Archive for November, 2018

Philip K Dick: The Man Who Japed

November 28, 2018

12208046._SY75_Again in this novel Dick explores – in his own way – the 1950s pressures on individuals to conform to society’s norms; in the aftermath of a nuclear war, Morec (=moral reclamation) prescribes duty and service to others and runs a police state with machines spying on everyone and local block meetings subjecting everyone’s minor offences to public gaze, scrutiny and condemnation. We have Dick in his own time, along with his and that time’s interest in the powers and potential of psychoanalysis; he’s also interested in the possibility of a refuge or sanctuary from it all…

As the hero gradually uncovers the truth about the past and Morec, as well as committing a number of anti-social acts which he is completely unaware of, we see him gradually rediscovering aspects of our behaviour that contribute to making us human. This is an idea Huxley explored in Brave New World, where we must surely end up agreeing that all those ‘happy’ beings in their world of limitless sex, drugs and consumer goods are not actually human as we understand the word.

Interestingly, the delivery, receipt and dispatch of a wide range of consumer goods in his 25th century world, imagined in the late 1950s, seems very similar to Ama*on Logistics… And also presciently, the future names our times ‘The Age of Waste’.

Dick brings out human qualities such as loyalty very powerfully, in small ways, through neighbours, spouses, and other ordinary people; this trait in the chaotic world of distrust, paranoia and spying shines through. The conclusion of the novel brilliantly offers us Dick’s take on Swift’s A Modest Proposal, as well as being just a little too rushed and open to be a truly satisfying end to the story.

Reading Dick serially (as I’m currently doing until I get bored or distracted) is interesting in several ways. I’m certainly increasingly aware of an astonishing imagination at work, in a rather chaotic way; biographical details suggest a troubled genius, but he manages, almost effortlessly, and through sketching rather than a wealth of detail, to create many different worlds and timelines in his futures. He is skilled at throwing us into the middle of a story and, once we are hooked, then he fleshes out the new world with further details which develop the depth of his picture without getting too much in the way of his fast-moving plots.

He’s a writer very interested in the hidden corners and recessed of the mind and what darkness may lurk there. He creates aliens (occasionally) and is particularly prone to inserting precogs (beings who can see the future, or some of it) and telepaths into his stories, and what any of these creations end up contributing to the story is always unexpected. Dick is never predictable…

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Philip K Dick: Eye in the Sky

November 28, 2018

downloadThis is one of Dick’s novels that I return to quite regularly; indeed you can read what I last wrote about it five years ago here.

The setting reflects the era the author was living in when he wrote it, a United States under McCarthyite suspicion and persecution of radicals, using thin and often hearsay evidence to destroy careers and lives. The hero is involved in an accident while visiting what seems to be a particle beam accelerator or something like it: Dick blinds us with plausible-sounding 1950s science to get us on board. Recovering, our hero realises that something is not quite right with the world…

A small group of people were in the accident, and the world is governed by the subconscious of several of them in turn, in various unnerving or horrifying solipsistic worlds. The first is a religious fundamentalist war veteran – Dick is off on already familiar track, inventing a crackpot religion to rule the world; the laws of matter in our world do not obtain there; all the veteran’s stereotypes of different people govern their behaviour. When the characters realise who is warping their lives and attack him, the world slips into the control of a Victorian female fuddy-duddy who just abolishes anything she doesn’t like the look or thought of. We also spend time in the subconscious world of a woman with paranoid delusions, and a cartoon-book McCarthyite communist who turns out not to be the person we expected…

It all sounds confusing, but it isn’t, as Dick sweeps us along in a fast-paced story that is totally focused at the human level, once the initial SF-style accident gets his characters where he wants them. What really interests him is the subconscious and where it might lead us if it had unlimited power: which of us hasn’t ever dreamt of being world-dictator and planning what we would do with that power? Equally, Dick is aware that aspects of our subconscious and unconscious minds actually do control the way we perceive other people and the world, and how this contributes to who we are, and our relative happiness or sadness as humans.

It’s a novel to make us think, perhaps to explore some of those hidden parts of ourselves that we are dimly aware of beneath the surface.

Philip K Dick: The World Jones Made

November 24, 2018

51MNfmxaawL._AC_US218_We start with a refuge: a miniature world, an Eden Project from the 1950s in which a group of mutants survive in a fake Venusian atmosphere, unable to live outside on Earth itself. It’s another post-nuclear war scenario, with the question hanging over the entire novel: are these mutants human? And, of course attitudes to those who are different would have pervaded Dick’s United States in his time, with the growth of the black civil rights movement… a writer is a creature of his time, as well as a visionary.

Post-war, the government philosophy is relativism: all are equal, everything is OK and to challenge this is a crime; what led to war is punishable, and yet not everyone can accept the new world.

Jones is the first precog to feature in A Dick novel: he can see into the future. Only a year, and, as it eventually turns out, only partially, but this obviously gives him immense power. There can be no freedom if someone knows what’s going to happen; does this make such a creature a kind of god, too? And here we see another trope of a lot of Dick’s fiction: weird religions of the future. Coming from the US where there are already plenty of these, he’s not that original.

Jones preaches a hatred of the alien creatures that have begun to appear from outer space, nothing more than protozoa, but incomprehensible and consequently the target of hatred and fiery destruction. We have the picture of an entire world, a civilisation on the verge of disintegration, again, not inconceivable during the Cold War. In this novel Dick seems suddenly to be a much more mature and thoughtful writer, much more complex in his ideas than in his previous works. Much more of his narrative is on the human level, and far less on the weirder bug-eyed-monster level of SF. We also find his first references to recreational drug use and its effects, which will figure more saliently in his later work, especially in such classics as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Jones, despite his precog ability, fails in his bid for world power but founds another religion after his death, and the mutants build a new world, clearly as humans, on Venus, sheltering a small group of earthlings in a refuge on their planet…

I note in conclusion that my copy of the novel is a genuine 1950s US pulp paperback: the edges are slightly yellowed, and yet the binding is as strong as ever – there’s quality for you! And in his 25th century, Dick still has people reading print newspapers, and making copies of documents using carbon paper… hands up anyone who knows what that was! On the other had, he has visualised mobile phones and robot baby-watchers.

Philip K Dick: World of Chance

November 22, 2018

41OH+jEWYKL._AC_US218_Here’s another of Dick’s rather flawed early novels; this one was also published under the title Solar Lottery.

It’s set in a feudal and superstitious world in the 24th century, an insane construct that surely reflects the author’s paranoid mental state at various times. The planet is ruled by powerful oligarchs and a single all-powerful Quizmaster appointed by lottery totally at random and who is lawfully allowed to be targeted for assassination as soon as he is appointed… so what we end up with is a fast-moving and chaotic novel about power-struggles in this weird world. It’s gripping enough when you’re actually reading it, but ultimately rather trivial, a good year and nothing else.

For me, Dick is still getting a grip on exploring how one person can possibly control the mind of another, and this is the first time he has also introduced the idea of telepathy. He’s also playing with the idea of humans controlling machines through their minds, something that scientists are looking at today, never mind waiting for the 24th century. And finally, down at the human micro-level, which Dick never truly loses sight of, there is the question of the loyalty of one person to another.

Reading the novels in series as I’m currently doing is raising, alongside the idea of an SF writer foreseeing things that may develop in the future, the longer list of the things that they don’t manage to predict. Written as they were during the height of the Cold War, there is almost always a thermonuclear war that has happened some time in the past. But characters in the novels still smoke, still read paper books and newspapers and the most advanced kind of data-storage is still the primitive magnetic tape that was in use at the time Dick was writing. In my experience and study of SF, its writers have always managed to be both visionary and blinkered…

Philip K Dick: The Cosmic Puppets

November 22, 2018

51OHOtUPMWL._AC_US218_I read somewhere, once, that this was the worst of Dick’s novels. For a very long time it was out-of-print and unobtainable, only re-appearing in the 1980s when Dick was dead and fashionable again.

A traveller re-visits the home-town he left at age nine, and finds it inexplicably a completely different place, unrecognisable and weird; he discovers that he was supposed to have died of scarlet fever at the age of nine. One again Dick has thrown us into the middle of things to confuse and disrupt his readers: we are drawn into the curious behaviours of two even stranger children who seem to be breeding creatures and fighting each other by proxy: they have odd powers and can bring inanimate matter to life…

There is an increasingly hallucinatory quality to this world from which the outsider cannot escape – an idea that Dick will develop much more convincingly and interestingly in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – and then he meets someone else whose vague memories of his past seem to chime in with his own. We can see Dick’s interest in the nature of reality developing, and entire universes which are actually controlled from inside a character’s mind are another idea that will feature much more effectively later in his writing career.

The novel develops – if you can call it that – into a battle between two personifications of good and evil, working at first through the two children I mentioned earlier. It is a weak novel, loose and lacking in both structure and connection: the ideas are certainly there but not developed and executed with any finesse; ultimately it failed to convince or grip this reader.

Philip K Dick: Dr Futurity

November 20, 2018

51tKs5cNy0L._AC_US160_My copy tells me it’s 35 years since I last read this one – what sort of a fan am I? And at that rate, will I ever find the time to read it again?

Once again we drop straight into the story and a future world is swiftly sketched in via self-driving cars (this was 1957, remember!) and a few other small details; Dickis particularly good at dropping in an unfamiliar name for a new object as a way of instantly moving time forward. Name the object and tell us what it does, integrate it into the narrative and assume the reader will just go along with it, in a reversal of a Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. It’s another technocratic society and the issue is who’s in control, just as in the previous novel.

However, this novel is where Dick plays seriously with time travel, and he doesn’t pussy-foot around as some writers do: we end up with multiple time-travel event and attempts to alter the past, potentially conflicting with each other. This is a trope familiar to all readers of science fiction, famously crystallised in a Ray Bradbury story The Sound of Thunder.

The plot is therefore complex and confusing at times, and if you sat down to analyse and make sense of it, it probably wouldn’t: here at work together are both the writer’s verve and his relative immaturity, I feel. In a way which resembles the satirical critique of society in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, here we have a doctor transported into a future where being ill and healing the sick are criminal offences, a society where there is a sense of collective immortality and a constant drive to improve the species… in the end, I decided that the story itself was bonkers if I took it too seriously, and that it was the ideas and the scope of Dick’s imagination that was awesome. For instance, what would the present-day world be liked if white man had never taken over North America? Dare to imagine, as Dick does.

There are two groups in conflict, both going back in time and trying to alter the future – i.e. their present – it does become quite dizzying towards the end! And I also found, as in the previous novel, that as he moves towards his ending, Dick’s faith in ordinary humans and their inherent decency comes to the fore. I’m glad I revisited the novel.

Philip K Dick: Vulcan’s Hammer

November 19, 2018

51kYpaCvS5L._AC_US218_I’ve been a fan of Philip K Dick’s science fiction ever since I first read something by him as a student. He’s a brilliant writer – although very uneven in quality – and a fellow-writer once dubbed him ‘the best science fiction writer on any planet’, which probably does him justice… But I’m aware I have a few favourites which I re-read every now and then, and that there is a lot of his work I haven’t touched for years – so time to put that right. I decided to embark on a re-reading of his novels in the sequence they were written, to see whither that is illuminating in any way at all. I don’t know whether I’ll last the course, as some of his later books were quite bonkers, as I recall, reflecting his own very chaotic and tormented life.

Vulcan’s Hammer was apparently the first to be written. The opening – in medias res – is effective, immediately establishing an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mystery. Paranoia in many forms permeates most of Dick’s work, so no surprises here. He envisages a future with a world authority rather than individual nation-states, and everyone under surveillance to maintain stasis: prophetic enough when I look at today’s China, for example.

I did find myself noticing some shoddy language, suggesting a hastily-written text, and wonder if traits like this are harder to notice in SF, or perhaps more easily overlooked when one is taken over by plot and visions of the future? Certainly it’s one of those things I heard non-SF readers mention about the genre.

As the story develops we see emerging a conflict between two computers striving to control the world, and a people-led organisation that seeks freedom from control (although, in a typical Dickian paranoid twist, it turns out that this movement is actually a creation of one of the computers, unbeknown to its leader…) Surely Dick is looking forward to our world, where the potential of AI, and machines to manipulate us is currently a live issue? His controllers analyse the lower classes as risk-takers and gamblers who have not bought into security and stability: what does that remind you of?

But surely Dick is at his most prophetic when he visualises autonomous, programmed killing devices which can be used to target individuals – and he was writing in the 1950s! Killer drones – for that is surely what they are – are found in many of his novels and stories, as is the idea of machines creating ever more sophisticated killing machines, beyond the control of the humans who originally created them. There he was, sixty years ago, planning today’s nightmares…

Dick’s powerful controller Vulcan 3 is a paranoid computer, suffering from HAL syndrome more than a decade before Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. And we are clearly in a world where Asimov’s Third Law of Robotics does not obtain. Equally, he’s aware of the powerlessness of a grassroots movement faced by a modern bureaucratic state.

And yet, even in this first novel, Dick never loses sight of the human: the denouement returns to that level. There is a plot twist which is a bit of a cheat – no spoiler here – and I kindly remember that this is his first novel. So many of the ideas he will play with and explore in later novels and stories are foreshadowed here, albeit crudely. And you can already see that a writer who can juggle so many balls at once is something of a visionary.

James Shapiro: 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

November 19, 2018

51+KGzVMCUL._AC_US218_I’d been aware of Shapiro’s two books looking at particular year’s in Shakespeare’s life and creativity cycle and have finally got around to reading the first of them. Shapiro shows us just how much the dramatist was a creature of his time – which isn’t surprising at all – but does manage to marshal and present a wealth of contextual background evidence. Unfortunately the major events of 1599 centre around all the scheming of the Earl of Essex and his adventures in Ireland, and is a little dull when presented in minute detail…

But 1599 was a key year in Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist as he was beginning to move away from the histories and comedies upon which he had built his considerable reputation, looking for new areas to work in: it was the year of Hamlet, for instance. And there is much on the complexity of the development and versions of the text of that play, which will be of interest to more academic readers: how do we know what was the version actually played at the time? Answer, we don’t, but it wasn’t any of the currently popular textual editions which are all far too long for the duration of Elizabethan theatrical time-slots.

We learn a good deal about the Tudor police state (I can’t think of any other way to describe it) and the myriad dangers of the times, the closing years of Elizabeth I’s reign, with no clear successor in view and various parties jockeying for influence. This helps to reveal just how political some of Shakespeare’s plays were – and even more so to his contemporary audiences who would pick up on allusions that go by us – and how carefully he trod the minefield of the times. We may ask ourselves whether in the end he was just safely fence-sitting, or extremely aware of the complexities of all the issues in play? We just need to pay careful attention to all that goes on and is alluded to in Julius Caesar to be aware of this question.

An interesting idea that had never occurred to me was Shapiro’s suggestion that the enormous popularity of the theatre at the time was because it was filling a gap that had been left by the extirpation of all the Catholic religious ritual and pageantry by the savagery of the English Reformation.

Much of what Shapiro offers in relation to Shakespeare’s life and career is necessarily speculative, but it’s valuable nevertheless in the ways it fills out a picture of the man in his times and places; the focus on a single year, which Shapiro also does in his other volume 1606, is interesting because it does give the reader a sense of being a part of all the events and among all the personages of the year.

All-in-all a worthwhile read, and I will read 1606 at some point, too. Although so much of Shakespeare’s life and adventures are unknown and now unknowable, it’s nevertheless fascinating to imagine oneself a bit deeper into the man’s life and times.

Not a very intelligent species…

November 11, 2018

Ten million soldiers killed; millions more civilians still to die from Spanish flu, part of a population physically weakened by four and a half years of conflict. And were any lessons learned? It is hard to think so, for the ‘peace conference’ at Versailles set in motion the seeds of an action replay twenty years later, in which far more were to die, and further unspeakable horrors were to be perpetrated.

Having visited various areas of France where the Western war took place, I can understand why the French sought to exact reparations from a defeated Germany, an approach which was to contribute to resentment, economic collapse and the eventual rise of Hitler. Numerous peoples who had suffered under foreign yoke for years achieved independence, (including Poland, my father’s country), but as multi-racial countries which could not easily learn how to deal with their new-found freedoms; again this contributed to weak democracies collapsing into dictatorships and feeding the rise of fascism. I only have to look at what happened in Poland, where my father grew up in those inter-war years, to see the problems that had to be faced. And the ‘victorious’ powers, the British and the French, presumed to impose on the Middle East a ‘settlement’ the consequences of whose idiocies are still being visited on the entire world today. Finally, the United States emerged onto the world stage as a superpower, relatively stronger because of its much shorter participation in the conflict.

I watched a series of BBC documentaries this week, with testimonies from participants in the Great War, who spoke about the effects on themselves, families and friends. And I was shocked at the anger I felt: all these people endured all this suffering and death at the behest of their masters who themselves went through very little of it: had there been any need for the build-up to and outbreak of the war other than competitiveness between nations and futile ideas of national pride?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing… but in a world where ordinary people are asked to put their trust in politicians through a ballot-box, one ought to be able to expect intelligence from rulers, the ability to think through the consequences of their actions and decisions, otherwise what is the point? Having sown the seeds of 1939, those politicians then bowed to the common people who had no wish to see a repeat of the Great War, appeased fascism until it was too late, and we know what the end result was.

As I grow older I am torn between two competing views of humanity: collectively we are capable of astonishing achievements, and individual genius testifies to our capabilities, and yet we really do not seem to be a terribly intelligent species, for all that. We allow greed, violence and inequality to lord it over us, and allow ourselves to be diverted from reality by lies, bread and circuses… I have long been convinced that violence and war do not solve anything. I will acknowledge that the Second World War had to happen, but a truly intelligent species would never have allowed the causes of it to develop and flourish in the first place.

For me, today is a day for sober reflection, and respect for the memory of those who were killed.

Peter Mundy, Merchant Adventurer

November 9, 2018

51HCMjvr2OL._AC_US160_My interest in travellers from centuries past led me, a few years ago, via the Hakluyt Society, to Peter Mundy, a merchant whose travels in the first half of the seventeenth century they published in five volumes. These I duly downloaded, intending to read them one day… which day hadn’t arrived by the time I saw this edited and commented abridgement by R E Pritchard, and came to my senses, accepting that I would never find the time – in this existence, at least – to read the real thing.

Mundy was an English merchant adventurer who travelled both for business and personal reasons, mainly quite widely in the Levant, the Middle East, India and the Chinese coast. His adventures and misadventures were no doubt all new and exciting at the time but are now often rather tiresome and repetitive, particularly as all was done in the cause of trade and money-making, rather than with the search for knowledge as the primary driving force. What is new is accidental, though Mundy nevertheless describes well, in detail, and charmingly also illustrated his diaries with sketches and drawings.

He was interested in all curiosities, creatures – especially birds, women’s attire and also unusual punishments and tortures, which are illustrated. If you want to know what being impaled actually involved, or the specific stages of being broken on the wheel, then Mundy’s your man, with the pictures to show for it.

He also travelled through southern parts of our own kingdom, and parts of Europe, including Prussia, Poland and Russia, and settled down to live in Danzig (Gdansk) for some six years or so, even though the coldness of the winters initially shocked him. I found this section particularly interesting, as there were apparently sizeable English and Scottish contingents in Danzig at the time, and he refers to travelling players coming from England, which ties in with stories of Shakespeare’s company visiting – through the man himself is not recorded as having been with them – and the contemporary Shakespeare festival in Gdansk, and its new Shakespeare theatre.

We are also reminded of the perils and difficulties of travel in those times; I was not aware of just how many men were lost on long sailing voyages in those days.

So, the shorter volume is worth a look; if I have time I’ll read volume four of his travels which deals with Poland in more detail

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