Philip K. Dick: Vulcan’s Hammer

Expanded from a novella fist published in 1956 in the periodical ‘Future Science Fiction‘, Vulcan’s Hammer is Philip K. Dicks first novel length publication. Whilst lacking some of the linguistic subtlety of some of his contemporaries Dick more than makes up for it by being a brilliant reflector of his times. Early in the novel Dick gives us a nicely concealed infodump for the basis of his fictional world in the guise of a teacher explaining to a class of children the history of the world. Following an atomic war in the latter part of the twentieth century, control of world governance was handed over to a supercomputer by the name of ‘Vulcan 3’. This computer makes the executive decisions for a human organisation called ‘Unity’, essentially a world government with Vulcan 3 as its head.

This novel therefore presents many Dickian tropes in embryo form, idea’s which he would expand upon and play with in later novels. The vast bureaucracy with its propaganda and indoctrination machine, the grass roots revolution which pits earthy manual workers and labourers against a technocracy, and an all pervading sense of paranoia, all are present and correct and flying their postmodern colours proudly from the mast. The characters here are interesting if only as personifications of aspects of the organisations or social movements that they represent, rarely do they betray emotion or motive that springs from outside of the web in which they are caught. In some writers this would be a major failing, but Dick pulls it off because his plot is labyrinthine and opaque, the constant machinations and realpolitik with the hints of ideology underlying are enough to pull the reader through the book without ever having to really anchor themselves to a single character.

As well as being a lovely bit of social science fiction with a nice line in cognitive estrangement, Vulcan’s Hammer is also a rather impressive stab at looking at artificial intelligence. Bearing in mind the state of computing at the time of this novel’s inception the idea’s presented here are remarkable. Vulcan 3 is a machine that does not consist of valves and punch cards but rather huge power cables that glow red, and a vast underground manufactuary where the computer builds and extends itself. True, the output is still initially a reel of tape, but this is soon surpassed by real communication from the machine, a real voice. This may seem unusual for the time when even seasoned SF writers had trouble foreseeing the future importance and state of computing, but it is worth looking at this in the light of then current thinking. Included below is an
advertisement for the ‘Univac’ computer from 1956,
note the way it is described as a ‘brain’, and having a ‘voice’.

Dick’s genius can be said to be an anti-establishment one, in an age of optimism and rampant consumerism he subverts the polished ideals of the atomic age, expressing an anxiety and paranoia about America’s capitalism and rooting it firmly in the technology of the day, all tempered with a remarkably prescient eye on future developments and an astute historical awareness (notice allusions to luddism throughout the text, and even on some of the covers). Vulcan’s Hammer, then, shows Dick coming out all guns blazing, his thoroughly postmodern technique and style already almost completely formed and working to full effect. In actual fact, this is probably a better of example of Dick than some of his later novels which get so wierd, byzantine and paranoid that they are a chore to read. If you are looking for a good Philip K. Dick book, forget Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and pick this up instead. You won’t be dissapointed.

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~ by Snake Oil on January 22, 2012.

3 Responses to “Philip K. Dick: Vulcan’s Hammer”

  1. Great review — I too have always found PKD’s prose slightly lacking (it does have its poetic moments) — but, he more than makes up for it with his delightful (and occasionally disturbing) tropes (as you point out).

    What’s your favorite? I wouldn’t “forget” Do Androids Dream… It’s still one of his masterpieces — although, all the rest of his substantial canon deserves to be read as well (besides, The World Jones Made which I couldn’t tolerate).

    • Don’t get me wrong, I do love ‘Androids’, especially as it breaks somewhat with Dick’s standard template, but as a way into Dick (as it was for me when I read it), it’s not particularly representative. That’s from what I can remember anyway. It’s due a re-read at some point, and I have a suspicion I will find greater depth this time than I noticed before.

      From my rather limited reading of PKD, I would say my favourite is probably ‘The Simulacra’. It’s a more fully rounded and complex novel than this one, and the apotheosis of the psychic Kongrosian is highly entertaining.

      Incedentally, I read a highly amusing review of ‘Lies, Inc’ on Worlds Without End the other day (that you’ve probably read as your rather excellent review of ‘Space Witch’ made it to the front page, but I’ll link to it anyway) https://www.worldswithoutend.com/blog.asp?view=category&cat_id=24 that, perversely, actually made me look forward to reading it. I do love a good hatchet job now and then!

      So come on, what’s your PKD high point?

      • I think you’re talking about someone else — I never wrote a review for SIlverberg’s collection of super early pulp Space Witch…. I’m not a fan of early Silverberg anyway…

        But on to PKD! I also loved Simulacra for similar reasons. My favorite has to be Martian Time-Slip — I’m not sure that it’s his best novel but definitely my favorite. His most intellectually stimulating work has to be Man in a High Castle (predictable, I know) — the cultural changes he charts as a result of the Japanese occupation and, the end where a “new” American culture (in the forms of pots) is created. It is anti-climactic and not really a climax to the novel but a fascinating aside.

        I also love a majority of his 50s short stories — The Preserving Machine is the best of the bunch. A man makes a machine that turns sheet music into strange life forms after he has a vision of music creeping away from the bombs.

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