Fiction Reviews

Galactic Pot-Healer

(1969 / 2006) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, 6.99, pbk, 177 pp, ISBN 0-575-07462-0


In the future one Joe Fernwright is a pot-healer, that is he mends broken vases. For months now he has had no trade and, living in a quasi-1984-type society, his life is bleak. Inflation is rampant, the state is all, he is nothing, he has even lost his wife. Then one day he gets a message of employment off-world by a very powerful being (a lesser God), to work as part of a team to bring to the surface a submerged cathedral. The problem with working for a God is that it is important to keep on their right side especially if they have a bit of a temper...

Dick is, these days, best known from the film adaptations of his books, but with well over thirty SF / fantasy novels there are still many that have yet to make it to the big screen. Galactic Pot-Healer is one. It is not as hard an SF story as some of his others and in fact as the tale progresses it becomes more of a science fantasy. It is a satirical story, laced with wit, that resonates with Vonnegut's and Lem's humorous stories. It does not have a joke a paragraph as Douglas Adams' work but nonetheless a dark, dry fun springs from each page. The story is in essence an allegorical reflection of religion's fundamentals. Are scriptures accurate? What of prophecy? To which deity should one give allegiance? What of ritual? Dick has his own answers and even if you go your own way, though it may not be the worst of options, do not expect it to be perfect.

Gollancz has again done SF a service in re-printing this novel that is over a third of a century old. Much has happened in this time and a lot of SF from the 1960s has become very dated. Dick's work, and this particular novel included, is far more robust than most other authors and there are examples in Pot-Healer of his prescience. For example, early on, we find the protagonist playing a game with another worker in his industrial unit whereby they take a famous book or film title and get a computer to translate it into another language and then translate it back. The aim is to guess from this modified title what the original was meant to be. This is a game that you yourself may have played, or played something very similar. But you have to remember that back in the 1960s there was no internet let alone Google translation, in fact there were no home computers. Dick was ahead of his time. (And of course here the relevance of this game to religion is that folk lend meaning to scriptures that have been translated a number of times.)

Dick is, again, on form. As such, don't expect to be spoon-fed as we are with many modern humorous SF and fantasy (not that there is anything wrong with easy reads). Here the humour is a little deeper and, dare I say, more literate. If you are up to a bit of a challenge and wish to become more familiar with less well aspect of the giant Dick's work (I'm not sure that came out right) then this reprint is just what you want. Here another plus point is that the novel, at under 180 pages, is not as long as most modern stories (a current trend that is unnecessarily universal). Naturally that this is a good book will not be news to SF readers who grew up with Philip Dick: this review is primarily for those who were born since the 1960s and who wish to seek out written Anglophone SF's principal building blocks.

Jonathan Cowie

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