“Novelty Act” was originally published in Fantastic in February 1964. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 191–216.
The community of Abraham Lincoln communal apartment building is preparing for their All Souls night meeting, where they discuss the affairs of the building and put on talent shows in hopes of attracting the attention of White House talent scouts. If one of their acts is chosen, they will get to perform for the First Lady Nicole Thibodeaux (who everyone refers to familiarly as “Nicole”). The chairman, Donald Klugman, and the “sky pilot” (a type of religious leader), Patrick Doyle, start the proceedings. The first act is the Fettersmooller girls singing a song. These shows make up most of the evening’s activities, but there is some business too. Mr. Stone is leading a movement to dismantle the system of public education used within the community, in favor of the outside schools.
Ian Duncan is grumbling in his room. He has missed the meeting but is anxious about his examination, which is mostly about the history and politics of the United States. He watches television and sees Nicole speaking to him through her on-air programing. He thinks about his own at act, performed with his brother, playing classical music with jugs. He had once was able to perform for a talent scout. Stone arrives with his test results, although Ian had tried to fail on purpose so he could leave Abraham Lincoln, get his deposit back, and relocate to Mars. Yet Stone passed him.
Al Duncan works at Jalopy Jungle No. 3, which sells barely legal interplanetary ships that can (usually) get the rider to Mars. He sells these jalopies with the aid of a mechanical papoola, a replica of an extinct Martian species. The papoola is able to make its sales pitch directly to the mind of customers. Ian visits his brother. Since he did not fail the test he needs to make the best of his situation. He wants to get their musical group back together.
Don Klugman muses on Ian Duncan’s application to have his brother appear in the talent show. At first he hesitates because Al is not a member of the commune, but the sky pilot convinces him to let him try it.
Al proposes they use the papoola to win over the talent scout. That would be no worse (and on a much smaller scale) than what Nicole does with her propaganda on the television. The plan works and after their performance, news comes that the Duncan Brothers will be performing at the White House.
Stone goes to the sky pilot to confess his sin of passing Ian Duncan. A new test will need to be administered. He is moved to do this because of his concerns that the Duncan Brothers cheated to get a White House performance and he feels resentment over their success.
The Duncan Brothers are preparing the music they will perform for Nicole. Lonny Luke, Al Duncan’s boss, urges them not to do it. He has long resented Nicole and her attempts to suppress his jalopy business. They mention that Nicole still loos good despite being in office seventy years.
They arrive at the White House, and an organizer asks them to add one folk tune into their program, which the Duncan Brothers agree to do. He also asks about the papoola, which the brothers describe as a good luck totem, although it is also part of the show as it danced. Not long after the performance begins, the papoola bites Nicole. Al Duncan knows immediately that it was being controlled by Luke, who wanted revenge on Nicole. The Duncan Brothers are arrested and orders are sent out for Luke arrest. Nicole confesses that she is an actor, the latest of several who have played the role of the First Lady. The real rulers are somewhere else. The brothers will have their memory erased and they will lose any memories of their big success at reaching the White House as well as their own relationship. The brothers say their goodbyes.
Ian Duncan is back in Abraham Lincoln apartments, disoriented due to the memory wipe. After worrying about missing another All Souls meeting, he returns to his room and watched Nicole on the television. An old man approaches at the window, telling him that he is Loony Luke and is fleeing to Mars. He will take Ian and his brother Al with him although neither remembers the other. He agrees and enters a jalopy.
As most readers will know, all of the ideas in this story were recycled in the great novel The Simulacra. They are developed a bit more in the story, and a whole lot of more is put in. We learn more about the government behind the president and the First Lady and issues in the social structure (such as the medicalization of an epidemic of mental illness). The story actually works better in some ways because it is a tight narrative. The Simulacra is packed with so many ideas and there is not room for them all to be developed. Reading “Novelty Act” before The Simulacra makes the novel a bit easier to digest.
Starting with the political situation, we see the facade of democratic life through the All Souls meetings held at Abraham Lincoln communal apartments. Not everyone lives in these buildings and it is not clear how many do, but they seem to be emerging as a major social unit. It is from these meetings that people get their chance to visit the White House and see Nicole and perform for her. There is something to the communal life described that makes it sound livable. People seem to know each other, they share their talents freely, and look out for each other’s interests. Yet, much has been lost. The White House monopolizes all the culture, leaving only amateurs behind. As the system developed, real issues (such as the education of children) has gotten set aside. Worse, we see that the mental life of the residents is controlled through examinations on history and a regime of confessionals led by the “sky pilot.” People still vote for president, but we learn at the end that the First Lady is just an actor and the real people in power are an unelected council. From the state’s perspective, the communal apartments are ideal for social control.
Evidence that the government would prefer everyone living in the communal apartments is seen in the harsh attitude of the government toward Loony Luke and his jalopy sales business. Luke—and to a lesser extent Al Duncan—give us a taste of life outside of the walls of the communal apartments. His business feeds off of the unwanted and excess population, who have nowhere to go but Mars (on a one-way cheap and broken-down jalopy). In the end they must leave Earth for Mars to continue their life freely. Luke knows that eventually the state will suppress him, so he escapes while he can (but not before getting his bite back at the system by reprogramming Al’s papoola). Both his escape and the bite at Nicole are small and ultimately meaningless acts of resistance, but constitute a type of infrapolitics that is just not possible in the more well-regulated communal apartment houses.
The system of control is incredibly voluntary. This was done by making the symbol of the state something that people could love. Depending on who you talk to, Nicole is a mother, a target of sexual desire, or a great leader. All of these aspects of her personality are presented to the public through television. The result of this is a population of people who want to be loved by Nicole the way they love her. This strange relationship with Nicole is cultivated through the belief that everyone has something that Nicole will enjoy. Everyone believes that someday they will get chosen to perform for her at the White House. Did Dick predict reality television in this story?