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.

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