Deus Irae: A way-out scenario from Dick and Zelazny

Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsDeus Irae by Philip K. Dick

Of the 36 science fiction novels, nine mainstream novels, one children’s book and over 120 short stories that cult author Philip K. Dick produced before his premature death at age 53, in 1982, only two creations were done in collaboration with another author. The first was 1966’s The Ganymede Takeover, which Dick co-wrote with budding writer Ray Nelson. An alien invasion novel that deals with the snakelike telepathic inhabitants of the Jovian moon as well as the Terran rebels who resist them, the novel was marginally successful and remains one of the oddballs of Dick’s oeuvre.

In 1976, following Dick’s Campbell Award-winning Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and the release of his mainstream novel Confessions of a Crap Artist, Deus Irae finally saw the light of day. This was a stalled novel of Phil’s that had been started a good nine years before and finished with the assistance of acclaimed SFF author Roger Zelazny. It is a more serious effort than Dick’s first collaboration, less “pulpy” but just as psychedelic, and raises some interesting subject matter for the reader’s theological bull sessions. And as in The Ganymede Takeover, part of the fun in reading the novel is trying to discern where Dick’s input leaves off and his co-writer’s begins!

Deus Irae takes place in yet another of Dick’s post-apocalyptic wastelands. Here, following a world war in 1982 that had left all but a few million folks dead, the remainder of humanity scratches out a subsistence living. Mutations (or “evolutionary entelechies,” as they are called somewhere in the book) are widespread, and a new religion has arisen that rivals Christianity for dominance. The new religion worships the Deus Irae, the God of Wrath, as well as his Earth-walking incarnation Carleton Lufteufel (that’s German for “air devil”), the Christ-like personage who created the bombs that destroyed mankind. Tibor McMasters — a “phocomelus” with no arms or legs, but who is a master painter, nonetheless, by dint of his mechanical limbs, and who gets around via a cow-powered cart — is tasked by the SOWs (Servants of Wrath) to go on a Pilg (pilgrimage), locate the deity Lufteufel, wherever he may be, and snap his picture, so that Tibor might then create a “murch” (church mural) of the living divinity. And so, off goes Tibor into the mutant-inhabited wilderness, closely followed by Pete Sands, a devout Christian who is seeking to find God through drug experimentation, and who has decided to somehow sabotage Tibor’s mission….

As you can tell, this is a pretty way-out scenario, and Dick and Zelazny throw all sorts of crazy mishegas into their novel to keep things decidedly strange. Besides the loquacious mutant lizards and bugs that Tibor encounters, the authors give us a giant talking worm, a talking bluejay, the humanoid, ambulatory extension of a dying computer, AND a semicomical, rundown autofac (a wisecracking, underground factory). Adding to the strangeness quotient: TWO characters named Earl (one a mutant lizard, the other a mutated kangaroolike creature) and the fact that Tibor walks around 30 miles from his hometown in Utah to get to… Oregon! The book also features much in the way of humor, and is never funnier than when Tibor encounters some mutant insects rolling a large brown mass down a dusty lane, and one of the insects says, “What do you expect to find a dung beetle pushing along the road — sour lemon balls?” Potential readers of Deus Irae might be well advised to brush up on their Christian lore before venturing in, or at least to have their Interwebs handy; they might need it to fully understand the Mani, Albigensian Heresy and Catharists references, in addition to many others! It was Zelazny, supposedly, who supplied the novel with all these intriguing theological/historical tidbits. As to the rest of the puzzle game of who wrote what, I suspect that it is safe to say that the basic story line is Dick’s, as well as the hallucinogenic drug references (Pete has a drug experience in which he sees a semidivine talking ceramic pot; ceramics had also figured prominently in earlier Dick novels such as Galactic Pot-Healer and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said), the fixation on German expressions and literary references (Dick had studied German at UC Berkeley in 1949), and all the humorous lines. But sentences such as “Into the world, the day: spilling: here: the queries of birds, tentative, then self-assured: here: dew like breath on glass, retreating, gone: here: bands of color that flee the east…” are all Zelazny. Dick might have written some way-out novels with mind-zapping plot twists and stunning abnegations of reality, but his sentence structure was usually straightforward and lucid.

As for the take-away messages that Deus Irae offers, one must read in between the lines a bit. Adherents of a literal interpretation of the Bible (such as a Seventh Day Adventist buddy of mine) might come away a bit miffed, but others shouldn’t be too offended by the novel’s thoughts on God and modern-day religion. If I am reading the authors correctly, they are implying that the God of the Bible does indeed exist, as well as His representative here on Earth, but that our own images of God and his offspring have been garbled, telephonewise, over the centuries. God, it seems, might not even want His actual form to be known! Reincarnation and miracles can indeed happen, although drugs are an unreliable means, at best, toward attaining spiritual enlightenment. And as for the sanctification of historical individuals… well, it seems that many of them have been made saints for no good reason, despite their good intentions.

These questions regarding God and religion, especially following his so-called “pink light” incident of February ’74, were to plague Dick for the rest of his life, getting an especial workover in his later VALIS trilogy, but Deus Irae provides the reader with some valuable insight into the author’s thoughts at this time. The book is extremely readable, the writing styles meshing comfortably together, the characters are interesting and unique, the plot twists are surprising and the resolution is a fascinating one. Thus, I can heartily recommend the book to all fans of either of these great writing talents, both of whom are sorely missed…


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SANDY FERBER is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. This sounds awesome! I love Dick and Zelazny!
    Thanks, Sandy!

  2. sandy ferber /

    It really IS quite a mash-up of talents. Hope you enjoy it, Kat!

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