Summary & Commentary on
Philip K. Dick's Galactic Pot Healer
by Brian Davies
Joe Fernwright is a mender of ceramic pots, who has had no work in seven months. He decides to walk to work today, due to the tardiness of the state-run mass transit, and is harassed by police en route. He collects his veteran's dole and goes to his office, where he does nothing but play word games with an international group of friends, using machine translators. He tells one of the friends that he is quitting the game and will spend all his saved coins to consult an oracle, when he receives a mysterious note, saying "Pot-healer, I need you. And I will pay."
Joe arrives back at home and calls his ex-wife Kate, a harsh woman who complains about the alimony he owes her. He reads her the note, and she immediately supposes that the task must be illegal. Then Joe asks her if he could come over and visit her, and is rejected.
Joe checks his stash of quarters in his toilet tank and finds another note in a plastic container, stating that the pay for the job is 35,000 crumbles. The bank is closed, so Joe uses a sleep inducer and endures the mandatory heroic dream sequence for four hours until the bank reopens, so that he can ask about exchange rates. He learns that crumbles are the currency of Sirius 5, and that 35,000 crumbles is a fortune. The inquiry quickly brings Joe a visit from a pair of agents from the Quietude Civil Authority. He obediently shows them the note, and then the agents request that he report to them daily. When they leave, Joe calls the encyclopedia number, and learns that Sirius 5 is inhabited by the Glimmung, a being whose immense power is sharply curtailed by a book that records the entire past and future of that world.
The next day at work, Joe finds a note requesting him to ship out to Plowman's Planet. He notices some nearly invisible writing on the note, which after heating reveals the message "We shall raise Heldscalla." More research with the encyclopedia reveals that Heldscalla is the sunken cathedral of the once-ruling Fog Things of Sirius 5. Since he has used up his allotted encyclopedia time and can not afford to call Mr. Encyclopedia, Joe relays more questions to the encyclopedia via a friend, who tells him that Plowman's Planet is another name for Sirius 5, and that the Glimmung is infirm, dormant and penniless.
Joe takes his bag of quarters to Mr. Job, but on impulse gives almost all of them all away, and is arrested for his charity. The police at the station find the report from QCA, and Joe decides he had better run for it.
As he is about to be recaptured, Joe suddenly finds himself underwater. He bumps into a radio tuned to a call-in show, and then bumps into a telephone. He calls the show and asks where he is. Dwight L. Glimmung calls in and answers that Joe is in a crate in his basement, and moments later Joe is freed.
The Glimmung appears as a ring of fire and a ring of water with the face of a young girl and a paisley shawl, and he speaks through an old phonograph player that keeps winding down. When Joe asks for an advance for his efforts, the Glimmung flies into a rage. When it calms down, the Glimmung tells Joe he will be deposited at the spaceport and should leave for Sirius 5 immediately, as the police are waiting at Joe's home. As a parting gift, the Glimmung gives Joe a potsherd of incredible beauty.
At the Cleveland Spaceport, Joe visits a Padre Booth to talk about his fears of losing his skills. He dials up several religions before receiving advice from the Judiasm setting to get some food. While Joe is finishing his meal, the Glimmung appears to him in human form and reassures him that this mission will give his life meaning.
On the starship, Joe awakens next to a marine biologist named Mali Yojez, who he discovers is also working for the Glimmung. It turns out that thirty of the forty-five passengers are employees of the Glimmung. They debate the nature of the offer and the Glimmung itself. Harper Baldwin, a government psychokineticist, reports that the Glimmung intimidated him into taking the job and believes it is not to be trusted. Several other recruits also believe they were coerced, as they had fallen under police suspicion very recently and believe the Glimmung orchestrated their troubles. Others confess to having attempted suicide, and believe the Glimmung is saving them.
Joe reports something from the encyclopedia and inadvertantly insults Mali. She departs for the lounge, and Joe follows her.
In the lounge, Joe apologizes to Mali. When he finds a sub specie aeternitatis, a machine that predicts the future of a couple, he asks Mali to use it with him and she reluctantly agrees. The machine predicts a happy future for them, which makes Mali angry. She reveals to Joe that an SSA had predicted a happy future for her in a previous relationship with a man named Ralf, and the prediction was entirely false.
They return to Harper Baldwin and the bickering group, which prompts Mali to turn right around and go back to the lounge, where she and Joe have an amorous encounter.
The party lands on Plowman's Planet, where Joe is accosted by a spiddle who is peddling books. Mali tells Joe there is only one book on Plowman's Planet. It has no title and is written by the Kahlends, and the story eventually becomes the history of the planet. Mali reveals that the book accurately predicted the outcome of her relationship with Ralf, that he would try to kill her and then commit suicide.
In the taxi en route to their hotel, Joe scans the book and finds a section in English, the text on the Glimmung from the encyclopedia back on Earth. The book also reveals that the Glimmung considers the Kahlends his enemies and that it wants to undermine them once and for all. The book predicts the raising of the cathedral Heldscalla will fail, and that most of those recruited to help will be destroyed.
The recruits meet in the hotel conference room to discuss the revelations in the book. Others have interpreted the key section of the book as saying that raising of the cathedral will lead to failure, and that most of those recruited will be altered beyond repair. Harper tries to organize them, but his speech is disrupted when the Glimmung appears in its true form, causing the floor to collapse. The creature falls all the way to the basement.
When the group reassembles in the basement, the Glimmung speaks to them. It claims to be trying to find the limits of its power and acknowledges that the attempt to raise Heldscalla may fail. It also states that the Kahlends do not know the future and, in any case, there is no reason to fear failure. Harper decides to leave, but when the rest of the group agrees to stay and help, he changes his mind.
The group embarks in a fleet of trucks. On the way, Joe converses with a quasiarachnid and Nurb K'ohl Dáq, a bivalve. The former compares the Glimmung to Faust, always striving and unsatisfied, and reads a garbled bit of translation from Goethe that is reminiscent of the attempt to raise Heldscalla. The being suggests that Goethe may have been precognetic.
When they arrive, Joe is astonished by robots, which were falsely proven impossible by the government on Earth. Then the group is taken to their separate quarters. Joe asks his robot assistant Willis to take him to his work area, which is filled with the best technology available. There he encounters a black figure, which Willis reveals to him is a Kahlend.
Joe tries to contact the Glimmung, but it is asleep. The Kahlend gives Joe a new copy of the book, which predicts that something Joe finds in the cathedral will cause him to kill Glimmung and forever halt the raising of Heldscalla. Joe plans to go to the underwater cathedral immediately. Despite an official request by Hilda Reiss, the Glimmung's aide, to delay his trip Joe goes ahead with his plan. As he is about to leave, Mali arrives on Glimmung's orders to accompany him. Willis explains that Heldscalla is a temple to Amalita, who was defeated by Borel, the powerful, evil sister and lover that Amalita created to fulfill himself.
Willis prepares the due for their dive. Under the water, Mali and Joe find the skeleton of a Black Glimmung, the antithesis of a Glimmung. Mali explains that each Glimmung has a counterpart that it must either kill or be killed by. Before she is done with her explanation, they encounter an animate corpse that turns out to be Joe. The thing is blind and rotted, but able to speak. Mali predicts that it will tell them to leave, but instead the corpse tells them to stay and finish the project, as the raising of Heldscalla will release it from its current state. It also tells Joe that it, and therefore Joe, was killed by the Glimmung. After this encounter, Mali convinces Joe to return to the surface, but he takes a brief detour to inspect the dredging operation and discovers that not only do Glimmungs and people have dead antitheses underwater here, but that there is a black cathedral, mirroring Heldscalla.
Mali continues to urge Joe to leave, but as they are about to ascend, Joe sees a spectacular pot encrusted in coral and goes to retrieve it. He breaks it while removing it from the coral, but finds that it is decorated with pictures of a black fish devouring both the man who found the pot and also the Glimmung. The text on the pot states that the Glimmung is a fake, and that the pot is a public-service message. Joe believes the pot is a note from the cathedral.
When Joe returns to the surface, the Glimmung arrives. It tells Joe that the pot lied, and that by disobeying the order and going to the cathedral, Joe has forced its hand, and that the Glimmung must send Joe back to Earth, and back to the waiting police.
Before the Glimmung can banish Joe, the Black Glimmung's corpse rises from the sea and drags the Glimming underwater. Joe, Willis and Mali set out on a boat and receive a message in a bottle from the Glimmung, telling them to wait for hourly status reports. Mali believes the Glimmung will die, and blames Joe for causing its death.
On getting word of the confrontation, Miss Reiss tells everyone to head to the starport and leave the planet, as the Glimmung is in mortal danger and if it is defeated the whole planet will be subject to the Black Glimmung. Joe stays behind as everyone else flees and watches the water. The Glimmung that eventually emerges is not the original Glimmung.
While the Black Glimmung heads for the starport, Joe goes back out on the boat. There he receives another message in a bottle. The Glimmung claims to have won and is recuperating, and that no one needs to flee the planet. Joe sends a message back, asking why the Glimmung is underwater if it is healthy. The Glimmung responds that it is going to defeat the black cathedral, and that Joe must gather the recruits.
Joe sends a message to the starport telling the controller to stop all departures. Then he is patched through to the recruits, and tells Harper Baldwin and Miss Reiss to bring the group back to the staging center. When they arrive, Mali tells Joe that the Black Glimmung destroyed their spacecraft after they abandoned it, but that the creature was injured in the process. Joe joins a conversation with Harper, the quasiarachnid and the bivalve. Harper claims Glimmung is doomed, as Faust always dies, but the bivalve counters that this is only true in Marlowe's version. Eventually the Glimmung returns, gravely injured.
Joe takes a boat out to the Glimmung, which is bleeding profusely and begging for help. When Joe offers to help in any way he can, the Glimmung drops his body on the wharf and engulfs the crew, turning them into a group mind. It pulls them underwater, and asks their help in a last-ditch attempt to raise the cathedral using Glimmung's own girth. When the attempt is clearly failing, Joe advises the Glimmung to wait until it has recovered and try again. The Glimmung thinks to itself that Faust always fails, but that it is not Faust. It surfaces and disgorges the group.
On shore, Mali and Joe discuss how the book has been proven wrong, that the Kahlends play the percentages, and are generally correct regarding the big picture, but can fail on specific details.
Eight days later, the Glimmung calls a meeting. It thanks Joe for halting the previous effort, and asks the crew to reform the group mind and try again. Joe agrees, but not at the risk to the individuals. The group gives the Glimmung two hours.
On the way to the cathedral, Glimmung is stopped by Questobar, one of the extinct Fog-Things who lives under the sea like all the dead on Sirius 5, and warns the Glimmung that raising Heldscalla will return the old gods and the Glimmung will no longer be the most powerful creature on the planet. The Glimmung proceeds, turning into a female and turning the cathedral into a child, which it deposits easily on shore.
After the raising of Heldscalla is complete, the Glimmung asks the crew to stay part of the group mind. The crew votes. Joe leaves, Mali stays behind. Joe is heartbroken. A gastropod, the one other being who opted to leave, convinces Joe to try his hand at creating original pottery instead of just mending others. Joe agrees and the first result is awful, a return to his life of failure.
This is a more humanist work than most of the other Dick works that I've read. Many of his novels are ensemble pieces, while this one is told from the perspective of one character throughout. Usually I experience a level of detachment from the Dick's characters, partly because the characters aren't drawn with any particular depth, and partly because I know based on the author's track record how screwed they are. Joe and Mali are characters where I honestly wanted the best for them.
An ongoing theme is the comparison of the Glimmung to Faust (principally p.90 with Nurb K'ohl Dáq's translation of Goethe, but also p.151 when Harper uses it to predict the Glimmung's death, and p.161 when Glimmung in its own mind refutes the claim). I found the comparison to be fairly unenlightening. More interesting to me was mapping Joe Fernwright to Faust, with Mali as Gretchen and the Glimmung as Mephistopheles. Joe is the one dissatisfied with his normal existence, who receives an offer from a mysterious being who may or may not be trustworthy, who accepts the offer and finds both love and meaning as a result, but loses both in the end. Even that is not a particularly deep analogy. Mephistopheles may or may not get Faust's soul but he definitely does not get Gretchen's, which is roughly the opposite of what happens to Joe and Mali.
This book picks up a thread that runs through many of Dick's works, which is the questionable value of prognostication. In this book, all the predictions of oracles, gods and technology aren't worth a damn. This means that even in a tightly proscribed world, there is freedom of choice, which is a surprisingly uplifting message from a book where the protagonist ends up losing love and community and returning to failure. But it was disappointing to me because Dick's best work relies on paradox, and simply having predictions fail rather than resolve in an interesting way seemed a copout.
The central source of prophesy is the Kahlends' book. When the recruits arive on Plowman's Planet, the book claims that raising Heldscalla will fail and will cause almost all who participate to be destroyed. The differing interpretations of the language made for a delightful level of ambiguity, and the prediction ended up true, by one reading.
After that, it's all downhill for the seers. The SSA predicted Joe and Mali walking on a beach, which did end up happening, but was hardly reflective of their relationship a year out. The SSA completely mispredicted Mali and Ralf, which Mali attributes to missing data about Ralf's latent illness (p.75), but a predisposition toward mental instability seems like data that a brain scan should have picked up. The message on the pot from the dark cathedral claims that it will consume Joe and the Glimmung and that the Glimmung is a fake.
The low point for the predictors is the later edition of the book, which states that Joe will kill the Glimmung and forever halt the raising of Heldscalla. Had the book only predicted that Joe would kill the Glimmung, the book would have ended with a measure of ambiguity, but Heldscalla was clearly raised. Rarely in a Dick book is an oracle so completely, unequivocally wrong. At the end of the book, Joe is left believing that the Kahlends' power is gone (p.163).
And one final note on prediction, the radio advertisement for Hardovax (p.147) is incredibly prescient.