Review by C.J. Bunce
Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Ted Bentley was just served his lay-off notice and is free for the first time in years to make a fresh start. He was tired of the politics of the job, making and building with no knowledge of the point of all he did. But he was determined to make all that change. His plan was to go directly to the top and work for the Quizmaster, specifically Quizmaster Verrick, as one of Verrick’s biochemists. But if you’re living on Earth in 2203 that means giving Verrick a fealty oath. What Bentley did not know was that the oath he had just taken was a personal oath and not a positional oath–to Verrick, who was just removed as Quizmaster.
In the world of Philip K. Dick’s first novel, Solar Lottery, first published in 1955, society is upside down. Western philosophy is no more. Over-production became the problem of our future and all the excess is being burnt on an ongoing basis. Natural law is at the fringe of society. Statistics and odds and predictions and luck ultimately lead to the lottery as the means to divvy up goods across the world. And power. The ultimate prize? The title of Quizmaster and with it the ability to run the Quiz itself. But power corrupts.
Enter one “unk”—a member if the “unclassified class”–one Leon Cartwright, still driving a 1982 Chevy in 2203. Somehow he knew he was going to replace Verrick. But how? Armed guards arrive to take the new Quizmaster Cartwright into protective custody. He now has supreme power of the nine-planet system, surrounded by a vast army, warfleet and police force, and a telepathic Corps, all to protect him. And, unfortunately that includes a publicly appointed assassin to attempt to murder him. Worse yet, a million gold-dollar bounty has been put on his head by ex-Quizmaster Verrick to call out anyone to take down his replacement.
With a world based on a lottery system, the real focus of day-to-day life is loyalty. Who are you loyal to, and who is loyal to you?
Dick’s future world, where television commercials are the highest art form, is as complex, innovative–and as desperate–as the future dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron. The chaos around such a planned and unforgiving system runs far deeper and resonates better than later efforts at a random selection-based society like those found in much later works like The Running Man, The Hunger Games, or even Logan’s Run. And there is something more ancient here that is harkened back to, something more primeval, like the search for a new emperor in ancient Rome that resulted in the crowning of Claudius, five Hills that run the industry of the planet mirror the hills of Rome, and the concept of “protectors” that individuals must give fealty oaths to almost has a Cosa Nostra vibe to it.
Class conflict, transfers of power, the role of the individual in society, stolen identity, artificial intelligence, Machiavellian constructs, reality exploited on TV, and fake realities created for TV–it all can be found in Solar Lottery. Look for a plot that moves forward like a freight train. As strange as this unfamiliar world is for readers, Dick has no problem putting his characters in exciting, grave situations.
Dick’s dialogue includes great, crazy lines, like “During the Final War the big research installations at Livermore were hit by a Soviet missile. Those who survived were badly bathed. We’re all descendants of one family, Earl and Verna Phillips.”
Early concepts later to be seen in Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Minority Report can be found in this very first novel from Dick, showing that he took no time to ramp up his storytelling. Oddities of other, later science fiction works by other authors are here as well, including Star Trek: The Final Frontier’s “Great Barrier,” real world avatars, and the pursuit of the unknown in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A hallmark of Dick novels are his ability to include an enormous array of prophetic ideas, some as full-on plot points, other as merely passing thoughts. Like all future predicting science fiction writers of the past, some things don’t play out, outdated gender roles that never seem to let up in Dick’s works, the entire planet-impacting economic societal change happening before the 1980s. If you’ve read Dick before you notice he “over-describes” the female anatomy and often relegates women to annoyers of men. If you can overlook that, you’ll find more redeeming elements to take away from the book.
Then there are other ideas, like GM building space vehicles and a news network run by Westinghouse—both companies still around more than 50 years after Dick wrote Solar Lottery. Who knows what will be re-conjured for the future? The only thing that doesn’t dazzle is maybe one too many denouements and a title that is not very interesting. But don’t hold that against this solid debut novel from such an important author.
As with all Philip K. Dick novels, Solar Lottery is still widely available.