Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick

[1 December 2005]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Time Will Tell

The link between time travel, genocide and racial uniformity is a tenuous one at best (if it even exists), but in the sharp, satiric mind of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, all three can happily sit side by side with other equally divergent elements, like an obsession with death and a dedication to youth. In his 1960 novel Dr. Futurity (recently reissued by Vintage Books, a division of Random House), Dick plays with the notion of a society gone singular in its carefully controlled genetic make-up, taking a cue from ancient civilizations and using the Native American chromosomes as a junction box for a kind of social purification.

In this far out future world where Tribes have replaced ethnicity and reproduction is controlled by a baffling combination of bureaucracy and athletic competition, the notion of individuality is no longer important. In this noxious new world order, physical perfection reigns supreme and death is desired over any lapse in attractiveness or health. Into these parameters of purity walks the decidedly Caucasian Dr. Jim Parsons. He’s a well-regarded member of his profession, an adept doctor with a metal briefcase filled with medical miracles. During a roadside incident, Parsons finds himself flung forward in time, a soon to be scientific stranger in a stiflingly insular land.

As soon as he arrives, he is in peril. He is almost purposely run over crossing a highway and is eventually arrested for saving the life of a dissident girl he meets. Thanks to a proud pencil pusher named Stenog, Parsons learns the logistics of his new temporary temporal home. Earth is now the domain of the reincarnation of ancient Indians, bronze skinned gods and goddesses who set the standards for bodily aptitude and intellectual clarity. A large government building holds something called The Fountain, and inside are billions of zygotes waiting to be incubated. As a member of this closed community dies, a new life is conceived. As a person is buried, a new baby is born.

Because his profession has been banned (people would rather die than be scarred by surgery or live with a medically controlled condition) Parsons is placed on a prison ship headed for Mars. At this point, Dr. Futurity appears to be setting up a showdown between Parson and the particulars of this overly structured society. One can easily envision this physician saving the life of an important leader of the Martian convicts, rallying them together in full-fledged revolt over the myopic government mindset, and bringing back the notion of individuality and mortality to this frayed future.

Yet interestingly, we never reach that plot point ... or the angry red planet, for that matter. Instead, Dick diverts the story into a completely strange—and very satisfying—territory. Seems Parsons sudden stop over along the space-time continuum was no fluke, but the purposeful planning of the Mother Superior of the Wolf Tribe (the preeminent group of contributors to The Fountain). It appears Parsons has been summoned by the clan to help revive their great and glorious leader, a man who sparked a kind of mini-revolution inside his family by believing in the superiority of the Native American over the white man. Yet an unfortunate miscalculation has left the leader locked in suspended animation, and Parsons has been brought back to do what he does best—cure him.

With its multiple levels, subtly shifting subplots and attention to historical detail, Dr. Futurity is a bit flummoxing at first. For a mentality raised on the simplest of cause and effect science fiction, such unexpected twists and challenging turns are a little disconcerting at first. But because Dick is such a dedicated writer, because of his economy with phraseology and format, even the most brainwashed of sci-fi fans can sink into his well-crafted story. Indeed, one of the best elements of Dr. Futurity is how Dick defies convention, keeping the obvious conceits of his premise at bay while exploring other, more intriguing ideas.

Take the death-loving society of the future. We fully expect a kind of corporeal comeuppance via a last act denouement where the populace learns to embrace life. It is not a spoiler to say that moment never arrives. Indeed, it is not something Dick even considers. Similarly, when Parsons finds himself at the helm of a time ship, he doesn’t race back to his own era, hoping to reconnect with the wife he left behind. Instead, our daring doctor wants answers, and flies fully in the face of danger to discover the truth about his unexpected voyage into the future. As with all time travel tales, Dick is careful to control the linear anomalies and the possible problematic conundrums.

In fact, one of the best facets of the book is how magical and mysterious everyone treats the concept. Yes, the story does rely on constant trips back and forth through the past to affect and arrange events, but Dick makes sure that the characters deliver dialogue that keeps the possibility of a continuum cataclysm as a prime concern. And oddly enough, it’s not Parsons who provides the most sentient suggestions. Jeptha, the Mother Superior and her brother Helmar are very erudite when it comes to time travel, and provide excellent ballast for some of the more unbelievable aspects of the narrative. Indeed, when Parsons goes back to the time of William Drake to prevent a possible murder, the whole notion of hampering history is given a convincing, clarifying workout.

This is why Dick is such a delectable read. His novels sing with ideas that perplex as well as propose. When Parsons questions the citizens about their love of death and symbols as superficial as looks and strength, the people reply with a kind of nonplused humor—who wouldn’t trade quantity of life for physical perfection. Later on, when the truth about his time trip is revealed, Parsons wonders why a group dedicated to casualty as part of the reproductive process would want to revive a fallen comrade? It is here where we learn that, no matter how bodily acute someone is, heart will always rule the head. In the end, a novel we thought would center on a society in cultural crisis instead becomes a very personal look at the reasons we value life.

By using the previous genocide of the native residents of North America as a futuristic rallying cry for his characters, Dick delivers an interesting epic without a great deal of technical wizardry or speculative mumbo jumbo. And he doesn’t dress up the narrative in a nice, neat little bow at the end. Instead, he leaves the story loose and fluid, making the possibilities as questionable and incomplete as a doctor diagnosing and curing a disease. While medicine is indeed a science, it is far from exact. There are no guarantees. In the brave new world that Parsons finds himself in, said assurances are supposedly provided. But the cost may be too great. After all, to err is human—so what would perfection be? What indeed.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dr-futility/