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Dr Bloodmoney: SF Masterworks 32
by Philip K Dick
(Millennium, 6.99, 304 pages, paperback; first published 1965, this edition 10 August 2000.)

cover scanIn the slip 'twixt cup and lip sit Philip Dick, and Dr Bloodmoney.

To put it another way, Dr Bloodmoney is about the horror of getting what you really want.

Dick's novel of nuclear apocalypse has, typically, nothing to do with the realities of nuclear conflict, and less to do with apocalypse. San Francisco and its suburbs must come to terms with catastrophe tailored by Dick to his own moral and psychological (primarily Jungian) concerns.

'It was as if the man had been gripped by his unconscious. He was no longer living a rational, ego-directed existence; he had surrendered to some archetype.

'The Impersonal, Doctor Stockstill thought, has attacked us.'

(p74)

Dick's apocalypse--brilliantly rendered--is 'a pageant of figments', 'a permanent dreadful metamorphosis'. Yet, on the surface at least, the cruelty of the conflict, and the debasement of its victims, are massively downplayed. Society recovers. '... it would be all small towns and individuality,' one character thinks, presciently, 'like Ayn Rand talked about in her books.' (p78)

And so it transpires: an American bucolic idyll, Dr Bloodmoney is one of Dick's more domestic novels, an affectionate send-up of the petty liberal culture of his one-time home in Marin County.

Where, then, the horror?

As usual with Dick, it stems from ordinary human wants.

No-one understood the will to power like Dick, no-one grasped its pervasive, unslakeable appeal.

Before the apocalypse, McConchie the salesman is watching television:

'He thought of himself in the nose cone, like Walt Dangerfield, strapped next to a woman of great physical attractiveness. Pioneers, he and her, founding a new civilisation on a new planet. But then his stomach rumbled and he realised how hungry he was; he could not postpone lunch much longer.

'Even as he stood watching the great upright rocket on the TV screen, his thoughts turned toward soup and rolls and beef stew and apple pie with ice cream on it, up at Fred's Fine Foods.'

(p35)

When he gets there, Hoppy Harrington, limbless from thalidomide, is in a trance. Liberated from his own limitations and appetites, Hoppy dreams:

'I'm like everybody else; in fact I'm better than anybody else. I can do anything they can do and a lot more. I can go wherever I want, and they can't. They can't move.'

'Why can't they move?' the frycook demanded.

'Just can't,' Hoppy said. 'They can't go into the air or on roads or ships; they just stay. It's all different from this. I can see each of them, like they're dead, like they're pinned down and dead. Like corpses.'

Our will to power, Dick argues, is held in check by constraints--by our bodily needs, and by our social situation. Freed by apocalypse, the will to power among Dick's characters is no longer held in check. The Personal and the Impersonal slide into each other, and wishes come dangerously true...

Doctor Bloodmoney's logic is the logic of the moral essay, rendered in the language of dreams. At the very start of the novel, we see that Doctor Bloodmoney, architect of the apocalypse, already straddles the gap between Personal and Impersonal, between cup and lip. He writes his personal paranoias large upon the world with a nuclear nib. McConchie, on the other hand, even after the apocalypse, never loses the distinction between self and other. He is profoundly conservative. While other survivors loot stores for food, he steals paper money, unable to believe that it is worthless; he eats raw rats to survive. His 'slowness' puts him at a short-term disadvantage, but in Dick's forgiving Ayn Rand future, his long-term success is assured: he keeps to Dick's idea of the necessary limits.

For Dick, the will to power is non-grainy: a smooth, amoral logic ladder that seamlessly connects a cripple's desire to walk with a megalomaniac's identification with the Angel of Death. The necessary friction--the moral grain, if you like--comes from some petty but salutary limitations of the physical and social world.

It's an uncomfortable point, for Dick no less than for the reader. This edition blindly reprints a ghastly, self-satisfied afterword by the author, in which he attempts to close off the text's uneasy morality. McConchie is right, Bloodmoney is wrong; well now, that's a relief.


Review by Simon Ings.

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© Simon Ings 28 October 2000