Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, July 30, 2009
      ( 7/30/2009 09:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  


"HE'S A POOK." One of the first of his extended sci-fi meditations on the culture of addiction that would ultimately lead to his elegantly despairing A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick's Now Wait for Last Year centers on a "tempogogic" drug that seriously screws around with its users' time sense. Set in a future where Earth has gotten itself enmeshed in a losing intergalactic war, the book focuses on a husband and wife, Dr. Eric Sweetscent and his wife Katharine, who've taken JJ-180, a highly addictive drug that was developed by somebody (stories vary as to who) as a weapon in the war. Said drug may or may not -- as with other Dick works, the line between reality and hallucination quickly grows murky -- take its users into the past or future, though its long-term use ultimately destroys the addict's mind and body.

Our book's protagonist, Sweetscent, is given the drug surreptitiously by his already addicted wife, so he understandably spends much of the novel swinging between murderous anger and empathy toward Kathy. In a canon that features beaucoup unsympathetic female characters, Katharine Sweetscent has to be one of Dick's most difficult: when the book opens, we already see her engaged in shrewish conflict with her husband, whose role as primary surgeon to one of the wealthiest men in the world is insufficiently profitable to her, though when the doctor rises to take care of Gino Molinari, the Machiavellian elected leader of Terra's unified planetary culture, she suddenly turns antagonistic toward his elevated stature.

When the woman becomes an instant addict to JJ-180, it's inevitable that she slip a capsule into her husband's drink. Not only does it fit the conflictual relationship between the two ('Well, that's marriage these days," one character sardonically notes, "legalized hate."), it's what addicts do. They work to bring everyone around them into their world of addiction.

Though we're with Katharine when she first ingests the dangerous JJ-180, the main focus of Last Year remains on her husband both before and after his drug-induced temporal adventures. Dick's creation of a world at war proves as timely now as it did in 1966, especially in his depiction of the political milieu where Eric has landed. Molinari (a.k.a. the Mole) is a particularly inspired creation. In an era where artificial organs (artiforgs) keep the well to do alive in seeming perpetuity, the Mole refuses to have anything artificial put in his body. A catalog of somatic complaints and sudden illnesses, Molinari uses his ravaged body as a tool to manipulate negotiations with both sides in the war.

As such, the very nature of his regular parade of medical issues becomes murky, while the appearance of a seemingly robust and healthy Mole on the scene complicates matters even further. Is he a robotic creation? A JJ-180 traveler from some alternate Terran future? If you're expecting a clear-cut answer to those questions, then you don't know Dick. The book's final chapters, where Sweetscent seemingly travels through several alternate time streams, are particularly befuddling.

And yet, for all its mucking around with sinister war-time machinations and temporal paradoxes, the gist of Now Wait for Last Year remains Sweetscent's ongoing emotional struggles dealing with a mentally ill, drug-addicted spouse. Dick remains brutally unsentimental in his delineation of these struggles; though his protagonist is correctly called a "good man" by a sentient taxicab, he's also capable of appalling fantasies about escaping his damaged spouse. It's an unfortunate dynamic that many addicts' partners know, one that the writer believably and empathically captures in the pages of this seeming piece of sci-fi pulp.

Now Wait for Last Year is the third of five novels reprinted in the Library of America's Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s (The other four: Martian Time-Slip; Dr. Bloodmoney; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; and Scanner Darkly.) Where both Time-Slip and Bloodmoney feature a large cast of individually rendered California neurotics, the focus in Last Year is tighter, more constricted. While some readers may take issue with the book's final parts, this still remains a must-read for lovers of bracingly disturbing speculative fiction.

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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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