A few years ago, I succumbed to the completionist in me and ordered the remaining adult science fiction books by Philip K Dick that I had not read. Since I had a rarely used Kindle, it made sense to look for them either on paperback or electronically depending on which was cheaper. It turned out that The Crack in Space was the only one that was cheaper as a physical book. having got a little bored (I can’t believe it either) of reading Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams, I cracked open the old school sci-fi book as soon as it arrived and started reading.
The Crack in Space is not one of Philip K Dick’s best books, despite it being written in a productive (amphetamine-fuelled) period of time (1963-64) in which he also wrote ten other novels including (Dr Bloodmoney, The Simulcra and the classic The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), ten stories, two essays, and two plot treatments that turned into collaborations with Ray Nelson (The Ganymede Takeover) and Roger Zelazny (Deus Irae).
The Crack in Space features some interesting stuff about America’s first black (or as they put it in the book ‘col’) president – a rather outlandish idea back in the Sixties no doubt – and a portal to a parallel earth populated by a race of early men called sinathropus or Peking Man (a.k.a. Pekes). The twists and turns of the story are very much a commentary on race relations disguised in the envelope of fun science fiction and an exploration of what Dick thinks it would take for all races of homo sapiens to forget their differences and live in harmony – i.e. a common enemy in the form of the Pekes.
There’s a reverse Zaphod Beeblebrox character in the form of George Walt who has one head and two bodies who tries to play god to the Pekes and their are similarities in the story to the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Steve Baxter. As I was reading it, it all seemed rather familiar and I had to check the contents of a couple of novel collections I have to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently already read it. I guess what might have happened is that some bits of the story were included in one of Dick’s short stories that I have read.
Some of the charm of the story is that it shows its age in places with contemporary items such as tapes mentioned and yet includes such things as video conferencing, flying cars, satellites, teleportation, cryogenics and apartment block intercoms. Dick’s forward thinking views on race relations may have seemed overtly liberal to a lot of people back then but are surprisingly normal today. This tells us more about American society in the Sixties than it does about the state of science fiction writing back then I think.
In his book Divine Invasions, biographer Lawrence Sutin calls the book a rare ‘dull’ novel but points to the many ideas that could have been the basis of novels in their own right. He also points out that the George Walt character having two bodies joined with a single brain and where one of the twins died at birth and is replaced by an artificial creation is a manifestation of the author continuing to process his long-held grief over the death of his twin sister Jane Charlotte in 1929 only a few weeks after their premature birth.