Review by Jason Koornick: The Zap Gun (1967)

Summary


For Philip K. Dick, The Zap Gun is a book which started with the title. In 1964, Dick was hired by Pyramid Books to write a sensationalist sci-fi book with the title The Zap Gun. (The story was first published as a serial in the magazine Worlds of Tomorrow between November 1965 and January 1966 as “Project Plowshare”).


Although the title brings to mind intergalactic weaponry and mind-blowing space battles, the story (like many others by the author) is based more on the psychological traumas of its main character, Lars Powderdry.


Set in the futuristic year of 2003, The Zap Gun is about a world where peace is a fragile understanding between the two nation blocs of Peep-East and Wes-bloc. Similar to and mocking of the Cold War, each side develops weapons which counteract the might of the other side. The East and West blocs even work together to keep the public ignorant through a combination of fear and dramatic propaganda. The two sides realize that they need each other to preserve the stability that is the result of the arms race. Behind this backdrop of peace and stability, a much different picture emerges because the weapons that are manufactured are merely flashy gizmos designed to attract the public attention. If they actually had to be deployed, they wouldn’t even work!


Weapons fashion designer Lars Powderdry plays an essential role in the Wes-Bloc’s security because he receives blueprints for new designs through a trance which only he and his Peep-East counterpart, Lilo Topchev are able to attain. He invents weapons with names like The Psychic Conservation Beam and the Time Warpage Generator. Lars’ own confidence and self-worth are rattled when alien satellites appear over Earth and start to make whole cities disappear. (New Orleans is the first to go). When Lars realizes that his weapon designs are useless against the invaders he enters a state of depression. Together with the difficulties with his girlfriend Maren, Lars begins to question the value of his own existence and the charade which the world governments have created.


A bizarre and complex series of events unfold which are vaguely reminiscent of Clans of The Alphane Moon (but not as good). We meet a right-wing revolutionary determined to have his say among the high-level military advisors (Surely G. Febbs), a soldier returning from the future (Ricardo Hastings) and comic book artist who may hold the secret to saving humanity. It doesn’t get any weirder than this!

Because there is so much military involvement, this story uses many cool PKD abbreviations, hyphenated terms and acronyms. Although it’s a little difficult to get used to, the reader soon begins to appreciate the subtle humor and bizarre military logic of terms such as NECFS&LC (New Era of Cooperative-Financing Savings & Loan Corporation).


The Zap Gun is a disjointed story which finds its strength as a novel which approaches and uses the sci-fi formula as an examination of the human psyche. The seemingly disparate plot is secondary to the psychological effects the situations have on the main characters, specifically Lars and Lilo. In creating these scenarios, Dick takes many liberties and makes the reader stretch their imagination past any notion of believability or feasibility. The Zap Gun highlights Dick’s eccentric and brilliant approach to the genre. Even though The Zap Gun will never be considered a sci-fi classic, it is characteristic of Dick’s own unique style and place inside (or outside) of the sci-fi community. Not a good choice for the faint of heart or those unaccustomed to the bizarre elements of sci-fi, nonetheless The Zap Gun has a few elements which will intrigue and perplex fans of Philip K. Dick.

 

Review

Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.

Let’s be honest here. For a writer whose work at its worst has been called inconsistent, uninspired and rushed, The Zap Gun will surely confirm those claims. The Carol and Graf Masters of Science Fiction edition of this novel has some interesting quotes by Dick himself about this novel. This is from an April 1981 interview, one year before his death:


“A lot of them (his books) are pot-boilers. Well they weren’t intentionally, they worked out that way. I always write it as well as I can. But sometimes I just don’t have the sacred fire to enflame my talent into, you know, a level of genius and what I wind up with is some turkey like The Zap Gun . . . the first half is totally unreadable, I don’t know where or what . . . I can hardly reconstruct the thinking that underlay the first half of that book. Just totally intelligible.”

– (The Zap Gun, Carol & Graf Master of Science Fiction. Third printing, 1983), pg. 253.


First published in 1965 during one of the most prolific periods of Dick’s career, The Zap Gun hardly stands as a testament to Dick’s genius. However once all the criticisms and flaws are put aside there are some unique and entertaining strokes of PKD brilliance to be found in this novel and the context in which it was written.


Take the job of Weapons Fashion Designer. This is as Dickian of a concept that you’ll find in any of his best novels. Bizarre and satirical, the nature and psychological effects of Lars Powderdry’s job are portrayed with the unique cynicism that defines Dick’s literary style.


The most profound aspect of The Zap Gun is it’s cynical commentary on the nature of the Cold War. At once mocking and irreverent, Dick’s vision of futuristic warfare highlights the flaws of technology and government. This theme of a media staged war as the ultimate form of social control is one that can be found in many Dick novels and stories. A true expression of the cultural environment of the time when it was written emerges from the disastrous plot lines and shallow character portraits.


Although Dick’s own career was established in 1965, The Zap Gun has a self-effacing quality that makes the novel subversive not just as a way of viewing the actions of the government but also within the sci-fi world. Dick was always an outsider even in the sci-fi community and this book demonstrates the difference between his work and that of the more successful and accepted writers of the genre. Ones that tended to write about hard science and the optimistic outlook for a technological future. The Zap Gun mocks it and rather than fighting aliens and bug-eyed monsters, the main character’s battles are fought with himself, psychologically. The reckless tone and style in which wrote The Zap Gun also seem to mock the conventions of “good writing” and literary one finds in sci-fi or any other genre.. Its almost as if Dick knew this wasn’t a novel destined for greatness and said, “Fuck it. I’ll write this book to please no one and to play by my own rules – of which there are none”.

The result is a novel that seems to be making fun of itself. Dick may have even been expressing his own frustrations with the genre of sci-fi. After wanting to break out of the pulp magazines and sci-fi journals which supported him (barely), Dick gave up on his hopes of mainstream success and devoted all of his energy to sci-fi. After 2 years of churning out 11 novels, the author was burned out at the time and may have barely been aware of what he would write next in The Zap Gun. This spontaneous form of writing gives the novel a loose and disconnected feeling that results in a plot line so thin, it’s hard to even get a sense of what Dick has in mind with this novel. It’s most likely he didn’t either.


This is what fans of PKD will find interesting in this novel. One that doesn’t take itself seriously at all, mocks the conventions from which it came and doesn’t look back. It’s a perfect context for the author to express his darker and more cynical view of technology and science in a changing world. The inadequacies and psychological traumas of a helpless population are highlighted in the context of a biting commentary on the Cold War and the social norms of the 1950’s.

Agree or disagree? Add a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Review by Jason Koornick: The Zap Gun (1967)

  1. These are devastatingly insightful reviews. Reinforced by Dick’s own disapprobation of the novel, they leave me disappointed in my own seeming inability to determine the quality of a good novel, or to even set appropriate writing standards for myself; because after a second reading of The Zap Gun, it became the novel I most treasure out of the many Dick novels I’ve read. The ending struck me as genuinely disturbing, portions preceding it were effectively ominous, the use of a children’s toy was a simple stroke (in fact the concept of empathy as a weapon struck me as the most probable idea in Dick’s fiction; “probable” isn’t the right word, I can’t think of the right one now), and the subtle, abrupt shift in material threat, from the presence of alien satellites in the sky to Lars Powderdry’s wife showing up at his office–the shrinking from macrocosm to microcosm–have all been sort of influential to me. The reviewer commented (or I interpreted his comment as) that the incongruities, the imperfections of the novel are what will perhaps most intrigue a Philip K. Dick fan, and maybe that explains why my shining review of this book ignores so many of its faults. If The Zap Gun is a confirmation of inconsistency, haste and lack of inspiration, then my literary values are humbled, and I seek help. Is this a common reaction of a reader like myself, who has so far restricted himself to a small, private reading sphere of self-formed and never-shared literary opinions, only to one night inflate out and discover what many other minds have to say?

  2. Hi Tim. I thought it was excellent too. It never occured to me that it was thinly-plotted or lacking inspiration. It was rivetted and I thought all the ideas and the concepts were sharp-edged and funny. I didn’t notice any shallow characterisation particularly either. And, actually, I don’t even really care what PKD thought about it. Or at least the fact that he thought it was bad doesn’t influence my opinion very much. I think PKD’s wrong about that, and that it’s excellent. I think the idea of “the quality of a good novel” isn’t very useful in judging literature. The “novels” I most admire, like Joyce’s “Ulysses”, or Beckett’s “Watt” or Ballard’s “The Atrocity Exhibion” or Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” aren’t “quality novels”, they’re works that smashed the form of the novel to bits, or stretch it into something else, or that make “plot” irrelevant by foregrounding images and concepts instead. So what I’m saying is, basically, I don’t think anything Jason says is wrong, but I wouldn’t let the authoratitive opinions of ANYONE, even the author!, change the way you think and feel about a piece of art: your response to it is sovereign, and you can trust your own reponse. So don’t be disappointed in yourself. The established view is there to be disputed.

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