Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, April 06, 2009
      ( 4/06/2009 09:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I'M EVOLVED . . . BUT SENTIMENTAL" From its full title, you readily get the impression that Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney Or How We Got Along After the Bomb is a rollicking dark comedy in the manner of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. The book was written in 1963, a year before that classic Cold War satire was released, but its title wasn't affixed to the book until after the movie was a hit -- at the advice of Ace Paperbacks editor Donald A. Wolheim. It's doubtful that this ploy did much for the Bloodmoney's sales, as Ace's cheap paperbacks weren't much known beyond its core readership of hard-wired sci-fi geeks back in 1965. Too, Dick was too honest a writer to indulge in the kind of crowd-pleasing broadswipe caricaturing that characterized Strangelove.

Bloodmoney was reissued last year as part of the Library of America's hardbound collection of five Dick novels of the 1960s and '70s (the other four titles: Martian Time-Slip; Now Wait for Last Year; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly). The book provides a solid reflection of the writer's focus and voice during the sixties; as with Time-Slip, it centers on a community of people struggling to survive in a harsh world where even their most hard-held beliefs are up for grabs.

In this case, as the title indicates, it's the post-nuclear apocalypse. Set in Berkeley and Marin County during the eighties, after a nuclear accident in 1972 resulted in an outbreak of human and mutations, the book opens prior to the even more devastating holocaust that will change everything. We meet many of the book's main characters prior to the change. Among these are black television salesman Stuart McConchie, psychiatrist Dr. Stockwell, unhappy housewife Bonny Keller (one of Dick's chronically unsatisfied women), astronaut Walt Dangerfield, mentally ill former physicist Bruno Bluthgeld and thalidomide victim Hoppy Harrington.

Bluthgeld is the Dr. Bloodmoney of the title. It's his supervision of high altitude bomb testing that led to the Catastrophe of 1972, and guilt for this has driven him mad. When full-blown nuclear war breaks out in the eighties, Bluthgeld holds himself responsible for that, too. Whether he's delusional and engaging in magical thinking -- or indeed truly has the ability to create an actual devastating nuclear event -- is never clearly resolved in the book.

One character who clearly does possess hyper-normal powers is the phocomelus Harrington. Born without the use of his hands or feet, Hoppy has developed telekinetic abilities to compensate for his thalidomide created body malformations. When we meet him, he's working as a repairman for Modern TV, but after the nuclear devastation, his powers push him to the front of the small Marin County farm community that he makes his home. Trapped in a basement in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear strike, he immediately plans to take over his own small patch of California: "It would all be small towns and individuals," he thinks, "like Ayn Rand talked about in her books."

If Bloodmoney has any clear villain, it's the sociopathic Harrington, who presides over his isolated community like little Anthony in Jerome Bixby's classic s-f horror story, "It's A Good Life." The preponderance of human and animal mutations in the post-Bomb world suits him. "In a way, there are no freaks, no abnormalities," he notes, though he still holds onto memories of the days when he was subjected to stares and mistreatment by "normal" folk. One of the book's other mutants, the unborn twin son of Bonny Keller, takes advantage of Hoppy's traumatic recollections in the book's genuinely creepy showdown.

Among the average folk, the most central to the worldwide community proves to be astronaut Dangerfield, who went into space with his wife and is stranded in satellite orbit around the Earth after the war. Broadcasting music and readings of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage to folks back on Earth after his wife's suicide, Dangerfield is the survivors' primary connection to a world they once knew. When the astronaut/deejay begins experiencing heart palpitations that may or may not be psychosomatic, psychiatrist Stockwell attempts to treat him via radio contact.

Much of Dick's novel concerns itself with the very human need to reassert normalcy in the face of overwhelming catastrophe and the attempts of people to either build upon or deny the very changes that have gone on around 'em. A merciless, yet sympathetic observer of human flaws and occasional sparks of heroism, Dick shows both the positive and negative aspects of this drive. Stuart McConchie proves a good vehicle for this: even after the holocaust, he continues to tirelessly work as a salesman, shifting from now useless televisions to Hardy Homeostatic rat traps. His indomitable huckerism is appreciated by more one potential customer. "He is still planning, cogitating, bullshitting," one notes admiringly.

At the same time, as a black male, Stuart remains subject to the racist suppositions of his white neighbors. The war, we learn, has even added an additional nasty fillip to this brand of bigotry as radiation burn victims are called "war darkies." The more things change, etc.

As with other Dick s-f novels from the sixties, there's always a moment that evokes the period in which it was written and cements the no-longer-prophetic story as an alternate take on a future that we thankfully missed. In Bloodmoney, it's a scene early in the book where a small crowd collects in front of Modern TV to watch a "large stereo color TV set" to watch the space launch of Walt Dangerfield and his wife. Reading that scene, you can visualize the loitering extras in their suits and fedoras, their dresses and heels. It's the kind of well-picked mundane detail that helps to ground Dick even through his most freewheeling paranoid science fantasies -- and also adds to this disturbing and surprising evocation of Cold War nuclear anxiety.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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