Thursday, May 7, 2020

Review of "Covid-19" - the New Science Fiction Novel by Philip K. Dick

Philip K Dick, author of Covid-19
"Flatten the curve, citizens!"

Covid-19 by Philip K. Dick.
New York: Ace Books, 1960. Fifty cents.

In his latest novel Covid-19, the prolific Philip K. Dick describes a bizarre and psychedelic dystopian future, recalling but surpassing earlier efforts such as The Minority Report and The World Jones Made.

The story is set on earth, sixty years in the future. Men landed on the moon (in 1969!) but then ended active space exploration in favor of making endless trips to the "International Space Station" - a growing modular maze in low Earth orbit whose purpose is obscure.

In a weird touch, the narrator claims that technological innovation is now largely limited to "making computers smaller and smaller."

Most nations on Earth are nominally democratic (communism seems to have been earlier abolished in a set of revolutions named after the colors of the rainbow) but in truth, the planet's population is largely under the control of a few giant corporations and mass-media enterprises including the sinisterly named "Facebook."

Books exist but no one reads them. A few years before, scientists had invented a means for most people to instantaneously communicate with anyone else on Earth. Many people, including virtually all intellectuals, are obsessed by this activity and spend most of their waking hours in what is likened to making bird calls or "tweeting".

The populace is kept under control by legal Marijuana dispensaries, door to door liquor deliveries and watching "streaming content" on giant color television sets (manufactured by slaves in an unnamed Asian tyranny). These "smart TV's" are actually semi-intelligent and write little personalized messages to viewers on their screens such as "If you liked the Honeymooners, you'll also like I Love Lucy."

The telephones, too, are "smart" and can be carried around in one's pocket, doubling as miniature televisions and enabling users to make their bird calls and access "the cloud" - a kind of memory bank housing an encyclopedia's worth of information - vetted and curated by the mega-corporations. The little telephones (each equipped with a homing device monitored by the corporations and the state) are also used to track people's movements.

Covid-19 is a plague-like virus - or so it is claimed by the media corporations - and the novel opens with the government of the United States imposing a "lockdown" on its population, allegedly to protect them and save millions of lives. It's a sort of loose but mandatory quarantine. People may buy food and visit the Marijuana dispensaries but only if they wear surgical masks. The giant televisions may be ordered using the "cloud" and are delivered by post.

"Flatten the curve, citizens!" is the government's slogan, referring to the statistical graph of how the disease allegedly spreads among the populace.

Underneath its quasi-benign surface this "bread and circuses" future can also be brutal. Political demonstrations and protests are banned (in the interest of public health) and gatherings of more than a few people on street corners are sometimes violently broken up by police. When they're not bashing people with their fists or billy clubs, Dick has the policemen of 2020 using "tasers" - a sort of miniature harpoon that shoots out an electrified wire. The police also employ "drones" - small unmanned flying-saucer-like devices that fly around watching people and barking out orders - "by order of the California Health Department, move along now!" 

Is Covid-19 real? Or is it just a means for the corporations to consolidate power?

The novel's heroine - a rare investigative reporter in the old style; in Dick's 2020, journalism as all but ceased to exist - is determined to find out. She discovers that many of the "fatalities" - the number of alleged Covid-19 deaths are morbidly updated on a sort of stock ticker message on the televisions - are fake. But there IS something real going on. Among other things, she discovers that the elderly in nursing homes are dying in droves. Is it the virus? Or are they being murdered? For what purpose?

Dick has never seemed to be particularly friendly to organized religion. But in Covid-19, he poignantly describes believers, banned from attending church, watching "virtual" services on their telephones and televisions. Indeed, in his typical offbeat form Dick has religious fundamentalists team up with beatniks to resist the Covid-19 propaganda efforts.

The novel ends on a semi-hopeful note. People start taking off their surgical masks. The air is clean and breathable. No one dies - despite the stock-ticker numbers. Some kind of revolution appears to be brewing, although the bad-guys may have further tricks up their sleeve: One of their leaders - a child-man named "Gates" who carries around a slide-rule everywhere - can be heard mumbling something about "vaccinations" on the final page.

Covid-19 is another brilliant effort by Dick, who this reviewer believes will go down as one of the century's most influential science-fiction authors.

Is it a realistic depiction of a possible future? Of course not. Dick mixes hard scientific speculation - miniature televisions - with psychedelic fantasy - "tweeting". His visions are arguably prophetic but also twisted and verging on the comedic.

The Covid-19 future is rule by a sort of military-industrial complex as it might be portrayed in an Ernie Kovacs skit. If you want realism, read Isaac Asimov.

Chicago, 7 May, 1960