Sci-Fi Friday: ‘The Penultimate Truth’ by Philip K. Dick.

I can’t talk about science fiction for very long without mentioning Philip K. Dick.

If you only know of Philip K. Dick’s work through the various films and TV shows that have been adapted from his stories, you’re missing out. And I’m not just saying that because a lot of those are poor adaptations (and, in many cases, terrible on their own). He has over forty novels and 120 short stories to his credit, most of which haven’t been adapted, and anyway would defy faithful adaptation (though that won’t stop them from trying). No, to get the full PKD experience, you’ve got to read his stories. Ignore the jumped on, watered-down movies and TV shows. Find some of his books. You won’t be disappointed.

It’s easy to say, I think, that PKD’s writing has had a profound influence on science fiction as we know it today. Indeed, an award bearing his name is given out every year at Norwescon. His stories deal with the perception of reality and the paranoia inherent in an existence one can never be too sure about. H-bombs appear frequently, as do drugs and religious themes. His worlds are populated with regular, working-class characters, relatable folks in fantastic situations.

As a person, PKD had his troubles. During his relatively short life, there was rampant drug use and issues with his mental health, and he was physically abusive in one of his marriages. He died of a stroke in 1982, having never really achieved much in the way of fame or wealth, as his work was only really known to fans of science fiction (and was ignored by the literary crowd), and Hollywood was just starting to realize, at the time of his death, the marketability of his stories (he would, in fact, never see Blade Runner in its completed state). In his foreword for What If Our World was Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick, edited by Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter, Tim Powers wrote the following of PKD: “If these interviews are in fact not the record of a madman, though, they are at least the testimony – humorous and whimsical, but nevertheless clear – of an artist who is killing himself for his art.”

I imagine good many of PKD’s work will appear here in my “Sci-Fi Friday” feature, but today I’m taking a look at The Penultimate Truth.


Released in 1964, you can find the seeds of The Penultimate Truth in some of his previous short stories, namely “The Defenders,” “The Mold of Yancy,” and “The Unreconstructed M.” The story of The Penultimate Truth takes place during a world war being fought on the surface by robot armies. The citizens of the world have hid themselves in underground shelters called Ant Tanks, where they build and repair the robots used in the battles. They receive news of the war through television, along with inspirational messages from Talbot Yancy, their President.

Except the war is long over. And Talbot Yancy isn’t real.

In this one, PKD’s characters struggle with their place in the world, their culpability in the lies sold to the people living in the Ant Tanks. He captures the vulnerability and conflict of the few who live like kings on the surface at great cost to the many living below ground. Above all, the book illustrates the paranoia that seems to radiate from all of PKD’s work, the fear of never knowing the truth about reality. Someone’s always lying to you.

And just what is the penultimate truth in The Penultimate Truth?

Go find out. And I’ll see you next time.

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