There were plenty of notable exceptions, of course, but early SF largely concerned itself with great men of tremendous vision and extraordinary ability who got in there and solved problems - the kind of man Robert Heinlein liked to write about. PKD was among those later writers who noticed that most people in the real world aren't like that, and wrote stories about them instead. "Solar Lottery" lacks his later interest in what makes something real (although it does include a conspiracy in which a man with no real personality drives a whole crew of telepaths crazy), but in Ted Benteley it contains an early example of his interest in regular guys.
As is often the case with PKD, Ted Benteley finds himself in a classic SF plot turned inside out. In this case, the classic SF plot in question comes almost directly from a true genre classic, "The World of Null-A" by A.E. van Vogt. In both novels, a man tries to make his way in the world by gambling his future on the game that forms whatever government exists around him, only to find that someone is cheating. Van Vogt's protagonist is a typical post-World War II SF superman; PKD's is a talented but endlessly ticked off functionary who spends most of the novel trying to figure out what's going on.
Everything in his world depends on the random activity of an atomic device that determines the fates of millions - a lottery indeed, with one man at the head of it. What's more, for most people, the best fate they can hope for is to bind themselves in servitude to someone of a higher social position, if any such person will take them. Merit, ability and hard work count for nothing here, and there's no way up or out except by random chance for Benteley or for almost anyone else. If most early genre SF was about men of vision and courage saving the world by their own efforts, "Solar Lottery" was that SF's polar opposite.
Benteley is not as strong a hero as later PKD characters would be, partly because of his aforementioned nasty temper. He's got plenty to be annoyed about - he gets a chance for escape at the novel's beginning and misses it because someone misleads him at a critical moment. Nevertheless, dwelling in the mind of a character who's always complaining about something can wear on one pretty quickly.
Indeed, it's no easy task to sympathize with any of these characters. In addition to their unpleasant traits - uncontrollable rage, treachery, lust for power, cowardice - these people switch attitudes so quickly it can make you dizzy. The coward, for example, suddenly acquires a titanium backbone when the men who want to kill him actually show up. Of course, PKD wrote "Solar Lottery" at a time when SF novels had to end at about 180 pages by the decree of the age's major publisher, so he probably did not have space to develop his characters more fully, but it's a flaw nevertheless.
The same can be said for the novel's plot elements - there are so many seemingly unrelated ones that the central story loses its focus a good deal of the time. PKD was always among our least disciplined writers, and in addition to "Solar Lottery's" conspiracies and betrayals we also get telepaths, robotics, space travel and hints of nuclear catastrophe thrown in. When we read a longer novel, these kinds of details can add a lot to the richness of the writer's world - in 180 pages it can give you indigestion if you read it too fast.
That overstuffed quality robs "Solar Lottery" of a good bit of its velocity. I mentioned A.E. van Vogt - his take on this kind of story never lost energy for a second. His stories picked up speed from the very first word and never stopped any longer than dreams do. PKD missed out on that, but where he tops van Vogt is in the strength of his underlying theme. "Solar Lottery," for all its speed bumps, eventually makes you stop and think about what it takes to maintain one's integrity in a corrupt world. Benteley spends a good deal of time complaining about the lack of decency all around him, and his carping can get old, but isn't that a particularly important thing to complain about? And isn't it satisfying to see the protagonist of any novel, even a cheap genre piece, stand up and shake a fist at the thieves and the traitors no matter how much pressure they put on him? Isn't that the kind of person you aim to be?
Oh yeah, people should have paid attention when "Solar Lottery" came out. After all, it's about a regular person with no special powers or gifts, thwarting a great evil through the strength of his convictions alone. After this, even Superman and his overpumped muscles looked a bit silly.
Benshlomo says, Sometimes it's enough to just tell the truth.
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