(Ed Valigursky’s cover for the 1960 edition)
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.
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)
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