Philip K. Dick was one of the most important science fiction authors of the 20th century. His novels explored issues of identity, religion, metaphysics, and politics in a way that few authors, including so-called “literary” authors, ever did. During his lifetime, he published more than 40 novels, and 100 short stories. He won the prestigious Hugo Award for his classic novel The Man in the High Castle in 1962, and the John W Campbell Award for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said in 1974. His novels and stories have inspired at least ten movies, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Total Recall, and Minority Report. In the years since his untimely death from a stroke in 1982, his reputation has only increased, and his works have gained a respectable following among academics and mainstream literary critics. The Library of America has published three volumes of his work.
When it was announced last year that an unpublished manuscript had been discovered among his papers, it sent shockwaves through the literary community. Now that the novel has been published, however, one can’t help but feel a sting of disappointment.
The Whole World is Totally Cracked the Fuck Up, Hamid Masrur tells the story of the titular hero, who lives in an unnamed country somewhere in a section of the world that roughly corresponds to the Middle East. Every day, Hamid and his friends and family are attacked by robot airplanes (“Drozzers”) operated by remote control by soldiers working in a far-off country called UniStat. The leader of UniStat, Orback Bam, uses Drozzers to kill people who have been labeled “enemies” of the UniStat. No one in these countries – Hamid, his friends, his family – know what qualifies the citizens of MidStan to be labeled “enemies,” and so live in constant fear that one day they will be so labeled.
One day, while attending a funeral, Hamid and the other mourners are attacked by a pack of Drozzers, seemingly killing his wife, Inaya. When Hamid awakens, he finds himself in the UniStat, in the body of an 18 year-old called Munqad Wasem. Munqad’s life is typical of UniStat teenagers – he goes out to movies, listens to popular music, watches supposedly “unscripted” TV progs about outlandish people doing insane things. But he has a friend called Nafi Tahan, who encourages Munqad to build a bomb that he wants to use to blow up a bridge in Detroit-Prime.
All Munqad (who is actually Hamid) wants to do is return to MidStan, but Munqad has been placed on a Trav-Not list, meaning that he cannot leave the UniStat for any reason. When he attempts to find out why he’s been placed on the list, the gov sends him a form letter explaining that evidence against him might or might not exist, but that they cannot tell him because revealing that information could threaten UniStat security. Included with the letter is a package of StickIt, which is apparently some kind of gum, or something.
The problem with this novel is its sheer unbelievability. The events depicted are simply absurd. For instance, we’re supposed to believe that the war-mongering, venal leader of the UniStat was for some reason given a World Peaceful Prize at the start of his term of office, yet Dick never sufficiently explains why any reputable organization would give him such an honor. Also, why would the people of the UniStat put up with a leader who sent robots into other countries to kill people based on secret information? It doesn’t make any sense.
There’s also a genuinely strange subplot in which Bam is running for re-election of UniStat against his own slightly imperfect clone, who constantly accuses Bam of being “soft” on MidStaners, and “apologizing” to them. Yet Bam sends robot airplanes to drop bombs on MidStaners every day. Questions abound, but are left unanswered: Why would a country have an election between one person, and a clone of that person? And why would a supposedly reputable candidate for office make such blatant misstatements? It’s almost as if no one who lives in this world that Dick has created is living in anything resembling reality.
Then there is the big twist, in which Munqad’s friend, Nafi, turns out to be a UniStat gov agent. Ostensibly, Nafi, whose real name turns out to be Porter Alias, was attempting to find “sleeper terrorists” working the UniStat. But if that’s the case, and there really are sleeper terrorists working in the UniStat, why would a gov agent be encouraging someone to commit terrorist acts, rather than searching for actual terrorists? I assume that Dick was trying to make a point about how some people “create their own reality,” but when the stakes are this high, I’m not sure that’s a valid interpretation.
Perhaps the most absurd aspect of the novel occurs when the UniStat regime’s spokesbots claim that MidStaners are rioting because of a cheesy film no one has seen and might not even exist called It is Based on Lies. Just as it’s never made entirely clear why the people of UniStat would allow their leader to use robots to bomb people in other countries based on “secret information,” so too is it not entirely made clear why anyone would not understand that Bam’s “bomb everything with Drozzers” policy might be at least partly to blame for the riots.
It’s not surprising that Avon considered buying the novel but ultimately passed (they were going to publish it under the title The World in Their Hands in 1963). At their best, PKD’s works hold a fanciful mirror to reality. But this novel is simply too unbelievable to be taken seriously, even as an absurdist fantasy.
We've been in Philip K. Dick's world for awhile now.