by James Wallace Harris, 2/17/22
Do you ever wonder why your favorite authors are your favorite authors? Growing up, the writer I loved more than all the rest was Robert A. Heinlein. As I got older I also became obsessed with other writers, like Samuel R. Delany, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Louisa May Alcott, but never for long. I first discovered Philip K. Dick (PKD) in 1968 when I took Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? off the new 7-day bookshelf at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami, Florida. I was sixteen. Since 1968, I’ve read many of his novels and short stories. I’ve read several biographies. I’m even reading his collected letters. But I have to admit, Philip K. Dick was one strange human being. I doubt if I could have hung out with him as a person because of all his crazy ideas. Yet, I keep reading his books. Some many times.
I didn’t plan that Dr. Bloodmoney would be my sixth book to read in 2022. I’m trying very hard to broaden the selection of books I read in 2022> I want to get away from reading so much science fiction. And it’s dangerous for me to start reading too much PKD because it can be like falling into a black hole. I read We Can Build You last week because I was trapped at home without power in an ice storm and I wanted to indulge myself with something purely fun. Researching that review led me down the PKD rabbit hole just a bit. That’s when I read that Dr. Bloodmoney, a novel I’ve never read, is considered one of PKD’s best. I always thought from the cover of the Ace original that it was one of his crappy paperback quickies. Boy was I wrong.
My new tips were right, Dr. Bloodmoney is great. Trigger Warning: Unless you’re a rabid fan of PKD, sometimes known as Dickheads, don’t run out and buy this novel. I know from experience from stories friends have begged me to read that the magic doesn’t always transfer. It’s that magic that I want to talk about. My buddy Mike loves PKD, but I don’t think the Philip K. Dick magic works with any of my other personal friends. I know that Richard Fahey loves PKD because of the comments he leaves on this blog. I also know that there are a fair number of Dickheads out there because the price of PKD’s used books keeps going up and up. But the truth is, I just haven’t met that many fellow fans.
Wikipedia has an excellent biography of PKD and an extensive article on Dr. Bloodmoney. I won’t reiterate what they’ve already done – it’s much better than I could do. No, what I want to describe is why the novel resonates so deeply with my soul. And feel free to leave comments on what writers ring your bell and why. Maybe would-be novelists could pick up some tips.
Dr. Bloodmoney, written in 1963-1964 and published in 1965, is set in San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin County just before the atomic bombs exploded and seven years later. 1965 is one of my favorite years. I consider 1965 the pinnacle year for popular music, and it was the year I read a pile of science fiction that influenced my reading for the rest of my life. I was 12 and 13 in 1964 and 1965. Folks, puberty, and pop culture really do a number on us.
I’ve never been to California, but Dr. Bloodmoney captures the feel I have remembering the 1950s and early 1960s. I was living in Miami at the time, but the people and settings of PKD’s novels written during those years have always reminded me of how people were when I grew up. This is a powerful attraction.
I lived at Homestead, AFB during the Cuban missile crisis, and grew up doing the duck and cover drills in grade school. 1964 was the year that Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe came out, two almost identically plotted stories about atomic bombs. Dick wanted to call his novel In Earth’s Diurnal Course or A Terran Odyssey but Donald Wollheim at Ace wanted to cash in on Dr. Strangelove and titled it, Dr. Bloodmoney, Or Have We Got Along After the Bomb. In years since it’s been shortened to just Dr. Bloodmoney. But the important thing is it captures the fear of WWIII people had back then. The atomic bomb hung over our future like climate change hangs over young people today. That made it a touchstone for me.
The fear of nuclear war inspired a huge number of post-apocalyptic novels. I’ve always loved those stories. Philip K. Dick does something very different than all of them in Dr. Bloodmoney, he imagines American civilization surviving and getting back to normal after WWIII. For all its weirdness, it’s a very positive tale. He imagines people using horses to pull cars and having wood-burning steam engines power trucks. The direction of the novel is to return to a 1950s normalcy – and isn’t that what everyone wants today? And Dick knew of the evils of those years. One of his main characters, Stuart McConchie, is a black man who was just starting to make it as a television salesman when the bombs fell, is among the characters who strived the hardest to bring back personal success. It’s the simple things we wanted out of life back then, that make this novel so appealing now. Then and now, people just want a decent life, a good job, and to be free to pursue their own happiness.
The characters in Dr. Bloodmoney are quite diverse, but their most appealing quality is how much we care about them, even the evil and the deranged. All of them have “I’m just a little person trying to survive” in a big world vibe. Because this is a PKD novel, most of the characters, if not all, suffer various forms of mental illness. Dick suffered from mental illness his whole life and saw it everywhere. Mental illness, delusional thinking, and other psychological struggles are the main themes of all of PKD’s works.
Stuart McConchie, who I’ve already mentioned, undergoes many transformations in this book but could be the sanest person in the story.
Hoppy Harrington was a Thalidomide baby, born without arms and legs. He has psychic powers that he uses at the beginning of the story to get a job as a TV repairman. He rides around in a little cart and has artificial arms. After the bomb, his skills as a handyman becomes vital to the Marin County community, making him a highly respected member of the community. Unfortunately, his need to be loved leads to tragedy. In the novel, he is called a phocomelus, which is a word I thought PKD made up, but Wikipedia says it’s a real condition of people with malformed limbs.
Walter Dangerfield was an astronaut heading to Mars when the bombs fell, leaving him stranded in orbit around Earth. Because his spacecraft had years of supplies, and a huge library of books and music, Dangerfield becomes a disk jockey in orbit, playing music and reading books. Communities around the world live without electricity but jury rig old radios with car batteries to listen to Walt when he passes over. His folky ways tie people together and give them hope. Walt is one of the saner characters too but mentally struggles with loneliness and health problems.
Bonny Keller is a pivotal character who is desired by most men and the lover of many. She is also a leader of the Marin County community, and the mother of two of Dr. Bloodmoney‘s most essential characters, seven-year-old Edie, and her twin brother Bill, who lives inside her as a telepathic homunculus. Bill is in contact with the dead. The other characters think Bill is just Edie’s imaginary friend, but he’s very real. Okay, I did tell you this is one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read? Maybe I didn’t. I have now.
Bruno Bluthgeld, hiding out as Jack Tree because the world knows him as the physicist that caused the 1972 radiation crisis resulting in many human and animal mutations. He’s also assumed to be the cause of the atomic war. Bruno is Dr. Bloodmoney – the rough translation of Bluthgeld. Bruno also has psychic powers and suffers from tremendous paranoia because he believes everyone hates him and wants to assassinate him. Of course, sometimes that is true.
Andrew Gill is a post-apocalyptic entrepreneur. He’s developed a recipe of available plants to replace tobacco and has perfected a much sought-after brandy. When the bombs fell he was riding around in a VW bus. Gill was probably a proto-hippie.
This isn’t half of the characters in Dr. Bloodmoney. They are all wonderfully strange and have their own agenda. Dick is great at presenting little people in science fiction. Science fiction often has big heroes that save the planet, galaxy, or universe. PKD loved little folks that save themselves. Dick even has empathy for his most evil characters. He doesn’t see them as being evil, but enduring forces that are evil.
Philip K. Dick’s stories might be the most filmed of any science fiction author, but quite often the movie characters are nothing like his book characters. PKD loves ordinary people leading ordinary lives encountering the strange. Dr. Bloodmoney is science fiction because of the atomic bombs and post-apocalyptic communities, but it also includes psychic powers, which were common in science fiction in the 1950s, and even the supernatural. Bill and Hoppy are aware of what happens to people after they die, and it’s not just delusions of their insanity. However, the atmosphere of the story feels like mundane characters leading mundane lives, even though they are weirdos in a weird land.
I listened to Dr. Bloodmoney, narrated by Phil Gigante, who does a fantastic job with these characters, giving them each a unique voice. I was totally mesmerized by the story, no matter how fucking strange it got. And it gets very out there indeed. Is the weirdness why we Dickheads love PKD? I don’t know. I tend to believe I love him for his ordinary folks struggling to find meaning in a crazy reality.
The audiobook is available at Audible.com and Scribd.com. If you haven’t read Philip K. Dick, I recommend starting with Dr. Bloodmoney and with listening to the audiobook version.
[I’m going to try very hard to avoid another PKD novel and finish two nonfiction books next, but I can’t promise that for sure. Sometimes another PKD novel is just too enticing.]
13 thoughts on ““Dr. Bloodmoney” by Philip K. Dick”
This is the next PKD on my list to read. I’ve read about 12 of his books so far. One of my favourite writers.
Jeroen, please let us know what you think about it. I see at your site you’ve reviewed six of PKD’s novels. https://jeroenthoughts.wordpress.com/books-movies/#d-books
I also see you really liked Martian Time-Slip one of my favorites too. And you liked A Maze of Death even more. I haven’t read that one. I’ll try and get to it soon. I didn’t read your review because I was afraid you might have spoilers. I noticed though, you said it was a one-trick pony.
Oh yes I will review the book. I do so with every book I read since a year of five.
A Maze of Death I remember resting on a mystery and a twist. Maybe one trick pony is not the right word but once you know the twist then rereading it will be less interesting. But it is a fun book.
I told you it was great, I’m surprised you hadn’t read it, since you are such a fervant Dick fan, but I think you’ve known how good it was for some time now, and was going to read it soon. I first read it in 1983, when I wasn’t sure of just how good it was, but back then, I thought what I had read by him was so good, that I wanted to read everything I could find by him, just to read his best stuff. “Dr. Bloodmoney” isn’t so famous or acclaimed as novels such as “Time Out of Joint”, “The Man in the High Castle”, “Martian Time-Slip”, “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, “Ubik” and “A Scanner Darkly”, but it deserves mentioning in the same booming tone as them. Perhaps it’s because it just isn’t as weird as those other ones. I’m surprised that Don Wollheim, who rejected “Time Out of Joint”, “We Can Build You” and “Martian Time-Slip”, published it, even if it was for the commercial purpose you mention.
I like Dick’s SF for the weird ideas, characterisation and the actual writing. It’s the combination of these different facets that make his best stuff great. “Dr. Bloodmoney” has excellent characters and a quirky but fine prose, and weird enough ideas and concepts to make it imaginatively exciting. As you say, it captures the time in which it was written, which I think must be a perfect blend of psychadelia and political paranoia.
I could have sworn I’ve never read Dr. Bloodmoney before, but I checked my reading logs and I read it 1/5/88. And I thought I had only read We Can Build You in the serial form, but I listened to it 5/28/13. Going through my reading logs I discovered I’ve reread PKD books for more than I remembered. And my log only goes back to 1983. No telling how many PKD books I read and reread before that. I think I’ve read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? five times now. My log also revealed I listened to the entire Collected Stories Volume 2, which I have no memory of doing. I thought I’d only sampled the stories here and there.
This is scary how bad my memory is becoming. But my log and pre-1983 memory shows I’ve only read about twenty of Dick’s novels, which is less than half the 45 I have listed in my spreadsheet of books/ebooks/audiobook editions of PKD I own (or don’t own). My log says I’ve read Radio Free Albemuth twice and I have no memory of reading it even once.
How many of Dick’s novels have you read Richard?
I thought you would have read it, because with your knowledge about Dick, you would have known that it’s held in high esteem, even though critics such as SF author Brian Aldiss, who was a very strong advocate of Dick’s, largely ignored it. It didn’t seem to have left any impression on you the first time you read it, probably, as I noted, because it wasn’t as weird as the other novels I cited, but you appreciate it differently now after not having read it for such a long time.
I’m surprised that you haven’t read “A Maze of Death”. It was the first one of his I read. At the time, I thought it was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, novels/pieces I’d read. I’ve read all his SF novels except “Dr. Futurity”, and seven of his mainstream novels. I’ve also read “The Dark Haired Girl”, as well as all his short fiction.
I’ve just remembered, you had “A Maze of Death” on a list of the best 1970s novels. Are you sure you haven’t read it?
Oh, there’s a chance I’ve read several PKD novels that I don’t remember before I started keeping a reading log in 1983. In the 1970-1971 period I was reading a paperback a day because I wasn’t watching TV and I was avoiding growing up. This was just after my father died, and I was worried about my draft number.
Regarding those decade lists of SF, I tried very hard not to base them on my personal tastes. I did a lot of research and tried to find out which books were truly being remembered for various reasons.
From our CSF database, you can see how PKD is remembered
What did you think of The Dark Haired Girl? I’m thinking of buying a copy, but it’s expensive. Is it worth $50, which is about the cheapest I’ve seen it go for.
You probably did read it then. I thought you read all those that you listed as the best of each decade, even if you didn’t like them all and based them on popular preferences. I thought “The Dark Haired Girl” was very good on the whole, with I think rather more than just a few excellent pieces. I think you might get nearer to what you would probably call the soul of Dick than reading his fiction, but that’s not necessarily true. I don’t think it’s been published in Britain, and I had to order the American hardcover edition. If you’re really interested in his stuff and the person himself, I think it’s worth buying at the price.
It sounds wonderful. Will add it to my looooonnnngggg WishList & hope I can buy a copy online.