1/20/13

Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K Dick (1966)

The backstory to “Now Wait for Last Year” is that Earth has encountered two races of extraterrestrial life: the ‘Starmen, long lost relatives from the planet Lilistar, and the reegs - four-armed chitinous aliens. The two are in the midst of an extended interstellar war, and Earth initially chooses to side with the ‘Starmen, but having discovered how vicious and violent the ‘Starmen are, are trying to find a way to defect to the reeg side without becoming itself.

Eric Sweetscent is the head surgeon to Virgil Ackerman, CEO of a military supplier called TF&D (Tijuana Fur & Dye). Sweetscent is drawn into the war effort when Ackerman asks him to meet with General Gino Molinari, aka The Mole, the UN leader that is single-handedly masterminding the defense that prevents the ‘Starmen from subjugating Earth for the war effort. Yet, the Mole is fragile, he may have already died several times from cancer, let alone assassinations and heart attacks.

Meanwhile, Eric’s wife Kathy Sweetscent is lead antiquer for Ackerman, who has a hobby of building full-size replicas of his past hometowns. He’s currently working on the 1935 version of Washington DC. Kathy is unhappy with Eric, whom she sees as unambitious, and is thinking of leaving him. In the meantime, she gets her kicks by taking the latest drugs, such as JJ-180, an illegal drug which may have alien origin. She discovers that JJ-180 takes her back in time, and also that it is immediately addictive and eventually fatal. To trick her husband into helping her, she slips Eric some JJ-180 in his coffee. He discovers the drug has the opposite effect on him, pushing him into the future, where he attempts to find the antidote. Eventually he discovers a secret about the Mole - the effect of JJ-180 on him pushes him sideways. Eric uses his knowledge of the future to set up peace talks between the Mole and a leader of the reegs.

This book reminds me of “Clans of the Alphane Moon.” In both stories the husband and wife are separated, and the interplanetary conflict serves as a backdrop to their breakup and reunion. In both stories the wife pushes the husband to become more ambitious, which forms the basis for the breakup, and I have to wonder if this is how Dick sees himself in his wife’s eyes. In real life he had already been divorced twice and was going through another divorce at the time “Now Wait” was written. Despite the eventual resolution, Kathy Sweetscent is a twisted, manipulative individual who deliberately tricks her husband into becoming addicted to a life-threatening drug, but I hope this doesn’t reflect PKD’s personal relationships.

Much like “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” this novel circles around the effects of a mysterious drug. Many of the reviews of “Three Stigmata” say that it’s based on LSD, and this could be the same for “Now Wait,” except for the timeline is wrong. PKD apparently took LSD for the first time in 1964, while “Now Wait” was written in 1963. It’s more likely that he had heard about LSD, and was considering trying it while writing this book. “Three Stigmata” was written and published in 1964, while “Now Wait” was written in 1963 but wasn’t published until 1966. Regardless, the scene where Kathy takes JJ-180 for the first time is described very casually, as if Dick was familiar with the process of taking illegal drugs.

Five drug seekers who know of each other, but don’t necessarily trust the group, gather in a dealer’s apartment in Tijuana and he enters the room, still wearing his bathrobe. He describes the source of the drug, and the challenge: “the five of us. An adventure into the unexplored by means of a new substance which has just arrived from Tampico aboard a banana boat...” Each of the participants takes one of the pills, while he quotes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” : “Bottom,thou art translated.” While waiting for the drug to take effect they wonder whether the results are different when taken with or without water, where the drug really came from, and how much trouble they would be in if the police discovered them. Then the JJ-180 kicks in.

“As a matter of fact,” Chris Plout said in a strained voice, “I feel something, Hastings.” He licked his lips, trying to wet them. “Excuse me. I--to be frank, I’m here alone. None of you are with me.”
Marm Hastings studied him.
"Yes," Chris went on. "I’m all alone in my conapt. None of you even exist. But the books and chairs, everything else exists. Then who’m I talking to? Have you answered?" He peered about, and it was obvious that he could not see any of them; his gaze passed by them all.
"My nipples are not watching you or anybody else," Kathy Sweetscent said to Hastings.
"I can’t hear you," Chris said in panic. "Answer!"
"We’re here," Simon Ild said, and sniggered.
"Please," Chris said, and now his voice was pleading. "Say something: it’s just shadows. It’s – lifeless. Nothing but dead things. And it’s only starting – I’m scared of how it’s going on; it’s still happening."
Marm Hastings laid his hand on Chris Plout’s shoulder.
The hand passed through Plout.
"Well, we’ve gotten our fifty dollars’ worth," Kathy Sweetscent said in a low voice, void of amusement. She walked toward Chris, closer and closer.
"Don’t try it," Hastings said to her in a gentle tone.
"I will," she said. And walked through Chris Plout. But she did not reappear on the other side. She had vanished; only Plout remained, still bleating for someone to answer him, still flailing the air in search of companions he could no longer perceive.
Isolation, Bruce Himmel thought to himself. Each of us cut off from all the others. Dreadful. But – it’ll wear off. Won"t it?
As yet he did not know. And for him it had not even started.

This passage encapsulates many of Dick’s stories. At first, the individual doubts his own reality. Then others are drawn into the delusion, trying to assist or trying to gain from the lapse. Just as you think it’s OK, reality pulls the rug out from under you, taking the doubts to a new level. In essence, this is Dick saying “reality is lying to you.”

Despite being talky, there’s a lot of action in this book. There’s a particularly cinematic passage toward the end where Eric is in the future, trying to escape from the ‘Starmen MPs. This passage gives Dick a chance to show off his chops for sci-fi action with a fight aboard a rocket ship, a shootout, Eric Sweetscent wrestling over an open airlock and being dropped onto another passing patrol ship, and eventually being rescued by his own future self.

For the most part “Now Wait for Last Year” is an echo of “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” but it has enough action, interesting plot twists, and weird drug effects to interest anyone who has read other Philip K. Dick books.

From the back of “Now Wait for Last Year”
He had mastered the secret of borrowing life from the future.
Once he had been assassinated by a political rival. The second time he had a heart attack while negotiating a surrender to the enemy.
Now he was back, younger and more vigorous than before, giving new hope to the Terrans in their battle for survival. Had he really died once -- or more than once -- leaving a robant in his place? Or had he learned to manipulate time so he could use all of his several possible futures?
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