Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K Dick (1960)

“Vulcan’s Hammer” is Philip Dick’s version of a murder mystery wrapped in a political thriller. Unfortunately, the who-done-it wears thin quickly, since the mystery revolves around who could possibly “kill” the world’s second-most-powerful computer.

Set in the year 2029, Earth’s people have formed a single Unity government and ceded all direction of the government Vulcan 3, the world’s most powerful computer. For the most part, people have been happy to live in peace, but at the cost of democracy, prosperity and upward mobility. More recently an insurrectionist movement called the Healers, led by a priest called Father Fields, has been inciting riots trying to shake the iron fist of Unity.

The story follows two leaders of the Unity government as they try to find out more about the Healers and how to stop them. Jason Dill is Managing Director of Unity, the top dog, and the only human who has contact with Vulcan 3. Recently, some of his orders have been erratic, and some of his subordinates are beginning to suspect Dill of irrational, possibly treasonous actions. One of these is William Barris, the Unity Regional Director in charge of the area formerly called Switzerland. Barris begins his investigations by interviewing Rachael Pitt, widow of Arthur Pitt, who was ostensibly killed by a Healer mob in Atlanta. Barris found non-Unity recording devices on Pitt’s car, and he wants to discover whether Pitt’s death was truly a mistake.

The investigations become even more important when someone destroys Vulcan 2, Vulcan 3’s predecessor. Meanwhile, given Dill’s increasingly unexplainable behavior, other Unity directors start to make power plays. And the situation goes ballistic when the Healers begin rioting in cities around the world, and Vulcan 3 orders missile attacks against them.

Although it was published in 1960, Dick wrote "Vulcan's Hammer" in 1953, and in many ways feels like a pulp science fiction story from the 50’s. It reminds me of A.E. Van Vogt and his “World of Null-A”, where the protagonist is an extreme example of ability and moral virtue, nearly a superman, and the antagonist pure evil.

I wondered if other people recognized this aspect in the book, so I did some reading and found an essay by Darko Suvin called “Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Suvin says that Dick was influenced by Van Vogt, but that even Dick’s earliest novels had characters that the reader could empathize with.

"...Dick as a rule uses a narration which is neither that of the old-fashioned all-knowing, neutral and superior, narrator, nor a narration in the first person by the central characters. The narration proceeds instead somewhere in between those two extreme possibilities, simultaneously in the third person and from the vantage point of the central or focal character in a given segment....This permits the empathizing into -- usually sympathizing with but always at least understanding -- all the focal characters, be they villains or heroes in the underlying plot conflict; which is equivalent to saying that Dick has no black or white villains and heroes in the sense of Van Vogt (from whom the abstracted plot conflicts are often borrowed). In the collective, non-individualist world of Dick, everybody, high and low, destroyer and sufferer, is in an existential situation which largely determines his/her actions; even the arch-destroyer Palmer Eldritch is a sufferer."

He goes on to say that the novels before 1962, including "Vulcan's Hammer," have a limited multi-focal narrative: "Vulcan's Hammer is focused around the two bureaucrats Barris and Dill, with Marion coming a poor third; the important character of Father Fields does not become a narrative focus, as he logically should have, nor does the intelligent computer though he is similar, say, to the equally destructive and destroyed Arnie in MTS."

While I agree with the argument, the result is extremely limited. While not necessarily Van Vogt supermen, both Dill and Barris have considerable skills and wiles, setting them apart from most of PKD’s protagonists. Similarly, their opponents are nearly flawless, giving the whole story a two-dimensional aspect.

Considering Dick’s would soon write some wonderful novels dealing with fascist states, “The Man Who Japed,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “The Simulacra,” for example, the totalitarian society in “Vulcan’s Hammer” also falls a little flat. The best scene showing the impact of a such a state occurs in a grade school. The teachers reinforce Unity virtues throughout the school day, quashing or expelling any child who questions the validity of the government, and when Father Fields’ daughter questions Director Dill’s actions, the teacher nearly has a fit for fear that it will look bad on her record. Other parts of “Vulcan’s Hammer” seem to have borrowed totalitarianism from George Orwell’s “1984.”

I had remembered reading “Vulcan’s Hammer” in college, but I didn’t recall that it resonated with me. I discovered I’m not alone. Jonathan Lethem's essay "You Don't Know Dick" talks about his his infatuation with Dick, buying multiple copies of his paperbacks, and eventually making a pilgrimage to California in 1984 to volunteer for the Philip K. Dick Society. His insights are interesting, balancing between what Dick's work meant, and what Dick's work meant to Lethem, but he comes down hard on "Vulcan's Hammer." He writes:

14. Nevertheless, even the very worst of those realist novels would better reward your time than "Vulcan's Hammer." Not to be a bully.

In summary, if you want to read a 1950’s pulp novel, this is kind of fun, in a campy way. It’s hard to view it from this point in time when we have multiple computers in every room that are probably more powerful than Vulcan 3, so that also detracts. But if you want to explore an iconic novel by Philip K. Dick, I’d suggest pushing on to the next one.

From the inside page of the 1960, Ace Double edition:

Vulcan 3 was the supreme head of Unity, the perfect world government that had evolved out of chaos and war. Vulcan 3 was rational, objective and unbiased... as only a machine could be!
Theoretically there should have been nothing but peace under such a rule -- and for a century or so there was. Until the crackpots, the superstitious, the religious fanatics found themselves a new leader to follow.
Then the discontent began to explode again. But this time there was a third side involved, a machine that could not accept any emotional viewpoints. The people of the world began to realize that they had created a vicious paradox: they had to make peace between themselves or be stamped out by the ever-growing claws of Vulcan’s Hammer.