The Penultimate Truth by PK Dick

I was really hoping I could find somebody online who had read this and wanted to talk about the ending which seemed quite ambiguous to me. Maybe that was the intention or maybe I just don’t get it, but the title itself implies an unclear ending.

It’s another of PK Dick’s works that really suffers from lack of an editor to clean up the many issues. What one admires about it is the foresight in the picture he has of the world in 2025. How close is it to how we will actually be in six years’ time?

The gist of the story is that WWIII leads to the vast  majority of humans living underground with scarce resources, due to the war making earth uninhabitable. These people are not told when the war ends. Instead they are fed a constant stream of fake news which keeps them underground working for the rulers above them, in a state of permanent fear and servility. The idea of the ongoing war is carefully orchestrated in film studios and fed via video links to those below ground.

Sound familiar? Given that we live in a world of ‘fake news’ where it is becoming next to impossible to separate real from fake, we may see that Dick is pretty close to the mark. Slightly different, more sophisticated technology now, but the same idea.

Meanwhile on top of the earth, a tiny number of people live on huge properties Dick calls demesnes, more or less alone, surrounded by AI robots which are highly militarised and protect them against other demesne owners. These privileged people are sterile, courtesy of the war, and so it’s very much about me, me, me. Does any of this sound familiar? The planet itself is able to recover from the devastation of the war. Since most people are underground, the planet is greening itself again, though damaged hot spots still exist. It is hard to acknowledge, but if a tiny number of people inhabited the earth, the planet would be better off. And wars would be limited, as in Dick’s vision, to tiny border skirmishes between estates, leadies (the AI machines) doing the fighting. If all the people living underground were to populate the surface, the planet would suffer, real wars would begin again. The fake war of Dick’s world saves it from real ones.

It has seemed obvious to me for a long time that this is the way the world is going. Democracy is being dismantled. We have given enormous power and resources to a few men (sic) who own the corporations which are taking over from traditional government and society. The real rulers of the world now are Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, sometimes referred to as ‘GAFAM‘. A tiny number of people are buying up the water resources of the world – the new gold, as the big investment company spruikers like to call it. The same ones who didn’t go to gaol after the Global Financial Crash. Ethics 101 in the hands of Goldman, Sachs.

So we can quibble about details. Is it going to end up like Dick’s scenario or Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! ? Are we going to live underground because of WWIII, or climate change? But the fundamentals are in this book. Scarce resources, over-population, lying to ‘the people’. The role of AI, which presides at a legal level in Dick’s world – something being worked on right now in ours. Addiction to technology which doesn’t do the job well enough, but who cares? Apparently as a society we will always be happy with a tradeoff that gives us less for less effort on our part.

As is so often the case with science fiction, this book is well worth reading, but do it for the ideas, not for the characters, nor the storyline.

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