Top positive review
Reviewed in the United States on October 19, 2019
The Penultimate Truth is shambolic and episodic, but that approach serves the work well. Its main characters are living shambolic lives, which Dick depicts as full of odd episodes which occasionally have great and beautiful moments of transcendence, even in the post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the book is set.
In the future world of this book, much of humanity lives in massive underground bunkers, nicknamed anthills, in which they build weapons and medical devices for the nuclear war they believe is ravaging the surface of the Earth. When Nick St. James, the president of one anthill, makes his way to the surface, St. James discovers his people have been lied to. The world on the surface has survived nuclear devastation and has emerged into a unique and odd civilization. Needless to say, the revelation of the relatively peaceful world surface changes nearly everything.
What makes this novel so special, though, is that those revelations don’t change the way St. James views his world. He doesn’t become a noble crusader for truth or a vengeful destroyer of the new civilization. Instead our protagonist goes the opposite way of most heroic leads. Instead of rebelling, he goes out of his way to allow the world to stay in its current state. He will not let the truth of his world change life in the anthill. The penultimate truth of the story is the truth behind the nuclear war. But the ultimate truth is more powerful: it is the special bond society creates, the relationships created and enduring for decades, and the lies and half-truths that are necessary to perpetuate that society.
This description makes The Penultimate Truth sound heady and brainy, and it is filled with a intriguing level of intelligence and wisdom about human nature. But it is also has the several elements we have come to expect from Dick’s finest work.
First and foremost, this is an exciting story, with scenes of high adventure, escapes and shootouts which keep the reader turning the page. There are mysteries piled upon mysteries, characters who shift and change as the story proceeds only to have them revealed in ways for which the reader was foreshadowed but for which he likely could not have anticipated.
Secondly, this is a wise and fascinating study of human nature. The Penultimate Truth is about jealousy and lust for power balanced with trust and love for family and friends. It sets stability and chaos in opposite sides of the metaphorical coin in ways few other novels of any type have explored, and in doing so shows the power of novelistic science fiction in the hands of a master of the medium.
Thirdly, this book seems to explode with ideas, from the anthills (an idea Dick explored in some of his short fiction such as “Second Variety”) to the vast demesnes in which the surface dwellers live, to the vast conspiracies used to keep ordinary people following their leaders. That last element is strikingly prescient in our current political landscape.
And the last element I’ve come to love in Dick’s work comes from the very end of the book. In my mind there are two endings to this novel, and in fact I won’t reveal them here so you can experience them yourself. But I’m curious how many readers wish The Penultimate Truth had ended with the deeply ironic penultimate chapter as its conclusion as opposed to those who preferred the redemptive final chapter.
Throw in some gorgeously descriptive language and you have one of Dick's finest novels.