1/12/13

"The Penultimate Truth" by Philip K Dick (1964)

"The Penultimate Truth" is set in a post-apocalyptic North America where a few elite politicians and "Yance-men" (think "Spinmeisters") live on large estates while the bulk of human civilization is confined to toiling in underground bunkers working to support a fictional World War III. Dick weaves together two plot lines. The first is the journey of Nicholas St. James, who is president of the underground tank called Tom Mix. He is forced to tunnel to the surface in search of an artificial pancreas for his lead mechanic because if the mechanic dies they’re sure to miss their production goal, bringing shame to the community. The other story concerns a power struggle between the Yance-men and a free agent called Louis Runcible who builds apartment buildings for the occasional citizens that manage to escape to the surface. Runcible is about to start building on some property in Utah where the radiation levels are almost bearable, but for some reason Stanton Brose, the mastermind behind the Yance-men, wants to seize the developer’s land.

The story of St. James is interesting, but mostly linear. Citizens live in underground areas like Tom Mix Tank, trying to make quota building "leadies", robots that are ostensibly for fighting the war, but are actually used by the Yance-men as servants. On a daily basis the tank citizens see the news reports of cities attacked, destroyed, not knowing that the scenarios are entirely manufactured. Most of the progress in the war is broadcast to them by Tabot Yancy, the president of the Wes-Dem government, who is in reality a simulacrum programmed by the Yance-men. In the minds of the citizens, they undergo their hardships for the war effort. It’s because of this that the tank is short on artiforgs -- artificial organs -- and St. James has to dig to the surface for an artificial pancreas for the mechanic. He reaches the surface in the demesne of Yance-man David Lantano situated in Wyoming. Lantano is a recent recruit to the Yance-men class, and is sympathetic to St. James’ mission, offering to help find an artiforg.

Meanwhile, Joseph Adams, another Yance-man, is having an existential and career crisis when he is assigned a special mission by Brose. He’s told to plant evidence of alien artifacts on Runcible’s housing development, clearing the way for the government to seize the property as an archaeological site. But, one by one, the people working on this project are killed, and Adams reaches out for help from Lantano and from Webster Foote, the owner and operator of a private detective corporation. Adams has strong evidence that a real Yancy exists, and is perhaps behind the killings.


Quite a few of Dick’s common themes are here: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Also, time travel, manufactured world leaders, and of course false realities, although this time there's an agreed upon true reality. The ending of "Penultimate" feels anti-climatic, and the plot, relying on time travel, is really convoluted, but it's a fun read.

Because this is a story about lying, Dick seems to be compelled to examine historical incidents of conspiracy to manufacture evidence about a situation. But, rather than include an actual historical event, he has created one based on World War II. The characters spend a considerable time spent discussing a fictional documentary called "The Winning in the West" by Gottleib Fischer (or Gottlieb Fisher), a 25 part documentary series about World War II produced in 1982. According to the story, two versions of the series were produced, one for the Western Democracies and one for the Pac-Peop in the East. The Wes-Dem version contained an blatant lie that FDR meets with Stalin and agrees to hold back the Allied forces so that the Soviets can move into Germany. The flaw is that Stalin is speaking English, although he didn't know English. Meanwhile, the Eastern version shows “Roosevelt assuring Hitler that he had nothing to worry about; the Allied bombing will be done at night so as to miss their targets, all information from Russia as to their military plans, troop dispositions and so forth will be available to Berlin within twenty-four hours of their entering UK and US hands.” This version is shown to be false because Hitler arrives in Washington DC in a jet plane, where jets didn’t exist until after the war.  As one character notes:

The crucial scene, just now shown, revealed itself for what it was - and by doing so, revealed the entire "documentary" for what it was. A deliberate, carefully manufactured fraud, constructed for the purpose of getting Germany off the hook in regard to the deeds done, the decision taking, in World War Two. Because in 1982, Germany was once again a world power, and most important, a major shareholder in the community of nations titling itself "The Western Democracies."

It can be clearly seen from Dick’s stories of the 60’s that he thinks Germany got off too easily from recrimination after the war, and he’s appalled that the country is doing so well for itself. “The Penultimate Truth” could be seen to be examining Hitler’s “big lie” and refuting that. According to Wikipedia, Hitler addresses the big lie in his book “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle):
...in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.
I used to get "The Penultimate Truth" and "Time Out of Joint" confused, possibly because their themes are almost mirror-images. While “Time Out of Joint” tells the story of a conspiracy where most of the world is at war, and they are trying to hide this information from a few people, in “The Pentultimate Truth” the war has ended, but it’s convenient to the few in power to keep the public ignorant. The title raises several questions. Penultimate means "next to final". What is the penultimate truth? That the war is over? Or that those in charge have been lying to the populace? From the last couple of lines it sounds like the ultimate truth is that the people will prevail, that they will see through the big lie.
"I know," Adams said quitely, "that we can come up with something."
Nicholas said, "I know you can, too." Except for that one thing, he said to himself, and put his arm around his wife to draw her closer.
You're not going to.
Because we will not allow you.
Back cover of Leisure edition from 1975:
The Master Race.
Almost all mankind lives underground now, in the anti-septic tanks constructed during World War III. They do not know that the war ended ten years ago.
Special interests want this situation to persist. They are the Yance-men, the elite of humanity who govern through the President, Talbot Yancy, a product of their fertile imaginations.
Joseph Adams is a Yance-man, living on the surface of the earth, dispensing his lies to men and robots, until the day his best friend is mysteriously murdered in the most bizarre manner possible.
He wonders if it is too late for him to act now. The machines think so -- and what else matters?
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