This will be a brief review of Philip K Dick’s The Zap Gun, and for three consise reasons. The first is that I’m requesting you read the most uncanny scene—by my account—in the book. The second is that I’ve now read two PDK novels (The Zap Gun and Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep?) and liked neither of them. I know there are some serious PDK zealots out there who may disabuse me for such blasphemous talk, so I offer you an alternative: three, recommend a PDK novel you can guarantee I will like.
But back to reason number one. Read the excerpt below and (despite my lukewarm feelings toward Dick’s works so far) I dare you to tell me that science fiction has not, in fact, informed science. The scene, as you will see, is the absolute and unadulterated harbinger of Siri and Alexa.
Reason two: Others have said, and I have also argued, that all science fiction is political. That’s fine. It should be. However—and this is a big however—I do not believe that a political statement should be paramount to the narrative. It should not be the point. Which is also to say that in my admittedly very small sample of PDK’s work, I feel like that’s all he’s doing: “I want to make a politically charged proclamation and I will do so by thinly veiling it in a novel.” Also, the gross adverbs (stickily, draggingly, hyponizedly) about made me scream.
Disagree? Well read The Zap Gun excerpt, enjoy it, and then comment here or on Facebook with your further reading suggestions.
(I’ve cut out some text as noted by ellipses in order to highlight PDK’s prescience).
…Then he happened onto a device resting on a low imitation tarslewood table. It was vaguely familiar and he picked it up, handled it with curiosity. Familiar and yet utterly strange.
The bedroom door was partly open. “What’s this?” he called…”This thing that looks like a human head with no features. The size of a baseball…What’s it do?” he asked, finding no switches.
…”Say something to it.”…”Ask,” Maren said, “the Orville a question. Ol’ Orville is the rage. People cloister themselves for days with it, doing nothing but asking and getting answers. It replaces religion.”
“There is no religion,” he said, feeling serious. His experiences with the hyper-dimensional realm had disabused him of any dogmatic or devotional faith. If anyone living was qualified to claim knowledge of the “next world” it was he, and as yet he had discovered no transcendent aspect to it.
Maren said, “Then tell it a joke.”
…Here it was, Ol’ Orville, a novelty to fill the vacant time and brains of men and women whose jobs had degenerated into repetitious psychomotor activity on a level that a trained pigeon could better perform. God! His worst expectations were fulfilled!…”What am I?” he asked Ol’ Orville. “Forget my previous queries; just answer that! What have I become?” He squeezed the sphere angrily.
…Ol’ Orville stirred and spoke.
It was uncanny; he blinked as its…verbal response croaked at him, its answer to a question he had already forgotten asking. “Mr. Lars.”
“Yes,” he said, hypnotized.
Ol’ Orville creakily unwound its long-labored-for results. Toy though it was, Ol’ Orville was not facile. Too many components had gone into its make-up for it to be merely glib. “Mr. Lars, you have posed an ontological query. The Indo-European linguistic structure involved defeats a fair analysis; would you rephrase your question?”
After a moment of thought he said, “No, I wouldn’t.”
Ol’ Orville was silent and then it responded, “Mr. Lars, you are a forked radish.”
For the life of him he did not know whether to laugh. “Shakespeare,” he said, speaking to Maren who, now reasonably fully dressed, had joined him, was listening, too. “It’s quoting.”
“Of course. It relies on its enormous data-bank. What did you expect, a brand-new sonnet? It can only retail what it’s been fed. It can only select, not invent.” Genuinely puzzled, Maren said, “I honestly think, Lars, that all kidding aside, you really do not have a technical mind and really do not have any intellectual—”
“Be quiet,” he said. Ol’ Orville had more to offer.
Ol’ Orville whined draggingly, like a slowed-down disc, “You also asked, ‘What have I become?’ You have become an outcast. A wanderer. Homeless. To paraphrase Wagner—”
“Richard Wagner?” Lars asked. “The composer?”
“And dramatist and poet,” Ol’ Orville reminded him.
Maren said practically, nodding. “I paid sixty poscreds for you. Go ahead and blab.”
Ol’ Orville was chewing over a decision—as if it could decide, rather than, as Maren pointed out, merely select from the data installed in its file-banks. Finally it said, “I know what you want. You face a dilemma. You are in a dilemma, now. But you have never articulated it to yourself, never faced it.”
“What in hell is it?” he demanded, baffled.
Ol’ Orville said, “Mr. Lars, you have a terrible fear that one day you will enter your New York office, lie down and enter your trance-state, and revive with no sketches to show. In other words, lose your talent.” Except for Maren’s faintly asthmatic breathing as she smoked her Garcia y Vega cigarillo, the room was silent.
“Gee,” Lars said, mollified. He felt like a small, small boy, as if all the years of adulthood had been ripped away. It was an eerie experience….”Enough,” Lars said, looking at the object.
Ol’ Orville shut up.