Book Review: The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick #VintageSciFi

The year is 2025 and the world is split into two superpowers: Wes-Dem and Pac-Peop. World War III has kept millions of people around the world in underground “ant tanks” for 15 years. The war is fought primarily by “leadies,” robots built specifically for this purpose, and the “tankers” are responsible for leady production.

In the meantime, the government and the military machine have remained on the surface. President Talbot Yancy delivers inspirational speeches and keeps the tankers updated about the war through video. Every month the tankers are given a quota of how many leadies they need to produce for the war effort.

When Nicholas St. James, the president of the Tom Mix tank, is forced to go to the surface to buy an artiforg pancreas from the Black Market, he finds out that the war ended 13 years ago. And don’t worry, that isn’t a spoiler. You find out about this sham within the first two or three chapters of the book. It’s the why and how of the elite perpetrating this conspiracy where the story really gets good…and upsetting.

At its core, TPT is about a fucked-up world in which the rich elite keep the rest of the population under their collective thumb by keeping them in constant fear of an outside enemy (sound familiar? feel familiar?). And while this idea has been used numerous times by various authors, PKD has this way of making it feel like a new idea. He has a distinctive writing style that I really like, and I always enjoy the distinctive ways he addresses his recurring themes of struggles with personal identity and how fragile reality is (including the idea that the everyday world is an illusion cooked up by some powerful entity or person[s]).

Similarities to current events/government aside, some of my favorite elements of TPT are Dick’s made-up inventions and names for things. The tankers are told the surface isn’t safe because they might contract the Bag Plague, “where those virtues get in and cause your head to expand until it pops like a blown-up paper bag.” Or they might get the Stink of Shrink instead, where one’s head “diminish[es] in size, features included, to the circumference of a marble.” The elite travel in flapples, which I imagine as personal helicopters. Artiforgs are man-made human organs that last for a very, very long time (forever?).

The main bad guy in TPT is Stanton Brose, and PKD’s description of Brose made me laugh out loud:

“…a mound of rubber, winking and blinking, flapping seal-like its pseudopodia and peeping at him while with its slitlike mouth it gaped and grinned, pleased at his dismay; pleased to horrify both by how it physically looked and who it was.”

I mean, this is a human man PKD is describing, but he really gets across how disgusting this guy is, literally and figuratively speaking. This is the guy who gets all the artiforgs, so he just lets himself go. He knows he can always have failing organs replaced. He is the top of the elite. He has all the power. He can get away with just about anything. Dude is nasty in every way.

Then, of course, there’s the rest of the story where all the action takes place. There are murders, time travel, the use of super advanced weapons, super computers, and all the other stuff you would expect from a super advanced society in the “future” (just a reminder: this story takes place four years from now; WWIII starts in 2010).

I buddy-read TPT with two of my favorite people, sj and Will. sj is the ultimate PKD fan and my personal go-to for anything PKD-related. She had some thoughts she wanted to add…


sj: If you haven’t read a lot of pulp sf, it can be off-putting at first. It moves fast cos that’s how it was written (often cranked out in a matter of weeks or months in order to keep the lights on), and also how it’s meant to be read.

No, don’t take time to puzzle over the made up words, you’ll figure it out as we go, keep up! 

PKD in particular had a habit of putting shit in there that had NO BEARING ON THE STORY, it was just a cool thing he thought of while in the middle of his current amphetamine binge (I meant “cranked out” both literally and figuratively up there). “Fuck it, throw that in there, too.”  So you have to keep reading cos even though that one thing is REALLY FUCKING COOL AND YOU WANT TO FIXATE ON IT, it never had any importance and if you think too much about it, the rest won’t make any sense, either. 

Most pulp sf has this glorious radiance, where you never really know what’s going to happen next, and ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN cos 95% of the time, the author had no fucking clue til they got there. Which is one of the reasons I love it so much.  


TPT is a little over 200 pages, so it could easily be read in a day or two. sj pointed out that this was the first book she recommended to me seven years ago when we first “met” on her blog. I FINALLY READ IT, SJ…and I really dug it. Thank you! Plus we read it together, which made it extra special.

Up next is Asimov’s Foundation, I think.

(Vintage Science Fiction Month takes place every January and is hosted by Andrea of the Little Red Reviewer and Jacob of RedStarReviews. They have a twitter account just for this: @VintageSciFi_.)

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick #VintageSciFi

    1. Thanks, Bryan. I am still writing at offyourradar.com, but except for the decade reflection issue, I’ve been out of commission since the surgery.

      Also, tell your lovely wife I’m hoping to get back to letter writing soon. 🖤

      Liked by 1 person

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