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Our Friends From Frolix 8 by Philip K. Dick: (A Book Review)

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Today we're considering a novel by science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick: "Our Friends From Frolix 8." The edition I'm looking at is paperback, first published in 1970 by Vintage Books (a division of Random House). We're looking at 211 pages.

I want to read the blurb on the back cover of the book:

"Nick Appleton is a menial laborer whose life is a series of endless frustrations. Willis Gram is the despotic oligarch of a planet ruled by big-brained elites. When they both fall in love with Charlotte Boyer, a feisty black marketer of revolutionary propaganda, Nick seems destined for doom. But everything takes a decidedly unpredictable turn when the revolution's leader, Thors Provoni, returns from ten years of intergalactic hiding with a ninety-ton protoplasmic slime that is bent on creating a new world order."

I want you to think about that "ninety-ton protoplasmic slime that is bent on creating a new world order." However, it is not nearly as simple as that. The society is ruled by supposedly more evolved types of humans, known as the New Men and Unusuals.

The "New Men" were supposedly more 'evolved' humans with super intelligence. They were supposedly particularly good at the theoretical sciences and abstract mathematics; and they supposedly made pioneering advances in those fields that ordinary human beings could not have hoped to accomplish.

The "Unusuals" were, again, supposedly more 'evolved' humans with "psychic" powers, particularly telepathy and future-telling (people with that talent tend to be referred to as "precogs" in Philip K. Dick science fiction).

There is a third category: ordinary human beings are referred to as "Old Men."

Thors Provoni has set out on a mission to get extraterrestrial help for the "Old Men," so that ordinary people can reclaim their world and throw off the tyranny of the joint ruling cartel of the New Men and Unusuals.

This is an important book because it illustrates a fundamental tension, which exists for us in real life. That tension is definable in the form of the following question: Is "genius" or "giftedness" a real thing, genetically and biologically traceable, as the relatively rare endowment of certain people; or is "genius" or "giftedness" nothing more than a presumption and assertion, made by people who are in a position to lord it over the rest of us? In other words, is the proclamation of "genius" or "giftedness," as a relatively rare endowment merely something that has replaced blood aristocracy and royalty.

Personally, I belong in the latter camp, in the view that so-called "genius" or "giftedness," as a relatively rare endowment of rare individuals is a class-based presumption and assertion made by elites, who are in a position to lord it over the rest of us.

I would refer you to two articles that take each side. I would recommend you to an article by Jennifer Senior ( "The Myth of the Gifted Child: The Junior Meritocracy) in New York magazine, which agrees with me (at least the writer of the piece agrees with me). And I would refer you to an article that, apparently, views "genius" and "giftedness" as genetically and biologically traceable phenomena, which confers that rare endowment upon rare individuals: "They Don't Make Homo Sapiens Like They Used To," by Kathleen McAuliffe, which appears in the March 2009 edition of Discover magazine.

I have to say that I don't recall ever having been as upset by something I read, as I was when I read the McAuliffe piece, because it suggested that human beings are, currently, undergoing speciation, evolving "away" from each other. No troubling implications there, right?

Anyway, there is a back and forth, in Our Friends From Frolix 8 as to whether "genius" or "giftedness" is a real thing, genetically and biologically traceable, or is merely a social presumption and assertion of the emergent political elite. And, also as in real life, the claim is made, in the novel, that "genius" or "giftedness" can be measured by a state-sponsored standardized written test.

This ambiguity I speak of is even covered by the story's alleged demonstrations of psychic manifestations. For example, there is a character in the novel, a so-called "Unusual," who is supposed to be a telepath. Although there is never any suggestion that he is not a telepath, his supposed exhibitions of his telepathic ("mind reading") ability may or may not be anything more than empathy combined with a well developed ability to "read people," as it were.

You see, several characters in the story, of the "Old Men" camp express the idea that the standardized tests (which test for suitability for government service, by the way; the more "New Man" or "Unusual" ability one has, the better suited she is for government service) are rigged. And there is one "Old Men" parent who claims that her daughter was unfairly denied entry into the government, since she can "sort of hear people's thoughts," and so forth.

The brains of the "New Men" are supposed to actually be concretely different from that of "Old Men," with the former's "Roger's Nodes."

This tension exists in real life, as I said. Is there something "different" about the brains of "geniuses," like, say, Albert Einstein. You may recall a time when such speculation was "a thing."

On the other hand, there is a character that seemingly, actually displays the power of telekinesis: moving objects with the mind.

Here's the thing. First of all, the demonstration given in the story is very small scale. It involves someone causing a glass to fly into his hand.

As you know, in real life there have been and are people who claim to possess "psychic powers." Those of you who are old enough, may recall the name Uri Geller, who claimed to have the power of telekinesis, which was most dramatically demonstrated through his supposed mental spoon bending.

I would also remind you that there is a man called James Randi, the "Amazing Randi." Mr. Randi is an outspoken advocate for religious skepticism as well as a professional magician (retired now, I believe, at age 87). One thing he like to do was put down claims of psychic phenomena by showing that he could duplicate it through his magician's tricks, thereby proving the falsity of claims made by believers. I understand he was quite good at it.

Here's the thing, on yet another hand. The story climaxes with the return of Thors Provoni and he does indeed come back with alien assistance, that "ninety-ton protoplasmic slime" I mentioned.

I don't want to give the conclusion of the story away, but that alien does something. The thing that the alien does might suggest that the basis of the alleged superior abilities of the New Men and Unusuals, did, after all, have a genetically and biologically traceable basis. If that is "true," then the story is indeed a "science fiction" work.

However, to me, the alien's action and its effects and consequences felt more like a karmic, "what goes around, comes around," divinely salvational (I just invented the word 'salvational') "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first" kind of deal; and this would make the work fantasy, since the big ending is not based on "science" but "magic."

Let me say one last thing. Philip K. Dick was not a writer of action scenes, per se. What I mean by that is that he did not "dramatize" the kinds of things that you and I might think call for "dramatization," in the form of really playing it up with figurative bells and whistles. He was casual about things that you and I might not think appropriate to report in a casual way.

What I'm saying is: Don't look for any grand dramatization of the action taken by the living, telepathic, alien protoplasm. What Mr. Dick focused on were the consequences for "New Men," "Unusuals," and "Old Men." Again, I don't want to give away the ending, but the consequences felt more like karma to me.

Okay, that will do it.

Thank you so much for reading!


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