Posts Tagged ‘Philip K Dick’

August favourites #29: SF writer

August 29, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_Somewhere there had to be a space for my all-time favourite science-fiction writer, Philip K Dick. I think I have managed to collect all of his published works but cannot be sure: I need to check this one day. A troubled and tormented mind, with a brilliant imagination, an astonishing range of ideas and a gift for putting the little man, the ordinary person, at the heart of so many of his novels and stories. Picking his best novel is pretty difficult: I hesitate between The Man in the High Castle, an alternative universe plot where the Axis powers won the Second World War and German and Japan occupied the United States between them; a writer in that world imagines an alternative universe in which the Allies won… do you have a headache yet? – and Ubik, which is almost impossible to summarise, except that Ubik is a magic panacaea for almost all ills. Then there is Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? which became the stunning film Blade Runner… In the end I cannot choose from all the literally dozens of novels and stories; I could make a list of the not so good ones, but that’s not what this series is about. So let’s just have Philip Dick as my favourite science fiction writer.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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K & Z Weinersmith: Soonish

February 15, 2018

51hyU-PQsYL._AC_US218_When I actively think about it, I have to be astonished at the rate of technological change in my lifetime (I almost wrote ‘technological progress’ there, but paused…): from the black bakelite ‘push button B’ telephone to a miniature computer in my pocket, from being taken to visit the first electronic calculator in the district by our school maths teacher to… my laptop, from a black and white television with two channels to streaming almost anything on demand, from a children’s encyclopaedia to the internet.

This was an unexpected book – a birthday present – and I do like being surprised. The authors review and explain changes in various areas of technology that are in development and may affect our lives sooner or later… hence the title. They are very good at explaining why current ideas, machines and materials work, what their limitations are, and where it may be possible to go next. A good deal of very serious and hard science is presented and explained pretty clearly, with some humour, in a way that a non-scientist like me can usually understand (though not always without feeling a headache coming on). The chapters are helpfully arranged in size order, as the authors move from technological developments in space down to the micro-level, within the human body. The difficulties involved in automating certain complex processes are explained, and various routes and solutions are evaluated.

What surprised me quite a lot was the remarkable overlap between where science currently seems to be heading, and science fiction that I’ve read over my lifetime, for example everyday objects that can communicate with the user, such as abound in the novels and stories of Philip K Dick. You may be thinking, well, isn’t it obvious that SF would foreshadow what is coming up in reality? but not so. Much of what has happened in the recent past SF did not foresee, especially the incredibly rapid progresses in computing power and miniaturisation. You can read novels set a century in our future where they are using computers we would have found obsolete in the 1990s…

It may well be related to my age, but a good deal of what is up-and-coming scared the daylights out of me, particularly in the area of food; augmented reality (AR), which I’m quite interested in along with VR, also seemed pretty scary in terms of its full potential. As an arts and humanities person first of all, I’ve always been a little unsure of whether scientists are fully aware of the complexities and implications of what they are doing. We shall see – or rather, it’s probably the next generation that will…

Ursula Le Guin: The Language of the Night

February 8, 2018

517awu8bS6L._AC_US218_I’ve had this collection of essays for over thirty years, and finally dug them out to read after the death of the author, realising I’d never read anything other than her fiction. It’s an annoying book in many ways. Firstly, it’s a very bitty collection, of essays, speeches and early introductions to some of her novels; secondly, it’s broken up by numerous ‘introductions’ from the editor which do nothing other than add a little context, but fragment the whole, and lastly, the pieces are all from forty to fifty years old; some have dated badly.

Quite a lot of it is quite preachy, as in those long-gone days, the case still needed to be made for science fiction as a real branch of literature. Le Guin also makes a very strong case for fantasy, which is where she began, and I got rather fed up of her constant championing of Tolkien. I have problems with the entire genre, and whilst The Lord of the Rings was a cracking good read once (forty years ago, in two days, during a nasty dose of flu) I have never felt moved to return to it… She is good and interesting in analysing the language and style of fantasy.

Things improved as I progressed through the essays; she’s interesting on the genesis of Islandia, one of my all-time favourites, and a strong advocate for Zamyatin‘s We, which I must return to sometime soon. She also champions another of my all-time favourites, Philip K Dick, long before many thought him worthy of real acclaim. As a practitioner of the genre, Le Guin has a lot to say that is worth reading on the nature of the SF genre and its limitations, and becomes more personal and more revealing when she comes to reflect on her own creative processes and writing methods, which not many writers do.

Similarly, as a woman who wrote both before and after the advent of the new feminist consciousness of the 1960s/70s, she reflects thoughtfully on her own shortcomings as perceived by some feminists of the time, who took her to task for basically writing about men, even in androgynous societies she created, such as in The Left Hand of Darkness. The essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?‘ is a landmark. Such honesty and openness is rare in a writer, and for me is a mark of her greatness.

However, in the end I must say that a good deal of this collection is necessarily very dated, and if you are interested in any of her thoughts on either the genre or her own writing, skim-reading is recommended.

Astonished to notice this edition sells for £98 (used) on a certain website… make me a sensible offer!

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

P K Dick: The Unteleported Man

March 12, 2014

51lK-h4YyeL._AA160_This novel, written in 1966, is set in 2014 (!) and the world, with a population of seven billion (!) is overpopulated: people are encouraged to emigrate to a planet 24 light years away, by teleportation. Yet, in a world where you can be transported such a distance in fifteen minutes, voice recordings are still made on magnetic oxide tape (what’s that? some may ask…) I do find little details like that, in novels set in the future, quite telling, as well as amusing.

It’s one of Dick’s 1960s LSD-influenced novels, the most famous of which is still probably The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; the characters find themselves at various times on parallel, possible hallucinated, worlds, which tends to make the narrative rather confused in places.

Germany (reunited) rules the world through its control of the United Nations, having solved the Chinese problem by exterminating them… but suspicions are growing about the supposedly paradisiacal world to which emigrants are teleported, as for some reason, the process only works one way. Truly, things are not what they seem, and the only other way of getting there and back takes 36 years, via father-than-light-drive.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s one of his best novels, in terms of plot development or resolution, and it definitely loses its shape in the central, drug-influenced episodes, but it does testify to Dick’s astonishing imagination, his learning… and his paranoia.

My problem with short stories…

February 12, 2014

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t like short stories, and why I resist reading them. This post is provoked by my needing to read a selection of Turgenev‘s stories for the next meeting of our Russian literature group. A doorstop of a Dostoevsky novel would have been no problem: I’d have hoovered it up ages ago. But I’ve repeatedly put off approaching the short stories…

Through years of reading, I’ve never really been interested. There are tomes of Chekhov and Waugh stories that have sat on the pending shelf for years, unopened. I managed a volume of Mark Twain‘s stories, but only because I love Twain, and everything else he wrote, at longer length, is better.

I have read, and re-read many times, the Sherlock Holmes short stories; to me, they are much better than the full-length novels. I’ve read Raymond Chandler‘s short stories; they were good, but not as good as the novels. And I’ve read lots of science fiction short stories, including all of Philip K Dick‘s.

Short stories are short, focused, with a smaller group of characters. There is usually less description and setting of atmosphere. Often there’s a single plot line. This clearly works in detective fiction: solving the crime, a detective and his sidekick, description of the crime scene are sufficient. In science fiction, the writer wants to create a world and an atmosphere that’s different, alien, strange in some way compared with what we know, without overwhelming the reader, and again the simplicity of the short story seems to help. so I can see why I have always go on with these subsets of the wider genre.

But… in ‘ordinary’ fiction, for me, the short story doesn’t attract, and I’m starting to feel I must be missing something. Maybe there isn’t enough plot to draw me in? Maybe I don’t escape far away enough from daily reality? When I get to the end of a short story, the usual feeling is ‘unsatisfied’…. Maybe I haven’t tried the right stories?

Does anyone have any reactions, or advice?

Philip K Dick: Eye in the Sky

January 24, 2014

Another exploration of the weird nature of reality in this novel from Dick’s early days; eight people are injured in an accident at an experimental physics plant (it really reminded me of what I’ve read about CERN and the large hadron collider) and find themselves trapped in a world inside the mind of one of the group… but whose?

When I think about my mind and what goes on inside it, I do often wonder if it’s in any way like anyone else’s; take this thought a couple of steps further and you could imagine that everything existed in your mind only, and was a figment of your imagination, as it were. What if you actually had power – conscious or unconscious – over that world and the things and people in it: what sort of world would it be like? would other people enjoy being in it or would you create a hell for them? How dark is your personality and how weird are your dreams, especially if you inflicted them on others?

Suffice it to say that the characters spend time in several different people’s worlds, each of them very strange, and this perhaps warns us that ‘our’ world would be just as weird.

Apart from this conceit, which is interestingly explored, the novel doesn’t really get anywhere: the ideas are provocative and scary, though.

Science Fiction

January 23, 2014

It occurred to me that the reason I find myself reading far less science fiction than I used to, is because I have rather less of the future to look forward to, in the sense of growing older; when I was much younger, I had the sense that my future might be radically different… and, yes, daily life has changed enormously over my lifetime. Nothing digital in my childhood. Enough said.

I’ve always been picky in terms of what SF I read. I hate the term ‘sci-fi’, am not interested in space opera or fantasy and hobbits, which narrows down the field somewhat. It’s also the only genre (apart from Sherlock Holmes, of course!) where I’ve actually enjoyed reading short stories.

Speculative fiction is what I’ve always really enjoyed; the ‘what ifs’, the alternative futures, the utopias and dystopias through the ages. Some of these can verge on the didactic, and when I was studying, writing about and reviewing SF in the 1970s and 1980s quite bit of it did. I wrote a dissertation for my MA on speculative fiction, focusing on Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Ursula LeGuin, who, for my money, remain some of the best writers in the genre, although I know I have gone out of touch with what has been written more recently. And then I researched an entire MPhil thesis on Feminist science fiction. That’s reminded me of the stunning resource that is the Science Fiction Foundation, with their amazing library of literature and journals, the only one in the UK as far as I’m aware, currently based at the University of Liverpool. When I was using its resources more than thirty years ago, it was based in Dagenham at the former North East London Polytechnic.

Novels are created as entertainment, certainly, but I have always enjoyed being made to think as well, and the kind of SF I’ve described above has made me reflect on myself, on what it means to be a sentient being of the human type, on the future of the world, humanity and the universe. I suppose such writing may politicise readers, but it’s hardly likely to bring about social change or revolution, as novels are a creation of the bourgeois period and are for individual consumption. If a good novel takes me out of myself, allows me to escape who I am for a few hours, then SF takes me further away, makes me aware of my smallness in the scale of the universe, gives me a different sense of perspective. That’s why, for instance, the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime is a man walking on the moon,  why I’m really excited at the thought of a space probe landing on a comet in a few months time, and why the thought that a space probe has left the solar system and is on its way to the stars at some time in the unimaginable future blows my mind completely.

Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

January 22, 2014

41yFaUb7B1L._AA160_This is the Philip Dick novel that was filmed as Blade Runner. Set in a future dystopian USA where humans are encouraged to migrate to Mars where their living standards are allegedly enhanced by android servants, Dick nudges his reader to think about what exactly it means to be human: what are the differences between humans and androids? Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, paid to ‘retire’ androids who have escaped Mars and infiltrated the deteriorating society back on Earth.

Is empathy with other people a specifically human quality, or would androids eventually be able to develop it? The sands keep shifting – or Dick keeps moving the goalposts, if you like – would you have sex with an android? Somehow, the developing cyberworld makes all these ideas more haunting, more immediate. Dick always had an amazing knack of making you uncomfortable: his future worlds are at once alien from our own, weird, and at the same time uncannily familiar in small ways: you can imagine yourself there without a great leap. I have always loved his concept of ‘kipple’, the mountains of meaningless crap that we accumulate and that can end up taking over our space and our world, collecting dust and mouldering away because we can’t get rid of them.

And the one thing that all humans in this nightmare world crave is a real living creature as a pet… empathy, or what?

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