Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick - Sci-Fi Classic Review
I never feel like I'm properly prepared for Philip K. Dick whenever I read one of his novels. I've read plenty of them over the years, so you'd think I would know what I'm getting into. He's a science-fiction writer by simple definition, but his work is so psychedelic and his universes so bizarre that he could just as easily be classified as a pure fantasy author. Some of his books are difficult to decode from the very first page, and others slowly draw you in to Dick's unique style of tripped-out madness.
This brings me to Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb. It starts out relatively simply, with a slice of life depiction of the near future, after a nuclear test went awry in the atmosphere. You are introduced to a slew of characters, including the TV repairman Stuart McConchie and his new coworker, the phocomelic Hoppy Harrington, the flighty Bonny Keller, and the titular Bruno Bluthgeld along with his new psychiatrist, Dr. Stockstill. There are hints of weirdness just under the surface, especially concerning Hoppy and Bluthgeld, but most of the world-building seems pretty normal for a sci-fi yarn.
Then Dick jumps unannounced even further into the future, after a full-blown nuclear war has all but obliterated life on Earth. He does jump back to show how certain characters survived, but only after thoroughly confusing the reader. After that, things settle down a little, as Dick once again begins world-building, this time showing how the scattered remnants of civilization have managed to pick up the pieces. This is where the book really shines, as a post-apocalyptic novel full of some familiar tropes and some unfamiliar ones. Dick does well demonstrating social reconstruction, how people are set back in a lot of ways and how they pull together nonetheless.
The creepy flying fetus cover
Even more characters are introduced--including the spaceman Walt Dangerfield, doomed to orbit the Earth alone in perpetuity while broadcasting down to the survivors below--but it never quite becomes too burdensome. Granted, the book still has occasional time jumps and does this bizarre thing where characters reveal big events through dialogue that the readers are never actually shown, but for the most part, this is a good ensemble psychodrama that could have been stretched to great length had Dick wanted to. It helps that his writing style is much improved over his earlier Eye in the Sky, and his literate voice becomes hypnotic in its own way.
But then, leading up to the climax, it goes full-on bizarre. Mind you, it's not completely unexpected. Dick gradually introduces some of the strange elements during the course of the book, with readers fully aware of the telekinetic abilities of Hoppy Harrington, the disturbing conjoined twin living inside the abdominal cavity of his seven-year old sister who is able to talk to both her and the dead, the talking mutant dog, and the mental instability of Dr. Bluthgeld (a.k.a. Mr. Tree), convinced that he somehow caused the apocalypse through subconscious mental means. However, when it is revealed that--spoiler alert--Dr. Bluthgeld really does have the power to cause hydrogen explosions with his mind, things very quickly go off the rails.
To be clear, this is not a bad thing. It's part of the fun of Philip K. Dick. His narratives are anything but conventional, and you're never entirely sure where he's going until you find yourself there. He's a writer who has put a tap into his own psychosis, letting it pour all over the page for you to be baffled by. He is incredibly sincere in his weirdness, so the unreality of his stories feels more genuine than most realistic fiction.
The cover that makes it look a bit cyberpunk
But I have to admit, after I finished Dr. Bloodmoney last night, I turned to my wife and said, "Well, that was really [flipping] weird." That's when the book really gets its claws into you, after you've finally put it down. I can't stop thinking about it, and to be sure, there are sequences in the novel that I'm not likely to forget any time soon. Dick isn't trying to get any big themes across or teach you any profound moral lessons, but what he clearly succeeds at is fierce originality. He is science-fiction's answer to Dali, a surrealist who paints with the viscera of his own insanity. It may be really flipping weird, but let no one accuse it of being boring.
Of course, Dr. Bloodmoney, as a novel, still has some problems. The female characters are pretty awful, especially the main one, Bonny, who cheats on her husband with a long list of men and is a terrible mother to her daughter, who naturally was conceived by someone other than Bonny's husband. She is intensely unlikeable, and yet she is treated as something akin to the heart and soul of the story. Her "happy" ending sees her finding true love in one of her many suitors after completely abandoning her loyal husband and her troubled daughter.
Beyond that, my biggest complaint with the book is its needlessly jumbled chronology, which serves no purpose, as far as I can tell, aside from messing with the reader. I also take great issue with Dick's aforementioned penchant for telling events rather than showing them, which is one of the few unforgivable writing sins for which there are no good examples of someone intentionally breaking it to positive effect. But even though I don't forgive these flaws, they aren't big enough to detract from the bigger picture here, which is that Dr. Bloodmoney is one hell of a ride.
-e. magill 11/19/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: