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Book Review #14, by Eric Weeks

January 31, 1999
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January has been busier for me than December, but fortunately I read a lot of books over Christmas. I finally finished the six Philip K. Dick novels that I bought last summer, the last two of which are reviewed herein.

"Lord of the Swastika" by Adolf Hitler, 1954.

This is the book that won a Hugo for Hitler in 1954. It's the fast-paced story of Feric Jagger, a man with a pure genotype, fighting to cleanse the world of the hordes of gibbering mutants. Feric organizes the true humans of the country Heldon into one vast political/military organization known as the Sons of the Swastika. Opposing them as the Dominators of Zind, evil mutants who can control the minds of others, both mutants and true men. The Dominators control vast armies of tiny-brained, colossal mutated soldiers, but Feric's iron will and determination inspire the brave true men and bring them to victory. Feric is a hero to end all heroes, from his bulging muscles, blond hair, and blue eyes, to his steely resolve, and impatience with fools and those of inferior genotypes. The only flaw with this book is that the outcome is perhaps too predictable; Feric is so heroic, we know he's going to succeed. Then again, the fun of reading this book is watching the triumph of the Swastika over the mutants. It gets 4 stars.

"Iron Dream" by Norman Spinrad, 1972.

Iron Dream is Spinrad's creation of a novel written by Hitler -- if Hitler had emigrated to America and become a sf writer, rather than say, an evil monster ruling Germany. Fear not, sf fans, I'm not a Nazi, and Hitler did not actually write a sf novel entitled Lord of the Swastika. But Spinrad's creation is rather creepy, on many levels. First, there are large parallels between Feric's rise to power in Heldon, and Hitler's rise to power in Germany. Second, Feric is a truly twisted guy who is happy to kill anybody he doesn't agree with, and this is glorified in the novel. (At one point he is dealing with some politicians who he doesn't like. He gives them the choice of signing confessions of treason and then exile, or instant death. Being the cowards they are, of course they sign the confessions; then Feric has them killed anyway, which gives him great satisfaction.) Third, Spinrad has been rather clever about placing certain motifs into the story. There are many phallic symbols; the soldiers leather costumes are described several times in a somewhat homoerotic way; there are literally no female characters; the violence is described in extremely gory terms. Just in case you might miss these elements, and some of them I did miss myself, at the end of Hitler's novel, there is a scholarly essay by Homer Whipple (actually also by Spinrad). This essay points out these various motifs and then concludes that ultimately the novel overreaches itself, as it is clear that nobody could ever rise to such power as Feric does. Which is exactly the point -- in the real world, Hitler did rise to power.

I liked this book, partially because it is over the top (Feric is such a sick twisted guy who the author "Hitler" constantly praises), partially because it's disturbing. Throughout the book Feric keeps outdoing himself, both in the acts of manliness that he does, and also in the evil things he does. Whenever Feric has some major success, he celebrates by standing in front of large burning swastikas, and other sorts of overt Nazi symbols, while his soldiers parade in front of him and yell "Hail Jagger!" (The story is set in the far distant future, centuries after a nuclear holocaust, which was the source of the mutations; the swastika is claimed to be a symbol from previous to the old war, a symbol standing for genetically pure men.) Spinrad has done an excellent job in this novel. I give it 3 stars; it couldn't have been better, but on the other hand, in the end it's a creepy novel which is somewhat predictable (ie, that Feric will indeed be a big evil Nazi hero by the end of the book).

"We Can Build You" by Philip K. Dick, Daw Books, 1972.

Not one of his best books, but still, it's a PKD book. Louis Rosen and Maury Rock sell electric pianos, and as usual for characters in Dick's novels, business is not good. But Maury has developed a new idea, making robots which resemble real people. Not just arbitrary real people, but people like Abraham Lincoln or other historical figures. Their lives are carefully researched and thus we have a robot who is, for all purposes, Abe Lincoln. In an attempt to make money from this, Louis and Maury contact Sam Barrows, a Bill Gates/Donald Trump-like businessman, which turns out to be a mistake.

The book is told from Louis's point of view, and as they try to deal with Barrows, Louis gradually is going insane. Part of Louis's problem is that he is in love with Maury's daughter Pris, who is recovering from insanity. Worse for Louis, Pris seems fixated on Barrows. Louis's descent into madness wasn't as interesting as similar characters in other PKD books.

So where does this book end up? Nowhere in particular. Events happen randomly, and the end of the book comes when there's nothing more to say. The only sf idea in the book, besides the robots, is that a large portion of the population is confined in state-run asylums, as society has passed strict laws against mental illness. The robots themselves are fun, though. The first robot made is Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who apparently is an interesting person despite his obscurity. Assuming PKD has his history correct, Stanton didn't get along with Lincoln. Having Stanton (and later Lincoln) around provides for some interesting moments in the story.

However, this novel falls short of its potential. Unlike Bladerunner (originally Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), there is not much discussion of the ethics of creating human-like robots. There is no thought of what it means to be human. The robots really serve to inject Stanton and Lincoln as historical figures brought to modern times; also, there is the plot element of trying to sell the robots to Barrows. But mostly this novel is about Louis going insane, and that's just not that interesting to me in this case. You know you're reading a PKD novel when you read the book, but it is not one of the better PKD books. I give it 1 1/2 stars: don't bother reading it unless you are a big PKD fan. (I am, so I have no regrets -- but he has written far better.)

"The Simulacra" by Philip K. Dick, Ace Books, 1964.

This is the book that We Can Build You should have been -- full of paranoia and technology run amok. It's hard to summarize exactly what the plot is, though. I'll list the various elements in the book, then see if I can indicate how the plot ties them together. To start with, the United States of Europe and America is ruled by the president's wife, Nicole. Every few years the voters elect her a new husband, but Nicole stays on. In reality, her husband isn't ever a person -- he's always a simulacra, a robot used to fool the populace. (This doesn't seem to be a big deal, in some ways, as the people view Nicole as the real ruler.) The next element in the book is a limited form of time travel; in a side plot, Nicole attempts to bargain with a Nazi from pre-WWII to persuade him to kill Hitler. We also have a psychokinetic pianist who is mentally ill, several people who are in various stages of losing their job and/or being disillusions with their life, and there's also the world's last legal psychiatrist. There's a robot which can control people's emotions, which is used to sell "jalopies" which provide one-way transportation for colonists to Mars (which the government discourages).

How do these elements get tied together? A lot of them don't. The basic plot could be summarized by saying "everything falls apart" -- peoples' lives, the mental health of the pianist, and the government. Overall, it's not a gripping plot, but it's fun to read anyway. The pieces of the story do hang together, and the various characters do have interesting interactions which move the plot(s) along. I liked this book; perhaps it's not as strong as PKD's best books, but it's good: 3 stars. Similar to We Can Build You, there is no discussion of the ethics of building human-like robots, but in this book these robots have a background role and never interact with the characters. Instead, the focus is on the government's systematic fooling of the population. One interesting overlap between this book and We Can Build You: in this book, several characters live in a security-conscious apartment building known as the Abraham Lincoln.

"Look Into the Sun" by James Patrick Kelly, Tor Books, 1989.

Phillip Wing has gotten an enormous financial grant to build an enormous architectural object -- a giant floating glass cloud building, a new wonder of the world. The alien "Messengers" who have just arrived on Earth appear to admire this project, but Phillip dislikes the aliens. Near the end of the project, one of the Messengers tries to persuade Phillip to be the first human to leave the Earth to go to a far away planet. They'd like him to build a tomb for a living goddess of a second alien race, the Chani.

Reluctantly, Phillip decides to go along with this. (Ironically, the rest of the world would love to go with the aliens, but Phillip is a rather contrary person. His wife in particular is an admirer of the aliens, which is partially why Phillip dislikes them.) Once he is on the spaceship, Phillip discovers that going to the Chani planet involves completely changing his body from human to essentially Chani. The second half of the book tells the story of Phillip exploring the new world (with the help of friendly aliens), and of Phillip's becoming comfortable with his new identity as a (most likely) permanent resident of this planet.

The book spends some time discussing the religion of the two alien races, the Messengers and the Chani. While it isn't clear if the head of the Chani religion actually is a goddess or not, apparently she does receive some supernatural communications. This is how she got the idea into her head that an alien architect (ie Phillip) is needed to build her tomb. The Messengers have their own religion, which has to do with some mysterious 'message' which never became clear to me in the book. I found these two religions somewhat mysterious; they are too human-like to be novel as mysterious alien religions, yet they are too unclear to be objects of interest by themselves. Likewise, the personality of the alien Chani (the focus of the second half of the book) is not as alien as I would like.

I guess the power of this book is supposed to come from Phillip's personal growth. We follow Phillip from idealistic architect to unhappy successful architect to permanently leaving the human race; then he tries to deal with his new world and new body, and eventually achieves some sort of inner peace. An interesting story, but not that interesting. (I've read some of Kelly's short stories, and they are much better, often dealing with similar stories of personal growth and change.) Overall this book didn't make much of a strong impact on me, but it's not bad either. 2 stars: perhaps if there was a sequel to continue with the story, it would be better, but the book left me unsatisfied. (For example, part of the story deals with the backwards Chani race trying to decide if it should accept technology from the Messengers, but we never really know too much about the Messengers' motives, not even by the end of the book.) I had originally rated this book 2 1/2 stars, but the more I consider it, my overall impression is that the book is somewhat boring. As I mentioned, I do like Kelly's short stories, and I certainly would be willing to try another of his novels, but I don't plan to reread this one.