Saturday, February 25, 2012

On "Now Wait for Last Year" by Philip K. Dick ****

At heart, this science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick is a love story. Having read a biography of Dick, I find it hard not to see elements of his own life scattered across the novel--and elements of his own wishes and desires. Eric Sweetscent has a wife who is mentally unstable. Does he stick with her or does he leave her for an easier path? In real life, it was Dick who was the more unstable one (though he did once have a wife committed), and he never did manage to stick it out with one of his women, though at base, that's what he wished for: a stable middle-class American family.

The waiting for last year referred to in the title has to do with time travel, which forges a major portion of the novel. Sweetscent is an organ transplant doctor. Early on in the book, he is drafted by the head of the United Nations as one of the man's personal physicians. The man is not in good shape--he seems to intuit others' sicknesses as his own. And perhaps this too is a kind of wish fulfillment, a death wish, because years before, he brought Earth into a war with another civilization, a long-lost set of aliens whose ancestors are actually the same as humans. They're at war with a buglike race on yet another set of planets. The problem: The Starmen, Earth's allies, are not the good guys humans thought them to be.

Meanwhile, Kathy, Eric's wife, goes to a party where she takes a drug called JJ-180. Created as a weapon of war, the drug is instantly addictive and guaranteed to eventually kill you. It also allows you to temporarily transfer to other times--or other universes. For some people, those times are the present in parallel universes; for some, those times are in the past; and for still others, those times are in the future. (It's this latter possibility that becomes essential to the plot, since it is by going into the future that an antidote is found and brought back to the past--a nice loop, no?)

Kathy hates her husband, and Eric hates his wife, and yet neither of them seem able to ultimately break away from each other. Duty calls. So too does duty call for Molinari, the head of the UN. The will to live outpowers the will to die, just as the will to do one's duty outpowers the desire to do as one pleases. Marriage is a war, Dick seems to be saying. You're comrades to the end. Or so it is in this particular universe that Eric inhabits, even if not Dick's own.

The novel is full of surprises; I haven't given away the whole of them here. And it's that which made for it such interesting reading. As for the characterizations, some of the characters do things that seem, at times, utterly nonsensical--except that such actions are needed for the plot. Let's just say women don't come off looking too well in this book.

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