Philip K. Dick, “The Penultimate Truth” (1964)

The Penultimate Truth might be Philip K. Dick’s answer to 1984. In both works, a war is used for social control. The reality of the war is secondary to its function in maintaining an enslaved population. In both works, the government uses the media as a major tool of control by manipulating the truth. The Penultimate Truth differs in two important ways. The first is that it is a fundamentally more optimistic story, believing in the potential of self-sacrifice, solidarity, and struggles. By the end of the story, the truth is exposed and a revolution is affected, putting an end to the media-constructed war. Second, while in 1984, the lies are used to sustain a totalitarian state, in The Penultimate Truth the perpetrators of the scheme area a clearly identifiable class of feudal lords, who have used the war to assert their ownership over the land and create massive fiefdoms. This piqued me because I have been recently wondering if our future is some sort of feudalism. We have the ground work for this already. A small number of (mostly) men own most of the land and wealth of the planet. They separate themselves from the rest via gated communities, sustain a separate moral universe, and in some cases maintain private police forces.


The war was real, at the beginning. It started on Mars between the colonies of the Western democracies and the colonies of the Eastern bloc. (Philip K. Dick, seemingly unaware of the Sino-Soviet split, often imagined a unified Communist world.) By the time the war reached Earth, most of the people were moved into underground bunkers. While there, they worked in the construction of “leadies,” robots who would fight the war on the surface. Autofacs, it was believed, remained in the surface cities contributing to the war effort, ensuring that these locals were still valuable to the war effort. Their periodic “destruction” justified increased quotas. A year after the war reached Earth, peace returned. The remaining humans seized the land, dividing the world into demesnes. By maintaining the war-time quotas, they were ensured a steady supply of leadies to sustain their life. The people in the bunkers functioned like serfs, redirecting surplus to the landed elite on the surface. To help sustain the lie, a massive infrastructure of film-making and media, convinces the people that the war is continuing. At one critical moment, the city of Detroit is destroyed, increasing the leadie quotas. I do not want to push this metaphor too far, but perhaps the lies serve the same role that the Roman church did in the European feudal world, convincing the people that the best thing for them was to work diligently for their masters.

The major difference, is that the people in the bunkers do not know they are in a feudal situation. They think they are still in a democracy, controlled by Talbot Yancy. The people are reminded of this trough regular speeches, beamed down to the bunkers. He is actually a robot, of course, and his speeches are programmed by surface dwellers.

Philip K. Dick has a strong admiration and faith in the potential for human solidarity and self-sacrifice. That comes through most strongly in the chapters detailing the adventures of Nicholas St. James. He is the president of one of those small bunkers. The lead mechanic is dying of pancreatitis and needs a replacement pancreas. All the artificial organs are reserved for the surface soldiers. Already this introduces questions; why are they needed if the war is fought by leadies? Without this mechanic, the unit is doomed to fail to meet its quota. If it fails too often, the bunker will be dissolved and the fate of the residents will be horrible. Nicholas St. James decides to go to the surface. A brave and self-sacrificing act considering that be believes a war is raging on the surface. Once he is on the surface he quickly learns that the war is over. One reason given by the leadies is that the war had to end but that required lying to the more violent and destructive humans who would want to fight to the last man. The lie sustains a peace. We know, of course, that the lies also ensure the power of the so-called “Yance-men”, the landowners. He later learns that man “tankers” have escaped over the years, residing in massive apartment complexes. St. James find himself in a group of relatively free ex-tankers in Cheyenne, a location notable for still being a “hot spot.” After meeting the future lord of the Cheyenne demesne, David Lantano. Lantano is dark-skinned. He claims this is due to residing in Cheyenne, but the truth is that he is a time-travelling Cherokee. All other Indians were murdered in the ethnic conflicts proceeding the war. Lantano is scheming to put an end to the rule of the Yance-men, something is succeeds in doing. Before this, however, St. James finds the needed artificial organs and voluntarily returns to the bunker, seemingly willing to sustain the lie to help the people of his community.

It is in these moments that we find the key difference between Orwell and Dick. While Orwell sees the regime of lies leading to hostility, children spying on parents, mutual indifference, and brute survival, Dick sees humanity (the spirit, not simply the physical body) as resilient. By returning to the bunker, with an artificial organ, eager to help his family and friends meet an artificial quota, St. James sustains solidarity. In the same way, the community of ex-tankers represented the porous and fragile nature of the fraud.

In contrast, we have the Yance-men. Like the characters in The Game-Players of Titan, these people are self-serving, sociopathic schemers. They work to sustain their power over the bunkers, the escaped tankmen, and each other. It seems most of their days are committed to sustaining frauds and implementing schemes. They surround themselves with either other Yance-men or the leadies they expropriated from the people in the bunkers. Lantano, the one good Yance-man, is actually not of that world.

St. James realized something important by the end of the novel. The fraud may have been implemented by sociopaths and schemers, but it did help protect people from what their immediate response to the end of the war would have been. Had they been told, ten years earlier, that the war was over, millions would have died of radiation poisoning as they went to the surface. At best, however, this could only justify a benevolent and somewhat honest technocracy during a crisis. The decadence of the Yance-men and their power games were surplus to the requirement. It does not matter if power if justifiable on some level. It is nonetheless, sociopathic.

14 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “The Penultimate Truth” (1964)

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

  2. Orwell’s morality in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”,leaves no grey areas,whereas Dick in this novel and many of his others,leaves you with an uncertain moral intrigue where there is no clear line between good and evil.In Orwell’s novel,Winston asks if the world was any better before the “current” world order took over,and while no definite answer is forthcoming,it seems to echo the ethical dilemma in Dick’s dystopian homily.

    In Orwell’s book,Winston looks to the proles as the saviours who will topple the repressive regime,however long it will take to happen.Dick’s Yance Men represent the inner party to which Winston belongs,but the proles in this case are the deceived masses living underground,and one of it’s number,Nicholas,is the “hero” here,who will expose the scam that keeps them in ignorance.

    David Lantano,who resembles Talbot Yancy,becomes through osmosis,a changeling who “becomes” him,and therefore becomes a genuine fake,that recalls the fake Colt Revolver that Tagomi uses in “The Man in the High Castle”.Orwell’s Big Brother equates with Yancy,and remains an eponymous presence,unseen by party members and probably fabricated.

    Dick can no more be called Orwellian though than Orwell can be called Dickian.

    • I think if you read through my entire series on Dick, you will see I do not disagree with you on that. Of course, there are Orwellian and dystopian motifs throughout his work that create useful points of comparison. As I recall, I did believe Dick was hacking Orewellian themes in this book. Since 1984 is one of the few SF works many people have reference to.

      • Dick or critics rarely cite Orwell as an influence on his stuff,probably because he influenced so many sf writers,that it’s taken for granted.However,the shadow he cast over him is undeniable,and should be strongly taken into account when considering the development of his writing career.

        Unlike Orwell’s book,he didn’t create a totalitarian system as such,but are unknowing repressed by false information.This is a more subtle variation on Orwell’s theme and closer to Dick’s own concerns.

        Orwell never wrote under the science fiction label,anymore than Olaf Stapledon did,with both achieving recognition outside of genre fiction,and both British authors,with prehaps for obvious reasons,Orwell gaining greater fame,if no more respect.For these reasons,both can be considered as authors of speculative fiction or literature,as of course can Dick.

        Unlike him,neither had any respect for the sf magazines of the time,that would influence Dick from a fairly young age.From such disparate sources would emerge authors of such dissimilar yet similar styles.

      • Again, I do not disagree with you. I wrote 30 posts, 30,000 words on Dick. I mentioned Orwell maybe a handful of times in that series. I have since written a 200,000 word manuscript on PKD and late capitalism, which I am polishing for publication. I do not think he shows up at all in that. Remember, my main goal is to look for left libertarian themes in American writers, so I tend to examine questions of institutional power. I would not say that has never led to misinterpretations. (In the blog at least, which is where I play with ideas, I hope the book is solid.)

  3. Dick was brilliant at merging the seeming world of everyday politics with metaphysics.In the novelette “Faith of Our Fathers”,an Orwellian totalitarian regime is a facade for an evil “God”.”Time Out of Joint”,in which an environment created for Ragel Gumm by a deceptive government,features psychedelia in which the everyday world fades into oblivion as he becomes aware of the flimsiness of the “reality” around him,while in “The Man in the High Castle”,the worst known scenario of a world ruled by the Nazis,is revealed by divine spirits, who talk through the “I Ching”, as a glass of darkness in which history and memory are unreliable.

    The political world in Dick’s literary fiction then,is one in which there is often a metaphysical threat underlining the cool surface of what looks like a stable world government,but is itself manipulated.Even the more anodyne “The Penultimate Truth”,becomes something greater than it’s deliberate scam,as David Lantano takes on the role of Talbot Yancy and turns history and deceit into truth and reason.

    • You will need to take a look at my book when it is out. I hope it will be the most directly political reading of Dick. I see him as more promethean than others. (Funny you mention Gumm because his decision to back the moon is what led me to really think about this promethean aspect. His shift from banal purposelessness at the end. The same spirit is hidden in his attempt to seduce Junie Black–he actually quotes Goethe in the attempt.) Lantano is a great example of that.

      I do not discount the metaphysical stuff, but it bores me a bit now and I find it a political dead-end…especially the religious turn in his last decade. See, if there are layers of untruth that go nowhere it is rather silly to resist. Thankfully, Dick rarely goes that way. Most of the time, the enemy is knowable and crushable. I like Dick because he seems to describe the world I live in. I can do without the ontological wildness, unless it can actually get to political action.

  4. I see,but the metaphysical “what is real” theme is one of two that have come to define what has become known as Dickian,the other of course being “what is human”.You can’t deny this second one,and it often merges beuatifully with the first,with “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” as a prime example I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you.Also you’d know how important this would be to his political themes.

    The novels beginning with “Valis”,were works of pain,but “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” was quite sanguine.Dick’s interest in religion though,was already growing in the 1960s,not as something institutionalized of course,but rather religious experience as a revelation and a reality.

    “Time Out of Joint” on the Philip K.Dick Fan Site,described the two time periods as equally false,with the “real” one not revealed.Unfortunetly,it was said that Dick cut the end portion out of the novel,for fear of it being too long,so don’t know what might have have transpired.

    • I reject the idea that there is a real Dickian perspective. In any case, the “what is reality” and “what is human” questions have been dissected endlessly by Dick scholars, as early as K. S. Robinson’s dissertation and Warrick. I think it is time for fresh readings for our generation. Class divisions, corporate power, the crisis in monogamy and the family, a creeping security state, devastating urbanization, and the end of work/ post-scarcity are our challenges. I think Dick speaks to all of these questions in interesting ways but many of them have been under appreciated.

      Where I think the ontological question is interesting is in something like urban planning. Cities change and are quite liquid. The transformation of someplace like Times Square into a Disney land is happening. In some places it is called gentrification, in others urban renewal. But it does mean the abolition of the past. (Speaking of which, I have a paper coming out soon on urban renewal in “Transmetropolitan.”) However, if we take ontological uncertainty too far, Dick can no longer help us. It just becomes an inevitable burden that we must live with rather than a clear force we can fight against.

      I do not see any textual evidence for the a third reality in TOOJ. A third reality would have made it a worse novel lacking any political message. I will take the ending as a bold call for the revival of the frontier. A suggestion that the Martian hovels and human kipple need not be our fate for all eternity. I take shit for this, but it is for this reason that I have a fondness for “Jones” and even “Dr. Futurity.”

  5. I suppose you must be right,but I think we should add to what we have already dissected and said on paper about PKD,rather than disregard what we’ve learnt and transcribed.We know he wrote multi layered and mega fiction,which means that he penned what was probably the most complex and perplexing fiction or literature of the twentieth century,and scares off any lasting analysis.There’s a wealth of material to excavate beneath those deep layers therefore though.

    Of Dick’s fifties novels,the one I like besides “Time Out of Joint” of course,is “Eye in the Sky”, that I think you’ll agree,is an excellent look into political themes within a metaphysical playground.Here is a cerebral account of someone’s Communist beliefs revealed through the spy glass of inner space.[I haven’t read “Dr Futurity”]

    In “Time Out of Joint”,Ragel Gumm wants to go back to “old town”,what is supposed to be a bogus charade.However,that place contained more human warmth,purpose, and I suppose empathy,than the non-fabricated,future one,and could be the key to truth.From this then could be the true reality that has been suggested,and prehaps the key to a simple political ideology.

    I agree that an ontological theme wouldn’t have no substance without a political one in his stuff,but have to say that it lives and breaths like an unseen,good virus within the pages of his books.It’s part of the whole tapestry he wove,and you’d have to undo the whole quilt work to extricate it.It’s transcendental to understanding in his fiction.

    It’s such a shame that no political theme can be found in the latter novels of his life,but “Valis” has reference to Nixon as a sort of facade for the “empire that never ended.”Earlier pieces such as “Faith of Our Fathers”,which I’ve already cited,approach politics through religious experience as something malign lurking beneath,while “A Maze of Death”,comes something close to a politically policed “island” community,where in a universe where “God” is an empirical reality,the unexplained surreal events seem to be lost to infinity in an almost Kafkaesque manner,but for the fabricated ending.”The Man in the High Castle” again,sees a political tyranny as something transcendental through the fabric of a hidden veil.

    In all of these though,we see the courage of ordinary human beings to survive in worlds of oppressive authority or forces,and this I think is vitally important to your political research.Orwell had a very similar outlook.

    In the end,Dick’s humour comes to the fore though,as you know.I suppose the idea of a robot president feeding the underground masses false information in “The Penultimate Truth” is very amusing.He was an author of dark comedies.

    I respect your views though.

    • Actually, I have a political reading of the VALIS trilogy. You need to add RFA, which I see as a better candidate for the third volume than Timothy Archer anyway.. It is too complicated to get into here, but I guess it begins with the “empire is not dead” stuff and centers on how we read the comparative importance of outside knowledge (VALIS, Zebra) and organizations of resistance. Of course, in this perspective, I find “The Divine Invasion” to be an utter betrayal of most of Dick’s previous work for it is the first to find salvation completely in an outside divine force. This is from RFA: “After all, was the United States not an extension through linear time of the Roman republic? In many ways it was. . . . [Rome] vanished but still existed in new forms, with a new linguistic system and new customs. But the heart of the Empire remained: one language, one legal system, one coinage, good roads—and Christianity, the late legal religion of the Roman Empire. After the Dark Ages we had built back up to what had been and even more. The prongs of imperialism had been extended all the way to Southeast Asia”

      But do not get me wrong, when I am talking about a political critique, I am along the lines of the left libertarians in seeing hierarchy not just in the formal institutions of the state but in the workplace, family, mental health institutions, institutional religion, consumer society, urban planning structures. I have chapters on all of these things. I guess I am really trying to get at a complete diagnosis of power and institutional dehumanization across all areas of life. I can send you a piece if you want to see it.

  6. Thank you,yes I would be interested.

    “RFA” I agree has a strong political structure,but in other ways it seems bland and less powerful than so many of his other novels.It remained unpublished until after his death,before which he was asked for a rewrite,but transformed it into a totally different novel,ergo “Valis”.What you said about “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” might be true,but I think it’s just a better novel than the other book.It takes place in a then contemporary world that is real,with only asides and casual happenings as to the metaphysical,and so could be said to deal with everyday politics.

    “The Divine Invasion” I would be much more inclined to agree with you about.It seems though to be a return to the novels of his earlier tone, humour and inventive brilliance,that is non-existant in the more lugubrious “Valis”,but seems to fade into a fog of pseudo religious theology.In that way I would agree with you.

    Institutional religion?Except prehaps for his later novels I’ve just discussed,there’s very rarely any formal religion or religious leaders in his books.The only example that comes to mind,is the robot padre in “Galactic Pot-Healer”,one of Dick’s cranky talking machines he was famous for,and that book is an excellent example of political suppression.However,”Counter-Clock World” does have a religious leader in the form of the Anarch Peak,whose foundation stone now though,is the fact that he’s risen from the dead,and has therefore actual prove of God.His emergence from the grave though,has sparked rebellion among the masses,and is seen as a political threat to the prevailing government,not a new religion.Now I don’t think you can get a much better instance of metaphysics and politics merging than that.

    In that novel though,just as I’ve hinted,the real focus is about religious experience that I wrote about earlier,rather than formal state religion.This is clearly what interested Dick than any prevailing church religion.I don’t see this then as having any role in the political life of the proletarian in his literary fiction.

    Regarding the workplace and consumerism I can well agree.The best examples that immediately spring to mind are “Martian Time-Slip” and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”.In the first book,service men such as the honest Jack Bohlen are seen as indispensable to the safe running of the Martian colonies,and will emerge as the true “heroes” of the novel,while his boss,the scheming Arnie Knott,has little regard for their workmanship,and will attempt to use the autistic savant boy Manfred Steiner,who can already see his future,which will be due to political manipulation back on Earth,as a means to gain power to tighten his hold on the plumbers union on the planet.

    In “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,consumer culture has become the means to make life bearable for the poor Martian colonists,with a role playing game brought to life by a drug.Here I suppose consumerism can be seen pushed to it’s limits,and the eventual conflict between Bulero and Eldritch,can be seen as a battle between two rival corporate giants for control of the drug trade and game accessories for supplying the Martian colonies,but one that stretches into the transcendent.Leo Bulero though is the ruthless business man with a heart of gold,balanced against the sinister avatar of God,Palmer Eldritch.

    Drugs were a facet of Dick’s literary fiction,in this book,and “Faith of Our Fathers”,that mixed their use with the themes of religious experience and politics.What part do they have within his context of politics then?

    • I will just take on your last question. We live in this liquid world (here is where the ontological questions are meaningfully examined politically across the board). Zygmunt Bauman’s diagnosis of liquid modernity is quite the key to Dick’s world, at least for me. It explains the mad search for a solid and stable family when all the institutional and social forces are working against it. It also feeds into the some of the issues you highlighted in “MTS.” This search for a meaningful craft is in “Galactic Pot Healer” as well.

      Religion. One response to the liquid world in our world, has been the rise of new religious movements. You find that the deeper a society is lost in late capitalism the more popular new religious movements are. The sort of mindless consumption of religions in directly critiqued in “Timothy Archer.” There are also quite comical statements in VALIS and running through the Exegesis about the madness of finding security and safety in religious speculation. Like mental illness, new religious movements, is part of the mental consequences of a liquid world (for better or for worse). As he is with mental illness, Dick is not unsympathetic to people choosing new religions movements (Mercerism, I Ching–well not really new but a clear import in the novel) but it seems to me he realizes that they can often be vapid (Confessions of a Crap Artist).

      Then there is the overt political uses of religion by movements of resistance and states. I cannot get into the taxonomy of that here but I found one or the other of these motifs in over half of the novels and many stories.

      Now this may be more indirect, but I also think it is significant to work out Dick’s preternaturalism, which is strong in his early works but never goes quite away. Again, it is about a search for intellectual stability in a liquid world.

  7. I found this very constructive criticism,but I had forgotten about Mercerism.I suppose this could be the closest Dick comes to an organised religion,but even here there is a felt aspect of truth to the experience rather than the rituals of institutionalized faith,as the characters in the book,fuse with Wilbur Mercer in an act of prehaps contrition,as they experience and empathize with his suffering……they even emerge literally with the scars inflicted during the fugue.

    The strength of their “faith” and the truth of the existance of Mercer however,emerges later when the rogue android DJ Buster Friendly exposes the “cult” of Mercerism as a fraud engineered by the government,with,as in the “artificial” environment in “Time Out of Joint”,an actor playing the part of Mercer.Of course,the revelation of facts isn’t strong enough to preempt the faith of those who truly “belive”. John Isadore witnesses the reversal of time and entropy and the resurrection of extinct animals sacred to Mercer,while Rick Decard is aided by Mercer when he comes to help him take-out the androids,and later merges with him in a stunning transcendental fusion.

    Here it seems a political movement is manipulating the masses,prehaps for humanistic reasons,but unknowingly nurturing a metaphysical faith,and I think this could be a perfect paradigm in your search for ontology emerging from a political viewpoint.The inexplicable events following Mercer’s exposure as a fraud,are reminiscent of those those experienced by Ragel Gumm as the “real” world fades around him,being replaced by scraps of paper with the names of objects and things,and once again this can be seen as politically induced by an unseen government.

    The Mercerism experience reminds me of people who have said they have experienced the sufferings of Christ in a sort of fugue state,and emerge with the stigmata of “his wounds”.Also maybe needless to say,Buster Friendly losses out because of his lack of ability to feel empathy.

    “Ubik” seems to be the perfect cipher,if it can be called that,for “religion” merging with consumerism.Here,the facts of what is life and what is death,is decided by the substance Ubik,a kind of processed form of God which can be found in the commodities of everyday life,which is absent from the half life world,where entropy,similar to what Manfred Steiner experiences in “Martian Time-Slip”,is prevalent,without the opposite effect of neotropy that is Ubik.

    It is difficult to perceive of any political system as you would have it,behind the strange chain of events that manifest in the book though.Prehaps at best it lies in the institution itself of the place that preserves those in half life.Mega corporations in Dick’s novels though often rival those of governments,and Runciter’s company can prehaps be seen in this light.

    Brian Aldiss in “Trillion Year Spree” said that Dick professed not to be a Christian,but his books are permeated by Christian thought.I can’t be sure of what that meant,but suppose that he might have been fascinated by it without having a direct hand in religious affairs.

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