Some thoughts on Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra
I am the kind of person who is happy to read a novel with weak characters and a weak plot if the ideas are still interesting. They don’t have to be fully realised or focused, but they have to be interesting in the first place. This means I love Philip K. Dick and am always willing to forgive his weaknesses and limitations; I am always so damn intrigued to find out what odd ideas he’s had this time and how they’re going to play out. This capacity of mine to forgive him was tested to its limit when I read The Simulacra, which I had to force my way through because it failed to engage me, either emotionally or intellectually. It was a mish-mash of half backed Dickian wrapped around a cast of characters whose fundamental dramas fall flat.
The Simulacra is definitely one of Dick’s weaker works, but its lack of focus means that I will probably end up forgetting it in a way that I have not forgotten some of Dick’s other lesser novels. Take Cantata-140 (otherwise known as The Crack in Space). Not one of Dick’s best regarded novels and not often spoken about; it’s a typical Dickian tale of political intrigue set against a background of social unrest, and a mixed cast of the powerful scheming for more power, and working stiffs scheming for any power at all. This all hinges around an idea: the earth is overpopulated, and we’ve been dealing with it by freezing people and shoving them in warehouses. The crisis that this precipitates means that the idea and its implications play out in an interesting way.
The Simulacra, by contrast, is all over the place. There is a way in which this could be good. The Man in the High Castle felt very similar to this while I was reading it, but that novel, as its reputation might suggest, dovetails all those stories in an incredible way. That is what Dick can do at his best. You leave the novel with a pretty clear view of what kind of crisis has just happened, and how it has effected all these characters. The Simulacra does not end that way. Multiple undeveloped plot points peter to indefinite ends, and you are left wondering just what the point was. Big reveals fall flat. The ending focuses on a small subplot that only features a couple of times. The most interesting character, Richard Kongrosian, pretty much becomes a God and then does… not much. The neo-Nazi leader secretly running the United States is a pretty cool idea, but this gets revealed and then he gets killed. Is Dick making a point about the complicity between political power and political violence? Maybe, but it’s a stretch, and the point is dropped shortly after being introduced. Any of these ideas, if spun larger, might have led to a great SF novel, but as it is its likes Dick threw all the ideas he didn’t know what to do with, together.
It’s still not bad. Dick, even at his worst (which this might not be, I haven’t read *everything*), is worth reading. That being said, The Simulacra is probably one for the fully paid up Dick-head, as they are the likeliest people to look at this tangle of threads and see the kind of novel Dick was trying to write, and was in the habit of writing.