Galactic Pot-Healer by Philip K Dick (1969)

“Galactic Pot-Healer” is one of Philip K. Dick’s more allegorical novels. Joe Fernwright is barely employed as a pot-healer -- someone who can take a broken ceramic pot and mend it to be whole. Since the advent of plastics, there’s not a lot of call for pot-healing, so instead he whiles the days away playing The Game, translating well-known book titles into foreign languages, and then back to English, challenging friends across the globe to guess the original title.

Despite his dabbling in The Game, Joe finds life empty and futile. As a way out, he has saved up enough pre-war quarters to pay for a visit to the Oracle of Cincinnati, a fortune-telling machine who can tell him what to do with his life. Unfortunately, he meets some beggars on the way, and feels compelled to give away his life savings. Despondent, he returns home where he’s contacted by the Glimmung, an extra-terrestrial, almost godlike being that lives on Sirius Five, also known as the Plowman’s Planet. The Glimmung enlists Joe to become part of an expedition to raise Heldscalla, a mystical cathedral embedded on the ocean floor of Plowman’s Planet.

Joe considers joining the expedition, but wavers in making the decision -- it would mean leaving behind Earth and everyone he knows. The Glimmung persuades him through enticement, threats, and finally by tricking the police into trying to arrest Joe, forcing him to escape to Plowman’s Planet.

Once there, the team of experts meet to plan the raising of the cathedral, but they discover there is a black Glimmung opposing the Glimmung’s efforts, as well as a submerged black cathedral lurking ominously near to Heldscalla. The two Glimmungs clash, and the experts, led by Joe and an alien female called Mali Yojez, help the Glimmung by merging in polyencephalic fusion -- a shared mind -- to give the Glimmung strength to fight the black Glimmung.

Ultimately, as predicted, they fail to raise Heldscalla, but most of the beings involved in the expedition decide to remain in fusion with the Glimmung. Only Joe and a multi-legged gastropod decide to split from the group. Joe, losing Mali to the fusion, decides to give up pot-healing, and instead turn to creating pots.

Throughout the book Dick has Joe Fernwright comparing the Glimmung to Goethe’s Faust. According to Wikipedia, the Faust story is that “Mephistopheles makes a bet with God: he says that he can lure God's favourite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits...Faust makes an arrangement with the devil: the devil will do everything that Faust wants while he is here on Earth, and in exchange Faust will serve the devil in Hell.”

If “Galactic Pot Healer” is the Faust saga in space, who is the devil? Is it the Glimmung, who promises to provide anything Joe wants as long as he will help with the quest to raise Heldscalla -- a quest which is foretold to end in failure? Or, are we to assume that Earth is hell, and Plowman’s Planet is heaven? After all, Joe Fernwright’s life on Earth is miserable: he toils at nothing all day, among the drab masses, without hope for the future. Most likely, however, the devil is the black Glimmung, amid the murky depths of the oceans on the Plowman’s Planet. Dick describes the oceanic underworld in existential terms, similar to the kipple in “Do Androids” and the gubble of “Martian Time-Slip.” As Mali explains:

"There are Glimmungs and there are Black Glimmungs. Always on a one-to-one ratio. Each individual Glimmung has his counterpart, his opaque Doppelganger. Sooner or later, during his life, he must kill his Black counterpart, or it will kill him."
"Why?" Joe said.
"Because that's the way it is. It's like asking, ‘Why is a stone?' Do you see? They--_evolved_ this way, on this strange parity basis. They are mutually exclusive, antagonistic entities, or, if you prefer, properties. Yes, properties, like chemical combinations. You see, the Black Glimmungs are not precisely alive. And yet they're not biochemically inert either. They're like malformed crystals with the formdestroying principle motivating them; tropic specifically as regards their matching Glimmung. And some say that it's not limited to Glimmungs; some say-" She broke off, staring acutely ahead. "No," she said. "Not this. Not already; not the first time."
A decaying hump of flopping fabric mingled with threads of cloth tottered toward them, propelled by the currents of murky water. It had a humanoid look, as if once, long ago, it had held itself erect, had walked on strong legs. Now it bowed from the waist, and its legs dangled as if the bones had been scooped out of them. He stared at it and it came nearer and he continued staring, because it seemed somehow to want to eddy into his vicinity... clumsily, so that its pace was slow. And yet it made progress forward. He made out its face, now.
And felt the world within him disintegrate.
"It's your corpse," Mali said. "You must understand; time down here is simply not-"
"It's blind," he said. "Its eyes-they've-rotted away. Gone. Can it see me?"
"It's aware of you. It wants-" She hesitated.
"What does it want?" he demanded, snarling at her so that she shuddered.
"It wants to talk to you," she said, then. And became totally silent; now she merely observed, merely saw. And did nothing, in either direction. She did not assist him; she did not assist his corrupted corpse. As if, he thought, she has withdrawn and is not here. I am alone with this thing.

In addition to its black doppelganger, the Glimmung also has to deal with failure as predicted by another race on the planet, the Kalends, who have a self-writing book that tells the history of Plowman’s Planet. I can’t say what 1968 influences spurred Dick to imagine this book, but from the 2013 perspective it brings to mind the Internet. On the Internet we are constantly writing our own history, almost before it happens.

In fact, there are some other quaint pre-internet devices in “Galactic Pot-Healer.” At several points Fernwright picks up the phone to use an automated 24-hour-a-day dictionary service, in the way we might use a search engine. Since this is PKD, however, there’s a government-imposed daily limit to the number of searches, after which the service will politely inform him to look elsewhere. He also uses a computer phone service to translate book titles for The Game. There’s even an obligatory dream service where people plug into commercially written dreams that promote social values, a sort of cross between Second Life and educational television.

Fernwright’s Game consists of creating phrases like “The Lattice-work Gun-stinging Insect,” which translates to “The Great Gatsby” (grate gats bee). In "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" Dick talks about translation, but in that case it meant translation of your consciousness into the Perky Pat layout via drugs. Does he mean that this game of translation is a drug for Joe, a way to avoid the grim reality of a hopeless future? Yet, the challenge of the Game is that the translations are imperfect. The goal is to understand the original based on the ersatz title. Not only does this reflect one of Dick’s most favorite themes, the challenge of trying to understand reality (and also perhaps god) based on man’s imperfect subject interpretation, but also echoes the mirror image theme throughout “Galactic Pot-Healer” of the Glimmung and the Black Glimmung, Joe and the black Joe, and other duplicates.

Considering the title and when it was written, is “pot” a tongue-in-cheek joke? I’d have to say that the answer to this is: no. In “The Simulacra,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” and several other books Dick uses ceramics and pots to signify creativity, but also the human condition. He also spends a considerable number of pages discussing an amazing array of information about ceramics in this the book.

At the end, the octopoid alien suggests to him that he should start creating pots with the tools Glimmung has given him instead of just healing them. The final page admits that the first pot he created was 'awful.' Does this mean that Dick considers Joe a hack, just as he has struggled with his own self-doubt, considering himself a hack? The answer is in this quote from Goethe’s “Faust” - "He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still." The ultimate goal of the Glimmung is to create something from the blackness, despite inevitable failure, and when Joe decides to make a pot he is still following the Glimmung’s lead, just as Dick uses his writing to try to understand the world despite the ultimate impossibility of this task.

In his notes in “In Pursuit of Valis,” Dick admits that he was on the edge of a psychotic breakdown while writing “Galactic Pot-Healer.”
“Galactic Pot-Healer shows the very real possibility of encroaching madness. The archetypes are out of control...the book is desperate & frightened, & coming apart, dream-like, cut off more & more from reality...what Brunner said, ‘That one got out of control’ is correct & has vast psychological significance.”
Unfortunately, the story reflects this lack of control, and suffers from it.

Incidentally, before “Galactic Pot-Healer” Dick wrote a children’s science fiction novel called “Nick and the Glimmung” set on Plowman's Planet, but it wasn’t published until 1988.

From the back of the first paperback edition:
There he was, Joe Fernwright, citizen of a devilishly dull and cowardly brave new world.
Joe’s dwelling place was Cleveland, (once “Ohio”), and he was a skilled mender or, as he like to think of it - healer - of ceramic pots. And in a solidly plastic world, Joe was out of work, bored to death, and in a dangerous, try-anything mood. Bored enough to accept an extremely chancy proposition from an extremely peculiar and powerful Thing. This Thing wanted Joe to go to a distant planet, and help raise...Heldscalla.
Well, if you were a free spirit trapped in Cleveland-no-longer-Ohio in the year 2046, you’d be tempted by an offer to raise a little hell yourself.
Joe’s experiences are the subject of this witty and stimulating new SF novel from Philip K. Dick.