THE ZAP GUN
Phillip K. Dick. (1928-1982)
Lars Powderdry works for the government as a hypnogogic weapons designer. This takes place in 2005 although the book was written in 1965, so an alternative future is predicated. The idea is that the Wes-bloc and Peep-East (Russia, China, etc.) are at continual odds with each other. After a series of world wars, neither side is willing to initiate physical aggression, so, as a substitute, they both resort to designing weapons which are mocked up in a prototype, but never actually created. The designer for Eastbloc is Lilo Topchev. With the aid of specialized drugs, the two psychically sensitive operators enter a kind of drug-induced trance, in which they envision the proposed weapons and simultaneously draw the blueprints of said weapons on paper. In the West, the plans are shipped to the Lanferman productions site which underlies all of California from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's buried, for secrecy and safety. The Peep-East bloc has a similar facility.
In addition the government of both sides is controlled by the Military. In Washington D.C., below the Military "Festung" (fortress), lies the Kremlin, a secret chamber in which the civilian "concomody" meets to oversee the functions of the government. There are six concomody members who hold the position for life and are only replaced upon the decease of one of them. The collective members of the government as a whole are referred to as "cogs", after "cognoscenti" (experts); cog is also another term for a cheat or a liar, as in dice play or the cup and pea game.
Anyway, the story opens with Lars complaining about not being able to go to Paris to see his girl friend. As well, he is trying to cope with his sense of guilt over his meaningless job whose sole purpose involves keeping the public misinformed about the country's armament status. Some of the weapons he has dreamed up are the Garbage Can Banger, the Sheep Dip Isolator (very stinky), the Civic Notification Distorter (changes people into rugs) and the Evolution Gun, intended to displace the human race two billion years into the past.
Other characters are Surley G. Febbs, a library researcher from the middle west with an eidetic memory who has spent his life studying and remembering all conceivable data as regards military history and the operations of government. He receives a notice in the mail informing him that he has been appointed a concomody replacement. He spends the bulk of the novel trying to gain entrance to the Kremlin but is kept out by bureaucratic busy-bodies. Also there is Vincent Klug, an itinerant toy maker who does manage to gain access to Lars' office. He plays a significant role in the resolution of the upcoming quandary, which is:
The news travels across the globe: a new satellite has appeared orbiting the earth. A certain amount of hysteria occurs in the top levels of government, but things only come to a head when it's discovered that part of New Orleans has vanished. According to reports, a dense mist was seen hovering around the city and soon after all the inhabitants disappeared. And then another satellite arrives and more cities around the globe lose their populations. Governmental Officialdom is in hysterics and they decide to hold a joint conference in Iceland, including Lars and Lilo in hopes that the two designers can discover a weapon that will handle the alien invasion. It has become known that the satellites are from Riga and that they are turning Earth's citizens into slaves. There's a lot of arm-waving and mutual accusations flung about with the end result being no solution to the problem.
Back in D.C., an attempt is made to kidnap Lars, during which his girl-friend is killed. But he's already fallen in love with Lilo, the sequel being that he feels even more guilty than he did earlier. Meanwhile, Surley has managed to gain access to the Kremlin, but not much is achieved until Vincent Klug magically appears on the scene, with what turns out to be an unusual toy, that proves to be the key component in the resolution of the alien problem.
At this point, i'm going to quit describing the action and leave the balance of the novel and its truly inventive disentanglement of the alien problem to the pleasure of the book's readers.
Dick was not a normal person. He took a lot of drugs and they enhanced the instability of his already unstable personality. But he was a genius at writing science fiction that included and dealt with some of the philosophical difficulties common in the modern world: what is reality, how do we cope with time, are there more than one universe, is there a God, can we be in more than one place at a time, etc... Although i'd read a lot of Dick's work in my early years, i hadn't read this book, and i was surprised at how cogent and rational and ingenious it was as compared with what i'd learned about his work in the past. Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Lived After the Bomb was the first one i read and i recall being floored by it, although i don't even remember much about it now. Dick's reputation has died in the ensuing years, and his books might be a bit recherche today, but he still has the ability to make the reader think outside his usual comfort zone. I'd recommend his more popular novels to anyone interested in science fiction...