Book name: The Penultimate Truth
Author: Philip K Dick
Publisher: Belmont Books
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Science fiction
Publication Date: 1964
Star Rating: 5/5
Some Philip K Dick novels have plots that are comparatively straightforward. The Penultimate Truth isn’t one of them.
The Penultimate Truth is dystopian fiction at its best. The whole experience was profoundly unsettling.
Nick lives in the Tom Mix, an underground tank settlement, where he is crowded in with his wife and brother plus thousands of other ‘tankers’.
They toil away to produce ‘leadies’, robot men who they are told are fighting a war up on the surface.
The war must, Nick is told by the video broadcasts from president Talbot Yancy, be fought this way because a nuclear war means that the surface is too radioactive to support human life.
Everyone in the Tom Mix believes that apart from their doctor.
A crucial member of the tank has died for lack of a replacement pancreas. A small group of tankers threatens Nick’s life and those of his family unless he agrees to travel up the surface to find a replacement.
The tanker can then be brought back to life and, using his irreplaceable skills, the tank will meet their production quota.
Otherwise, they will all be liquidated.
Nick goes, full of misgivings but determined to do his duty by his fellow tankers at the Tom Mix.
On the surface, Nick meets some survivors from other tanks who have escaped up to the surface and can live there.
They have a wider perspective to offer, including the fact that Talbot Yancy doesn’t really exist and the whole propaganda campaign to persuade tankers to stay in their tanks is a lie.
While some areas are still too toxic to live in, others can support human life again. The shadowy groups behind Yancy, and the Soviet equivalent campaign over in Russia, perpetuate these lies in order to get plenty of space and privacy for themselves.
Nick is shocked, but determined to stick to his original mission: get hold of an artiforg pancreas for their engineer, return back to the Tom Mix and stop everyone there being liquidated for their lack of productivity.
During his time up on the surface, Nick comes into contact with a variety of the Yance men who write speeches for the fake leader. Some are more comfortable with their mission than others.
There is also the possibility of a better way: Runcible is trying to house ex-tankers on the surface in better conditions. His philanthropy has earnt him the attention of the Wes Dem authorities and his life is in danger.
Others within the power structure also want the world to be a better and fairer place. The question remains whether this can actually be achieved.
The plot of The Penultimate Truth was very complicated. It felt a lot more complex than, say, 1984, with which it shared quite a lot of key dystopian features.
The story was told via multiple points of view. This was its strength (the plot stayed fresh and unpredictable right to the end) but also its weakness, in my view.
This is because quite a few people were central at the beginning of The Penultimate Truth, only to fade away unresolved towards the end without having fulfilled their narrative promise.
In that sense, the plotting wasn’t as smooth as 1984, for example, where there were no extraneous characters and certainly none who provided a point of view during the narrative.
The true genius of The Penultimate Truth lay in its back story, which was rich, disturbing and complex. It was well pitched and utterly credible.
The means by which the lie had been falsified decades earlier was laid bare during the story via the history of two films that had been created to persuade the populace to accept the lie. The men behind them were now the most powerful in the world.
The first version of the film was aimed at Europe and America. The second, at Russia. They were subtle, but terrible lies were presented within these films and both populations accepted them. They’ve been living underground in terrible conditions ever since, while the liars have been living up on the surface in luxury and ease.
The Penultimate Truth was a fantastic read. It was honestly dystopian but still provided hope for the future. It had a compellingly rich backstory as to how the situation arose. It also had relatable, decent characters who you could root for.
I loved it.
Thank you for reading my review.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick.
Or you might like to take a look at my review of Time and Again by Jack Finney.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison.