The Man Who Japed: PKD shines in his third novel

We’re re-running this post to include Sandy’s recent review.

Philip K. Dick The Man Who Japed audiobook reviewThe Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

Cult sci-fi author Philip K. Dick‘s third novel, The Man Who Japed, was originally published in one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-193, for all you collectors out there), back to back with E.C. Tubb’s The Space-Born, in 1956, and with a cover price of a whopping 35 cents. (Ed Emshwiller’s cover for The Man Who Japed was his first of many for these beloved double-deckers.) As in Dick’s previous novel, The World Jones Made (1955), the story takes place on an Earth following a nuclear Armageddon that has considerably changed mankind’s lot. In The Man Who Japed, by the year 2114, around 130 years after the war’s end, society is run in accordance with the principles of Morec (Moral Reclamation). It is a highly puritanical society in which 18″ long, bug-like robots spy on the populace, weekly neighborhood block meetings chastise the residents’ slightest peccadilloes, cursing and neon signs are banned, and premarital sex is taboo. In this world that is still staggering back to self-sufficiency, the citizens live in tiny apartments, drive steam-powered cars at top speeds of 35 mph, and depend on Earth’s off-world colonies for its NONsynthetic foodstuffs.

Against this backdrop, Dick introduces us to Allen Purcell and his wife, Janet. Purcell is the founder of a small agency, similar to our current-day ad agencies, except that Purcell’s bureau makes up “packets” of propagandistic fodder for Telemedia, the government’s communications arm. When Purcell is offered the opportunity to become the head of Telemedia, he is sorely conflicted, as he has recently begun — for reasons unknown, even to himself — to somnambulistically desecrate the statue of Morec’s founder in the local park. Why Purcell has been acting so mysteriously, and what he ultimately does as regards Morec, are at the heart of Dick’s underrated yet very entertaining short dystopian novel.

And yet, short as it is, this is a book that’s just chock-full of imaginative touches. Those weekly block meetings, during which neighbor passes judgment on neighbor, are extremely well depicted, and come off as analogies of sorts to the then-recent McCarthy hearings. (“More harm is done in one of these sessions than in all the copulation between man and woman since the creation of the world,” Allen satisfyingly tells the witch hunters.) Although Dick’s pet theme of the elusiveness of objective reality is not explored in this early work, there is still one quite “trippy” segment — in which Allen awakes in what seems to be another world — that should surely please all the hard-core Dick fans out there. Another bit of strangeness: the “Yoda talk” that the world’s citizens are apt to utilize at any given moment (such as in “This an order is” and “This serious is”). Also unusual: the fact that the leader of Morec’s government, as well as Telemedia’s head, AND all the block wardens, are women; blue-haired bluenoses doing their darnedest to protect society from anything blue!

As usual, Dick exhibits a great deal of empathy for his “little characters” caught up in bizarre situations, and the reader will most likely grow to like the Purcells for the sweet couple they are, despite Janet’s incessant pill popping and Allen’s dubious mental state. The book is also laced with a fair amount of humor; for example, a few “high-speed” car chases, a look at verboten reading material (such as The Saturday Evening Post and James Joyce’s Ulysses) in the radioactive wastes of Hokkaido, and, of course, Purcell’s final “jape” on Morec. The Man Who Japed is consistently, compulsively readable, and an early triumph for Phil, then a young novelist but soon to be recognized as one of the most distinctive and fascinating talents that the sci-fi field has yet produced.

~Sandy Ferber

Philip K. Dick The Man Who Japed audiobook reviewIn 2114, Allen and Janet Purcell live in Newer York, a post-apocalyptic city that strictly regulates morality so that all citizens understand exactly how to fit in. Robotic spies film suspect behavior and turn it in to the committee members who are in charge of renting out apartments to law-abiding citizens. Citizens who get drunk, curse, or engage in sexual or other misconduct are brought to trial by the peers who live in their apartment complexes. A guilty verdict usually means losing your lease and having to move to one of the faraway planets that supplies Earth with food.

Allen Purcell has just been offered the top position in the government’s ad agency which produces propaganda meant to maintain public ethics. The job is very prestigious, but there’s only one problem: The night before, in his sleep, he japed (made a joke of) the statue of General Streiter, the man who started the current governmental regime. Allen wasn’t conscious of his activity, and he doesn’t think there’s any evidence that he’s the culprit, but he needs to find out why he did it before he takes a job that puts him in charge of promoting the government’s agenda. But when he decides to visit a psychoanalyst, things just go from bad to worse.

The Man Who Japed (1956) is Philip K. Dick’s third published novel, and it contains many of the same themes and types of characters seen in most of his works — a bewildered male protagonist with a neurotic wife, a society obsessed with the morality of its neighbors, bad psychoanalysis, fascism, paranoia, fear of nuclear war, media propaganda, McCarthy-like witch hunts, synthetic food, and drug trips. Unusually, women are in positions of power in The Man Who Japed, and the Purcells actually seem to love each other (bad marriages are the norm for this author).

Perhaps I’ve read too much PKD, or perhaps it’s because I had just finished another of his novels, but I was not truly entertained by The Man Who Japed until the last 20% of the story. The final jape and its aftermath was hilarious and completely satisfactory, but much of the story up until that point lacked the constant humor and bizarreness that I love about Philip K. Dick. There were certainly some funny moments (such as the joke with the statue and Allen’s visit to a black market dealer in banned 20th century novels), but most of the novel is obvious hit-‘em-over-the-head social commentary, and none of it is anything I haven’t previously seen many times from Dick.

Compared to his other works, The Man Who Japed is short, linearly-plotted, and not at all confusing (if you’re a fan, you know what I mean). I listened to Brilliance Audio’s recent production which is 5½ hours long. Luke Daniels, who I’ve come to love, reads the story and does a great job highlighting Dick’s weird sense of humor. The Man Who Japed isn’t one of Philip K. Dick’s best novels, but it’s one of his first, so just for that reason, it’s worth reading.

~Kat Hooper

The Man Who Japed — (1956) Publisher: Following a devastating nuclear war, the Moral Reclamation government took over the world and forced its citizens to live by strictly puritanical rules — no premarital sex, drunkenness, or displaying of neon signs — all of which are reinforced through a constant barrage of public messages. The chief purveyor of these messages is Alan Purcell, next in line to become head of the propaganda bureau. But there is just one problem: a statue of the government’s founder has been vandalized and the head is hidden in Purcell’s closet. In this buttoned-up society, maybe all a revolution needs is one really great prank…

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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....

View all posts by Sandy Ferber


  1. Good lord, I am old. I remember reading this in high school.

  2. Bad psychoanalysis was probably another thing Dick had first-hand experience with.

  3. You are right, I’m sure, Marion.
    So many of those 1950s SF novels had bad psychoanalysts in them. I wonder if this was a SF writer obsession, particularly, or a mainstream cultural obsession. I guess I should know, since I’m a psychologist, but psychoanalysis had been discredited by the time I entered the field and I wasn’t around in the 50s to get a feel for how it was really viewed by different types of people.

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