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.]