1/22/13

"The Zap Gun" by Philip K Dick (1967)

Imagine a future, from the point of view of the Cold War, where the West-bloc and East-bloc countries have come to a d├ętente by creating ever more insidious weapons. These weapons, however, have economic benefits for daily life across the globe as they are plowshared into useful household items. This is the premise of “The Zap Gun.” Dick’s imagined society has two classes: the pursaps, who read about these weapons and learn about the war between the two powers, and the cogs, or cognoscenti, who understand that this war of escalation is a sham. One of the top cogs is Lars Powderdry, a weapons medium who goes into trances and brings designs for new weapons back from the ether. After that an elaborate process occurs where the technicians create the weapon, publish the real or fictional results (does it matter?) and then submit portions of the weapon technology to a board of concomodies for development into useful items. Leaders on both the Wes-bloc and Peep-east governments understand that this cycle has brought world-wide peace, despite the secrets and absurd facades.

The system works until a sinister satellite appears in the sky over the Earth. Both Wes-bloc and Peep-east officials deny responsibility for the menacing object. When two more satellites appear the leaders become more agitated, even going to such lengths as sharing top-secret intel, although they still fail to work together.

Motivated by fear, a lack of confidence in his skills, and also by curiosity for his Peep-east counterpart Lilo Topcheva, Lars Powerdry, aka Mr. Lars, agrees to meet and work with her to find a weapon together. In Fairfax, Iceland, at a neutral area controlled by the Eastern block, they meet. In an odd scene, the two weapon mediums take drugs to enhance their trances, but fail to deliver a solution to the menacing satellites. It is revealed that the satellites have begun to put power curtains over the cities, removing the people. The invaders are discovered to be chitinous alien slavers from Sirius.

The story begins to get even more erratic after this: Mr. Lars takes drugs, comes up with various proposals or possibilities for solutions. There’s an erratic tangent plotline about about time travel where a false future veteran appears, bringing the solution to fending off the invaders.

From the beginning there’s also a subplot concerning a pursap called Surely Febbs who is drafted to become a concomody. He feels it is his patriotic duty to make the weapon development process even better, to finally beat the Peep-east powers by producing a truly terrifying, useful weapon. This plotline resolves itself near the end of a book, perhaps as a resonating theme, giving Mr. Lars a chance to be both useful, and peaceful at the same time.

“The Zap Gun” was written in 1964, the same year he wrote “Clans of the Alphane Moon,” “The Penultimate Truth,”, “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” and “The Unteleported Man,” and started “Deus Irae,” but it wasn’t published until 1967. Considering the sheer number of pages he must have been writing, it’s not surprising that the plot of “Zap Gun” is a bit jumbled and circular. According to this site, the editor from Pyramid Books was trying to get more space opera-type books, so they proposed some titles to authors, hoping to get a “Buck Rogers” type story. Dick turned in the manuscript for “The Zap Gun” the day after he turned in “Now Wait for Last Year.” It’s barely recognizable as a space opera, although there are plenty of weapons described throughout the book.

Let’s take a moment to consider Dick’s drug usage. At one point Mr. Lars warns his Soviet handlers that he will need a doctor to help him with his regime. "I'm on drugs... I take them hourly,” he says, and then describes a toxic cocktail of medicines.
"But, sir, you'd die! From motor-vascular convulsions. Within half an hour." The four Soviet policemen looked appalled.
"All I ever got as a side-effect," Lars said, "was post-nasal drip."
Drugs are an inescapable recurring theme in Dick’s body of work, and he admitted that he was on drugs while writing many of his books. According to a 1975 interview in Rolling Stone, all of Dick’s books published before 1970 were written while on amphetamines. Why did PKD take drugs? Perhaps it was an attempt to remove the filters from reality. Mr. Lars precedes Carlos Castenada’s “The Teachings of Don Juan” (published in 1968), but that’s exactly what he’s doing: using mind-expanding drugs to create connections where none previously existed, falling into a trance and returning with visions that drive the economy of “The Zap Gun.” And that equates with Dick’s own situation, where he plucks visions of weapons, places and beings from the ether and writes them down. In a way, Mr. Lars’ lack of confidence in his abilities and performance is Dick externalizing his own misgivings. Unfortunately, Dick’s novels from the mid to late 60’s seem to support this idea. After “Dr. Bloodmoney” he hits a dry spell, putting out some lukewarm books until he starts to return with “Do Androids Dream...?” and “UBIK” in 1969.  Also, unlike Mr. Lars, Dick suffered from his drug use, both personally, and through friends who died or were permanently disabled due to drugs, as he mentions in "A Scanner Darkly."

A final interesting bit in “The Zap Gun” is the revelation that somehow the weapon designers are mining their visions from a crazy comic book artist who writes "The Blue Cephalopod Man from Titan." In the story it is Dick’s idea that all the characters from “Blue Cephalopod” are black, and that the comic is set in a metropolis in Ghana for Afro-asian audiences. The comic plays a small but critical role in the plot, and I’m surprised that some struggling comics artist hasn’t tried to produce an issue of “Blue Cephalopod Man” to get some notoriety.

Back cover of “The Zap Gun”:
The Ultimate Weapon.
The terrifying arms race roared on -- daily, East and West produced more and dreadful weapons.
And, daily, yesterday’s weapons were turned into egg-beaters, toys, souvenirs, furniture, bridge lamps, power tools... and never, never used as weapons. Which was just as well, since they wouldn’t have worked.
It may have looked nutty, but it kept the 21st-century world prosperous and peaceful.
But then alien spaceships circled the earth, cities began to disappear, and the world found itself defenseless. And the frantic scramble for an Ultimate Weapon for survival rested with two weapons “fashions designers,” a demented comic book artist, and an improbable toymaker from the wrong side of time.