Book Review – Doctor Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick
Doctor Bloodmoney, Or How We Got Along After the Bomb is one of the novels Philip K Dick wrote in the early sixties when he was living in Marin County, California with his third wife Anne. But as far as post-apocalyptic novels go, this must rank as among the strangest ever. Just as PKD had no interest in depicting a realistic Martian colony in Martian Time-Slip, so Bloodmoney makes no effort to imagine a realistic post-nuclear world. Instead PKD subverts the genre for his own ends, and the resulting story is more fantasy than science fiction.
Bloodmoney is an odd book in PKD’s ouevre. Longer than most of his novels at 290 pages, it suffers (to my mind) from a sagging middle and an overly large cast of characters. Despite these flaws, it is fondly remembered as one of PKD’s better novels, and having just finished re-reading it I am inclined to agree that it probably deserves to scrape into the top thirteen SF novels as adjudged by Jonathan Lethem for the Library of America editions. Bloodmoney, in some sense, is an attempt at fusion between PKD’s literary efforts of the fifties and early sixties, and his then-blossoming SF career. More sedate than Martian Time-Slip, but more zany than The Man in the High Castle, the book occupies an uneasy space between realistic and fantastical modes of writing (and thinking). It is the latter mode than wins the day here to considerable effect in the final 80 or so pages.
Before that though, we are introduced to a situation that will seem familiar to readers of PKD’s mainstream novels. Stuart McConchie is a black television salesman (and street sweeper) who looks to be the archetypal ‘little man’ character in Bloodmoney. Jim Fergesson is Stuart’s employer and owner of Modern TV Sales & Service. Doctor Stockstill is the psychiatrist working across the road. These are all PKD stock characters. But Bruno Bluthgeld (‘Bloodmoney’ in German) is anything but; he’s a deranged physicist whose delusional state pits him against the rest of the world. And Hoppy Harrington, the phocomelus (he has no arms or legs, and appears to be a thalidomide baby), is a unique character too. Petty and otherworldly, Hoppy casts an increasingly long shadow over the novel’s proceedings.
Bloodmoney fairly rapidly builds up to the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on San Francisco. The day of the attack (it’s not certain who is responsible) is told from the perspective of several important characters, including those above (Fergesson dies) and also Bonny Keller and Andrew Gill. Herein lies one of Bloodmoney‘s failings: there are simply too many point of view characters. I haven’t counted, but there’d be more than ten. Too often, there’s too little to distinguish one from the other. This problem intensifies when the West Marin County setting is introduced. All of a sudden, we are forced to grapple with a whole host of new characters such as Orion Stroud, the schoolteacher Mr Austurias (and his replacement Hal Barnes), Edie Keller (and her brother Bill), Jack Tree (who is really Bluthgeld), Eldon Blaine, Cas Stone, Earl Colvig, June Raub, and one of the novel’s most important characters, Walt Dangerfield. Dangerfield and his wife were supposed to be heading to Mars on the day the bombs fell, but their spacecraft ended up circling Earth indefinitely instead. Dangerfield’s wife commits suicide, leaving Walt to act as a sort of DJ for the post-apocalypse.
Even more confusingly, PKD alternates between various time periods in the early chapters. Most are told in the time leading up to E-Day, but a few take place several years later, when life has apparently settled down. A few occupy an interim zone (such as when Mr Austurias is still alive). Finally PKD seems to settle on West Marin, about seven years after the bomb, and things become less confusing. A number of the characters who seemed to live in and around Berkeley before the bomb end up in West Marin, including Stuart McConchie, who now designs ‘homeostatic animal traps’ for the legions of altered animals that roam the Californian landscape. In short, we’ve entered a fantasy world that bears no resemblance to what a real post-nuclear landscape would look like.
If the first third of Bloodmoney is interesting but confusing, the second third is slow moving and somewhat dull. PKD gets bogged down in the endless to-ing and fro-ing of the West Marin community. The residents are concerned about Dangerfield’s health, and they continue to flock to their radios to listen to his reading of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Over time, we begin to understand that Hoppy (who is the local West Marin ‘handy’ – a repairman) is increasing in power and malicious intent. It seems he can manipulate objects remotely, with increasingly murderous effect (see the death of Eldon Blaine in chapter ten).
It is not until the emergence of Edie Keller’s brother Bill (who lives inside her in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in the film Total Recall) that we finally come to understand what this novel is about. Finally we have a cosmic struggle worthy of the name. There are no fewer than four major characters in Bloodmoney who can, one way or another, influence events remotely. Walt Dangerfield is the ailing but goodhearted orbiting DJ. Hoppy Harrington is the phocomelus who threatens to become so powerful than no one can stop him. Bruno Bluthgeld is the delusional physicist who believes he can have the bombs begin to drop again. And Edie Keller can commune with the dead. Walt and Edie would appear to represent the forces of good, while Bruno and Hoppy represent evil. It’s not quite as clear cut as this, of course, but the situation begins to resemble that of Ubik, in nebulous form.
The final chapters are pure fantasy. Walt Dangerfield, it transpires, is being psychically attacked by Hoppy. Bruno wants to destroy Walt using hydrogen bombs (in a startling twist, there appears to be some sense that these bombs actually exist, although they seem more like phantom bombs than real ones). Edie wants to swap places with an animal or person through some kind of psychic transference. We do get something approximating a happy ending with the deaths of Bruno and Hoppy, but Bloodmoney left this reader feeling profoundly uneasy.
In the final analysis, Bloodmoney must count as a failure of a novel. PKD jams far too many characters into his novel, and the narrative is unruly, uneven, and contains several dead ends. But it is a fascinating failure, and one that prefigures more successful visions like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik.