Solar Lottery
by Philip K. Dick

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Ace Books: New York, 1955
188 pages

as World of Chance
Rich & Cowan: London, 1956
most later editions as Solar Lottery

April 2014

Chance is somewhere else

Philip K. Dick's first novel, Solar Lottery, still finds reprintings and readers, although its faults fatally overshadow its virtues. The central idea of this not-too-futuristic society is that the Solar System's government is run by lottery: the Quizmaster — dictator of all humanity — is chosen by chance, and at unpredictable intervals, from the pool of all citizens possessing a power card. The card is a combination work-permit, passport, and unique lottery identifier. As it develops, these cards are not quite evenly distributed among the population. Longevity in office may also be truncated by legal assassination.

Here's where Dick's plot almost immediately starts to go awry. The use of chance, not just for entertainment and certain mathematical pursuits, but as a factor in government, is something we do ourselves, and have for centuries: the Anglo-American jury is chosen by lot from a pool of eligible citizens. Yet after Dick sets up this interesting thesis, from which the novel derives its title, he doesn't let it operate. The rulers are corrupt and the process is rigged. Of course this corruption and rigging may be inevitable in such a setup over time, and Dick, as he usually does, makes its hypocritical falseness and secret manipulation feel realistic. But it makes for yet another corrupt-future-government novel, where he might have made something imaginative of his Solar Lottery workings and results. Perhaps sensing that he's derailed his major idea, he doesn't waste much time with the lottery itself.

Another plotting problem is that two other important story elements are thrown away. The first, involving a virtually theological faith in the existence of an inhabited (or at least inhabitable) planet beyond Pluto's orbit, is a running theme which near the end of the novel sputters out in anticlimax. The other involves individual superfast space travel, rather like Superman of the comic books. This is thrown in way too late in the novel to develop reasonably, and without adequate science-fictional support it seems both flamboyant and ridiculous.

A not-entirely unrelated partial failing of Solar Lottery is the characterization. While a number of interpersonal scenes hold my attention, in the overall scheme of the novel it is hard to care about any of these people. After several readings at long intervals, I'd say that their best quality is simply possessing the sort of everyday realism that Dick always has been rather good at. The distinctive flavor, if you will, of his characters, is present; but the interest and caring that he was able to evoke in later novels is absent for us here. This isn't helped by the reader's uncertainty whether the characters contend with or against chance, with or against corruptocrats, with or against an extra-solar theology, or a slithery mixture of all these.

Philip K. Dick accomplishes something in Solar Lottery that I wish more science-fictioneers could manage. While this is a thoroughly cynical novel, it is not a bitter one. It's not a pleasant society that he depicts, but Dick and his characters seem able to take it as it comes. I suspect that's a basic corollary of that everyday realism with which his people are imbued.


© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson

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