4/7/13

Our Friends from Frolix 8 by Philip K Dick (1970)

In the year 2085 the human race began to mutate and some people developed advanced brains, while others gained psionic powers such as psychokinesis and telepathy. When the story begins, in approximately 2208, the New Men and the Unusuals are the ruling powers in government, while the regular Old Men make do as best they can in a world slanted against them.

Ten years ago the greatest of the Old Men, Thors Provoni, stole a prototype starship and left to find help for the Old Men. In his absence, a counter-culture based on the writings of Eric Cordon has existed as the only daily hope for the Old Men. The government has made possession of Cordonite literature illegal, but Old Men still print, distribute and read the books.

The situation is relatively stable, with a detente between the New Men and Unusuals ruling the world, to the detriment of the regulars. The civil service tests are rigged to keep this Apartheid state. Then, a message from Provoni is received, telling the old men that he's brought help from outside the solar system.

The first time I saw "Our Friends from Frolix 8" was when my sister brought it home from the library. Because of the cartoonish cover she thought it was a kid’s book, but I think she gave up reading it after a couple chapters. I was in high school, and thought I’d give it a go. I can’t remember for sure, but “Our Friends” may have been the first Philip K Dick novel that I had ever read. Unfortunately, it was a forgetful first meetings: it was neither a kids' book nor particularly memorable science fiction.

On re-reading it with a more experienced eye, I thought some parts were interesting, but "Our Friends" is probably one of the weakest of Dick's novels.

The story follows three main characters. Nick Appleton is a regular who works as a tire regroover, but hopes that his son Bobby will be tested and classified as a New Man. Then, there’s Willis Gram, the council chairman of Earth. He’s a telepath who has been the ruler of Earth for the past two decades or more. And the third viewpoint is from Thors Provoni as he travels back to Earth with one of the “Friends from Frolix 8.”

As usual, Dick provides dozens of ideas for the novel, but not all of them resolve. After drinking a beer (alcohol having been banned by the Gram government) the humble tire regroover Nick Appleton falls in with a crowd of Cordoni supporters known as Undermen. He meets a sixteen year-old girl named Charley, a feisty black marketer of revolutionary propaganda with whom he becomes infatuated. The government computers identify Nick Appleton as the bellwether citizen -- whichever way he goes is the way of the populace. So, the government is watching Nick when the news of Cordoni’s death spurs him to take action and leave his wife.

In a very clumsy way, Nick Appleton is the hero of many of PKD’s novels: an average guy who has been chosen by a higher power. Similarly, many of these guys are divorcing, or have just divorced their wives. But instead of a fully fleshed out character Nick Appleton feels like the outline from a Dick novel.

The ruler of Earth, Willis Gram, is a man that you love to hate, and probably the most interesting character in the book. He reads voraciously, spends most of his time in bed, and chooses political prisoners as his sex slaves, after which he has them dispatched. Because of his telepathic abilities he has been able to stay in power for decades. His right-hand man Lloyd Barnes is the Police Director of Earth, a New Man, and an effective hammer to keep citizens in their place. That description makes Gram sound dangerous, but not much danger is shown in the book. I feel if Gram had been a stronger villain, the story probably would have been better.

There are other evolving threads: Alice Noyes is a tough private eye hired to follow Gram’s wife, and Gram even discusses a plan with her to kill his wife, but she is a character that gets lost along the way. A New Man scientist called Amos Ild, of the McMally Corporation is working on a project to build a telepathic machine, which could upset the balance of power between the New Men and the Unusuals. He is barely mentioned at the beginning of the novel, but becomes a key character near the end.

In fact, even the aliens don’t play much of a role. We get some feeling of their power -- which is near godlike -- but Dick doesn’t attempt to explore much of their motivations or history. The aliens are like the Checkov’s gun -- they appear near the beginning of the novel and you know they will be used by the end. The main focus of “Our Friends from Frolix 8” is on the humans and how they react in this situation.

Dick has some fun with the government in this novel. It’s an odd, failed fascist state: drugs are OK, alcohol is illegal. Certain books are illegal, yet the government knows where they are published and by whom. The government pretends to equality, but everyone knows the tests are rigged. Yet, the economy must be entirely state run because the best jobs are as government employees. Again, though, it’s merely a sketch and doesn’t feel solid.

Overall, I’d have to say that this is one of the weakest Dick novels.