The Zap Gun: Highly readable and a lot of fun

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Zap Gun by Philip K. DickThe Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick

Cult author Philip K. Dick’s 20th published science fiction novel, The Zap Gun, was first released in book form (Pyramid paperback R-1569, with a cover price of 50 cents) in 1967, after having been serialized in the November 1965 and January 1966 issues of Worlds of Tomorrow magazine under the title “Project Plowshare.” Phil’s previously published book had been The Unteleported Man, later expanded as the largely incomprehensible Lies, Inc., but The Zap Gun is a completely understandable, reader-friendly novel that, as it turns out, is quite a winning satire on the arms race that was indeed so frightening back then.

In Phil’s book, it is the year 2004 (OK, maybe he should have made it 2104!), and the two major world powers have reached a detente of sorts in this game of armament one-upmanship. Rather than actually creating weapons, the two sides (Wes-bloc and Peep-East) now simply fake it, using “weapons fashion designers” to create convincing designs of the real thing, and then showing realistic but ersatz videos to their populations. Society, hence, is divided between the “pursaps” (the pure saps making up the bulk of society) and the “cogs” (the governmental cognoscenti who are in on the deception). But when the insect-like slavers from the Sirius system arrive and start dropping satellites into Earth orbit, things really DO get serious, and Lars Powderdry and the beautiful Lilo Topchev (the West’s and the East’s top “wep-fash” designers) must join forces to somehow construct a REAL weapon to save all of humankind….

Although Phil originally wrote The Zap Gun on commission for a Pyramid editor who wanted a novel written for that preset title, the result is anything but standard space opera fare (indeed, the alien invasion plot is dealt with so offhandedly, at the end, as to be almost an afterthought), and all of Dick’s regular obsessions are on full display. As in The Penultimate Truth (written at the same time as this novel) and The Simulacra, a duplicitous government manages to hoodwink the mass of mankind. Dick’s fascination with drugs is evident here, too, and both Lars and Lilo not only depend on cerebral stimulants to effect the trance state that leads to their weapons visions, but also discuss LSD, peyote, mescaline and “magic mushrooms” with great apparent knowledge. The novel features several suicidal characters (seems like every Dick book I read has some such poor soul), one of whom actually succeeds in the sad act, and another who chooses to stick around in a wonderfully life-affirming scene. For some strange reason, the localities of Cheyenne, Wyoming and St. George, Utah are highlighted yet again, as they had been in The Penultimate Truth and Now Wait For Last Year. As in Now Wait For Last Year and Lies, Inc., female public toplessness is seen to be the fashion in The Zap Gun, but whereas in those earlier books a woman’s nipples were covered with a sentient Martian life form and flashlight/music-making pasties, respectively, HERE, they are merely described as being “silver-tipped.” (These futuristic innovations don’t seem half bad to me!) As in so many of Phil’s other novels, several of the characters throw out German words and expressions, smoke cigars and talk about opera. And again, we have a character who is hoping to obtain a divorce from his mate; well, technically, Powderdry is here attempting to ditch his mistress.

As I said, lots of Dick’s pet topics get another workout in this consistently amusing tale. And the book really is often very funny; indeed, Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin has called the novel’s Surley G. Febbs “the funniest character Phil created.” The author throws in a few surprising plot twists toward his finale, amuses us with some bizarre character names (such as Lucky Bagman, Oral Giocomini, Vincent Klug and General Nitz), keeps the pace of the story moving nicely, and even presents a time travel angle in a manner that for once didn’t give this reader a headache. SF critic David Pringle has called the novel “one of Dick’s most clotted narratives,” but I still found it highly readable, and a lot of fun. (I’m not even sure I know precisely what he means by a “clotted narrative”!) Oh… I guarantee that you will chuckle when you read about Febbs’ organization, with its catchy acronym BOCFDUTCRBASEBFIN…

Publisher: Scaldingly sarcastic yet enduringly empathetic, The Zap Gun is Dick’s remarkable novel depicting the insanity of the arms race. Lars Powderdry and Lilo Topchev are counterpart weapons fashion designers for a world divided into two factions – Wes-bloc and Peep-East. Since the Plowshare Protocols of 2002, their job has been to invent elaborate weapons that only seem massively lethal. But when alien satellites hostile to both sides appear in the sky, the two are brought together in the dire hope that they can create a weapon to save the world, a task made all the more difficult by Lars falling in love with Lilo even as he knows she’s trying to kill him.

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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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