Book Review: Dr. Futurity, Philip K. Dick (1960)

(Ed Valigursky’s cover for the 1960 edition)

2.75/5 (Average)

Over the years I’ve found Philip K. Dick’s early novels hit or miss.  Along with The World Jones Made (1956), Dr. Futurity (1960) (expanded from the 1954 short story “Time Pawn”) is the least satisfying of his novels I’ve read so far.  My total PKD consumption is extensive — around 20 novels and at least 60 short stories.

Time travel is by far my least favorite major science fiction trope.  However, in many of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories time travel is transformed into something surreal and often, downright fascinating.  But unlike his later novels, the trope in Dr. Futurity is an endlessly laborious plot device.  Our hero doctor, Jim Parsons, is constantly whisked back and forth in time with hardly a moment of rest or discussion.  PKD’s novels are seldom action-packed, and for good reason because his more action-laden works lack his trademark ruminations, surrealism, unusual events, bizarre characters…

Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)

Dr. Jim Parsons, while driving, is transported (against his will) from 2012 to 2405.  He discovers a drastically different society where his profession, healing the sick, goes against the central tenets of future humanity.  The population is tightly controlled (people are sterilized) and only when an individual dies can a new embryo be brought out of storage.  As a result the weak are killed off and disease is unknown.  More intriguing is the fact that everyone is descended from from Native American and African American ancestors.  Parsons is even forced to paint himself to blend in.

Parsons’ arrival in this future society is the only moment in the narrative where the events unfold at a comfortable speed.  Also, Philip K. Dick has moments of intriguing speculation about a society where death is viewed in a completely different light.  When Parsons attempts to heal a young girl his actions are viewed as shocking!  So shocking that he is exiled in pre-programed spaceship to Mars.

Here the narrative devolves into the endlessly convoluted, cross-time, paradox laden territory of so much time-travel related science fiction.  A mysterious marker (which he latter discovers was erected by himself) directs him a Native American inspired lodge where he must resurrect a cryogenically frozen man named Corinth.  However, whenever he is healed an (artificial) arrow materializes in Corinth’s chest.  With the help of Corinth’s daughter, Parson’s discovers that Corinth was killed on a mission to assassinate Sir Francis Drake and preserve the Pacific Northwest’s non-European culture — hence, a future where everyone is from African American and Native American racial lines.

But someone is attempting to prevent Corinth from completing his mission.

Final Thoughts

The first third of Dr. Futurity is much more readable than the rest.  There are moments of interesting philosophical rumination concerning the unusual society Parsons encounters.  For example:

“Nobody thought about death.  The system in which [Parsons] had been born, in which he had grown up, had no explanation for death.  A man simply lived out his life and tried to pretend that he wouldn’t die.  Which was more realistic?  This integration of death into the society or the neurotic refusal of his own society to consider death at all?” (41).

It is unclear how exactly this future belief system would have developed if Native Americans and African Americans (how exactly they got to North America isn’t clear) had not had contact with the Europeans.  How are their views on death/medicine so markedly different from Europeans? etc I’m also not exactly sure why Drake is the central figure whose death would have changed history.  I understand that PKD picked it because Drake landed on the Pacific coast in 1579.  But wouldn’t Columbus and other earlier pioneers be more relevant?  Obviously Drake’s impact was substantial for the region (or was it considering his “colony”, if he left one at all, died out?) but a more central historical event would be more logical.

The last two thirds of the novel zip by incredibly fast — a framework of events with little pause for more ruminating thought.  One gets the feeling that the Ace Double format forced Philip K. Dick to stay focused, concise, plot-driven…  As a result, filled with action-packed tedium….

Despite having an intriguing future society and moments of philosophical digression, Dr. Futurity is for PKD/Ace double completests and fans of time-travel science fiction only.

(Harry Borgman’s cover for the 1972 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1976 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1984 edition)

(Afroula’s cover for the 1988 French edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 2005 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

25 thoughts on “Book Review: Dr. Futurity, Philip K. Dick (1960)”

  1. It sounds like an interesting premise at least! Maybe the rushed pace reflects his need to write to be able to eat? By that I mean the demands of a professional author.

    1. I would agree besides that he had previously written some pretty ok novels — The Man Who Japed for example… But yes, he definitely cranked things out — the Ace double format also required the works to be short.

  2. This is the 22 novel of his I have read. While not one of his best it is at least somewhat entertaining. It feels a bit more like Van Vogt at least in the first half than many of Dick’s novels. There are two major plot holes we can discuss through if you are interested. Especially the last time paradox before he goes home. It is the same problem as the Doctor Who serial Day of the Daleks from the John Pertwee era. Feel free to write me a email if you want to discuss this.

      1. Because I have had this site for a few years — I have only reviewed a microscopic portion of the SF I have read in my life (I generally don’t read things twice and don’t review things I read years ago nor do I review everything I read)…. And, it’s really only indicative of the reading trends of said years.

        (I did point out in the beginning of the review that I read 20 of his novels and close to 60 of his short stories)

      2. And there are hundreds of other deserving authors who have received a much less attention — PKD was very much a favorite of my youth, less at this moment in my life.

      3. You are right. Hal Clament is one example of a author who deserves more attention. The local library does not even carry any of his stuff. Do you know anything about Charles Harness? Only read the Rose≥

  3. We both seem to prefer science fiction pre mid 1980s. It seems sometime after Foundation’s Edge became a bestseller that science fiction became geared much more towards thick novels and long series. Though they are exceptions like Neuromancer and Ender’s Game. Do you anything this change of the last thirty some years?

    1. We seem to prefer different brands of SF though ;) I tend to gravitate towards the New Wave stuff from that era.

      Yes, I call this shift “The Great Bloat.” You can do great things under 300 pages!

      1. Actually I am like the New Wave stuff a lot. Elllison, Ballard,Delaney, some of the short stories of Zelanzey. Read a bit of Disch too. Speaking of New Wave have you read Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss? Great criticism of the genre.

  4. Also wanted to ask you if you read Hyperion and if you did whatever you think it is worth reading. I read many different types book in both non fiction and fiction. So spending time any novel more than 400 pages is something I’m cautious about. Anthologies and short story collections are exceptions.

    1. I enjoyed it — and Fall of Hyperion. The third and fourth novels in the sequence are much lesser quality but the first two sort of stand alone. I read them when I was 16 or so, my view now might be rather different.

      1. The problem is that some reviews say it the first story is incomplete and you have to read the second to finish it. Which would not be that bad if both books did not add up to nearly 1000 pages. So it is a tough choice.

      2. Yes, but you’ll be able to tell whether the narrative is engaging or not much earlier than that…. there is no need to complete books which you dislike! :) hehe

    1. I am a medievalist (almost finished my PhD)… Medieval latin manuscripts + related history scholarship in French, German, English… I am an obsessive person — SF is but one of many interests. Various works of contemporary lit handed to me by my wife — Ishmael Reed, Kōbō Abe, Murakami, Karen Russell, McCarthy, etc.

      1. Speaking of which they say Illuminated Manuscript were somewhat similar to comic books. Do you know anything about that?

      2. In the vaguest ahistorical sense…. I don’t really understand the point of such comparisons — comic books are the product of mass produced media. Medieval manuscripts with illuminations are consumed by the wealthiest of the wealthy. They are not similar mediums — nor were they meant to be. They also tend to interact diferently with the texts. Medieval manuscripts illustrate a single scene, or give some metaphorical interpretation of a figure etc. Or, are grotesque doodles that might only tangentially (if at all) be related to the text. Comic books illustrations have more direct conventions in terms of their relationship to the story.

        Of course, there are MANY MANY MANY medieval genres that are illustrated. Comic books are but one genre — again, what’s the purpose of comparing? Who knows.

      3. By the way did yo read the article on science fiction novel length? It is pretty good. What does not explain is what drove the change. It is interesting but even the Star Trek novels which are mass produced more than any of type out science fiction there are also suffer from this “bloating” by the time one gets the mid to late 1980.

  5. First excuses some poor grammar The out should not be there and it should have been “more than any other type of science fiction novel made”. And the last sentence should be 1980s not 1980.

    Secondly,just wanted to add it is not a secret to some science fiction fans look down on these franchise novels,but one should give them a shot because they are some that are very good.

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