Book Review – Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K Dick
I like to think of Now Wait for Last Year as the quintessential PKD novel. Not many people would regard this as an ‘essential PKD novel’ and yet most PKD fans regard this as a ‘good’ book. I like to think of the book as being at the top of the second rank of PKD novels. Just to be clear about what I mean, these are the books I consider to be ‘first rank’: The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. My Top 5 PKD novels I am certain of (exclude TTA from the above list) but my Top 10 is more problematic. There are a number of works that could be considered, including Now Wait for Last Year. Other possibilities are A Maze of Death, Dr Bloodmoney, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Flow My Tear, the Policeman Said, Time Out of Joint, Eye in the Sky, and even a couple of mainstream novels such as Confessions of a Crap Artist or even Mary and the Giant.
OK, but we’re getting off topic. Back to Now Wait for Last Year. I’ve always had a special liking of this book. I’ll try to explain why. Firstly, the setup is both classic PKD and yet interestingly unique: a guy called Eric Sweetscent is an ‘artiforg’ surgeon (short for ‘artificial organs’ – one of PKD’s better neologisms) who works for Virgil Ackerman, head of a company called Tijuana Fur & Dye. Eric has a wife called Kathy, who appears to be a thinly-drawn portrait of PKD’s third wife, Anne. There is an interstellar war going on between Terra, the ‘Starmen of Lilistar, and the buglike reegs. The war aspect is the least interesting and least inspired aspect of the book. PKD clearly had little interest in trying to imagine a real interstellar war. He still speaks of ‘fronts’ in a way that seems terminally mired in the Second World War. What is interesting, however, is the head of the Terran defense, a man called Gino Molinari.
Now Wait for Last Year is nothing if not uneven. The beginning of the novel is not especially promising, featuring a conversation between Eric and some of his associates. Here we see PKD the stylist in full ‘overblown’ mode, replete with overly long sentences and verbose descriptions. It’s fairly whimsical and trivial stuff. There’s something about ‘Wash 35,’ which is a mini-reality constructed from the trinkets of the past to simulate Washington from 1935. This seems to prefigure The Truman Show. But PKD doesn’t spend much time on this, and the promising idea is all but forgotten (to be picked up again in later novels, to be sure). Now Wait for Last Year doesn’t really get going until Chapter Four, which consists of a wonderful conversation between Eric and Gino Molinari. The subject? Eric’s marriage to Kathy Sweetscent. Now we’re getting somewhere.
This conversation feels like one of the true ‘genuine’ things in this novel, and one is sorely tempted to attribute this to the fact that it serves as a cipher for Phil’s then-rocky relationship with his third wife. I won’t try to recap the content of this conversation, but suffice to say that it is written with real feeling. By this stage of the novel, Kathy has already tried the new drug JJ-180, the effects of which will basically drive the rest of the novel. One of the ‘great’ aspects of this book is the depiction of Terra’s ailing leader, who is painted as stern but human, fallible and yet wise. It turns out that Molinari’s strategy for avoiding having to deal with Terra’s ambiguous ally, the ‘Starmen, is to become so ill that he can’t negotiate the ‘Starmen’s covert takeover of Terran industries. This is where PKD’s talent for weaving apparently unrelated factors comes into play. We have an ailing leader, an ‘artiforg’ surgeon, an interstellar war and a drug which sends its users into a multiverse of futures. By the end of the book, these four factors will have become interminably intertwined.
The second half of the novel basically consists of first Kathy, and then Eric Sweetscent descending into the drug world of JJ-180. What this consists of is multiple trips into alternate and contradictory futures which resemble nothing if not the Back to the Future films. This serves to highlight how prevalent PKD’s vision would become in the years after his death. In some universes, the war is going better than in others, and some realities see Terra allied with the reegs, not fighting them. Eric’s immediate goal is to find a cure for the extremely addictive JJ-180, which he eventually does. PKD uses a somewhat lame device, that of the talking taxi cab (“I’m Johnny Cab,” anyone?), to facilitate the plethora of confusing realities. What I’m saying is that there’s a fair bit of telling, not showing. But perhaps it can’t be helped. It turns out that there are a whole heap of alternate Molinaris from different universes, some of which never became Terra’s supreme leader, who end up being used in our own universe. The novel ends on an optimistic note, with Terra trying ally with the reegs, and Eric vowing to stay with his drug-wrecked wife.
And that’s the end. This is a rollercoaster ride of a novel, teetering on the edge of incomprehensibility. But PKD manages to pull it off in a way I believe he failed in books such as The Simulacra. Time travel stories offer plenty in the way of time paradoxes, but PKD manages to run roughshod over these concerns with admirable panache. A note on the two covers shown above. The one of the left is a truly horrid Panther cover from the UK in the 70s. I happen to own this edition. This must go down as one of PKD’s worst novel covers (and there were some contenders all right). The one of the right is the ‘Millennium Masterworks’ edition from 2000. This, more than anything else I could say, should serve as a indication of how rapidly PKD’s star has risen in the years since his death. Isn’t it ironic that in death PKD is providing much better for his wives and children than he ever could in life? It’s tempting to label the whole subject phildickian.