Posts Tagged ‘Philip K Dick’

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.

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.

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!

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