PKD flashback: ‘Lies, Inc.’ (1984) (Book review)

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aul Williams’ afterword in the Vintage edition of “Lies, Inc.” (1984) is almost a better read than the novel itself. The literary executor of Philip K. Dick’s estate chronicles the many permutations of the novel – which began as the magazine-published “The Unteleported Man” in 1966 – into the definitive version. In over-simplified terms, the original “Unteleported Man” tells a straightforward (by PKD standards) adventure in chapters 1-8 and 15-17, and the expansion material is a drug trip that takes up chapters 9-14.

“The Unteleported Man” portion is a pretty good novella, in my opinion, and the new material adds layers of confusion for no reason. To be fair, when I read about the LSD experience of main character Rachmael ben Applebaum, it strikes me that this is as close to a drug trip as one can get when experiencing it through literature. But there’s no poignancy to the loss of one’s mind like there is in the classic “A Scanner Darkly.”

The new material creates a plot hole. ben Applebaum takes the portal to Whale’s Mouth in the new section – but then he’s in his spaceship en route to Whale’s Mouth when it cuts back to the original “Unteleported Man” material.

In “Lies, Inc.,” ben Applebaum’s LSD trip is a part of a mystery where he tries to figure out which reality(ies) are really real among those experienced by him and the other “weevils” – people who have teleported from Earth to Whale’s Mouth but whose mandated brainwashing did not stick. This could be good stuff, but PKD doesn’t bring it to a conclusion.

And what’s more, the new material creates a plot hole. This is perhaps because PKD hadn’t totally finished “Lies, Inc.” at the time of his death in 1982. ben Applebaum is with the weevils in the new material – having decided to take the portal to Whale’s Mouth – but then he’s in his spaceship en route to Whale’s Mouth when it cuts back to the original “Unteleported Man” material.

Like many of PKD’s lesser works, “Lies, Inc.” is filled with worthy ideas and commentaries that provide food for thought but don’t jell into a satisfying story.

The wider narrative is an ongoing battle between two corporate/governmental entities. On one side is LIES, Inc. (it’s actually an acronym for something that doesn’t relate to lying; an attempt at irony, I suppose). On the other side is Trails of Hoffman, Ltd., which operates the one-way emigration portals to Whale’s Mouth with the blessing of the German-controlled United Nations, the Earth’s most powerful governmental body in this future 2008.

Our Everyman, ben Applebaum, must figure out what’s really going on in Whale’s Mouth. The “Interstellar”-esque pseudo-scientific rules here are that people can only teleport one way, but messages can be sent back, and fairly quickly at that. ben Applebaum and some other protagonists suspect that Whale’s Mouth is not a utopian colony planet, but rather the site of something sinister.

PKD wrote “The Unteleported Man” a few years after “The Man in the High Castle,” and he still has stuff about Nazism to get out of his system. Among the potential horrors that might wait on the other side of the portal, PKD evokes concentration camps. In this case, the idea is that killing the would-be colonists would solve overpopulation on Earth, as all genuine attempts at colony planets have failed.

The author makes good points that the first people to die at the hands of Nazis were Germans, and that just because the US military bombed Japanese citizens, it doesn’t mean all Americans are bad. Also evoking the Nazi atrocities of World War II is ben Applebaum’s Jewishness, although PKD barely digs into this.

PKD often uses collectivism or nationalism as a default setting in his novels, sometimes because the story doesn’t call for nuance, sometimes because he is criticizing collectivism or nationalism. But here he actively breaks down the simplicity of the idea and emphasizes that heroes (and villains) should be defined as individuals, not as members of a group.

PKD is going for a powerful twist with the revelation of the villain. However, the text is filled with too many loosely defined characters for the revelation to make much of an impact, even though his point about not judging a book by its cover is well-taken.

“Lies, Inc.” never coalesces into what it should be, and sometimes the prose – even in the “Unteleported Man” portion — is choppy and hard to read, like the first half of “The Zap Gun.” But at other times, PKD gets on a roll of good writing and good concepts, so die-hard fans will be able to dig some interesting nuggets out of this uneven novel.

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