Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K Dick

Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publication Date: This edition was published October 23, 2012. Originally published in 1960.
Page Count:  163
Keywords: Sci-fi, alternative government, dystopia, technology
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After a series of atomic World Wars in the twentieth century, all of the governments on the planet banded together to create a single, world-ruling entity to ensure world peace. To further their efforts in world peace, they leave all of their important decision making to Vulcan 3, a super-computer that takes the information fed to it, and makes logical decisions based on it. Despite Unity's efforts at perfect peace, there is resistance from the Healers, a group that refuses to continue living under a computer's rule, and they will go through great lengths to tear it apart.
"You know that Vulcan 3 has given no statement in over fifteen months," Barris said.
"Maybe it doesn't know what to say." Taubmann opened the door to the hall; his police bodyguard swarmed alertly around him. "I can tell you one thing, though. The Healers are after one thing and one thing only; everything else is talk--all this stuff about their wanting to destroy society and wreck civilization. That's good enough for the commercial news analysts, but we know that actually--"
"What are they really after?" Barris interrupted.
"They want to smash Vulcan 3. They want to strew its parts over the countryside. All this today, Pitt's death, the rest--they're trying to reach Vulcan 3."
 Sometimes, when I can't decide what to read, I make my boyfriend pick. He's not as overwhelmed by my shelves of unread books as I am. So the other night, when I was surrounded by stacks of books new and old and completely unsure of what I was in the mood to read, I had him pick for me. He got Vulcan's Hammer for me a couple of Christmas' ago, when I was in the process of working on a sci-fi/dystopian novel. Philip K. Dick is known for being one of the most innovative sci-fi writers of all time, so it seemed like a good fit. The other night, this became his pick for me, and I was a little nervous. Sci-fi is soooo not the genre I typically read, but I would've felt a little bad for turning down his pick ;) I was surprised. In some good ways, and in some bad ways. Like my review of Joyland, I'm going to break it down in a similar way.

What to love...

  • One of my favorite things about reading sci-fi/dystopian novels is seeing how the author envisions our future. The funniest part to me was when a teacher says to her class, "what does the year 1992 bring to mind?" And the answer is the conclusion of the first atomic world war. Maybe it's because I don't read this genre a lot, but I was super intrigued by the idea of a single world government, and a computer as the head ruler. 
  • There were a couple of surprises! Vulcan's Hammer was slightly predictable, but there were enough surprises strewn in along the way that kept me on my toes. 
  • The action and technology. Though the Healers have a peaceful sounding name, they can wreak havoc. So can Unity. And Vulcan 3. There were a lot of really engaging action sequences that had me hooked. Plus, what is a sci-fi book without sweet technology? From Unity's official weapon, the pencil beam, to ships that carry travelers from NYC to Africa and back within a couple of hours, to Vulcan's hammers, there was a ton of new inventions that were pretty awesome. 
What a basic flaw in the Unity structure, he thought bitterly. Only one man is in a position to deal with the computer, so that one man can cut us off completely; he can sever the world from Vulcan 3. Like some high priest who stands between man and god, Barris amused. It's obviously wrong. But what can we do? What can I do? I may be supreme authority in this region, but Dill is still my superior; he can remove me any time he wants. True it would be a complex and difficult procedure to remove a Director against his will, but it has been done several times. And if I go and accuse him of--
Of what?He's doing something, Barris realized, but there's no way I can make out what it is. 
What's not so cool...
  • There were a couple of surprises! Yup, this was mentioned in my things to love, too. Some surprises, though, were WTF?! inducing. It is rumored that Dick was on a drug binge when he wrote Vulcan's Hammer and several others, and I can see where this could be true. A lot of random surprises happen. There's a paternity shocker (I guess we'll call it that). There are a couple of huge death's that should've been made a big deal, but were brushed off with a short, "He's dead." 
  • The descriptions are very minimalist. I mentioned above that there are ships that can take a traveler from NYC to Africa and back within hours. I didn't get this realization until 3/4's of the way through, though, so every time a 'ship' was mentioned, I was like, "damn, they're ruled by a computer but they're still traveling by ship?!" Even for Vulcan 3, I have an idea of what this master computer looks like, but nothing is concrete. 
  • Some things just didn't make sense? Jason Dill, who is the MAIN leader and directly corresponds with Vulcan 3, more or less adopts Marion Fields, the daughter of the man who started The Healer movement. Dill takes her from her school, where to my understanding, she was an orphan who had not seen her father in years? Yet she has an extreme depth of knowledge of this movement, and is constantly asked about how she remains in contact with her father. The Healer movement was also in resistance to this computer ruler, yet had no plans of action for when they were able to actually overthrow the computer. 
  • Spoilers ahead in this bullet point: For being a supercomputer that holds so much power over the world, makes important decisions, can BUILD ITSELF, and creates powerful weapons, it seemed very easily defeated. In an almost anti-climactic way. I was actually surprised by how quickly Vulcan 3's downfall happened. 
As far as Vulcan 3 is concerned, we are objects, not people.
A machine knows nothing about people. 
I loved the imaginative take on what Dick envisioned our future to look like, and was engaged by the action within Vulcan's Hammer. There were just a little too many random surprises, and some parts just didn't make sense. I also couldn't get a full grasp on this society with the minimalist descriptions.

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