Posts Tagged ‘Philip K Dick’

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.

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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.

Philip K Dick: Martian Time-Slip

January 6, 2019

5156jr1yvcl._ac_us218_At the outset, it’s hard to know where we are going or what to make of this one, really.

It’s entirely set on Mars, in the new Earth colony, which survives with difficulty and is looking to expand massively by encouraging emigration from Earth; there are the remnants of a dying-out humanoid Martian race who resemble the Aborigines of Australia, and who are either ignored or exploited almost as slaves by the colonists. Many of Dick’s novels feature colonies on Mars, perhaps reflecting the optimism about space exploration of his day – we are still five years or so before the Moon landings – as well as the relative lack of knowledge at the time about that planet. Obviously Mars performs the same isolating function as a desert island in earlier fiction…

Dick’s main concern in the novel, though, is with schizophrenia and autism (which is much more widespread in his future society than it is now) in various of his characters and how they cope (or do not) with their conditions. He shows a great ability to make his readers see and empathise – as far as that is possible – with those characters; the story itself seems almost unframed and unplanned: you can’t really see where he intends to go with the plot, but you know there will be a point to it all. It all develops quite slowly, though never failing to grip; it meanders, taking in a whole range of characters, and Dick’s focus is, as usual, mainly on ordinary decent people.

I did find myself considering what a trained psychiatrist would make of Dick’s exploration of the interior experiences and workings of his characters. Is the author an expert, or an amateur?

There’s also a strong anti-trade union line in the plot through one of the main characters, a repellent man who uses his power to manipulate and punish others. I wondered if Dick was here reflecting experience of unions in the US in his time.

Ultimately the plot hangs on the idea of both autistic and schizophrenic people to perceive time differently from the rest of us, to interact differently with it, and even to be able to travel through it. This makes the plot confusing at times, but I found the development and conclusion of the story very powerful. As always, Dick manages to confront us with real questions about the nature of our reality, about moral decisions, and about issues in the world today which we are apt to ignore: he frames those questions through fiction and approachable characters, so that we cannot ignore them.

While I am aware that there is a preference for not using the term schizophrenia today, I use it in this post for simplicity’s sake, because this is how Dick refers to the condition in his novel.

Good intentions

January 2, 2019

A fellow blogger posted a list of books she intends to read in 2019: I was both impressed and challenged. Why could I not plan my reading like this? I have had epic fails in the past. Upon retiring, I though to myself right, let’s have a serious year reading Shakespeare, another studying history, another on science fiction… none of which have come to pass so far.

A little more thinking had me realising that at this stage in my life I’m more of a re-reader than a reader, with the proportion of new books gradually shrinking. And yet, my plans to re-read many old favourites have also come to naught: I would pile up the books I was itching to revisit, maybe tackle a couple of them and then six months later put the pile away back on the shelves, having been side-tracked by something else and the moment having passed.

So, either I lack discipline, or else (I say, to console myself) I follow my instincts and my nose, one thing leading on to another, a bit like the word association exercise allegedly beloved of psychoanalysts. Occasionally one of these strands works itself out completely and I find myself utterly at a loss for what to turn to next, as often the unread pile does not tempt me. At such moments I turn briefly to magazines.

Having said all that, I do have some good intentions for the coming year. I want to re-read all of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories, I want to re-read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, my collection of Raymond Chandler novels and stories… all of that after I’ve finished re-reading Philip K Dick. And to be fair to myself, I have stuck to that one pretty well so far. Also on the list is to revisit Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, for a more considered take on it after a second read.

If I have time, I will also revisit some of Norman Davies’ history books. I also intend to pursue a relatively new interest, reading up on art history: I will try and finish E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art which I began several months ago when I was poorly, and I shall also look out something on the history of church architecture, which has always interested me.

Then there is always the pending pile, by the bed. At the end of this year, should I remember, I will update you on how badly I did….

Philip K Dick: We Can Build You

December 24, 2018

511UzZrk1BL._AC_US218_After the previous novel, this one comes as a complete contrast and quite a shock. Biographies of Philip Dick detail his various mental health issues and We Can Build You seems to reflect them, and his preoccupation with them. We are in a weird future world where mental illness is the norm and treatment mandated by the Federal Government; the various illnesses are vaguely linked to fallout from nuclear testing. This is another recurrent Dickian trope, the after-effects of all the atmospheric explosions in the fifties and sixties. At the same time, the first human simulacra are being perfected (we would nowadays call them androids).

So, utterly different territory from The Man in the High Castle. Here at one point the narrator decides he must be a simulacrum, and as he appears to collapse into mental illness himself as the story develops, it seems that the woman to whom he is attracted is also one.

We are in Frankenstein territory here, but with a twentieth century twist: is life being created when a simulacrum is built and then programmed with detailed memories of its actual human forbear? Does it have rights? Is it human? What sort of relationship can it have to our world, if it is out of its own time, and what responsibilities do its manufacturers or creators have? Once again, we are seeing what good literature and good science fiction can do: make us pause and reflect on our own world. We can also see the origins of a more famous Dick novel in which simulacra feature more dominantly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the film Blade Runner. Even the main female character has the same name…

Can one have sex with an android? Can a human be in love with an android? Here are questions which we may be considering in our own world in the not too distant future. And if a person suffers from a personality disorder which makes their behaviour and reactions resemble those of an android, where on earth are we then? Dick is most definitely on the level of ordinary people and their lives and feelings in this novel, which eventually seems to resolves itself into an unrequited love story, and a very sad one at that.

It is rather rambling and shapeless at times, as his narrator disintegrates mentally, and even so it does become quite a gripping story as we want his love to be returned. Dick presents psychosis quite clearly, along with other more common human emotions and feelings, and as I approached the end of the novel, I could see that the next one in the timeline, Martian Time-Slip, which also deals with a range of mentally disturbed states, flows out of this one, as does the treatment of such disorders with the use of hallucinogenic drugs – much explored in the nineteen-sixties – and this leads us on to the astonishing Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Because I experienced the novel working effectively on a human level, (and I think that this is part of the unrecognised brilliance of Dick), I found the ending of the novel very sad and very moving. I also have to recognise that there were rather too many loose ends left unsorted, though…

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

December 22, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_I’ve had the TV series sitting unwatched on my hard drive for a couple of years now: obviously I’m a bit suspicious of elephantine television series expanded from a single good novel (so I haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale either). This novel is probably Dick’s masterpiece, I think after this re-read (number five, apparently)…

It’s a serious step up from what he produced before. In this world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided up a defeated United States between them, Dick succeeds from the start in a Brechtian alienation effect as, through the way characters use the language he creates a completely different world, portraying the deference the Americans show to their new Japanese overlords in many ways, as well as the omni-present use of the I Ching to make decisions.

The alternative history genre is now well-established: in 1962 it was quite new, and Dick certainly hadn’t played with it before. The historical details he invents to create his world are sketchy yet convincing in more than just broad-brush strokes: the Germans have a space programme, and the Japanese are bogged down militarily in South America, and there is evident tension between the two superpowers at many levels. Cold War is still cold war.

New, too, is Dick’s creation and development of much more complex characters, far beyond the SF of his time, and of his own earlier work. There is a new racial pecking-order evident, and expected behaviours still exist, just different from those we knew about in the 1960s; slavery has returned to the US. Dick makes a real effort to understand the world view of both the Nazis and the Japanese and how it might operate if they had been militarily successful: I was reminded of the powerful insights into Nazi character explored by Jonathan Littell in his astonishing novel The Kindly Ones. The victors always write history, so of course it’s the Allies who were guilty of numerous atrocities in their attempts to win the war.

With Dick, one should always expect something extra, and he doesn’t disappoint: within his alternative universe, there is a novel – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which imagines another counterfactual, a world in which the Axis powers lost the war, banned by the Germans, but circulating semi-legally. Here is a novel operating on so many different and sophisticated levels, that I cannot see why it hasn’t achieved higher status, other than the damning SF label, of course. And this nested alternative history where the Allies win the war is not the history we are all familiar with, but another version still… There is serious social and psychological analysis of fascism and nazism, and of the old British and American empires embedded in the text of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in a way which reminded me of Goldstein’s book within Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dick is at his most interesting in his presentation of the gracefulness and the courtesy of the Japanese, as well as their inscrutability, compared with the gaucheness of their American inferiors who struggle to interpret the nature of communication with their conquerors, and in the detailed use of the I Ching as predictive and interpretive of human actions and choices. Complex moral choices are developed sensitively and fully explored as the novel moves towards a strangely open conclusion, enigmatic in true Dickian fashion in one track, and reminiscent of Kurtz’ ‘The horror! The horror!’ moment in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the other.

This book is magnificent, and deserves much greater recognition.

Philip K Dick: Time Out of Joint

December 19, 2018

5184OtaA+aL._AC_US218_This novel represents quite a sea-change from what Dick was writing before. His scene is now small-town 1950s American life, a setting he will use frequently in both science fiction and non-SF novels, and one which allows him to use ordinary people as characters, and explore everyday life. However, in this small town, there is a clear and growing sense that something is not quite right…

The hero Ragle Gumm keeps winning a daily newspaper competition, solving clues which read like those from a cryptic crossword, and analysing data which he records, to spot where a little green man will appear next…

Gumm seems prone to occasional psychotic episodes and it gradually becomes clear that various people are minding him in what appears to be a solipsistic universe, an entire fake reality constructed around him and for him, which must be sustained and he cannot be allowed to leave, which, of course, he tries to do, as he gradually gets nearer to the truth about himself and what is going on, in a world that is actually in the 1990s and where a war is going on between Earth and the colonists on the Moon.

I can’t really say a lot more without spoiling a good story; suffice it to say it’s a very good yarn although the ending does lack some clarity and conviction, reinforcing my feeling that Dick isn’t yet a master at pulling all his strands together for an effective conclusion. But what we can see here is a writer who is seriously expanding the range and vision of the genre. And I think that main idea in this book was used in the film The Truman Show a couple of decades or so back.

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…

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.

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