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by Philip K Dick

(Gollancz, £6.99, 187 pages, paperback, first published 1966, this edition published 13 March 2003.)

This is not one of Philip K. Dick's typical novels. cover scanThe plot is linear and coherent, and at no point are any of the major characters confronted with the awful possibility that the universe as they experience it may be only apparently real. Unfortunately this also means that as Dick novels go, this is not a particularly good one.

Originally published as The Crack in Space in 1966, but written a couple of years earlier during the author's most prolific period, this book is essentially an unsuccessful attempt to grapple with the issues of overpopulation and racism. The year is 2080. Jim Briskin, the Liberal-Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States, hopes to unseat the incumbent Bill Schwartz, of the States Rights Conservative Democrats. Briskin is a former TV "newsclown" (presumably at least in part a reference to comedy actor Ronald Reagan) who hopes to become the first Negro (sic) president. It's a nice coincidence that as I type, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who starred in the film version of Dick's "We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale", is campaigning to succeed Reagan as governor of California.

The overpopulation problem in Cantata 140 appears to be something that affects the United States alone, perhaps due to the development of anti-aging treatments that allow people to continue working well past their hundredth birthday. The government's attempts to deal with it by legalised prostitution, semi-compulsory abortion and putting large numbers of the lower classes into suspended animation seem about as realistic as Isaac Asimov's proposal, in one of his non-fiction books, to stop the population explosion by encouraging masturbation and homosexuality. (Not that there's anything wrong with either masturbation or homosexuality, but please let's be realistic about the benefits!)

The treatment of racism is muted. All non-white groups are generally referred to as "Cols", presumably short for "coloureds", and it's implied that the government has sinister plans to minimise their numbers and influence, to the point of the Vice-President's links with an extremist organisation that attempts to assassinate Briskin (with a weapon whose nature is not satisfactorily explained). But we learn nothing about Briskin's own social or family background, and little about social conditions for the various ethnic groups. The setting appears to be 1960's California with a few extra gadgets; the world outside the USA is barely mentioned (not counting parallel universes).

The gadgets are a nice touch. They include taxis that can take you straight to orbit, and the "Jiffi-scuttler" which is an instantaneous transport system whose details are not otherwise made clear. The core of the plot concerns one such machine which develops a leak to a parallel world which Briskin seizes on as his solution to the overpopulation problem - wake up the sleepers in suspended animation ("Wachet auf!" is Bach's Cantata 140, hence the title) and let them go through the leak and colonise it! The consequent political tussles are diverting but not convincing. In any case the classic "my house has unexpectedly developed a doorway into another dimension" story, pioneered by Lewis Carroll, was done much better around this time by Clifford Simak in "The Big Front Yard" and has not been equalled since (certainly not by Robert Sawyer's dismal Hominids, which benefited from this year's Worldcon location to win the Hugo).

A few standard Dick themes are present. The sinister government conspiracy mentioned above is one; the idea of emigration from earth to a better place is another. The parallel universe is a nod in the direction of alternate perceptions of reality though a tame one by Dick's usual standards. The character George Walt, conjoined twins with one head but two brains and two bodies, is clearly an echo of Dick's obsession with his own twin brother who died at birth. The plot gets a little confused and frantic towards the end, but I felt more because of carelessness than authorial grand design.

The presentation of the book is somewhat disappointing. The title as originally published is nowhere mentioned, and there are some silly misprints ("deeps-ace" for "deep-space", "prose" for "pro's", "facet" for "fact") which would surely have been caught by any proof-reader who was actually awake. The attractive cover by Chris Moore has little obvious relationship with the story. Unless you are a Dick completist, you can probably give this one a miss.

Review by Nicholas Whyte.

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