Philip K Dick: Vulcan’s Hammer

November 19, 2018

51kYpaCvS5L._AC_US218_I’ve been a fan of Philip K Dick’s science fiction ever since I first read something by him as a student. He’s a brilliant writer – although very uneven in quality – and a fellow-writer once dubbed him ‘the best science fiction writer on any planet’, which probably does him justice… But I’m aware I have a few favourites which I re-read every now and then, and that there is a lot of his work I haven’t touched for years – so time to put that right. I decided to embark on a re-reading of his novels in the sequence they were written, to see whither that is illuminating in any way at all. I don’t know whether I’ll last the course, as some of his later books were quite bonkers, as I recall, reflecting his own very chaotic and tormented life.

Vulcan’s Hammer was apparently the first to be written. The opening – in medias res – is effective, immediately establishing an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mystery. Paranoia in many forms permeates most of Dick’s work, so no surprises here. He envisages a future with a world authority rather than individual nation-states, and everyone under surveillance to maintain stasis: prophetic enough when I look at today’s China, for example.

I did find myself noticing some shoddy language, suggesting a hastily-written text, and wonder if traits like this are harder to notice in SF, or perhaps more easily overlooked when one is taken over by plot and visions of the future? Certainly it’s one of those things I heard non-SF readers mention about the genre.

As the story develops we see emerging a conflict between two computers striving to control the world, and a people-led organisation that seeks freedom from control (although, in a typical Dickian paranoid twist, it turns out that this movement is actually a creation of one of the computers, unbeknown to its leader…) Surely Dick is looking forward to our world, where the potential of AI, and machines to manipulate us is currently a live issue? His controllers analyse the lower classes as risk-takers and gamblers who have not bought into security and stability: what does that remind you of?

But surely Dick is at his most prophetic when he visualises autonomous, programmed killing devices which can be used to target individuals – and he was writing in the 1950s! Killer drones – for that is surely what they are – are found in many of his novels and stories, as is the idea of machines creating ever more sophisticated killing machines, beyond the control of the humans who originally created them. There he was, sixty years ago, planning today’s nightmares…

Dick’s powerful controller Vulcan 3 is a paranoid computer, suffering from HAL syndrome more than a decade before Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. And we are clearly in a world where Asimov’s Third Law of Robotics does not obtain. Equally, he’s aware of the powerlessness of a grassroots movement faced by a modern bureaucratic state.

And yet, even in this first novel, Dick never loses sight of the human: the denouement returns to that level. There is a plot twist which is a bit of a cheat – no spoiler here – and I kindly remember that this is his first novel. So many of the ideas he will play with and explore in later novels and stories are foreshadowed here, albeit crudely. And you can already see that a writer who can juggle so many balls at once is something of a visionary.

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