Dr. Futurity: An underrated Dick outing

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Dr. Futurity by Philip K. DickDr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick SF book reviewsDr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick

As I mentioned in my review of Philip K. Dick’s 1960 novel Vulcan’s Hammer, by 1959, the future Hugo winner was feeling decidedly disenchanted with science fiction in general, despite having had published some 85 short stories and half a dozen novels in that genre. The author, it seems, was still pinning his hopes on becoming a more “respectable,” mainstream writer, and had indeed already completed nine such novels: Return to Lilliput, Pilgrim on the Hill and A Time for George Stavros are considered lost, probably never to see the light of day, whereas Gather Yourselves Together, Voices From the Street, Mary and the Giant, The Broken Bubble, Puttering About in a Small Land and In Milton Lumky Territory were only released years after Dick’s premature death in 1982.

And yet, despite his interest in science fiction being at its lowest point ever in 1959, the author yet managed to work on two such novels, economic pressures being what they were. The two books were both expanded from earlier novellas: Vulcan’s Hammer from a novella in a 1956 issue of Future Science Fiction magazine, and the book in question, the whimsically titled Dr. Futurity, from the novella “Time Pawn,” which initially appeared in the Summer ’54 issue of the 25-cent pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories. Like Vulcan’s Hammer, Dr. Futurity first saw the light of day in 1960, as one-half of one of those cute little 35-cent “Ace doubles” (D-421, for all you collectors out there), backed by John Brunner’s Slaves of Space. I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on this Ace double thanks to NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand, and was happy to discover that, despite its poor reputation, the book is still surprisingly fun and enjoyable, with a complex plot, several nice touches, and wonderful atmosphere. Yes, it’s far from Dick at his best, and is a somewhat atypical outing for this most cultish of authors, but should still manage to please his many fans.

In Dr. Futurity, the reader encounters a 32-year-old doctor named Jim Parsons (hmm, why does that name seem so familiar?), who lives in Northern California with his wife Mary in the futuristic year of, um, 2012. Driving to work one day, Parsons is suddenly dredged up by a time travel device and kerplopped into the year 2405! He learns that in this distant time, all men are forced to become sterilized after reaching puberty, and all human zygotes are stored in a repository called the “Soul Cube.” Dr. Sheldon Cooper — I mean, Jim Parsons — makes the huge mistake of saving the life of a grievously injured female activist (her clique is actively protesting the fact that women in 2405 have been denied the right to vote!), in a society in which death is seen as a precursor to life (i.e., for every human death that occurs, another zygote in the Soul Cube is brought to term). Parsons is deemed a menace and is summarily shipped off to a prison on Mars, but not before the owners of that time machine — the life-worshipping Wolf Tribe, the full-blooded descendants of the Native American Iroquois — rescue him and ask him to resuscitate their 35-year-dead leader, Corith, who is being stored in “cold-pack” stasis after being pierced with an arrow, through the heart, while on a mission in the year 1579! Cooper — I mean, Parsons; geez, gotta stop doing that! — agrees, and before long is immersed in a plot to not only bring Corith back to life, but to assassinate the English explorer Francis Drake and thus alter future history in favor of the Amerindians!

I have said elsewhere that the inherent paradoxes contained in many time travel novels can sometimes induce a borderline migraine in me as I endeavor to unravel them, and Dick surely does deliver some doozies in Dr. Futurity. Indeed, this is one of the most pleasingly mind-warping such tales I’ve ever read; one in which Parsons not only gets to travel to the far past and distant future, but also hops about in time attempting to alter history as well as his own future actions. Somehow, though, far-fetched as the proceedings often get, Dick manages to make it all hang together; he evidently gave a lot of thought to all the many plot intricacies here. Still, the book has been roundly denigrated, not only by Scottish critic David Pringle, in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction (an “exceedingly minor novel by one of sf’s greatest writers,” he calls it), but also by Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin, in his Divine Invasions, as well (“a potboiler that barely bubbles,” he sniffs). Personally, I would agree with Pringle that the book is a minor one for Dick, but feel that Sutin is being a tad too harsh, as Dr. Futurity does have any number of fine qualities to commend itself to the reader.

Besides being complexly plotted, the book is at times marvelously atmospheric, such as when Parsons is marooned by the Wolf Tribe, back in an unknown era, and walks the desolate shore of the Pacific Ocean, wondering how or if he will ever return. Then again, take the scene in which Parsons witnesses the dying Earth of untold millennia hence; a barren wasteland in which he finds nothing but an ancient plaque… with his name on it! Dick fills his book with unusual little grace notes and weird bits of business, such as passenger cars in the year 2012 that are controlled by long-distance beam; that rat brain-controlled prison ship; and the “shupos,” maniacally violent children used by the government in 2405 as enforcers. The book is sexually frank for its time — Parsons has an affair with the Wolf clan’s Mother Superior, Loris, and even fathers some 25th century children with her — and even advocates for a woman’s freedom of choice (in this case, the freedom to either have a baby the old-fashioned way or via the Soul Cube, if she wishes). Most of the author’s later pet concerns are not addressed in this book — those dealing with drugs, divorce, cars, the slippery nature of so-called “reality,” the German language, cigars — although there is a passing reference to Beethoven’s “Archduke Trio;” a reminder of Dick’s passion for opera and classical music.

Dr. Futurity, tightly plotted as it is, is hardly a perfect work, and Dick is guilty of an occasional slip here and there. He tells us that Drake was born in the “early sixteenth century,” whereas the actual date was circa 1540. He describes those time-traveling ships as “pencil-shaped” when we first encounter them, and later as being a “metallic sphere.” A sphere-shaped pencil? And then there is the little matter of Parsons learning the language of four centuries hence in a scant matter of minutes. Plus, that “Plate of Brasse” that Dick tells us was left by Drake on the California coast? Well, that relic was determined to be a fake, a hoax, back in the late 1970s… not that Dick had any way of knowing this in 1959, of course.

As you may have discerned, Dr. Futurity, again like Vulcan’s Hammer, is something of a mixed bag, but yet, a highly readable and — for this reader, anyway — entertaining one. Sutin calls these books “Phil’s two worst-ever SF novels,” which, in a way, just goes to show how great Dick’s later work became. And indeed, Dick did seem to rouse himself that very next year, when he worked on the 1962 Hugo winner The Man In the High Castle; the first of a string of highly imaginative sci-fi classics that Dick compulsively wrote over the course of the following decade. As it turns out, even a “minor” work from a great author can prove to be a rewarding experience…

Published in 1960. In a future where death is embraced, a time-traveling doctor is the only one who can save a wounded resistance leader. When Dr. Jim Parsons wakes up from a car accident, he finds himself in a future populated almost entirely by the young. But to keep the world run by the young, death is fetishized, and those who survive to old age are put down. In such a world, Parsons—with his innate desire to save lives—is a criminal and outcast. But for one revolutionary group, he may be just the savior they need to heal and revive their cryogenically frozen leader. And when he and the group journey to 1500s California, what they find causes them to question what they know about history and the underpinnings of their society. With the jarring immediacy of a car crash, Philip K. Dick throws both the reader and protagonist of Dr. Futurity into a bizarre future where healing is a crime and youth rules.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), 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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8 comments

  1. Sandy, your titles for these Dick reviews are terrible in a funny way.

    • sandy ferber /

      Kat, knowing the way you guys think, I decided to put the kaibosh on my original title for this review: “A Short But Nevertheless Impressive Dick”….

      • I am speechless, Sandy.

        • sandy ferber /

          Kat, it could always be worse. When I reviewed Phil Dick’s “Our Friends From Frolix 8” on Amazon seven years back, a book with a LOT of errors in it, my headline for the review was “Lots Of Dick Boners In An Otherwise Fun Novel.” A perfectly legit title, I thought….

  2. sandy ferber /

    You’ll be happy to hear, Kat, that my next book review will NOT be of a Dick novel. Rather, it will be for a biography of disgraced NY State Congressman Anthony Wiener. The possibilities for review titles are overwhelming me right now…. :)

    • OMG, Sandy! Stop, please, stop! [Laughing.]

      Seriously, though… *seriously,* though, your review was so entertaining that I think I will just read it a few more times instead of tracking down the book (although my local used bookstore might have #D-421…)

      • sandy ferber /

        Thank you, Marion, for getting serious. I wrote what I thought was a perfectly levelheaded review with a perfectly reasonable headline and look at what happens! Makes me wonder how much kidding Phil himself received about his surname, over the course of his life….

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