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The Penultimate Truth
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62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2003
Format: Paperback
I am frankly surprised that this book is so little understood. I will grant at the outset that the writing itself is not very distinguished for sophisticated literary palettes--but its greatness lies in the ideas that it casts into the tireless tropes of speculative fiction.
To begin with, he spins a cognitive framework of a world in perpetual war, waged by robots above the surface of the earth which has become too ravaged by radioactivity to support human life. Humans are reduced to living underground in "tanks", subterranean factories whose economy depends upon the constant repair of damaged robot warriors from the surface. The only source of information about this grim cognitive framework pipes in through the Television tube, where a Dear Great Leader sits behind the imposing desk of authority, surrounded by the symbols of state. He prattles about the sacrificies made by the millions surviving in the tanks, he talks about the struggles to build a free society on the surface, the despicable nature of the enemy, the threat to liberty, and so on and so forth. You get the picture. You have heard it yourself on the nightly news for years and years.
So the crisis comes when the chief mechanic for the tank grows desperately ill. Death is certain unless they can obtain an artificial organ transplant. How can they do that? They have no power, no initiatives available in this regard. If he dies, they will fall behind in their quota, their food rations will be cut, the lives of the entire tank are at stake. So in a desperate state they decide to send one of their own to the surface on a quest for an artificial organ. When he makes his way to the surface, he fears instant incineration from the death dealing warrior robots--instead, imagine his surprise as he discovers that the entire planet is a beautiful sunlit garden, inhabited not by fierce warrior robots and smoking ruins, but instead a privileged leisure class served by the robots in luxury, devoting their time to spinning little fearful fictions for the slaves laboring down below...
Recognise this world? You're living in it. For you are either a Yance man--one who writes speeches for the Dear Great Leader--that is to say a wise guy--an Illuminatus--or you are a subterranean slave--a know nothing. Which one are you?
Actually, Dick shows a third way in the form of a mysterious native American, a member of the new Aristocracy, who plays the role of Scarlet Pimpernel with a time machine, systematically and methodically working against the Status Quo--and working for the liberation of the armies of slaves living and working in the underground. For, after all, none of us are supposed to awake, but then again, sometimes some of us do. And What Then? Do we join these forces of authority, intent on the domination of the great unwashed masses--Or ,do we work for the improvement of their lot, freeing them with useful knowledge and the simple facts of existence? How do you successfully inform someone that they are living in chains if they have never had them off? How do you force someone to actually realize that yes, everything IS connected to everything--and no, there really IS no such thing as a free lunch?

Dick's story takes Plato's parable of the Cave and cloaks it in a futuristic scenario. He brings the mystical ideas of the neo-platonists to life. He creates a metaphor for the secret teachings of the Gnostic Christians. He hints that the great liberating figures of the story, the time traveller, may be the second coming of Christ, and implys that Christ may have been a time traveller himself.
These are the grandest notions of bondage by ignorance vs liberation through knowledge, the salvation and healing available through simple practical truths. The story demonstrates clearly the workings of the "Authoritarian Mind", using fear, mystification, mythification,and reification to control the common man in his inherent ignorance-- and contrasts them with historical figures of liberation, who combated ignorance with knowledge and enlightenment. The title, and the story, begs the question, never answered...since it purports to reveal the Penultimate Truth, what is the revelation of the Ultimate Truth?
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
This is a world were the majority of people spend their time unknowingly serving the rich who lead lives of affluent decadence. The commoners leader is a vision that doesn't actually exist and represents a minority that cares nothing for them.

This is our world right now, and I must give P K Dick the credit he deserves for predicting this future. I love PK Dick and this is one of his most relevant works for today's society.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2011
Format: Paperback
Philip K. Dick's 11th sci-fi novel, "The Penultimate Truth," was originally released in 1964 as a Belmont paperback (no. 92-603, for all you collectors out there) with a staggering cover price of...50 cents. Written during one of Dick's most furiously prolific periods, it was the first of four novels that he saw published that year alone! One of his more cynical depictions of a duplicitous U.S. government, the story involves yet another one of the author's post-atomic holocaust futures. Here, it is the year 2025, and the bulk of mankind lives underground in protective "cubbies," while a pitched atomic war is fought on the surface by the "leadies" (robots) of the opposing sides. What is actually happening, however (and this is not a spoiler; it is revealed in the novel's opening chapters), is that the war has been over for a full 13 years, and the government in charge--via Agency-written and -produced fake news bulletins and televised talks from a programmed "president"--is doing its darnedest to keep the populace underground and literally in the dark; a captive labor force for its own devices! Against this backdrop, Dick introduces us to a large cast of underground "tankers" and Agency men (the book features 47 named characters, as well as several unnamed), and concentrates on two converging story lines. In one, Nicholas St. James (president of the Tom Mix "ant tank," one of 160,000 such underground dwellings, each containing 1,500 living souls) tunnels to the surface for the first time in 15 years, to procure an artificial pancreas (an "artiforg") for his dying head mechanic. In the other, Joseph Adams, a writer for the Agency, becomes involved in a complicated scheme hatched by the 82-year-old world despot, Stanton Brose, to ruin a Donald Trump-like housing developer. This scheme becomes even more complex when its principals start getting killed off, leading to a mind-boggling melange of time travel, superweapons, satellite spying and double crosses. Thank goodness that Webster Foote and his independent intelligence corporation are on the case to make sense of things!

As you may have discerned, this is a fairly complex tale from Philip K. Dick, its primary theme of a conniving U.S. government similar to the one in his novel "The Simulacra" (also from 1964). Both Nicholas' journey of discovery and the Agency scheme are fascinating in their own way, and Dick, as usual, exhibits a good deal of empathy for his characters. Despite British critic David Pringle's assertion in his "Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction" that the book is "let down by a hasty prose style," and Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin saying, in "Divine Invasions," that the book is "blunted by its clunking style," I found the novel to be very well written, with some almost poetic passages and clever dialogue (although it is true that some of Dick's more complex sentences, filled with multiple semicolons and M dashes, might have been rendered more readable by a good copy editor). The book is endlessly imaginative and, if not as "trippy" as some of his other outings, still fairly mind-blowing. It is filled with all kinds of interesting touches (such as that German-made Gestalt-macher assassination device) and some amusing bits of humor (Foote's employees are naturally called Footemen); in all, another well-crafted winner from this important author.

That said, I must also add that "The Penultimate Truth" is not a perfect book. For the life of me, I still cannot quite figure out the full background story of Agency man David Lantano; very confusing! Dick is also guilty of a few errors in his writing, such as when he says "he dabbled at his mouth" with a handkerchief (instead of "dabbed"), and when Nicholas is given a sum of 40 "Wes-Dem fifty notes," for a total of 20,000 dollars (shouldn't that be 2,000 dollars?). The author also makes up his own words here and there, such as "vulturely"; not--as Seinfeld would say--that there's anything wrong with that! Still, these are quibbles. "The Penultimate Truth" is a fun and mordant vision of the future that should hugely entertain all readers. As for that unusual title, it only begins to make sense in the book's last couple of pages, and is most certainly worth the wait....
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2005
Format: Paperback
When I decide to visit Planet Phil, I read several of PKD novels in succession. At first, it just happened that way. Now I do it on purpose. I am not so anal retentive to read them in chronological order. This may have something to do with the fact that I tend to like his later works more. That said I have a sneaking suspcion I will eventually read them all.

The years, not to mention a majority of his fans, have not been kind to this book. The Penultimate Truth, though written during Dick's most prolific period, in comparison to his other early sixties novels(Palmer Eldritch or Now Wait For Last Year)just doesn't compare.The writing is blocky and slightly inelegant.The characters are a tad weak. And you can definitely tell that it was serialized somewhere.Hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement, right? Well, I am glad I read it

Despite its failings The Penultimate Truth is evocative and provocative. The story morphs through a variety of scenarios which touch on numerous SF tropes and does so almost seamlessly. From the post-apocalyptic "Ant Tanks" to the Orwellian "Yancemen", you can see Phil the world builder at work. The novel even incorprates a time travel conspiracy and a stab at futuristic mystery. While reading it I could almost imagine a version of this as a movie ala Terry Gilliam's " Brazil". These elements really helped me through the rough spots

It is obvious that the drive of the novel is thematic. The enjoyment of the novel comes more from weighing the implications of actions than from understanding why they are taken. As I stated earlier, the characters are abit weak since they are clearly in service of the story and not the other way around. With a cast this large in a book this small, it seems inevitable. Still the characters of Nick St. James and Joseph Adams are sharply drawn in a concise manner.

The truth is read this book to have your mind melted and not to have your senses stirred.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2004
Format: Paperback
This mid-1960s novel focuses on the theme of fakery and its uses in structuring political realities. Dick delights in devising paradoxes to illustrate the idea that getting to the ultimate truth is impossible: there is always another layer to be penetrated. A major hoax is perpetrated against most of Earth's population, which retreats underground in huge "ant tanks" to avoid being killed in a nuclear war. The war ends, but the leaders choose not to tell these "tankers," who are kept busy manufacturing robots called "leadies" while being fed television images of the war that is supposedly raging above, fought by the leadies. Needless to say, to see war as turning into a media event was prophetic. The plot of the novel was cobbled together from several of Dick's short stories. Still, in its somewhat ill-structured way, The Penultimate Truth, with all its improbabilities and looseness, is honest in its headlong plunge through its willful convolutions of plot. Since it is not offering any ultimate truth, after all, it hardly need disguise itself in perfect form.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
With The Penultimate Truth (1964), Phillip K. Dick constructs a novel that, unlike many of his efforts of this period (The Man in the High Castle, The Game Players of Titan, Martian Time-Slip) hangs together from end to end as a cohesive narrative, and that's despite the fact that elements of the story are cribbed from previously published works ("The Defenders," "The Mold of Yancy").

Briefly, Penultimate Truth is about a future world (2025, which was of course a lot further in the future for Dick when he wrote it than it is now from me reviewing it) that had suffered a nuclear/biological/chemical war between East and West. However, unknown to most of the population on both sides, the war ended fairly quickly, but not until after almost everyone who survived had been shunted into huge underground communities where each now has a quota to fill of manufacturing robots ("leadies") that supposedly continue fight the war on Earth's poisonously radioactive surface.

The underground dwellers ("tank men") are warned not to go to the supposedly deadly surface and are motivated to keep up their production and morale by frequent pep talks from a Big Brother style "Protector" (one each in the East and West). The underground communities, called "ant tanks" (Dick was hardly subtle), sound like your basic Soviet commune, with the denizens all subservient to the state and collectively responsible for meeting their production quotas while living a subsistence level life in cramped surroundings with rationed food (which can be cut as punishment for quota shortfalls) and shared facilities like bathrooms.

Meanwhile, there's a elite ("Yance Men") who live in relative luxury on vast estates ("demesnes") while being served by the leadies manufactured by the tank men. It's a nice life except when one gets caught up in intrigues and power struggles, as happens in this book and which forms the main plot thread. There is also one tank man who goes up to the surface on what he at first thinks is a suicide mission, before the truth starts dawning on him.

There's a lot to like in The Penultimate Truth. The society is fascinating, the drama considerable and tightly plotted, and the characters somewhat interesting. The idea of a society being manipulated by an artificial crisis while an in-the-know elite prospers is hardly unique, but Dick does have a fairly innovative spin on it.

Nuclear war was apparently much on people's minds in 1964. This was also the year of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe as well as Robert Heinlein's survivalist epic Farnham's Freehold and the Johnson campaign's "daisy" ad against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. Ironically, though, 1964 was probably also the turning point away from the balance of terror ethos that had built up in the 1950s following the Soviet Union's development of the H-bomb and ICBMs and culminated in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1964 the West was turning inward to the domestic cultural and political issues that would come to dominate "the Sixties." This was the year of the original British Invasion, of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the first major student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union arguably took its first step into senescence when Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in favor of Leonid Brezhnev late in the year.

The year 1964 was also a very prolific one for Dick personally as it would see the publication of four of his books (as well as a number of his stories). I've three of them (Martian Time-Slip and The Simulacra are the other two) and Penultimate Truth, though not a masterpiece, is by far the best so far. Next up is Clans of the Alphane Moon. Hopefully, it continues the hot streak.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2008
Format: Paperback
First of all, in case it isn't clear, "the penultimate truth" literally means "the next-to-last truth". Whatever that means.

Philip K. Dick rarely chose his own titles, but in most cases whoever chose them did a pretty good job - "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" and "Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep?" come to mind.

Not this time. One of the characters here makes a passing reference to the "ultimate truth," which has something to do with the use of assassination as the tactic of last resort, but no one ever specifies what the "penultimate truth" might be. Don't worry, though - lousy title notwithstanding, this is a good example of PKD at the top of his middle game.

Like a lot of his contemporaries, PKD considered the possibility of nuclear annihilation on a fairly regular basis. It was 1963, after all, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in everyone's mind. So, in the mold of H.G. Wells in "The Time Machine," he gives us with this book a world split in two, this time by nuclear war. A privileged few live above ground in luxury, with robots (or "leadies", here) catering to their every whim. The mass of deprived workers lives in underground "tanks" laboring, as they think, to support the war effort raging above them.

Actually, of course, they're laboring to ensure a comfortable lifestyle for the surface dwellers. The difference is that in this setup, the surface dwellers actively strive to keep the buried workers in ignorance as to the true nature of reality. The war has been over practically since it began, but the surface dwellers send broadcasts to the tankers about the allegedly ongoing devastation. They concoct elaborate special effects to show how awful things are, and program a lifelike android to deliver hopeful speeches under the name of President Talbot Yancy.

PKD's treatment of this material is pretty standard stuff. Yes, someone escapes from the tanks and emerges into the light - his name is Nicholas St. James and he's desperate enough to climb up to what he thinks is a hopelessly poisoned world because his tank faces certain doom if he doesn't. Very heroic. By contrast, the surface-dweller Joseph Adams makes his living as one of the speechwriters for the Yancy android. He lives on hundreds of acres, like all of his colleagues, but his luxurious surroundings do him no good at all. In effect, he's an advertising copywriter, subject to the whims of office politics and an unusually grotesque totalitarian dictator. He will never be a hero. So the question is, with whom do PKD's sympathies lie, and with whom should ours lie?

The answer is, with both - things are never that simple in Philip K. Dick's novels. For a man with the wildest imagination in SF, he was in many ways a realist. So St. James crawls to the surface, not because he's a real hero and ready to cast aside his personal safety in the interests of his people, but because his people threaten to execute him and his entire family if he doesn't. In the same way, Adams goes up against the aforementioned psycho dictator, not to increase his personal power, but because the dictator is about to do something unjust and Adams has had enough. This is a paranoid post-apocalyptic Earth, but as in the world we know, the people act out of a mixed bag of motives. The story is all the more powerful for that.

What keeps "The Penultimate Truth" from the top rank of PKD's fiction is, as usual with this author, a result of his faster-than-light production technique. The novel isn't exactly sloppy, but it is a trifle misshapen. Some details don't quite mesh, such as a time machine that works only backwards in early chapters, and seems to work forwards in later chapters. The author sometimes drags things onstage for no discernable reason, and leaves other things offstage that we really want to see. And it's a little disappointing to start the book with some genuinely fascinating political allegory, and see it turn about halfway through into what amounts to an old-fashioned action-adventure chase. I mean, what is this, a Hollywood movie?

Only to be expected, really. In his afterword to the Blue Jay edition of "The Penultimate Truth," the late Thomas Disch described PKD's work habits as "downhill racing". Not a bad description - he wrote as though he had to reach the finish line immediately, and left himself no time for cleaning up the loose ends. If we make allowances for that, "The Penultimate Truth" provides at least two things to be thankful for.

First, there's a character here with apparently Godlike powers, but unlike too much SF (including some of PKD's), that character doesn't pop up and save everything at the end. He tries to, but events and other characters conspire to limit his power grab. Good thing, too -who needs to just exchange one dictator for another, however benign?

Second, even with all these world-shattering events whirling around overhead, PKD concentrates on how people might actually respond to them, rather than adopting the bird's-eye view of regular action-adventure stories. Joseph Adams, for instance, begins "The Penultimate Truth" looking out the window of his enormous estate as the fog rolls in over the Pacific Ocean, and he grieves because he's feeling lonely. Now, I ask you: How many other SF writers would have stopped to consider that one of the world's kings might be lonely? Let alone in a post-apocalyptic thriller? That, if you please, is worth a few inconsistencies.

At its best, SF is about the interaction of enormous future worlds and the people who live there. When it comes to that theme, PKD was little short of national treasure, as "The Penultimate Truth" proved once again.

Benshlomo says, The future won't save you, thank God.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
A story that is based on a lie which is intended to control the worlds population. No this is not 1984, however it does try to cover the same topic. Some of the characters have jobs that would easly reconized in todays society, specifically that of the Yance-man, who's sole job is to continue the lie. These lies are transmitted to the millions of people who have been living underground thirteen years after the war ended. Though the story is good it suffers from a weak antagonist and some confusion with the appearence and existance of another character. Yet even these flaws can not hide the fact that this book is as relevent today as it was during the hight of the cold war.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
First star: While reading this, I couldn't help but wonder if this is where James Cameron got the idea for the Terminator movies. Notice how the robot assassins can change shape when you read this. Second star: A pretty interesting storyline, enough to make you pick it up and start reading it. Third star: The afterward was pretty good.
In the afterward you learn that PKD has an inconsistency in this book, which is why it is confusing at times. First he's trying to say one thing, then a hundred pages later he changes his mind and is trying to say something else. This book is not really a page turner, and only hardcore PKD fans should read it.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2003
Format: Paperback
I do not understand why this novel fell from grace. In the body of Dick's novels it is more intense and varied than most. I remember immediately liking it when I first read it in the 1970s - in fact it probably went a long way to starting my life-long love of PKD's works. The idea of someone burying artefacts to make it look like Earth once had alien invaders - well, visitors anyway - is so intriguing. And with PKD's novels you never quite know if there won't actually be a twist in which alien invaders - visitors, I mean - turn up. But PKD has a different surprising twist in store for us! Perhsps this is what disappointed some reviewers - they felt a bit let down by there not actually being any invaders. But for me it is the levels of reality that are of interest - the reality of life in the tanks, the reality of life above - and how these realities are perceived by both populations. Joseph Adams is the archetypal PKD underman, but there is more variety in the other characters than often appears in PKD novels - especially David Lantano, but also Verne Lindblom.
For this novel I recommend ignoring the critics and their nitpicking about grammar which never offended me in the slightest. Go ahead and read - I think you will enjoy it.
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