Building a remedy for Khrushchev and Kennedy?

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The World that Jones Made by Philip K Dick (PKD) is a short book running in at only 200 pages, but one of his most entertaining and well-plotted novels full of interesting invention and ideas. Floyd Jones is a man who can see a year into the future which he uses in a quest for power as a quasi-religious figure in a post-apocalyptic world where religion is outlawed as having no base in reality.

The secret service of the incumbent government try all sorts to stop Jones’s rise to power, but because he has seen every twist and turn of a year ahead he thwarts all attempts at stopping him, at one point literally dodging a bullet. However, as usual with PKD, there’s more than this story going on. We also have the appearance of massive single-celled blobs from outer space causing much disconcertion. Could it be an invasion? What do the blobs want? The population turns to Jones for answers and his call for a crusade could ultimately be his undoing. There are also a group of genetic mutants housed inside a sealed refuge in a mysterious lab with an artificial climate, and a secret service policeman called Cussick whose marriage is on the rocks (PKD writes about broken marital relationships and divorce quite often – a reflection on his own repeatedly troubled home life no doubt) especially when his wife joins Jones’s burgeoning cult.

Each element on its own would make an interesting tale (indeed Jones reminds me of Nicholas Cage’s character in the film Next) and it is to PKD’s credit that he ties all these elements together to deliver a greater whole. At times I thought that perhaps he is telling an allegorical tale, perhaps about communism, but PKD would probably just write about communism up front if he wanted to, not dick (‘scuse the pun!) about with metaphors. That said there are elements of this book that mirror the post-911 environment of government propaganda in the US and the willingness of a desperate administration and their followers latching on to the idea of a perhaps misguided crusade. There is also a palpable feeling of despair shared across all the main characters including Jones himself who has foreseen his own death.

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe is perhaps the most interesting, educational and entertaining history book I have ever read. In the past I have tended to lean towards the work of Antony Beevor and Stephen E. Ambrose, both being mainly concerned with WWII. Kempe’s book follows these two authors in their constructive techniques – using first-hand accounts from people who were ‘on the ground’ at the time, recently declassified documents as well as previous texts written by other historians. Kempe was a journalist and this shows through in his delivery of the facts which at times left me sitting in stunned disbelief.

I knew very little about the Cold War and the portioning out of Germany after WWII, Kennedy’s administration and even less about Khrushchev for that matter beyond a line in a Queen song. This book takes it up to the Cuban Missile Crisis and even goes some way to discuss that challenge in the light of what happened in Berlin 1961. So what happened? I suggest you read the book, but basically the Berlin Wall was constructed to separate West and East Germany amid a lot of muscle flexing by Khrushchev and the inexperienced JFK who had just suffered an embarrassing loss of face in the failed Bay of Pigs operation to overthrow Castro in Cuba. The events in Berlin culminated in a ‘Mexican standoff’ between American and Russian tanks at the only remaining border crossing.

Kempe’s book reveals much about JFK’s character, health, and willingness to use unofficial communication channels to talk to the Russian leader. It paints JFK in an unforgiving light and made me reappraise the image I had of him of the ‘last gunfighter’ and a hero of democracy. That’s not to say that Kempe leans towards the communist cause; I would say his book is quite politically neutral and just lays out the facts in a fascinating and thought-provoking manner.

Image:  Wouter de Koster

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