The Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick (book review).

Upon discovering Philip K. Dick’s book, ‘The Zap Gun’, I was intrigued. The title is a slang term for the archetypical SF ray-gun. As I maintain a record of firsts in SF, I decided to take a closer look. Though Dick was not the first to conceive this idea (Edward Bulwer Lytton did in 1871 with ‘The Coming Race’, and specifically, a ‘ray gun’ was introduced by EE ‘Doc’ Smith in 1928 with ‘The Skylark Of Space’), I felt compelled to explore it.

In essence, a zap-gun discharges bolts of electricity, similar to the killing mechanism of a Dalek. This novel, initially published in two parts in ‘Worlds Of Tomorrow’ magazine in 1965-66 under the title ‘Operation Plowshare’, must have enjoyed considerable success, as evidenced by my Panther’s second edition copy.

The protagonist, Lars Powderdry, finds his 20 working days per year curtailed to 19. However, he maintains a sideline as a weapons designer, recognized as an expert in his field. We trace his journey towards joining the weapons council and the development of a super-weapon.

Dick’s narrative, heavily reliant on dialogue and infamous for his drug habit, often entwines consciousness and plot intricately. At some point, Powderdry encounters a massive weapon targeting Earth. The plot swiftly shifts, possibly indicating Dick’s change of mind during the gap between the two original parts. Eventually, Powderdry finds himself in the Kremlin, defending accusations of design theft until he refers to the comic ‘The Blue Cephalopod Man From Titan’. Both Russia and America investigate the visionary comic creator Oral Giacomini, marking parallels between their countries and his creations. The titular gun is essentially a Molecular Restriction-Beam Phase Inverter or, more simply, a disintegrator gun.

The book introduces an intriguing concept: a comic book creator’s ingenuity propelling real-world technology. From the innovative machines Jack Kirby crafted for Reed Richards to Heinlein’s remote hand waldos, this interplay between imagination and science is prevalent. Even Arthur Clarke’s space elevator might be realized someday, assuming the potential catastrophe of a broken cable system can be mitigated. Whether organizations like NASA will develop something akin to warp drive is uncertain, but the concept of similar designs to ‘Babylon 5’s Starfuries has been flirted with.

This book is teeming with ideas. Dick’s tendency to introduce but not fully exploit them is consistent with other Golden Age SF authors. The narrative seems exploratory in nature, as though he was seeking the right direction for the story as he wrote it. Nonetheless, fans of Philip K. Dick are unlikely to be disappointed.

Geoff Willmetts

May 2023

(pub: Panther Science Fiction, 1978. 190 page paperback. Price: varies. ISBN: 0-586-04112-5)


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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