Philip K. Dick’s 24th published science fiction novel, the whimsically titled Galactic Pot-Healer, first saw the light of day as a Berkley Medallion paperback in June 1969, with a cover price of 60 cents. It both followed up and preceded two of its author’s finest and most beloved works, 1968’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and 1969’s Ubik, and if not in the same rarefied league as those two, remains a fine yet mystifying addition to the Dickian canon nevertheless.
In Galactic Pot-Healer, in the dystopian Cleveland of 2046, we meet a depressed individual named Joe Fernwright. A ceramics repairman in a world now largely gone plastic, Joe spends his useless days sitting in a cubicle, waiting for work that never comes and playing retranslated word games via computer with “friends” around the globe (a la the Internet games of today!). Joe’s lot is rapidly changed when a message in a bottle (found in his toilet tank, of all places) informs him that the semidivine being Glimmung wishes him to travel to Sirius 5 (aka Plowman’s Planet) and assist an interstellar team in raising the cathedral Heldscalla from the oceanic depths of that world’s Mare Nostrum. Joe’s adventures of Sirius 5, and his budding relationship with the gray-skinned sweetie from Proxima, Mali Yojez, make up the bulk of this somewhat atypical novel from P.K. Dick.
In truth, I’m having a bit of trouble writing about this novel, even more so than I had with Dick’s largely unfathomable Lies, Inc. While Galactic Pot-Healer is simply written and tells a simple story, it is difficult to tell whether its author is trying to make subtle statements or if everything is on the surface. Do the Glimmung and its dark doppelganger represent some sort of Zoroastrian-like cosmology or are they merely cool action elements in Dick’s story? Sirius 5’s Book of the Kalends, which predicts the futility of the Heldscalla endeavor: Is this just another fun story element, or is Dick making some kind of veiled pronouncement regarding free will vs. determinism? Joe’s decision to go off on his own, at the novel’s end: merely a nifty wrap-up or Dick saying how individual creativity is more important than love, companionship and teamwork? It is hard to know for sure, as none of these disparate story elements is explored with any great persistence.
As usual, some of the author’s pet themes and obsessions are touched on, including religion, suicide, divorce, classical music and operettas; the punlike “Thingisms” are trotted out again (they had been featured also in Lies, Inc.); and the early 1930s vibe of Plowman’s Planet is very similar to the devolved U.S. found in Ubik. The book reads like a fantasy novel in parts, and is filled with any number of surreal, dreamlike touches. In one section, one of the mysterious Kalends appears in Joe’s apartment and just kind of peters away as the author seemingly forgets its presence; in another baffling scene, Joe encounters his own decomposed yet still talkative corpse while exploring the planet’s undersea realm! This is hardly a Hal Clement-like “hard” science fiction novel! The book also contains numerous imaginative touches, such as the SSA machine that can determine a couple’s future compatibility (Dick, who was himself married five times, might have benefited from one of these); the talking beds that compel everyone to dream the same dream; the “rapid-transit hover blimps”; Hardovax, a drug for male erectile dysfunction that Phil thought of almost 30 years before Viagra came on the scene; and the book’s remarkable cast of unusual life forms (Joe eventually befriends Nurb K’ohl Daq, a bivalve from Sirius 3). Glimmung itself, a blustering blowhard of indeterminate weight (Dick tells us it weighs 80,000 tons in one scene and 40,000 in another; still, either would make the “90-ton mass of protoplasmic slime” that figures in Dick’s Our Friends From Frolix-8 seem like a pip-squeak), is quite different from the Glimmung of Plowman’s Planet to be found in Dick’s only book for children, Nick and the Glimmung (written by Phil in 1966 but not published until 22 years later). The novel features a more blatant use of Dick’s penchant for fragmented sentences, too. Thus, instead of writing “A Fog-thing from antiquity which still lived,” Phil gives us “A Fog-thing. From antiquity. Which still lived.” More readable this way? More dramatic? Perhaps.
Anyway, whatever else might be said about Galactic Pot-Healer, the fact remains that it is both unpredictable and fascinating from beginning to end; just try to foresee how Glimmung, Joe and the others ultimately grapple with that undersea cathedral, for example. And, oh… this is the first book I’ve ever read that contains my favorite word; the coolest word in the English language: chthonic. I would recommend it to all readers on that basis alone! One last thing: Can anyone please tell me the answer to the riddle “Bogish Persistentisms. By Shaft Tackapple.”? I’m assuming that “Shaft Tackapple” is Ray Bradbury, but “Bogish Persistentisms”? Oh, wait a minute: Something Wicked This Way Comes?!?!