A little known, or at least often overlooked fact, is that back in the mid-1960s (1966, to be exact), Philip K. Dick (hereinafter PKD) wrote a children’s novel, called Nick and the Glimmung. Yep, the guy best known for producing some of the most thought-provoking, often brilliant and/or disturbingly weird, examinations of the nature of consciousness and reality in American science fiction – you know, light-hearted stuff – tried his hand at a kid’s prose. It was only published posthumously in the late 1980s.
And I think I understand why. Here’s a quick summary: the story starts on Earth in the far-flung future of 1992. A young boy named Nick and his family get into trouble because the authorities find out that Nick has a pet cat (named Horace) – and having pets anywhere on Earth is illegal due to limited resources. The entire planet, by the way, is ruled by a highly bureaucratized, Soviet-style totalitarian government. So to avoid having Horace confiscated by the ‘anti-pet man,’ Nick’s parents decide to leave Earth and move to a colony world called Plowman’s Planet, where they can become farmers.
Once they get there, though, they find a rather strange place. The human population is pretty sparse, and there are also many strange, and sentient, native creatures, some of whom are in conflict with a mysterious, malevolent alien being called the Glimmung (while others are allied with it).
After Horace gets kidnapped by a pair of trobes, little troll-like creatures who are in cahoots with the Glimmung, Nick eventually ends up having to confront the Glimmung directly, and his actions will have far-reaching consequences for the future of Plowman’s Planet.
As a story, this actually works pretty well. I appreciated the hook with the cat being the, well, catalyst for the entire story, and Horace is a good character in his own right, especially in the first half of the book. And there are some nice touches on Plowman’s Planet as well, like one of the native species, called the spiddles, which have six legs and a very amusing way of talking – they always emphasize any point they make by adding the word ‘city’. For example, if events take a bad turn, they say “bad luck city,” if there’s too many people around, it’s “commotion city,” if an enemy stages a sneak attack, it’s “cowardly assault city,” and so forth.
However, there are some very PKD-ian elements that probably made editors a bit leery about having this shelved with other children’s and YA books. First, you’ve got passages like this one, when Nick runs into a werj, a pterodactyl-type creature that’s allied with the Glimmung: “In its eyes he made out infinity, an endless recession of dismal mirrors, within which he himself looked back, his own face, distorted into a mocking mask of sorrow and fright.” Later, there’s also a scene in which Nick comes across the body of man killed by the Glimmung, lying on the ground with a giant metal spear protruding from his back.
Anyway, as you can see from the images posted here, an illustrated edition was published in 1988, which I recently snagged on the cheap a few months ago. If you like PKD’s work, or unusual children’s literature (or both, like me), you might want to seek this one out.
By the way, as a post-script, I should also note that PKD actually salvaged the bare bones of the plot from Nick and the Glimmung a few years later (1969) in his novel Galactic Pot-healer, which is also set on Plowman’s Planet. The main character, Joe Fernright, is a ‘pot-healer’ (meaning someone who can fix any piece of pottery/ceramic so that it looks like new), living a drab and lonely life on a very similar dystopian future Earth. Despite his job title, like most other people, Joe doesn’t actually have any work to do and idles away most of his days. Then he gets contacted by the Glimmung, which is portrayed in a far more nuanced way, and is more or less a benevolent force. It offers him a princely sum to come to Plowman’s Planet to help in the raising and restoration of a cathedral that’s submerged in its ocean. Joe decides to go, and on the spaceflight over, he meets a number of others (including several non-humans) who were also enticed to come by the Glimmung. Each has a special skill like he does, and all were dissatisfied with their lives – many were in fact on the verge of committing suicide. When they arrive on Plowman’s Planet, Joe finds that the Glimmung is in conflict with one of the several sentient native species on the planet, the Kalends, who are precognitive and keep publishing editions of a book that more or less accurately foretells the future, and according to which the Glimmung’s endeavor will fail. (There’s a similar book in Nick and the Glimmung, although there it’s considered less sinister than the one depicted here). Joe, like Nick, then goes on to play a key role in subsequent events – although with a very different, and more ambiguous, outcome.
Galactic Pot-healer rarely gets mentioned among the must-read books by PKD, which I think is unfair. It’s a pretty solid read, with the usual weirdness plus philosophical and/or theological themes woven into the story, although these aspects never weigh down the narrative (which is often the case in some of PKD’s later novels from the 1970s).
Otherwise, I found it interesting that early in book, PKD seemed to not only anticipate the creation of the internet, but also multi-player online gaming (although word-games rather than shoot-’em-ups). And – although this couldn’t have been a stretch even back in the 1960s – he predicted Viagra as well, except here it has the no-nonsense name ‘Hardovax’.