Saturday 4 April 2020
Notice of The Penultimate Truth, by Philip K Dick (1964)
I've just read The Penultimate Truth by Philip K Dick (from 1964), which I had not previously bothered-with - due to having read some rather adverse/ lukewarm reviews. But it turns-out the reviews were mistaken: I thought this was an excellent novel - one of PKD's best.
It is not giving away any great plot points to reveal that the set-up is a post-world-war society where most of the human population are kept below-surface in 'ant tanks' where they live in miserable and crowded conditions, manufacturing robots which they believe are necessary for the ongoing war on the radiation-devastated planet surface (which they believe to be uninhabitable by humans).
In reality; there is an aristocracy of 'Yance-men' living on the planet surface, who use these robots as labourers and domestic servants; and whose main activity is producing the 'fake news' to convince the underground dwellers to continue their closed-in, crowded, toiling lives.
In essence this is a world (exactly like ours) that is based on a Big Lie; and there is a recurrent discussion and analysis of this idea from Goebbells. In this world, the Nazi propagandist's expertise is regarded as exemplary, and taken to a high level of 'artistry' and effectiveness.
With a Big Lie, the lie has become so big that people cannot believe it could possibly be a lie; and they will ignore all kinds of detailed discrepancies in 'the narrative' fed to them, because the idea that they are living a total lie is simply beyond belief. This bigness is indeed vital to success - because lying always involves discrepancies and errors; so that - in the end - a Big Lie is the only kind of lie that can be permanent and compelling.
The novel is all about this matter of deliberate, calculated lies and deceptions; and the motivations/ rationalisation behind them - the strange mixtures of self-seeking (power and luxury) and self-sacrifice (loneliness and isolation) that the Yance-men life entails; the ways they are both villains and martyrs. Indeed, all the point-of-view characters are broadly sympathetic, we can identify with them - to some extent.
The title of 'penultimate' truth seems to be a reference to the fact that even when the Big Lie is penetrated, we never seem to reach an ultimate truth; the knowable truth always seems to be incomplete, and the final answers (at least) one step further away...
Anyway, I would recommend this very highly; as being absolutely relevant to our present global situation; one of the most intelligent and deep 'dystopian' novels that I've encountered - with that instant memorability and iconic quality of 1984 and Brave New World - but much better-structured, more gripping and enjoyable to read.