Review by Jason Koornick: Solar Lottery (1955)
First printed in 1955, Solar Lottery is the first published novel by Philip Dick. For this and other reasons, it is a significant piece of work in the writer’s career. In many ways Solar Lottery creates a solid foundation on which Phil would build in his later novels.
The setting in which the story of Solar Lottery takes place is a world dominated by logic and numbers. Loosely based on a numerical military strategy employed by U.S. and Soviet intelligence called Minimax (or Games Theory), the head of world government is chosen through a sophisticated lottery. In theory, each person is supposed to have an equal chance of becoming the Quizmaster, the head of the lottery system and the most powerful person in the world. This element of randomization in the society serves as a form of social control since each person is stripped of their individuality.
Meanwhile, the world is entertained by a savage game in which an assassin attempts to murder the Quizmaster. By countering and putting down these threats to his life (using telepathic bodyguards as defense), the leader gains the respect of the people. If he loses his life a new Quizmaster is randomly selected.
Against this disturbing futuristic setting, the plot of Solar Lottery is played out. It follows the life of Ted Benteley, an idealisitic young worker unhappy with his position in life. Benteley attempts to get a job in the prestigious office of Quizmaster Reese Verrick. Unbeknownst to Ted, Verrick is leaving office and he gets tricked into accepting a job with the departing organization. Verrick then makes it clear that his organization’s mission is to assassinate the new Quizmaster, Leon Cartwright in the world’s most anticipated “competition”.
In order to break the telepathic web protecting Cartwright, Verrick and his team invent an android named Keith Pellig into which different people (and minds) alternate controlling the actions remotely. An action sequence centered on Pellig’s assassination attempt proves to be the novel’s most exciting and clever element.
Meanwhile, a second plot is unwinding in which a team of Leon Cartwright’s clients travel to the far reaches of the known galaxy in search of a mysterious cult figure named John Preston. The story of Solar Lottery unfolds in an atmosphere of deceit, intrigue and competition. A mind-blowing climax swiftly and neatly ties up the loose ends.
It may not be one of PKD’s top ten books, but Solar Lottery uses many (not yet) classic PKD themes and plots. It is an important contribution to science fiction both in it’s fascinating expression of a world gone mad and it’s relevance in the career of this young writer.
Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.
Solar Lottery is the novel that first put Philip Dick on the sci-fi map. It’s significance in his career cannot be denied. As a story it is successful is many ways and also a disappointment in others.
It is clear from reading Solar Lottery that PKD was still developing his own style. Many of his common themes make their first appearances in this novel. The tone and style of Solar Lottery is dark. The cynical view of the futuristic world is a theme used in one way or another in most of his work. The portrayal of corporations and government are other common Dick themes found here. One can also begin to see Dick’s fascination with the android/human question he investigates in so many of his later novels. The telepathic control of Keith Pellig is a scene that could have been in any number of PKD books & stories.
The concepts of Solar Lottery are the novel’s strongest points. The political climate of Solar Lottery is reminiscient of The World Jones Made, a place where people are robbed of individuality and self-empowerment by their own perceptions of themselves, helpless and disconnected from the power structure. Imagining the situations and moral complications of the characters is a mind-bending task that makes sense in a twisted phildickian way.
Like other novels we wrote, Dick’s science fiction is not isolated from the cultural and political mood of the times. Even though one finds functional androids and telepathic characters, the main issues of Solar Lottery are based on real world fears and concerns.
Solar Lottery was written in the early part of the 1950’s. Many cultural elements are apparent in the novel. The genuine fear of foreign invasion following WWII provides a striking context for PKD’s use of Minimax and military strategy in Solar Lottery. He also was playing on the fears of a country entering the Cold War in his depiction of a world ripe with distrust and a population helpless in the hands of corporations and huge government. The anticipation of space travel and the beginning of the space age influenced the John Preston subplot in Solar Lottery as well.
What Solar Lottery seems to be missing is Phil’s unmistakable use of philosophy and religion that separate his books from run of the mill science fiction from then and today. While the story does contain classic Dickian reality shifts (ex. when Bentely awakes in the Pellig android), there are fewer psychological twists and turns than in his best novels.
Another element of Solar Lottery I found disappointing is the subplot involving the intergalactic search for John Preston. I was frustrated by the resolution of the situation and felt that the adventure had nothing to do with the finer points of Solar Lottery.
After having written short stories, the novel gave PKD many new literary devices. Along with the freedoms that came along with the novel format, it also presented a new set of challenges for Phil Dick. He wrote in 1969:
“It is in sf stories that sf action occurs; it is in sf novels that worlds occur . [ . . . ] As a writer builds up a novel-length piece it slowly begins to imprison him, to take away his freedom; his own characters are taking over and doing what they want to do – not what he would like them to do. This is on the one hand the strength of the novel and on the other, its weakness.”
– “Foreward” to PKD story collection The Preserving Machine (1969) in PKD Estate Archives. From Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin. London: Harper Collins Books, 1994, pbk., p. 88.
The subplot involving the search for John Preston may or may not have been an attempt to combine two disparate stories into a longer body of work. As a reader of his work, this is a problem that weighs down a number of PKD novels – too many plots.
This reviewer was able to greater enjoy Solar Lottery by taking it in both contexts of its importance as a young sci-fi author’s first novel and also the political climate of the times in which it was written. Enjoy Solar Lottery for what it is: not PKD’s best novel but a fun and wild ride that is a precursor to some of the best science fiction ever written.
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