am not satisfied that there is a huge difference here. But in the subtlety exists a thin but deep divided between these two situations. It is imprecise, but it makes all the difference. Eric’s commitment to his wife at the end has less to do with the vows he shared years before. Instead it is about the basic necessity of human solidarity. At the end, the cab does not call Eric a “good and loyal husband,” he calls him a “good man” for sacrificing himself for another person.