All right, I guess I should say a little bit more than that. Prior to writing the intro, I read just enough to jog my memory and spot the very loose similarities to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I don’t remember noticing the first time around. Obviously Joe Fernwright isn’t quite as clueless as Arthur Dent, he’s aware of intergalactic travel and civilisation even if he’s never experienced it first-hand. He’s also recruited for a particular talent rather than being thrust into space by sheer misfortune. But the general vibes of an ordinary guy being forced from his humdrum existence into an action-packed life of adventure definitely struck me as an interesting comparison. There’s also a slightly unlikely romance and a robot filled with personality – perhaps not as iconic as the ever-suffering Marvin, but I really enjoyed the witty, poetry-loving Willis. Possibly not so much the perplexing scene in which, after “brushing up on Earth’s history”, he switches to a stereotypical dialect – I’m not sure if this is a racist joke or a heavy-handed attempt to critique American history but it definitely dates the novel a little.
I also remembered this being a funny novel, and that held up too. I love how disinterested the other recruits are in Joe’s tedious “game”, and Dick’s descriptions of life halfway across the galaxy are full of witty contradictions and oddball characters. Willis gets most of the best comedic lines, but Dick manages to write funny lines for most of the characters without getting into full-on comedic territory – I particularly enjoyed Glimmung’s polite messages popping to the surface of the ocean while he was engaged in mortal battle below the surface. When the writing gets surprisingly in-depth about ceramics I find that funny too, but I’m not sure whether that’s intentional – I guess it’s all part of establishing that Joe really knows his stuff on this one particular topic but it gets hilariously nerdy in places.
As for the actual plot, it’s an interesting “fate vs free will” saga. The Kalends and their precognitive newspaper are a fun creation, and there’s an interesting unstoppable force / immovable object setup with the near-omnipotent Glimmung’s quest to raise the planet’s mysterious cathedral despite their prophecies stating that the mission is doomed to failure. There are plenty of Dick novels (and short stories) with more irresistible hooks but there’s plenty of substance here as well as the fun character stuff bobbing about on the surface.
Something I’ve often said when discussing Philip K. Dick is that, despite loving most of his work, I often find his endings a little bit of a let down. I was bracing myself for that to be the case here, but the Twilight Zone-esque ending / punchline here is actually an all-timer and I can’t believe I didn’t remember it – such a perfect way to sign-off on Joe’s weird little story.
Another thing that came to mind re-reading this is that when I was idly watching Star Trek as a teenager, my Dad would often come into the room and bring up a recurring complaint: too many of the aliens were humanoid in appearance. “In the depths of infinite space, why would most of the other races look basically like us?” he’d say, and I probably didn’t have enough understanding of television at that point to say “the reasons are probably mainly budget-related!” I love how creative Dick gets with the alien races – various insect-like creatures are fairly obvious places to go when inventing non-human life but I love that there’s a creature formed of “reddish jelly, supported by a metal frame”. And of course, Glimmung himself – while he can take many forms, what seems to be the natural one is a wheel of fire and a wheel of water, woven together. “Now THAT’S an alien”, my dad would probably say, if I raised this with him. In 1996.
Finally, one more thing that struck me as amusing – obviously this wasn’t deliberately scheduled for Pride month, but I love that when the final battle seems impossible, Glimmung triumphs by coming out as bisexual* and immediately becoming more powerful than ever before.
* definition of bisexual may not match currently understood meaning of word