Philip K. Dick is one of the best-known science fiction authors for good reason. The Simulacra was written at the height of Dick’s creative powers, in 1964, a look at a future totalitarian society presumably dominated by a matriarch: the First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux. First Ladies have taken over control of the government and rule instead of presidents, and their rule spans their entire lives. The president is a figurehead, the consort for the First Lady. Though he is elected (unlike First Ladies) still, the president (now referred to as Der Alte) has no real powers. The current president is an android, Rudi Kalbfleisch.
As many of Dick’s novels do, The Simulacra’s plot revolves around what is real and what is not, the themes of reality and illusionary beliefs. Dick keeps his various protagonists all under his control as he weaves this masterpiece of science fiction, interlacing various plots and subplots throughout his story of a bleak, very altered United States of America. No longer called the USA, the nation has merged with West Germany and is now known as the USEA (United States of Europe and America). The other extant superpowers are the French Empire, the People’s Republic of China, and Free (Black) Africa. Communism still exists, though Poland has become its global center of authority.
This is the backdrop and the type of totalitarian future which The Simulacra is set in. Like all Dick’s novels, the characters drive it, and their shifting perspectives on reality—what is morally right (if anything), and how to fit in with a society which seems perversely to pull the rug out from under you just when you think you might be getting a grasp on understanding it.
One of these protagonists is the world’s last practicing psychotherapist, Dr. Egon Superb. He is struggles to practice in a world full of the maladjusted. Psychotherapy has been made illegal, but Dr. Superb refuses to stop treating his patients. He is arrested but allowed to continue his practice if he cooperates with Wilder Pembroke, the head of the National Police, and “treats”one patient in particular whom the government has predetermined that he will be unable to “cure.” Pembroke either doesn’t know himself who the person is or simply refuses to tell Dr. Superb. He only says, “So your primary instructions are turn down no new patients. You understand? However insane - or rather, however evidently sane.”
The novel is filled with many other unique and interesting characters, such as Ian Duncan, who is desperately in love with First Lady Nicole Thibideaux, evem though he has never met her. There’s telekinetic Richard Kongrosian, a famous pianist who can play the piano with his mind. He has dropped out of sight, however, and refuses to see anyone because he is under the (false) impression that his body odor is lethal. Bertold Goltz, seemingly determined to overthrow the USEA government, is in reality the head of the covert USEA governing council.
Layers upon layers of conspiracies and cover-ups builds within The Simulacra. The company Karp und Sohne Werke manufactured the latest Der Alte simulacrum, but the next contract is proposed to be given to a rival company, Frauenzimmer Associates. Karp und Sohn Werke threaten to reveal what has been a state secret for over the last five decades. Nicole dislikes the simulacra Kalbfleisch, but through planned obsolescence, he is about to suffer a heart attack and will be replaced. Nicole is not the original Nicole, either, but an actress hired to play her, and is just one in a series of “Nicoles.”
The Simulacra is one of Dick’s most mind-blowing novels, and that’s saying a lot. It’s also one of his most character-heavy novels; sometimes keeping up with all of the major plots and subplots takes some doing, but it’s worth it. Being a P.K. Dick novel, naturally aliens are also featured: the sentient, empathic, insectoid “papoola” of Mars, and the primitive multi-cellular life forms of Ganymede. Stir in a developing civil war, Pembroke’s attempted coup, low-level nuclear warfare, and recrudescent Neandrathals called “chuppers” (who are happy because they might once again become dominant), and you have the makings of a mini-masterpiece of science fiction.