Traditionally a novel spends its early sections introducing some form of crisis, and its later sections dealing with the consequences that follow. Philip K Dick has a curious habit of only developing the problem and then signing off, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. To date I have found no better examples of this than Our Friends from Frolix 8, in which a disgruntled lower-caste human returns from several years of intergalactic travel with an invincible alien who, he believes, will put the world to right.
At least, so says the blurb. Upon tucking into this novel, I soon found that the alien visitor storyline is mostly a device into which Dick slots his usual breed of zany and dysfunctional characters. Dick seems to delight in dangling the terrifying spectacle of an alien invasion before us, immersing us in the sense of unknowing by delaying the crunch moment until the book is almost over. In a sense we do not even need to see what happens when Provoni and the alien arrive; this book is all about human behaviour in exceptional circumstances, and there is a tremendous sense of looking through a glass cage at laboratory mice running through intricate mazes blindfolded.
The prime shortcoming, for me, was a main character who lacked basic credibility. Initially a standard family man, Nick Appleton’s frustration at the struggles of his family inexplicably causes him to leave them for a teenage girl he has only met that day and a resistance movement he barely identifies with. All this in the space of a few hours with no prior hint at marital breakdown or political radicalisation. Some of my favourite Sci Fi characters have had major ethical shortcomings – such as Gully Foyle or Robinette Broadhead – but I found their actions believable.
Many of the usual PKD themes are present here. Humans have developed psychic abilities, characters use illicit substances while rallying against an oppressive and senseless governing machine, and wild schemes and inventions threaten the very existence of life on Earth. None of these themes play out with quite the same glamour as classics such as Ubik or A Scanner Darkly. But with a quiet understatement reminiscent of The Crack In Space, this book is an enjoyable slice of classic golden age science fiction.