Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review of "Dr. Bloodmoney" by Philip K. Dick

Based on the overwhelming success of The Man in theHigh Castle, Philip K. Dick set about writing another alternate history/future.  Choosing the Cold War as its crux, he imagined a US wherein the post-WWII threat of nuclear catastrophe manifests itself.  Dr. Bloodmoney: Or How We Got Along After the Bomb is the (conveniently sub-titled) result.  

Having a few main elements in common with that first big success, most of the characteristics of Dr. Bloodmoney set it apart.  The Man in the High Castle being wholly realist save the alternate history aspect, Dr. Bloodmoney finds Dick taking a realist narrative and slowly blending in more and more of his typical motifs, precogs, schizophrenia, and telekinesis, building toward a surreal conclusion.  Though falling short of the earlier novel’s standard, Dr. Bloodmoney is still one of the better books in Dick’s convoluted oeuvre and worth a read.

Told in two time frames, Dr. Bloodmoney opens innocently enough.  Stuart McConchie stands on the street, sweeping the walk in front of the shop where he sells TVs.  Observing the life around him, all seems normal in the San Francisco of 1992.  Slowly and confidently, more characters in the city are introduced, including Hoppy Harrington, an armless, legless man who possesses unnatural skills with technology, as well as the eponymous Dr. Bluthgeld, an atomic physicist who believes he’s suffering from schizophrenia.  Timeline and viewpoint rumbling like an earthquake for a chapter—a great literary touch from Dick—the bombs fall and the narrative jumps ahead seven years to life after the nuclear disaster.

Another important character is Dangerfield.  Intending to start a new life on Mars, the bombs fall just as his spaceship enters Earth’s stratosphere.  With the station that was to redirect him to Mars destroyed, he is stuck inside a rocket orbiting Earth.  In the seven years that pass, Dangerfield becomes a well-known personality, however.  His radio broadcasts of music and books are much appreciated by the scrounging and desperate quarter of the population who survive.  His mental health failing throughout the book, the culmination of Dangerfield’s story proves integral to the main storyline, as well as being one of Dick’s more affecting personalizations.

Thematically, the novel touches upon a variety of subjects, including discrimination.  Stuart being black and Hoppy handicapped, each face a variety of ridicule both before and after the bombs.  Though one can never be certain with Dick, it is possible the book is also a statement on post-WWII allied behavior.  Intentional or not, hints that victory over Hitler gave the US and Russian governments an opportunity to gobble up power before things settled are less than subtle.  (The title is another hint.)  Conspiracy theories seemingly always hanging around in the background of Dick’s stories, this suggestion has proven itself true, the US having since wittingly involved itself in a series of international fiascoes and successes, depending on perspective. 

One of the reasons The Man in the High Castle is considered Dick’s greatest work is due to its consistent development.  The realist albeit alternate history idea presented at the opening is adhered to throughout the novel and form is never broken to introduce new or paranormal elements.  Dr. Bloodmoney cannot say the same.  Like the graph of human population through time, the novel’s tone begins flat, moves steadily forward along realist terms, and escalates smoothly but sharply at the finish into a strange, wholly surreal conclusion.  While feeling natural due to the manner in which Dick develops the story, the tone of the finale nevertheless does not match the realist nature of the novel’s opening and body.  What begins a character driven examination of post-nuclear apocalypse America becomes a weird, supernatural story that may or may not confuse matters, depending on expectation.  

In the end, Dr. Bloodmoney is one of Dick’s better efforts despite its realist foundation giving way to the supernatural at the end.  The story is at least developed smoothly, characterization likewise.  The novel’s plot also moves effectively, a handful of concepts pertinent to the human condition drawn in simultaneously.  With its mix of characterization, realism, alternate history, and the supernatural, those new to the author will find worse starting points to Dick’s works, while fans will not be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful review. Fans of PKD will definitely want to check out the film version of his novel Radio Free Albemuth - his most controversial and autobiographical science fiction novel in which he made himself one of the main characters.

    London Sci-Fi Festival calls Radio Free Albemuth "In our view, the best adaptation of PKD’s work to screen by far!" - and honored the indie feature film with its "Best Film Adaptation Award."

    As screenwriter/director, I hope Speculation blog fans will join the conversation about all things Dickian - and related (a wide range of philosophy, literature, music, politics, science fiction and mysticism) - at Radio Free Albemuth-Movie Facebook page:

    and out website:

    Coming soon to a reality near you!