Authors, like all other humans, need some time to develop their own styles. That was certainly true of Philip K. Dick. "Dr. Futurity" was only the second novel he ever wrote, although it wasn't published until seven years later, and he seems to have tried to stuff everything he wanted to communicate into its 150 pages, all before he had grown into his own man. You have to admire his ambition, but with all due respect he should have called this book "Dr. Futility".
Leaving aside for the moment the novel's place in PKD's body of work, though, it just isn't very good. Its flaws are those of a lot of writers' early work - much of the dialogue is way too expository to seem realistic, the plot jumps around beyond any possibility of coherence, and the characters are either heroes or villains of the deepest stripe. Not to mention that the whole thing lacks any sort of humor or subtext; it's a Twilight Zone temporal puzzle and leaves little emotional impact. Good thing it's so short.
The cover of my edition refers to this as a "chilling time travel classic". It's got time travel in it, to be sure. Dr. Jim Parsons, driving to work, finds himself abruptly yanked into a far future where humans belong to totemic tribes and look forward to death as their greatest opportunity to contribute to the advancement of both humanity and their own tribes. Just why Dr. Parsons has been thus kidnapped and what he's supposed to do relates to this societal attitude, but it takes his arrest, exile to a prison colony on Mars, rescue, association with a highly sensual tribal mother and travel to sixteenth-century California to prevent the assassination of Sir Francis Drake.
Got all that? Well, if you read this novel, don't fret, you'll come to understand. The writing is clear enough. Unfortunately, it's got so much to do in conveying the incidents of the plot that it hasn't got time to do anything else.
Now, in all fairness, "Dr. Futurity" asks some interesting questions about the efficacy of time travel. Even more unusual, it asks whether time travel is a moral activity. The first question has been asked before, but I'm not sure about the second. In fact, it's that last question that gives this novel some relationship to PKD's later work - he was always considering new aspects of old science fictional notions.
The old question asks us to suppose that we went back in time to right an old wrong - could we do it? Or, in changing the past, would we perhaps change things so as to prevent our own existence? And if we did that, since we would not be around to make the change, would the change be made? Writers have been pointing that out for eighty years or so.
The new question asks us to suppose that we went back in time to right an old wrong - have we the right to do it? Suppose that in doing so, we endangered ourselves. If we defended ourselves, what might the consequences be? What about those we left back in our own time? What consequences would they have to endure if we changed the past, even in a way they might approve of? Something tells me that PKD was the first, and maybe the only, writer to ask his readers to consider anything of that sort.
It's just too bad that he wasn't skillful enough as yet to work those ideas into a fictional context. His characters actually ask them, in so many words, and sometimes out loud. Surely I need not tell you that people don't actually talk like that to each other. They may talk like that to themselves, of course, but not in well-crafted sentences, and usually with some overlay of emotional turmoil included.
Ironically, in the year that "Dr. Futurity" was published, PKD had recently completed the classic "Time Out of Joint", and would shortly produce his Hugo-Award winner "The Man in the High Castle". In those works, he showed conclusively that his lack of craft in "Dr. Futurity" was a thing of the past.
Benshlomo says, There's a time to reach back into the past and a time to leave it alone.