Although the Philip K. Dick novel Solar Lottery is correctly cited as being the writer’s first full-length piece of fiction to see the light of day, it was hardly the first time the budding author saw his name in print. The 26-year-old Dick had already seen some 35 short science fiction stories published between 1952 and 1953, beginning with his first sale, “Beyond Lies the Wub,” in the July 1952 issue of Planet Stories; he would see 27 stories go into print in 1953 alone! In addition, Dick, who only turned to science fiction when his several mainstream novels remained unpublished, had no less than four such works languishing in his files at home by 1955, including Gather Yourselves Together (written in 1949) and Voices From the Street (1952), not to mention his fantasy novel A Glass of Darkness (released in 1956 as The Cosmic Puppets).
Spurred to try his hand at the longer science fiction form by editor Anthony Boucher, Dick had Solar Lottery ready by March 1954, editing it considerably after its sale to Ace paperbacks editor Donald Wollheim. (Dick’s original title for the book, “Quizmaster Take All,” was changed by Wollheim.) Thus, the author’s first science fiction novel was released in May 1955 as one half of one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-103, for all you collectors out there), backed with Leigh Brackett’s The Big Jump, and with a cover price of… 35 cents. It was an auspicious debut for the tyro novelist; an imaginative, complex, swift-moving and continually surprising piece of work that offers just a hint of the greatness to come.
Solar Lottery takes place in one of the author’s typically wacky future settings, the Earth of 2203; the type of scenario that has come to be known as “phildickian.” In this world of several centuries hence, the planetary leader is not elected, but rather chosen at random by the magnetic twitch of some kind of subatomic bottle gizmo. A leader who has just been ousted may legally try to assassinate his/her replacement, however, if he/she can breach the defenses of the new leader’s telepathic corps (kind of like a mind-reading Secret Service).
Thus, in Dick’s novel, we meet the 32-year-old Ted Benteley, a biochemist who signs on as a “vassal” to world leader Reese Verrick, just as Verrick is deposed and 63-year-old Leon Cartwright is twitched into the top-dog spot. The action jumps from the world capital of Batavia (given that Indonesia is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, it is no wonder that Dick chose it as his seat of Earth government), to Cartwright’s base in London, to Verrick’s holdings in Berlin, and on to a pleasure resort on the lunar surface, where Keith Pellig, a synthetic man remotely controlled by 24 alternating human minds, attempts to do away with the new world leader. And as if these political machinations and techno homicide attempts weren’t enough, as a subplot of sorts, Dick gives us a small band, called the Prestonites, who fly out beyond Pluto in search of the legendary 10th planet, known only as the Flame Disc….
Solar Lottery does not feature any of the frequent bursts of humor or the preoccupation with divorce, the German language, cigars, opera, classical music, and literature to be found in so many of the author’s later works. Likewise absent are the numerous drug references and abnegations of “reality” that would appear so prominently in many of Dick’s future science fiction novels, but there ARE nevertheless assorted bits of strangeness.
For example, in one scene, an understandably disoriented Benteley, already stoned on a Callistan drink called a “methane gale,” finds his consciousness suddenly plopped into the Pellig construct, leading to one decidedly schizophrenic interlude. And in another instance of startling strangeness, the Prestonites hear the voice of their 150-year-dead messianic leader, John Preston, issuing from their ship’s speakers!
Solar Lottery also features the first of a long line of Dickian precocious teenage girls who are wise beyond their years and who become sexually involved with the central character; here, it is redheaded, formerly telepathic Eleanor Stevens, a vassal of Verrick’s who suffers a memorably grisly demise. And yes, the book does sport a surprising amount of risqué content: The lovemaking between Ted and Eleanor is pleasingly described by Dick; Cartwright’s niece, Rita O’Neill, is said to have “supple lines of flesh moulded firm and ripe in the vigor of youth”; and, as in many other Dick books, female toplessness is the fashion. The novel offers up some prescient images (the purple-haired girl at the lunar resort, playing a game in which she forms combinations of colors, almost sounds like a woman I saw with her iPhone on a NYC subway last month!) and poses some interesting questions, such as when Benteley ponders out loud “Are you supposed to obey corrupt laws? Is it a crime to break a law that’s a rotten law, or an oath that’s rotten?…How do you know when it’s right to stop obeying the laws?” Perhaps best of all, though, is the book’s relentless pacing, dishing out one impressive scene after another in rapid succession (the Pellig robot’s rampage through the Batavia offices is quite thrilling), growing wilder and wilder as they proceed.
Solar Lottery is far from perfect, and first-timer Dick is guilty here of some fuzzy writing on occasion, a few awkward turns of phrase (such as “Rita was eyeing Benteley intently”; guess Phil couldn’t resist that one!), and some misstatements of fact (though the book takes place during the summer of 2203, London, for some reason, is in the middle of what seems to be winter!). Quibbles aside, though, this remains a most pleasing debut from an author who would go on to deservedly become one of the science fiction genre’s most respected and beloved cult figures. From its opening line “There had been harbingers” — and Solar Lottery functions itself as a harbinger of a great talent — to its closing statement regarding the manifest destiny of Man (“the highest goal of man… to spread out… live in an evolving fashion… to keep moving on”), it is a highly entertaining, certainly satisfying, even inspiring affair, although nothing great, or monumental, or mind-blowing, or consciousness expanding, or profound. For Philip K. Dick, those books would come later…