Arcane Knowledge: Philip K. Dick’s Solar Lottery

Solar Lottery was Philip K. Dick’s first published novel, and a “PKD” novel it certainly is. Someone whose output was as large and as varied as Dick’s is bound to have a few clunkers, and his early work (early SF anyway, I haven’t read any of his “straight” novels yet) is no exception, despite coming before the mixture of amphetamine-psychosis fuelled misfires and, “Oh God, the FBI really did burgle my house!” Godhead paranoid freakouts the kind of which he is (generally) most loved and remembered for. It is great fun when you’ve read enough of someone’s work to be able to pinpoint, within a few pages, that it is definitely their work, without necessarily being able to say where that pinpoint landed. Here’s a little laundry list of weirdness that evidences that early Dick was very much Dick, in this instance:

– A world split into fiefdoms, run by mega-corporations. Government as we know it (yes, I am aware “Government as we know it” isn’t a natural fact) does not exist.

– Complete with serfs, oaths, pledges of allegiance and so forth.

– An autocratic leader elected by random chance, a system of government based on a sub-theory of Cold War game theory, called Minimax, itself used to develop strategies pertaining to nuclear weapons.

– As another check/balance, an assassin selected randomly from whoever puts their name forward, whose role is to attempt to assassinate this randomly selected leader.

– A corps of telepaths whose job is to protect the supreme leader. This telepathy being caused by “Nuclear Fudge Magic” (that’s my term and you can’t have it).

– The main “antagonist” is an android designed to be controlled remotely by the consciousness of someone selected randomly from a group of people hooked in to a bank of machines (almost the reverse of the empathy box from Do Androids Dream). These consciousnesses (say that three times fast) are selected randomly and switched “in” to the android at set intervals to prevent the android from being easily predictable/readable by the previously mentioned telepaths.

The Voice of God (which turns out to be a pre-recorded message) does not figure in this list of Dickian oddness because it is something that takes part in the subplot, a subplot that never feels quite like it fits in to the story in a whole and, in the final analysis, marrs the ending to the point where it becomes an unsatisfying, inconclusive (not in a good, Dickian, “is Deckard an android?” way) mess. He may not have made his quota doing so, but it seems that without the “Flame Disc” subplot, and then concluding the main plot about half a chapter earlier, he could have written a much more cohesive work. One feels like Dick originally began by fleshing out a short story, then, upon realising he still hadn’t made word count, wrote another of his short stories in. Still, saying this, the main plot is very much Dick, which throws up questions and problems that we’ll get too soon, but with the clumsy subplot included, this is evidently a work in which Dick could be said to be feeling out his craft, or perhaps more accurately, how badly he could fail in some element whilst still creating a work of immense originality and interest.

I like the weird. I love the weird. I read Naked Lunch when I was sixteen and it fucked me up forever. Hence my yardstick for Dick (heh) being the weird factor. This is something of a disservice to him, however. I am willing to forgive failings that would traditionally kill a novel (things like characterisation) if the ideas are good. Hence, I like Dick, the man lauded/criticised for finding SF to be the ideal platform for posing philosophical questions, which, along with his ferocious (See again: amphetamines, and needing to pay the bills) work ethic, led to novels that are very, very readable if one forgives lapses in craft and focuses on the explication/demonstration of ideas. This is not to say he wasn’t capable of craft, however. He put by far the most effort, time and research of any novel he wrote in to The Man in the High Castle, which is a masterpiece; and A Scanner Darkly is filled with humanity and pathos, and includes probably his best written (of what I’ve read: not everything, yet) female character. He could damn well write.

On that note, Solar Lottery includes one of the most egregious examples of Dick’s writing of female characters; by far the most developed (and not very, at that) female character in the novel dies in an event in which she is literally tossed aside, an event which, even though it is horrific, has the emotional resonance of a tub filled with custard.

But, to consider Dick’s strong point, Solar Lottery does contain a very interesting idea, and in considering this idea raises problems that piqued my interest enough to keep reading, not just because I am a Dick-head, but because it was worthy in and of itself (NB: despite an interest in it, my area of expertise is not in the philosophy of politics, so forgive me if I should transgress). The de facto leader of the world, and its colonies in the solar system, is randomly selected, as mentioned above. The system which does the selecting is not explained in too much detail (if I remember correctly), but it appears to be some form of computer apparatus that parses atomic decay. The problem raised is slightly more specific than what he could have settled for, namely: what is truly random? Instead, Dick supposes a kind of Homo Ex Machina. A random system, or a system that parses randomness, must be designed by someone, and in this instance, maintained by someone. Were we to choose something like this as a system of governance, one would need a method that is tamper proof, as the system in question is not, rigged as it is by one of the engineers who maintains it, causing himself to be selected as leader. That a system of governance is kept working by arcane knowledge, that someone can manipulate a system by virtue of understanding it better (at all), is shown to be problematic. Yes, the assassin is intended as a check against this kind of event, against manipulation by someone who wishes to gain absolute power for himself, and the narrative must have the assassin come so close, only to be foiled, to be exciting. In this sense, one could suppose that Dick poses a question and then tries to answer it, and then tries to discredit the answer, to play out the idea. Dick doing what Dick does, and doing very well at it.

Solar Lottery, then, despite being one of Dick’s earliest efforts, evinces fully the later Dick, in both what it succeeds at and what it fails to achieve. The wacky and the weird, with the underlying serious philosophical conundrums, are present already, and are not far off the kind of ideas that Dick would later present. The characterisation is very thin, and yes, this is a Dick novel, but then, it is a novel, so it bears mentioning. This would improve, spottily, as he refined his craft, but here he is still figuring things out. And yes, he really, really seemed to have trouble writing women, like, at all, which again he would improve on, but not quite as much. Solar Lottery might be early Dick, but it is, very much, Dick. For better and for worse.


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