Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Zap Gun (1964)

Philip K. Dick himself called this novel "a turkey"—and it's true, it's probably not his best, although it does have my favorite of all his character names in Lars Powderdry. This near-future tale was written at the peak of the Cold War and one of its weaknesses is that it doesn't seem able to imagine much beyond that. But nonetheless it has many nice Dick touches along the way. To save money on defense spending, for example, the US and USSR have secretly conspired to roll out fake new weapons, dreamed up by psychics in trance states. That's Lars Powderdry's work, in fact, as a "weapons fashion designer." Almost incidentally, halfway along and offstage, aliens appear and begin to attack Earth (New Orleans, specifically)—now what are the humans going to do? Crises in Dick novels, though they arise continually as in most fiction, are by and large beside the point. The problem isn't so much the invading aliens as how the fraudulent governments plan to cover up their decades-long malfeasance in the area of national security. Events meander about. Powderdry has any number of intrigues to manage, and some love affairs too. This occupies a good deal of the narrative. We never get much sense of who the aliens are or what they want, beyond vaguely taking slaves. Toward the end there is a bum's rush of events, including a time travel puzzle and more or less total collapse of government. I came away a little confused about the intentions of The Zap Gun—Cold War satire seemed most likely, but at that it's a little obvious, with too-easy insights. Maybe it was more dangerous in its time? There's a murky love story in all this too, with Powderdry falling for his Soviet counterpart, Lilo Topchev (another excellent character name, which put me absurdly in mind of the Bravo reality TV show). I'm sympathetic with anyone's attempt to satirize the defense industry and its self-serving lies and exaggerations, but The Zap Gun is loaded up with distractions no matter what it is: invading aliens drama, time travel paradox, cheerful polyamory anecdote, gratuitous paranoia exercise, meditation on psychic powers, and so on. Eventually the aliens are defeated by development of an electronic child's toy which engages, develops, and then betrays the player's sense of empathy. Emotional treachery is yet another familiar Dick note. It makes me wonder again about Dick's writing process—it sometimes feels like he enters fugue states, riffs on a handful of his favorite themes, and hopes something comes of it. Because certain remarkable and unforgettable things actually did come of it it's almost surprising when nothing or very little does (though I am reading probably only a fraction of his catalog). The Zap Gun might be more for the hardcore fans.

In case it's not at the library.

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