1/19/13

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick (1965)

"Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb" is a crazy post-apocalyptic ride mostly set in San Francisco, Berkely, and Marin County. Starting before the collapse of society, we meet most of the key figures in the story as they begin their days: selling TVs, getting a new job, visiting the psychiatrist. Dr. Bluthgeld, whose name literally translates from German as "Bloodmoney," is slowly going insane due to a miscalculation he made several years later which caused a minor nuclear disaster. Hoppy Harrington, who has no arms or legs due to birth defects from this disaster, rides a government-provided prosthetic cart and has learned he has psychokinetic powers which allow him to fix electronics. Then, some unknown reason, the global network of nuclear weapons is triggered, and the world suffers massive destruction. Dick picks up the story ten years later, as the citizens of West Marin county rebuild society, living in a cross between a pioneer town and a settlement out of Mad Max. Further weird characters are introduced: a girl who lives with her self-contained psychic twin, a DJ'ing astronaut who was trapped in orbit on the day of the disaster, and a cybernetically-enhanced mutant talking German Shepherd. Toss in some adultery, capitalism, and attempts at world-domination, and you have "Dr. Bloodmoney."

In this novel Dick seems to be exploring the conditions of birth versus environment. Although he has played with characters born differently in other books, such as in “The World Jones Made,” “The Simulacra” and “Martian Time-Slip,” in this work two of those characters are pitted against each other.

The character of Hoppy, born with phocomelia, was probably directly influenced by the Thalidomide birth-defect tragedy of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Thalidomide was developed and sold as an over-the-counter muscle relaxer, mostly in Europe, and ended up causing between 10,000 and 20,000 children to be born with deformities. Dick took this event to the next level, looking at how the government might become responsible for these children, but also how they might have been affected in other ways. Of course, in PKD’s universe this often means psionic abilities, and so Hoppy has telekinetic powers. He uses these powers to achieve honor in the post-apocalyptic society of West Marin, but Hoppy has ambitions that take him further -- he wants to force the entire world to recognize and love him -- which is ultimately his downfall. Out of the all the characters in Dick’s works, Hoppy is fairly unique. The closest character might be George Walt in “The Crack in Space,” who although we see him as a mutant turns out to be a merger of man and machine.

Contrast Hoppy with Edie and her parasitic twin Bill. Edie Keller was conceived on the day of the nuclear disaster, so she’s ten years old during most of the events of the novel. Bill is her twin brother, who lives insider her, but can cast his consciousness into other nearby living beings, usually a worm or a dog, or other lower-level intelligences. Bill communes with the world through Edie, but he also has contact with the dead, and the near-future, becoming an oracle to the girl. The characters of Bill and Edie are probably inspired by Dick’s own birth -- his twin sister Jane Charlotte Dick died when she was six weeks old.

Throughout Dick’s books he often stages bizarre events in recognizable, comfortable settings, for example in “The Cosmic Puppets” where a battle between beings we would call gods is played out in a Mayberry-like town. “Bloodmoney” is one of his best examples of this. It starts on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, with Stuart McConchie pushing a broom in front of the TV repair shop and watching girls walk down the street, just as PKD says he used to. From there we have scenes of the destruction of San Francisco, struggles for life in the streets of the Oakland area, and finally the rebirth of civilization in West Marin. The locale plays a major part in “Bloodmoney,” trying to bring home to the reader the possibility of nuclear destruction and its aftermath.

Dick discusses his work in the afterword of the 1980 edition:
“In my opinion this is an extremely hopeful novel...People are still around and they are still coping. Those who survive, anyhow, are fairly lucky in their new lives. What is interesting is the subtle change in the relative power status of the survivors. Take Hoppy Harrington, who has no arms or legs. Before the bomb hits, Hoppy is marginal...But in the postwar world this is not the case. Hoppy is elevated by stealthy increments until, at last, he is a menace to a man not even on the planet’s surface; Hoppy has become a demigod, and a complex one at that. He is not really evil, in the usual sense...It is not so much that Hoppy is evil but that his power is evil.”

Finally, I have to mention Walt Dangerfield, the astronaut destined to travel to another star but condemned instead to orbit the Earth until his dying day. Dangerfield’s only redemption is a collection of old records and his chance to share them with the survivors. If you read through Dick’s novels, you will find that he has an obsession with satellites, mentioning them in one form or another in nearly half of his books. In 1974 he had what he describes as a religious experience -- apparently receiving enlightenment from a satellite -- and he spent most of his last four novels parsing this experience. In “Bloodmoney” it seems like Dangerfield becomes closer to god, yet remaining distant. He can share music and information with the rest of the world, coming through as a disembodied voice on their radios, yet he can never return to Earth or participate in the human experience. Dick’s experience in 1974 may have been an early stroke, but it eerily echoes the themes he was dealing with in his stories.

This review doesn’t do the book justice. “Dr. Bloodmoney” is one of my favorite Philip K Dick books, and needs to be read to be understood. Like “Martian Time-Slip” it’s an example of Dick pulling out all the stops and letting his imagination fly across the world.

Blurb from “Dr. Bloodmoney”
Below him the world was in darkness, its night side turned his way; yet already he could see the rim of day appearing on the edge, and soon he would be passing into that once more. Lights here and there glowed like holes poked in the surface of the planet which he had left seven years ago -- left for another purpose, another goal entirely. A much more noble one.
His was not the sole satellite still circling Earth, but it was the sole one with life aboard. Everyone else had since perished... He was lucky: besides food and water and air he had a million miles of video and audio tape to keep him amused. And now, with it, he kep them amused.
Dangerfield’s satellite provided the last link binding humanity together. It was seven years after the day of disaster, the day one world died and another world began... Dr. Bloodmoney’s day.