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.

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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.