Posts Tagged ‘Philip K Dick’

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

August 27, 2021

     Various friends have recommended this novel highly over the years; someone selecting it as their choice in our book group has finally got me to read it, and I’m glad I did, despite finding it annoying and frustrating at times.

It’s another of those late 20th century, very long and rambling novels, almost shaggy-dog stories really, with enough varied subject-matter to arouse one’s interest and more than enough narrative skill to keep one hooked, although early on I did wonder where on earth Mitchell was going with it. At times I was reminded of Anthony Burgess, at others of Neal Stephenson’s astonishing Baroque Cycle. Sequentially in time we work our way from the early nineteenth century through six stories, to our present and then into the future, and then cycle back through them to where we began; there are various links and connections skilfully woven in between the stories, too. If you realise early enough that this is what will happen, you do also then begin thinking about Mitchell’s overall plan and direction.

For me the most interesting sections were a sort of future utopia based on current North Korean society, which was a real tour-de-force, a variation on the innocence/ experience trope, and I could see many traces of ideas from Daniel Keyes’ excellent Flowers For Algernon, as well as passing acknowledgement of Huxley and Orwell, in terms of unpicking the differences between utopia and dystopia. I remember from my teaching days being rather surprised at how many students said they would be quite happy to live in Brave New World. They had a point, sometimes unshaken by my next question, ‘OK, but would you be human?’ The recycling of the fabricants recalled both quite a few of Philip Dick’s SF novels, and also Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room, which was the source of the cult 1970s film Soylent Green

The central, post-apocalyptic future world is really well-conceived and described, and finally convinced me about how good the whole novel was. Again, there are echoes of earlier novels, particularly Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker which I found reflected in Mitchell’s narrative style and use of language.

Mitchell’s ultimate question seems to be whether entropy is finally drawing the human species on to eventual self-destruction. My feeling now – some twenty years after its first publication – is yes, but Mitchell wants us to examine our thinking and realise that a better world may be possible, despite his not having described one in any of the various strands of his novel. Our response to our world, and the choices we make, depend on how we look at that world, how we visualise things and describe them, and in the end the stories we create about the past and the future, because it’s the stories that persist rather than what actually happened…in other words we create our realities and we could therefore create different or better ones, if we looked at ourselves differently, thought differently and described our world and ourselves differently. At least, that’s my take on this epic at the moment.

It’s a thought-provoking novel at many different junctures, and Mitchell attempts to reflect his thesis in the way he has structured the cyclical stories, but I did think that this wasn’t fully clear, and tended to obscure his meanings… A stunningly good read, though.

Ursula Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven

March 5, 2021

     Seriously, if you know your science fiction, and had read this book anonymously (without knowing the author) you’d be very surprised to learn it wasn’t by Philip K Dick, so close does Ursula Le Guin come to his style and his manner of exploring the workings of the human mind and the nature of reality… picking the book up again after some 45 years (!) I was taken aback.

She begins in medias res, dropping us into a future USA where we easily accept all the assumptions she has made; it was also interesting to note that in a novel first published almost 50 years ago, she vectors in the effects of the greenhouse effect and global warming on her part of that country.

It’s the story of a man who realises that his dreams can change the nature of reality. He’s not happy about this, and the psychiatrist and sleep researcher to whom he’s assigned for help quickly realises how this can be exploited… once he’s got over the shock of realising that changes do happen after George Orr has been dreaming. The shrink is basically a good man, with the best of intentions for people and planet, but: is what he’s doing ethical? Are the decisions he makes when influencing Orr’s dreams the right ones? The best laid plans are capable of going awry, and do.

Le Guin creates convincing characters – which Dick doesn’t always do – the states of consciousness are effectively portrayed, and the moral dilemmas and personal consciences of the characters are thoughtfully explored. I found myself at times reminded particularly of Dick’s Eye in the Sky, although altered states of consciousness and the individual’s ability to influence reality are pretty general tropes in his writing.

Le Guin’s interest in Eastern philosophy was woven thoughtfully into her novel, and her concerns for the future of the species, and realisation that there can be no magical short-cuts to utopia, which will be explored at much greater length in the Hainish novels and stories, are already emerging here. This was a novel which I’d stuck in the non-Hainish box as only marginally interesting, one to re-read before I passed it on to a charity shop; I was most surprised by this second encounter.

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky: One Billion Years to the End of the World

December 28, 2020

   Soviet science fiction has been quite hard to come by, in my experience, largely because little of it was translated. Apart from the astonishing Andromeda by Ivan Yefremov, the only other writers I know are the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris. I’ve read quite a few of their novels, and they are seriously weird. But this one took me right back to the warped-ness of the druggiest of Philip Dick’s novels…

A group of scientists who are friends or colleagues, are researching in various abstruse fields, and experience a series of bizarre and inexplicable events, which they attempt to make sense of; someone or something is warping their sense of reality, and it seems to be that the universe is defending itself against a species – human beings – who are in danger of becoming too clever for their own good, and whose findings may eventually threaten the stability of the universe at some future point. So they need to be put off, discouraged.

The universe attempts to convince them they are insane; it attempts to frighten them into giving up their research, and apparently succeed in the case of all but one of them, who remains determined. We have, after all, a billion years before the universe runs out of time, in which to continue to try and outwit whatever is blocking us…

At least, I think that’s what it was all about. A good read, a relatively quick read, certainly a thought-provoking and rather unnerving one!

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

Philip K Dick: Clans of the Alphane Moon

March 2, 2019

51iJJB54ArL._AC_US218_Dick continues to get ever weirder as I work my way through his oeuvre. An abandoned Earth colony, on a small moon in the Alph system, is home to the former inhabitants of a mental institution, who have constituted themselves into townships focused on their different conditions… and now, for unknown reasons Earth is interested in moving in again and re-hospitalising the inhabitants, who regard them as invaders and will fight to retain their autonomy, which is eventually guaranteed by their agreeing to become an Alphan colony.

This takes place against a personal conflict between a psychologist and marriage counsellor who is divorcing her CIA husband who wants to try and murder her by proxy; she has taken him to the cleaners and he can only survive by holding down two jobs, working a 24-hour day assisted by illegal drugs provided by a Ganymedean slime-mould who is good-naturedly telepathic. Are you still with me? Psi powers are rife on Earth too. Oh, and there’s a powerful TV mogul secretly in league with the Alphans, pitted against the CIA.

I’m finally beginning to fathom what Dick does to his readers, which is probably just as well for my own sanity and peace of mind… as reader, you have to remain fully inside his constructs and just accept his insane premises, weird characters and incomprehensible plots: there is no point in trying to step outside and ‘make sense’ or analyse what is going on, you just have to remain fully immersed in the hallucination until the end. You are part of it all while you read, drugged and tripping along with the author and his characters. It all makes for very interesting yarns…

And the resolutions are interesting: I’ve been noting, all the way through this series on Dick, his focus on and care for ordinary people and their feelings: good people rediscover themselves, are reunited with those they care about, learn something about themselves from all the craziness they are involved in, and emerge better people, better able to manage in what remains a crazy world. Maybe there are lessons for our times in here.

Philip K Dick: Now Wait For Last Year

February 19, 2019

41SF83b2GSL._AC_US218_We really are fully into Dick’s hallucinatory drug period with this novel, and it seems to be leading up to the masterpiece which is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which is the next but one novel in the time sequence of writing. Readers who are expecting a brief plot summary with my reviews will need to be a tad patient and understanding, as it’s pretty difficult.

The world of 2055 is at war with the reegs – we never really find out exactly what this race of creatures is – and in alliance with the Starmen of Proxima Centauri, who are far more powerful than we are and keen to exploit us. Or are we? Because in parallel time sequences the reegs are our allies… and there is a new, powerful hallucinogen which can mess with time as well as perceptions of reality, which is where it starts to get complicated: not all of the alternate realities, or time-tracks, are compatible with the real one… if you see what I mean.

We have to remember we are reading a novel written in 1966, from the hippy era and time of experimentation with all sorts of hallucinogenic substances; a lot of what Dick presents in his stories resembles the effects of LSD, but with added excitement or confusion. He’s clearly extremely knowledgeable about drug effects and side-effects, both physical and psychological, and how they can change an individual’s perceptions of reality.

And so we come back to what is an ongoing Dickian theme, the nature of reality itself. In the ‘reality’ of this novel, nothing is fixed, nothing secure: the evil new drug, which is quickly lethal, gives access to alternative time-tracks, and to the future – but which future? – for some, so it’s also easy enough to get the antidote from the future; then you can play all sorts of games. And the characters of the novel all do seem like pawns in some cosmic game. The plot, and truth itself, are continually collapsed in on themselves until there is no clear frame of reference from which we can speak of a plot in the way we usually expect to follow one.

In the end, you have to take it as a sort of psychedelic romp in a weird future world. And through it all does shine another of Dick’s preoccupations: that of being a decent human being, motivated ultimately by the urge to do what is good, what is right..

The novel’s ending is open, unsatisfactory even, certainly inconclusive, but the only one possible, given what has gone before. The war exists forever, the hero’s mentally-ill wife remains drug-scarred, but he remains a good man, although trapped in an endless series of hallucinations from which he must try to escape…

Philip K Dick: The Crack in Space

February 13, 2019

51WZTVM2SSL._AC_US218_This one was a bit more fun that the last one, although no more credible in any sense of the word. It’s a crazy futuristic thriller focused around a US presidential election campaign in which the first back man is about to become president… except that unlike Obama’s campaign, it involves futuristic weapons, time travel and a murder, linked to businessmen who own a satellite-based brothel…

What is interesting, gripping even, in this weird tale, is the discovery of a parallel universe where homo sapiens does not exist: here is the answer to overpopulation problems and without so much as a thought, people are being shipped over into that world before it’s realised that although homo sapiens may not exist, in that parallel track Peking Man became the human species.

Now it becomes fascinating: here is speculation, real SF, and the unexpected: what if that had happened? How different would the world be? And then there are the moral issues: could and should homo sapiens attempt to colonise, or even share such a world: the whole of white US history is under the microscope here. And true to what we know, the political and capitalist jungle takes over without a thought. This may be almost a throwaway novel, but you do end up thinking about a lot of real ideas along the way.

Philip K Dick: The Simulacra

February 13, 2019

61e66jMA2ZL._AC_US218_Dick very skilfully takes us into a completely different world in only a couple of pages or so through carefully-chosen details; psi powers, his love of classical music and alien life-forms are immediately part of the future USA which is a matriarchal one-party state, which has just outlawed psychoanalysis and replaced it by drug therapy…whew!

I started to lose the plot literally and metaphorically when a time-travel strand was introduced, in which the government was scheming to go back and seek to alter history using figures from the Third Reich! It’s wild and fantastical, outside the bounds of SF as I recognise it (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms in itself) yet Dick does demonstrate a deep understanding of the nature of history and historical forces. There is also an immediacy to the future in that he posits a world where big business is far more powerful than government and politicians, and calls the shots.

It’s another unsummarisable story, which had me feeling that some of this Dick re-read that I took on is becoming a bit of a chore. The ending of this novel made little sense, really, and I found myself back with what I suppose is Dick’s meta-question: what is reality? But this isn’t one I shall be reading again…

Philip K Dick: The Game-Players of Titan

February 4, 2019

51xRvFi006L._AC_US218_Dick’s novels continue to get weirder, and as I worked my way through The Game-Players of Titan, I found myself thinking, what is Dick doing now? This isn’t SF as I know it. Certainly it’s set in the future: there are all sorts of automated devices which communicate with the user, the kind of devices that we are actually becoming more familiar with in our own real world. But I struggled to find a conventional linear plot. Some of the characters were the fairly typical cardboard cut-outs of SF of the time, but others were deeper, more rounded and complex, and at times I sympathised with them…

And yet… there are all sorts of psi powers all over the place, in a depopulated Earth which has lost a war with the vugs of Titan, who maintain the planet in good order almost devoid of people, and have constructed some sort of gambling game apparently with the aim of ensuring as much sexual promiscuity as possible in order to rebuild the population: luck in their game means a couple conceiving…

Except, it’s not quite that simple: as the story progresses, it become apparent – sometimes quite crudely – that other forces are also at work, including rivalries between the vugs on Titan. It really isn’t possible to summarise a chaotic plot; you will have to read the book yourselves (if this review makes you feel you need to!). It is so off-the-wall, so crazy, and yet compelling enough that I didn’t give up on it.

So, the usual Dickian stuff in what I have to label as ‘not one of his best’: what is reality, psi powers, aliens, smalltown decent people and – a new one, this – Dick’s personal love of classical music makes an appearance.

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