Review – Dick, “The World Jones Made”

Philip K. Dick, “The World Jones Made” (1956) – Philip K. Dick! This is the 23rd PKD novel I’ve read and there’s still plenty to go. On the one hand, that sort of productivity is an accomplishment in its own right. On the other hand, the production schedule he was on — 44 novels and 141 short stories in 30 years — almost certainly helped shorten his life. The whole noble-downtrodden-genre fiction vs bad-snooty-literary fiction thing has gotten pretty tired in recent years as geek culture — much of it as pretentious, formulaic, and just generally lame as any product of the high culture bad ol’ days — has swallowed the planet. Still… you can’t help but think about how literary writers with barely a fraction of Dick’s talent or work ethic lived much cushier and longer lives. I guess there’s some compensation in that PKD lives on not just as a writer but as a legend, where his literary contemporaries are, at best, whited sepulchers foisted on poor unsuspecting English students…

Anyway! “The World Jones Made” is classic Dick, a little before he hit his best period in the early-to-mid 1960s. In the beginnings of his sci-fi career, Dick cranked out novels and stories of post-nuclear wastelands. These weren’t the kind of fun lawless zones of Mad Max. These were the sort of dour postwar scenarios imagined by the likes of Herman Kahn and other nuclear strategists- buckled down, regimented, productivity-driven, stolidly trying to ignore the horrors of environmental destruction and mutation. Dick could turn the crank and produce one of these horrifying worlds as a setting, and then drop in something odd, something philosophical and uncanny.

In “The World Jones Made,” there’s two such somethings. In something of an aside that joins the main plot in the end, we read of the tiny lives of humanoid creatures genetically engineered to live on Venus, with the usual angst about being created beings. But the major premise of the story is the titular Jones, a small time carnival sideshow who turns out to be able to predict the future perfectly- but only one year at a time. The post-war world had been ruled over by a global regime espousing “relativism” — the war having been caused by political and religious fanatics, the world government locks up anyone who declares their opinions to be fact, unless the holder of the opinion can prove it. Well, Jones can, and a movement rapidly springs up around him which overturns the regime. Dick thought hard, if not necessarily in a professional academic vein, about Nazism, and there are shades of that here… and shades of them overthrowing a global-oriented “relativist” elite that can’t see it coming. Maybe Jones wasn’t the only one who could see the future…

But, there’s some disadvantages to seeing one year and one year only into the future. For one thing, Jones can’t change anything. He, and everyone else, is locked in. This makes him a miserable, sour fatalist, along with whatever else. Within a year of his death, Jones starts seeing — experiencing — his own decay, and no one does the horror of decay like PKD. Moreover, Jones can’t deliver on any of his promises to his adoring crowds… and he knows it. The best he can do is wreck the previous system, seemingly more out of spite than any other reason.

Most of the viewpoint characters other than Jones are standard early-Dick protagonists, nondescript cops or investigators with considerably more interesting women in their lives providing a certain degree of uncertainty (PKD was married five times). How Jones’s precognition fails — how he gets killed — isn’t made that clear. Writing his way out of his own premises was never PKD’s strong suit.

What PKD was nearly uniquely gifted at, and what assures his place in the pantheon of great sci-fi, was constructing worlds of dread and fascination. Some people ding his prose style and character work, not without reason. But the things he wanted to get across — on the positive side possibility, on the other hand the lived experience of fear, decay, being trapped, living paradoxes — he gets across as well as any writer, and he does so in fine form here. His stories make us ask questions about our own experiences, and without the pretense or hippy-dippy rigamarole that “questioning reality” literature usually implies. *****

Review – Dick, “The World Jones Made”

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