The Simulacra by Philip K. Dick (1964)

Conspiracies.  Conspiracy of the government is one of the predominant themes of science fiction author Philip K Dick’s fiction.  What appears ostensibly to be true turns out to be false, and the aftermath of the revelations leaves the average person shocked and numbed.  The Simulacra is one of these prototypical Dickian novels.  What is it about?

            Published in 1964, the setting is the mid-twenty-first century.  The Cold War struggle between the West and Communism is still ongoing.  Sometime in the past, World War III occurred, and parts of the United States is still suffering from the after-effects of radiation poisoning spread from the dropping of tactical nukes.  I shouldn’t say the United States.  It’s actually the USEA, as West Germany (Cold War context) became a state, merging with the U.S.A.  If you think this is crazy, there is more.  Some individuals have telekinetic abilities.  The government has banned Psychoanalysis.   The First Lady is the supreme power in the White House, or so it seems.  And the government is built on layers of secrets, which when revealed, lead to more secrets.  It’s a story of interesting concepts, and I find it a enjoyable read; however, it’s been considered a lesser work by Philip K. Dick aficionados, and I would have to concur.

            What’s the problem?  For the size of the novel, there’s just too much going on. First, the novel has a preponderance of characters that we’re supposed to follow and care about.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in fiction.  Tolstoy’s War and Peace has numerous characters, a situation that can be overwhelming to the first-time reader of the novel.  War and Peace however is also a thousand-plus pages, which allowed the author to flesh out the characters, and the reader to acquaint himself.  Being a typical Dickian novel, The Simulacra, in contrast, is around two-hundred-plus pages.  The story is brisk, but by the end of the story, several plot points are left unresolved.  Obviously, not all novels need a simple everything’s resolved THE END.  The Simulacra’s ending seems to be a rushed affair, compared to his other novels.  I think this is because the characters at times just seem to be there to move the plot along.

            This brings us to another problem: too many ideas.  This is reason why that the characters and the world of The Simulacra does not seem as fleshed out as compared to Dick’s more-praised novels.  In The Simulacra, there’s Nazism, Communism, authoritarianism, Corporatism, bureaucracy and secrecy, telekinesis, time-travel, androids, nuclear aftermath, strange living arrangements, aliens, and emigration from Earth.  All of these are common topics in Dick’s works.  He however generally focuses on two or three science fiction concepts per novel.  Here, he includes all of his concerns in one book, and it comes across as overstuffed.  Two novels written a short time before The Simulacra, The Man in the High Castle and Martian Time-Slip, and one written around the same time, Now Wait for Last Year, have the same Dickian concepts.  But what makes them more tightly-constructed is that there’s one or two principal ideas in the novels, and any other science-fiction concepts simply support those ideas.  I don’t consider The Simulacra to be hack-work, but I believe that Dick felt that he could take the remnants of the research he used for other novels, like those mentioned above, and use those to construct a new story.  You do get a story, but it does feel like a patched-together novel.  Almost like it’s a tribute work to Dick.

            Does this mean that it’s not worth reading?  Of course not.  I’ve read the novel a number of times, and it’s still a good quick read.  Because the ideas are shallowly covered, one needs less focus when reading The Simulacra, compared to when picking up his other works.  The problem is that one of the reasons one reads science fiction is to enter a fantastical, but well-constructed world; a world that one can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.  Compared to his other works, the world of The Simulacra seems to be more that of an alternate history textbook than an actual world the reader has engaged with.  Ideas are always important in Dickian fiction; he however usually doesn’t allow them to overpower the story.  Unfortunately, there’s too much, too much.  I think that Dick’s works are among the best in the science fiction tradition.  The problem is that people unfamiliar with science fiction think that the genre is ridiculous.  The too-many concepts can overwhelm the casual reader, and might cause the person to abandon the novel.  Because of its relatively short length, it is unlikely that a non-science fiction reader will abandon The Simulacra, but that reader might be hesitant to pick up another Philip K. Dick novel, because they believe the author was a bit uncontrolled in pulling off the concepts swelling in his head.  Most of the time, Dick did pull off what either he planned or came into his mind.  So, if you’re familiar with Dick’s work, read this work; if you’re not, I recommend that you start with one his novels mentioned above, or his most famous work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

-October 22, 2014