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Now Wait for Last Year: SF Masterworks 36 by Philip K Dick
(Millennium, £6.99, 225 pages, paperback; first published 1975, this edition 4 December 2000.)

Terra is at war. Expansion into space has brought cover scanhumans into contact with two warring civilisations: the ant-like Reegs and an alternative branch of humanity which controls the Lillistar empire. The UN Secretary-General (effectively a global dictator), Gino Molinari, committed humanity to an alliance with Lillistar. The war has dragged on for years with no end in sight, and it is becoming difficult to distinguish who poses the greater threat -- the Reegs, or Terra's allies. The alliance with Lillistar threatenings to end with Earth under the complete control of the 'Starmen.

This interstellar political situation forms the backdrop to this novel, reprinted as part of the SF Masterworks line. It is the most straightforward part of the novel. It is perhaps the only straightforward part of the novel.

Dr Eric Sweetscent works for Virgil Ackerman, the ancient head of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Corporation, a company which makes a vital contribution to the Terran war effort. Sweetscent's speciality is the replacement of diseased organs with 'artiforgs': the artificial organs that have allowed Ackerman to live beyond his natural lifespan. Sweetscent's wife Kathy also works for the same company, collecting rare artifacts from 1935 to furnish Ackerman's Mars-based recreation of his Washington childhood. Their marriage is in difficulty; Sweetscent feels reliant on his more successful wife, she despises his lack of ambition. Dick portrays their decaying relationship with a deft, and at times poignant, irony.

Eric Sweetscent is given the opportunity to work for the charismatic Molinari, and he sees this as his chance to break free from Kathy. Or rather, Eric is given the opportunity to work for a Molinari. The doctor finds himself in a confusing world where there appear to be a number of Molinaris -- any, or none of which could be the real one. The Molinari that Eric comes into contact with has serious health problems, but as Eric digs deeper he finds out that the Secretary General appears to possess the power to survive illness that would normally be fatal, illnesses which appear to be mirroring those suffered by people around Molinari. Events take an even stranger turn in an amusing scene where the Secretary General uses his illness as a negotiating tactic in a crisis meeting with the leader of the 'Starmen, stalling for time over a request to supply citizens of Earth to work in Lillistar's factories by needing immediate surgery at the conference table. Molinari's psychosomatic ill-health has become a tool of policy.

Kathy Sweetscent experiments with a new drug, JJ-180, expecting a new psychedelic experience. She gets rather more than she bargained for. The drug has been produced by a subsidiary of Tijuana Fur and Dye as part of the war effort, and one of its effects is that the drug is immediately addictive, and will eventually result in the death of the user, unless an antidote which breaks the addiction is used. No antidote exists when Kathy becomes addicted, but another effect of the drug provides a possible solution: it can fling the user forward or backward in time.

Kathy's addiction and the promise of a continuing supply of JJ-180 by secret 'Starman agents makes her pursue Eric, who himself is soon addicted to the drug. His need to get hold of the antidote, his curiosity about the multiple Molinaris, and the minor matter of attempting to win the war for Earth leads him into a headlong plunge through time -- forwards, backwards, and sideways -- and soon the book features not just multiple Molinaris but multiple Erics. At one point Sweetscent considers suicide, but is concerned about the effect that this would have on the future Erics that he has met, and who have helped him.

'"Who are you?" Eric said; the man who had tackled the MP ship with his own was certainly familiar -- Eric confronted a face which he had seen many times and yet it was distorted now, witnessed from a weird angle, and as if inside out, pulled through infinity. The man's hair was parted on the wrong side so that his head seemed lop-sided, wrong in all its lines. What amazed him was the physical unattractiveness of the man. He was too fat, and a little too old. Unpleasantly gray. It was a shock to see himself like this, without preparation; do I really look like that? he asked himself morosely.'

Dick uses the effects of JJ-180 to explore issues of human action and free will, and to allow him to revisit the usual Dickian obsessions with the nature of reality, with shifting and uncertain identity, the possibilities -- and the dangers -- of altered brain chemistry (something of rather close interest to Dick in the world outside his novels), and the paranoia that all this engenders.

Now Wait For Last Year contains a witches brew of ideas and concepts that Dick appeared to toss in as the fancy took him. Occasionally the novel creaks at the seams, and the reader is left uncertain as to whether Dick is going to be able to pull this one off, but he keeps the novel together -- just -- as the multiple realities of Eric Sweetscent spiral out of control. Along the way Dick casually tosses off ideas that would form the centrepiece of many other books: the 'babyland' recreations of the past of the idle rich like Virgil Ackerman, or the small starship-controlling devices/creatures that Tijuana Fur and Dye manufacture and the secret obsession of a junior employee that makes him rescue those which fail the quality control process, sending them scuttling off around Tijuana on tiny metal carts.

Perhaps it would have been a tighter novel had Dick kept a firmer rein on his imagination, perhaps it would have been more coherent had he kept a closer focus on the core plot. But Now Wait For Last Year would have lost something in the process. As it stands, it is an exhilarating ride through Dick's concerns and obsessions, and this reissue is a welcome event that will hopefully introduce new readers to one of the most original of all sf writers.

Review by Iain Rowan.

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© Iain Rowan 3 November 2001