Not everyone likes PKD’s mainstream novels, almost all of which remained unpublished in his lifetime. They are often criticised for being bleak, dull or meaningless. There are plenty of people who say that they love PKD’s SF, but hate his mainstream works.
I am not one of those people.
I have been, and remain, fascinated by the worlds PKD created, either SF or mainstream. For me, his mainstream novels have a sort of ‘slow burn’ that complement rather than contradict his zany SF worlds. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is not the most well known of these mainstream efforts, most of which were written in the fifties, nor is it the best. It is, however, the last PKD would write. After this, in 1960, PKD would write The Man in the High Castle, the book which won him a Hugo Award and a sense that he could merge his mainstream and SF interests into one career. So Humpty Dumpty in Oakland represents the end of the line for PKD’s mainstream career.
The first few pages are so similar to the opening of Voices from the Street that I wondered whether it was a recast of that earlier book. I am both right and wrong in this assertion. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland does feature a character by the name of Jim Fergesson, same as the earlier novel, but here his trajectory is very different from that of Voices. There can be no doubt, however, that PKD cannibalized the opening scene of Voices for Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. There are several things that are virtually identical in both books: the Negro as an ‘early morning street sweeper,’ Fergesson ‘killing the nightlight with his hand,’ and the health food store across the street. There’s one important difference, however: now Fergesson runs an Auto Repair shop, not a TV & Radio store. And there is no Stuart Hadley working for him, although Humpty Dumpty in Oakland‘s other main character, Al Miller, might be a recast of Hadley. No, it seems that Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is in fact a recast of a lost novel called A Time for George Stavros (according to Lawrence Sutin’s essential biography of PKD). But elements of Voices remain. Those two novels stand at opposite ends of PKD’s fruitless mainstream career: Voices from 1952-3 and Humpty from 1960.
There are other important differences between the novels discusses above. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is set in Oakland, California, and Fergesson (who has aged a decade since we last saw him in Voices) is selling his shop, not buying another. His relationship with Al Miller is an unhappy one: the younger man rents a section of the old man’s lot for ‘Al’s Auto Sales.’ Unfortunately, Al’s cars are wrecks, and Al himself is an unlikable con man. Al Miller doesn’t exactly work for Fergesson, but the relationship is a parasitic one. PKD alternates chapters between Fergesson and Miller, although he isn’t adverse to sticking with one character for a few chapters when the need arises. Here, again, we see PKD’s genius for weaving the lives of his characters together. A third major character, Chris Harman, is introduced subtly. Harman is a businessman of some kind who comes to Fergesson to get his car looked at. But it seems that Harman is also the producer of ‘dirty records,’ a fact Miller seeks to exploit through blackmail.
Meanwhile, Harman has a proposition for Fergesson. Fergesson has already sold his auto repair business for around $40,000 (which must have been a tidy sum in 1960) and he’s planning on retiring, as his health is failing him. But Harman convinces him to invest his money in a new repair business in the newly-developed Marin County (where PKD himself lived during this time). Thus we have a situation where Harman is trying to sweet talk Fergesson, while simultaneously Miller is trying to blackmail Harman. It’s an elegant setup, and one PKD runs with for all it’s worth. I noticed at this point that there is an awful lot of interior monologue in this book. We are privy to the innermost thoughts of Fergesson and Miller, which mostly consist of various plans and concerns and (for Miller) get rich schemes.
Chapter Six is probably the highlight of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland for me. Here we see Fergesson driving out to Marin Country to investigate the location of the proposed new business. He drives through an unearthly maze of freeway constructions (which remind me of the developments I have seen here in Perth in the 1990s and 2000s) until he finally reaches Marin Gardens. We get a sense that there is a terrible void opening up beneath Fergesson. His heart is labouring, his palms are sweaty, and he might not live out the day. But when he reaches his destination, he meets a young salesman who seems to want to discuss science fiction, not business! The young man is reading Anderson’s Brain Wave, a once famous but now obscure novel. When Fergesson finally convinces the salesman to show him around, the old man takes a tumble. Sensing his own mortality, he gets back in his car and heads home. For a man of 32 or so, PKD sure knew how to imagine the fragile life of an older man on the brink of a heart attack. We feel Fergesson’s condition viscerally, as it is ourselves who are dying.
Meanwhile, Al Miller’s scheme for blackmailing Harman appears to have backfired, and in a strange twist, Miller ends up working for Harman’s Teach Records. Initially, it seems he is to manage a new classical music line, but then it appears that his job is to travel around California looking for a new barbershop quartet. I kid you not. Miller is happy enough to go along with this, as is his long-suffering wife. Unfortunately, Miller is a complete fuck-up. He’s actually insane, in a calm way. He does appear to be able to ‘level’ with anyone. As Harman eventually realises, he’s a bullshit artist, not a real man. Even more scathingly, Miller’s friend Tootie Dolittle calls him ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ in the sense that he just hangs around on his wall, waiting to fall off. And fall he does. Eventually we come to a scene in which Miller is at Harman’s extravagantly-built house, about to head off to look for that barbershop quartet. But then Jim Fergesson arrives in a terrible state; by this stage he is so ill that he can barely speak. And then sparks fly.
The antipathy between Fergesson and Miller is pretty much the main core of this novel, and here it comes to a head, to the detriment of both parties. Harman says something about not mixing business with friendship, but it is too late. Inexplicably, Miller commits a kind of professional suicide by admitting that it was he who tried to blackmail Harman (Harman thinks there is a Negro conspiracy against him). Furthermore, Miller claims to be an agent of some shadowy organisation out to get Harman. This is just insane stuff, and Miller fails in this strategem. But not before old man Fergesson dies of the heart attack he so feared. In a complex resolution, Fergesson’s widow Lydia appeals to Miller for help: she wants to stop the check that the old man had written to Harman just before his death. Miller succeeds in this aim, but becomes a targeted man as a result. His only valuable car, a 1932 Marmon (whatever that is or was), is smashed up by unknown assailants. Then Lydia, seeing this, offers to pay Miller $2000 for the car, as a way of saying thank you. Miller is happy to take the money, and begins to plot his escape.
And so Miller and his wife get on a Greyhound bus and get the hell out of California. They don’t get far. It isn’t long before his wife (I’ve forgotten her name and can’t be bothered going into the other room to get the novel) decides to leave him for good. Miller is arrested shortly after by the police in Salt Lake City, and returned to Oakland. His crime? Swindling Lydia Fergesson out of $2000 and then leaving the state. He is forced to pay the money back, and then receives an unexpected visitor: Chris Harman. Harman, far from seeking to finish Miller off, instead offers him a reprieve, and a job. Miller is happy to accept, but he is a broken man. His friend Tootie tells him so, and then we find Miller in an abject state at his car lot, filling a bag with sand. It is like this that the Negro realtor Mrs Lane finds him. She recognises that he is in a poor state, and offers to drive him home. The end.
It’s hard to imagine a less satisfactory resolution to a book than the last third of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. The two ‘protagonists’ (if they can be called that) are petty and mean. One of them dies of a heart attack, and the other has his dreams broken. There’s very little sense of redemption here. No, this is a bleak and dark book, and it’s no wonder that the publishers of the day were not interested. From looking at Dave Hyde’s extremely useful PKDweb (http://www.philipkdickfans.com/pkdweb/) I discovered that the publishers were able to sum up Humpty Dumpty in Oakland‘s failings thus: “One is left asking, at the end, what the book has really been about, what the author is trying to do and say in it. As with earlier Dick novels, it simply doesn’t add up to enough.”
And that’s fair enough. As I said before, this novel reads like a dead-end. But PKD’s next book, The Man in the High Castle, would prove to be an extraordinary new beginning. A note on publication. I am a proud owner of the (admittedly ex-library) first edition of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which was published in the UK in 1986 by Victor Gollancz. There have been a few UK editions over the years, but none in the U.S. until now. In November ’07, Tor released a new hardcover edition of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which I believe to be the first American edition. If you’re a PKD fan, and you haven’t read this book, then here’s your chance.
This book represents an impossibility: a new novel from a man who died in 1982. But here it is, Voices from the Street, a novel PKD wrote in 1952-3, when he was around twenty five years old. This is not the earliest surviving PKD manuscript; that honour goes to Gather Yourselves Together, which must surely be the great man’s earliest and most obscure work. Even I haven’t read it, given that it was published by an obscure small press in 1994. Voices from the Street is the last of PKD’s manuscripts to be published. As of now, everything PKD wrote that still survives (and there are apparently at least three early novel manuscripts that have long since disappeared) has been published. This represents, as one reviewer said, PKD’s belated induction into the American literary canon.
So what is Voices from the Street about? It isn’t a SF novel, for a start. No, it’s about a young man called Stuart Hadley who works in a TV store. This is 1952, in a small town called Cedar Groves, California. Given this novel’s vintage, that fact is interesting in itself. Here we get an insight into a world that must surely now have been buried under the nightmare of modern Californian life. In fact, I have often thought that the California of the 50s PKD describes is not altogether unlike the Perth, Western Australia I grew up in from 1990-2003. Hadley works for a man named Jim Fergesson, a middle-aged worry wart who plans to expand his business to a second store. This relationship is based on PKD’s own relationship with a man called Herb Hollis, whom PKD worked for the in late forties and early fifties. Hadley is married to a young woman called Ellen (perhaps based on PKD’s then current wife, Kleo). At the beginning of the novel, Ellen is pregnant with their first child. Hadley has it all: a wife, a child, a job, and yet he has nothing.
When we first meet Hadley, he’s in a jail cell, having gone on a bender the previous night. We soon learn that Hadley is well and truly going off the rails. He doesn’t apply himself in his job, he isn’t very nice to his wife (he loses money and stays out all night drinking), and he complains about pretty much everything. In fact, it’s hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for him. Herein lies the novel’s first weakness: the protagonist is a whining asshole. Voices from the Street represents a divergence from PKD’s usual sympathetic (although often pathetic) protagonists. The PKD of this novel is an angry young man indeed, and there’s precious little to smile about here. PKD would make the ‘quest for the human’ his mantra, and yet Stuart Hadley represents nothing if not the ‘inhuman’ android personality of PKD’s ‘dark-haired girls.’
This novel starts out bleak and goes downhill from there. By page 124, I found that I hated Stuart Hadley. He is an absolute prick to his wife, his boss, and his friends. Astonishingly, there’s a fair bit of racism in this book, and I’m not sure it can be said to be dis-endorsed by PKD. Hadley thinks of his friends, the Golds, as sub-men (they are Jewish). He describes them as dirty, pathetic and dwarf-like. Later, he calls them kikes. There is a black preacher called Theodore Beckheim, who is part of the Watchmen of Jesus, whom Hadley goes to see speak. Later, when Hadley discovers that Beckheim is sleeping with a white woman, Marsha Frazier, he calls him a ‘big black nigger.’ And there are some neo-Nazi types in the book, too, who are treated with ambivalence. In other words, it’s hard to me to understand how the PKD I know – the man who had a black spaceship captain in his first novel Solar Lottery, the man who said evil was ‘actual, like cement’ in reference to the Nazis in The Man in the High Castle – could have written Voices from the Street.
There is so much hatred and angst in this book. Hadley has a sister called Sally, for whom he apparently has (or at least once had) incestuous feelings. Sally is described very sensuously, in much more loving detail than Hadley’s wife, Ellen. In fact, the baby growing inside Ellen is compared to a tumour, and her pregnant condition is said to be ‘obese.’ Sally’s husband is even more offensive than Hadley himself. But his greatest crime would appear to be that he has taken Sally away from her brother. Characters are considered to lack their own reality: they are in fact projections of certain parts of Hadley’s personality (at least according to Hadley himself). There’s an awful tumult in this novel, one so searing that it made me feel ill reading it. The second half of the book focuses on Hadley’s relationship with Marsha Frazier, a thin thirty-ish woman who edits a fascist, anti-Semitic magazine called Succubus. Hadley does in fact rail against Frazier’s anti-Semitism, but this doesn’t stop him from considering himself part of a higher race than the likes of the Golds.
It’s not all bad, however. One of the strengths of this book is in the physical description of the TV store Hadley works in. This a real, concrete location, a solidity against the terrible flux of the world at large. But Hadley is so bored of his life that he is susceptible to virtually any kind of fad or scam: hence his interest in the Watchmen of Jesus. There is a section in which Marsha takes Hadley up the coast to meet Beckheim, his idol, but the meeting disappoints him. Hadley tries to submit to Beckheim and/or Marsha herself, but finds himself back at home, late at night, ripping up his membership card for the society. At this point I wondered if Hadley’s angst was based on some kind of sexual repression, but the novel seeks to defeat such speculation. When Hadley finally does cheat on his wife with Marsha, the outcome is shocking.
Hadley’s fall in the final third of the novel is piteous and horrifying. Time for a big spoiler alert. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS, STOP READING. Here is my summary of the events of the final third: Hadley takes Marsha to a hotel to sleep with her, but he ends up raping and beating her brutally. At one point, Marsha’s pathetic submission is compared to that of a small child (when he forces her to drink some bourbon out of a paper cup). This is quite shocking to me. Today, such behaviour would be termed aggravated sexual assault. Hatred flows outward in all directions, and Marsha becomes Hadley’s victim. He steals her car, leaving her at the hotel, and goes home. But it isn’t over. No, Hadley then proceeds to snatch his infant son from his cot (Ellen is fast asleep) before going on the mother of all benders. Then he gets horribly drunk, ends up in a fight or perhaps a series of fights. He calls his friend a kike, tries unsuccessfully to see Beckheim again (he isn’t allowed into the meeting as he’s ripped up his membership card) and stumbles around. During this time, Hadley’s son Pete is still in the stolen car. Hadley goes to the TV store late at night, where Fergesson is playing cards with some friends, and demands the $100 he is owed. He gets the money, gets himself fired, and goes out drinking again. This goes on for several hours. Eventually Hadley ends up at a gay bar (!) but he resists the overtures of the ‘fairies’ who try to care for him. Eventually he is hit by a car, taken in by some kindly Germans, before escaping and checking into a cheap hotel with the last of his money. Hadley goes back to the stolen car, finding that the window has been smashed and the baby removed. Then he goes to a car yard, tries to buy a car (but he has no money) and then decides to steal several hundred dollars from his now ex-boss.
The final scene of destruction is incredible. This is, in fact, powerful writing. Hadley goes to the TV store, finds that Fergesson has changed the lock, and sees Fergesson in the upstairs window. Then we switch to the older man’s point of view for the finale, in which Hadley basically uses his body as a human battering ram to get into the store. First he throws a brick through the window (at which time Fergesson calls the police) but he can’t get through. So he smashes his way through the broken glass, to the horror of all concerned. At this point, Hadley is little different to the machine in Terminator 2. He’s no longer human, and nothing will stand in his way.
Then we get the aftermath. It’s several months later and Hadley is in poor shape. He’s horribly disfigured and is now blind in one eye. Incredibly, Ellen has taken him back, and they are moving in to an extremely small and filthy dungeon of an apartment. Hadley is too weak to work so Ellen gets a job, and Hadley putters around the apartment, fixing the place up. He is calm now. But something terrible has happened to him. Hadley is still technically alive, but his soul is dead. He’s an android, devoid of emotion, operating with only half of his brain (the other half is said to be silent). The book ends with Hadley planning to open a new repair business.
I don’t think I’ve ever read as disturbing (and disturbed) a novel as Voices from the Street. It’s a distillation of hatred, fear and misery, and comes as a complete surprise to me. I’ve read something like 50 books by PKD, and not one of them comes close to being so terribly inhuman. It’s almost as though this book served as some kind of purgative for the youthful PKD. He wrote all of his rage, all his racism and violent tendencies, into this novel. This is not the PKD I know. This is a disturbed young man whose demons overcame him. Never again would he write something as awful as this. I’m glad to have read it, as it does shed some (unflattering) light onto the young PKD, but it’s disturbing nonetheless. It’s a good job PKD never got this published during his lifetime, nor, I expect, would he have wanted to.
Voices from the Street does have a sort of strange second life, however. Upon completing it, I went to my PKD bookshelf and picked up another of PKD’s mainstream novels, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. Written in 1960 and published posthumously in 1986, it is the tale of one Jim Fergesson. I read the first three pages, and was astonished to discover that it contains virtually the exact same opening as Voices from the Street. Several phrases are identical. I propose to re-read Humpty Dumpty in Oakland in order to discover just how close the two novels are. Given that Voices from the Street was written in 1952-3, and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland in 1960, it seems obvious that PKD re-cast the former novel in the form of the latter. There’s nothing unusual about a writer doing this with one of his early, unpublished manuscripts (I’ve done the same myself) but it does surprise me that no one has mentioned the similarities between the two books. More on this later.
I like to think of Now Wait for Last Year as the quintessential PKD novel. Not many people would regard this as an ‘essential PKD novel’ and yet most PKD fans regard this as a ‘good’ book. I like to think of the book as being at the top of the second rank of PKD novels. Just to be clear about what I mean, these are the books I consider to be ‘first rank’: The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. My Top 5 PKD novels I am certain of (exclude TTA from the above list) but my Top 10 is more problematic. There are a number of works that could be considered, including Now Wait for Last Year. Other possibilities are A Maze of Death, Dr Bloodmoney, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Flow My Tear, the Policeman Said, Time Out of Joint, Eye in the Sky, and even a couple of mainstream novels such as Confessions of a Crap Artist or even Mary and the Giant.
OK, but we’re getting off topic. Back to Now Wait for Last Year. I’ve always had a special liking of this book. I’ll try to explain why. Firstly, the setup is both classic PKD and yet interestingly unique: a guy called Eric Sweetscent is an ‘artiforg’ surgeon (short for ‘artificial organs’ – one of PKD’s better neologisms) who works for Virgil Ackerman, head of a company called Tijuana Fur & Dye. Eric has a wife called Kathy, who appears to be a thinly-drawn portrait of PKD’s third wife, Anne. There is an interstellar war going on between Terra, the ‘Starmen of Lilistar, and the buglike reegs. The war aspect is the least interesting and least inspired aspect of the book. PKD clearly had little interest in trying to imagine a real interstellar war. He still speaks of ‘fronts’ in a way that seems terminally mired in the Second World War. What is interesting, however, is the head of the Terran defense, a man called Gino Molinari.
Now Wait for Last Year is nothing if not uneven. The beginning of the novel is not especially promising, featuring a conversation between Eric and some of his associates. Here we see PKD the stylist in full ‘overblown’ mode, replete with overly long sentences and verbose descriptions. It’s fairly whimsical and trivial stuff. There’s something about ‘Wash 35,’ which is a mini-reality constructed from the trinkets of the past to simulate Washington from 1935. This seems to prefigure The Truman Show. But PKD doesn’t spend much time on this, and the promising idea is all but forgotten (to be picked up again in later novels, to be sure). Now Wait for Last Year doesn’t really get going until Chapter Four, which consists of a wonderful conversation between Eric and Gino Molinari. The subject? Eric’s marriage to Kathy Sweetscent. Now we’re getting somewhere.
This conversation feels like one of the true ‘genuine’ things in this novel, and one is sorely tempted to attribute this to the fact that it serves as a cipher for Phil’s then-rocky relationship with his third wife. I won’t try to recap the content of this conversation, but suffice to say that it is written with real feeling. By this stage of the novel, Kathy has already tried the new drug JJ-180, the effects of which will basically drive the rest of the novel. One of the ‘great’ aspects of this book is the depiction of Terra’s ailing leader, who is painted as stern but human, fallible and yet wise. It turns out that Molinari’s strategy for avoiding having to deal with Terra’s ambiguous ally, the ‘Starmen, is to become so ill that he can’t negotiate the ‘Starmen’s covert takeover of Terran industries. This is where PKD’s talent for weaving apparently unrelated factors comes into play. We have an ailing leader, an ‘artiforg’ surgeon, an interstellar war and a drug which sends its users into a multiverse of futures. By the end of the book, these four factors will have become interminably intertwined.
The second half of the novel basically consists of first Kathy, and then Eric Sweetscent descending into the drug world of JJ-180. What this consists of is multiple trips into alternate and contradictory futures which resemble nothing if not the Back to the Future films. This serves to highlight how prevalent PKD’s vision would become in the years after his death. In some universes, the war is going better than in others, and some realities see Terra allied with the reegs, not fighting them. Eric’s immediate goal is to find a cure for the extremely addictive JJ-180, which he eventually does. PKD uses a somewhat lame device, that of the talking taxi cab (“I’m Johnny Cab,” anyone?), to facilitate the plethora of confusing realities. What I’m saying is that there’s a fair bit of telling, not showing. But perhaps it can’t be helped. It turns out that there are a whole heap of alternate Molinaris from different universes, some of which never became Terra’s supreme leader, who end up being used in our own universe. The novel ends on an optimistic note, with Terra trying ally with the reegs, and Eric vowing to stay with his drug-wrecked wife.
And that’s the end. This is a rollercoaster ride of a novel, teetering on the edge of incomprehensibility. But PKD manages to pull it off in a way I believe he failed in books such as The Simulacra. Time travel stories offer plenty in the way of time paradoxes, but PKD manages to run roughshod over these concerns with admirable panache. A note on the two covers shown above. The one of the left is a truly horrid Panther cover from the UK in the 70s. I happen to own this edition. This must go down as one of PKD’s worst novel covers (and there were some contenders all right). The one of the right is the ‘Millennium Masterworks’ edition from 2000. This, more than anything else I could say, should serve as a indication of how rapidly PKD’s star has risen in the years since his death. Isn’t it ironic that in death PKD is providing much better for his wives and children than he ever could in life? It’s tempting to label the whole subject phildickian.
Reading this book – which is basically a transcript of a long interview with Philip K. Dick – is like catching up with an old friend. These interviews, which were recorded by Gwen Lee, have the distinction of being the last interviews in Philip K. Dick’s life. That’s this book’s first claim to fame. The interviews were recorded in January 1982, just six weeks before PKD’s untimely death. That’s strange, because according to the blurb on the back of this edition, the interviews took place from November 1982 onwards. It’s a typo, obviously, but definitely a phildickian one. I have been meaning to get this book ever since it was first released, but it wasn’t that high on my list of priorities. Having now read What If Our World Is Their Heaven?, I have satisfied my curiosity, but I don’t really feel like I’ve learned much that I didn’t already know about PKD.
This book’s second claim to fame is that it contains pretty much the only discussion on PKD’s unwritten SF novel The Owl In Daylight. Owl would have been an interesting novel, had PKD lived to write it. It was to be a story about first contact between an alien species and our own. The catch is that the aliens are totally deaf (and yet regard our music as heavenly) and we are ‘deaf’ to their sense of colour. The novel was to be a Faustian tale involving biochip technology (and apparently nanotechnology) as well as a hack composer who becomes a genuis. I’m not doing a good job of describing it here. If you want to know about Owl, then you need to read this book.
Much of the rest of What If Our World Is Their Heaven? deals with PKD’s reactions to what he had been shown of the then soon to be released Blade Runner. PKD had a love/hate relationship with the filmmakers, but he is in ‘love’ mode here. His description of Blade Runner‘s beginning reminds me how powerfully it affected me when I first saw it. This section is interesting, because it’s a great shame that PKD died before the film was released. There’s a real ‘sense of wonder’ about PKD here; he’s bewildered that someone could go to so much effort to flesh out one of his novels like this. If you are interested in Blade Runner, you will appreciate these details.
Other topics in this book include PKD’s ‘Exegesis,’ the experience of ’2-3-74′ and discussion about the book that turned out to be PKD’s last, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. I am an ardent supporter of TTA, and thus I was interested to read that PKD had found the book extremely difficult to write, and that he questioned its value. There’s an interesting point to be made here. When we think about the lives of dead people, we tend to want a ‘beginning, middle and end.’ TTA is such a beautiful novel that it seems an ideal final testament to PKD’s life, and yet here we have the man himself, six weeks before the stroke that would kill him, planning another book and working himself into the ground. And he knows it. One wants to scream out across these pages: “STOP IT, PHIL! JUST RELAX! DON’T THINK ABOUT WRITING!” But, of course, it’s too late. Philip K. Dick died on March 2, 1982, which is now twenty six years ago. I was born six months before his death, and those 26 years certainly seem like a long time to me. To put PKD’s life into perspective, another great writer, J. G. Ballard, was born only two years later (in 1930) and is only now seeming to be on his last legs due to prostate cancer. PKD fans tend to have accepted the master’s death by now, but this book brings it back into shocking focus.
There’s a lot of PKD’s personality here: his sense of humour, his flirtatious nature, his wide-reaching imagination and extraordinary intelligence. What we find here is a literary genius at work, albeit slaving away at a doomed task. I’ve often felt that PKD threw away enough ideas for someone to make their own career out of. I doubt that anyone will ever be able to reproduce The Owl in Daylight from these conversations (even if they had permission), but this stuff sure is instructive. PKD often spoke about the information he felt was being fired into his brain. Well, he spent a fair bit of time firing information into the brains of those around him.
I’ve talked myself around. I started off trying to say that What If Our World Is Their Heaven? wasn’t worth the bother, but now I’m not sure I agree with my own assertion. I will need to re-read this carefully. The only real downside to this book is it’s length. It’s been padded with wide margins and a large font, as well as blank pages, a foreword, an introduction, and a fairly redundant bibliography, and it’s still only two hundred pages. But it’s worth it all the same. This is hardly an essential PKD book for everyday readers (I would rate Paul Williams’ book of interviews, Only Apparently Real, ahead of this one) but it’s an essential book for the hardcore PKD fan.
I fell out of love with VALIS by degrees. When I first read it in 1999, at the age of eighteen, I was entranced. I distinctly recall starting to read it late in the evening and continuing almost until dawn. But over the years, on subsequent readings, I have grown increasingly uneasy with the status of VALIS as one of PKD’s best novels. Now, on perhaps my fifth reading, I cannot say that I share the high opinion many other PKD-philes have of this book.
What is VALIS about? Herein lies one of the problems. The ‘plot’ (what little of it there is) goes something like this: during the 1970s, a man by the name of Horselover Fat has a strange experience, in which he is bombarded by a pink beam of light. Fat spends years trying to work out what has happened to him, spinning outlandish theories with his friends Phil Dick, Kevin and David. During the course of the novel, we are treated to some stories of Phil Dick/Horselover Fat’s unsuccessful attempts to save the suicidal Gloria and terminally ill Sherri, as well as the aftermath of his own suicide attempt. Eventually, the four friends go to see a film called “Valis,” which seems to corroborate much of what Horselover Fat experienced during March 1974. After this, the four friends go to meet the filmmaker, Eric Lampton, and his wife Linda, who claim to be beings from another star. They also claim that their two year-old daughter is a Saviour in a line that includes Elijah, Jesus Christ and a few others. Phil Dick and Horselover Fat realise that they are one individual, not two, and the three friends return to their homes, whereupon they learn that the two year-old Saviour has died. There’s more to it than that, of course, but that’s the bare bones of the actual plot.
In many respects, VALIS picks up where A Scanner Darkly leaves off. Both novels are about the after-effects of the sixties drug subculture, and both address the themes of suicide and despair. Crucially, both books also detail a ‘splitting of personalities:’ whereas in A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor ends up narking on himself, in VALIS Philip K. Dick himself splits into two personalities, one rational and the other deranged. In fact, there is a novel that comes between these two in terms of composition: Radio Free Albemuth, which PKD originally called “Valisystem A.” That book (which wasn’t published until 1985) also addresses the theme of split personalities, although it does so in a slightly different way. Thus I find it useful to speak of a ‘split personality trilogy’ – A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS.
In VALIS , PKD seems to be spinning a metafictional web that appears, in some respects, to take the form of quasi-autobiography. After all, those who know PKD’s life will be aware that he had an incident with a ‘pink beam of light’ in February and March of 1974. Many of the characters in VALIS appear to be based on real people in PKD’s life: Beth is based on PKD’s fifth wife Tess; Kevin is K.W. Jeter; David is based on Tim Powers and so on. But PKD has presented VALIS as fiction, and thus I will read it as fiction. Therefore, I will not make any further attempts to align events in the novel with events in the writer’s life. Crucially, PKD has created the alter-ego of Horselover Fat, whom he uses as a speaker in the third person to gain “much-needed objectivity” (p 11). I’m sure that PKD enjoyed blurring the boundaries between fictional worlds and ‘real’ ones.
The bulk of VALIS basically consists of a series of conversations and interior monologues on the nature of the divine. This is in response to the ‘pink beam of light’ incident. All of this is quite interesting, but it’s not really a novel in the normal sense. What few events there are have taken place in the past, mainly dealing with the consequences of suicide and attempted suicide. It’s not until around 150 pages into the book that we get the first forward movement in time: namely the watching of the film ‘Valis.’ Previous to this we get a number of bizarre and outlandish theories. “Every day he developed a new [theory], more cunning, more exciting and more fucked.” (p 36) Most of VALIS basically consists of extended discussion on these theories, which include but are not limited to: the universe as information; the universe as a hologram; a two deity cosmology in which an inferior creator wreaks havoc on the world while the superior deity tries to fight back; humanity as descended from a race of three-eyed beings from Sirius; two realities interposed – one being Rome circa 70 C.E, and the other the U.S. in 1974; a notion of the universe as a ‘Black Iron Prison’ from which we cannot escape. All of this is very interesting, rather bewildering, and ultimatly (for me anyway) less than enlightening. And I suppose therein lies the crux of my argument against VALIS.
At one stage, there is even mention made of the fact that Horselover Fat’s theories about the universe tie in with PKD’s own primal loss: that of his twin sister Jane, who died at six weeks of age from malnutrition. This is interesting, as it helps to unravel the complexities of PKD’s theories. One strength of the early part of the novel is the juxtaposition of these outlandish theories with the terrible realities of life in the ‘Black Iron Prison.’ There is one moment early on where Fat is drawn back from his world of ideas by a woman trying to retch into a tub in front of him. This is in a psychiatric ward. This juxtaposition of the high and low is further reflected in the relationship between Horselover Fat, the creator of wild fantastical ideas, and Phil Dick, the skeptical science-fiction writer. This is an effective technique and may serve as a kind of ‘self-interrogation’ of PKD’s mind. One might speculate that this inner dialogue might be seen to represent the two hemispheres of the brain: one rational, the other deranged; one grounded in a mundane reality, the other residing in a higher world of ideas. But of course, with PKD, the question always becomes, “How can I tell whether any of this is real?”
What can we take at face value in VALIS? It’s really hard to say, as PKD as an authorial voice never confirms nor denies the truth of what is described. For example, there is an extraordinary conversation between Horselover Fat and Dr Stone, a psychiatrist at the mental ward. This conversation covers a vast number of highly eclectic and intellectual topics relating to the nature of Gnosticism and reality itself. It’s a stunning piece of work, but it places several demands on the reader in terms of ‘suspension of disbelief.’ Are we to believe that this conversation actually took place as written within the world of the novel? Are we to interpret it as the deranged fantasies of Horselover Fat? There is, of course, no way of telling. Herein lies PKD’s greatest strength as a writer and possibly one of the weaknesses of VALIS. We simply don’t know what to believe. Now, a young and very enthusiastic PKD reader, such as I was at the age of eighteen, is inclined to accept even the most outlandish of ideas as feasible, but an older and more tempered PKD reader is given to wonder. What the hell is VALIS about, anyway?
What I am trying to say here is that I now have some reservations both about the usefulness of the ideas presented in VALIS and also about the quality of the novel as work of art. In VALIS , PKD has almost but not quite abandoned the vehicle of fiction itself as a means to present his ideas. Much of what we have here could just as easily be presented in essay form. There’s precious little plot in VALIS , virtually no attempt at characterisation or description of settings etc. Now I know that many PKD acolytes are inclined to claim that PKD was ‘beyond’ the realms of proletarian fiction by this stage of his life and career, but I remain skeptical. PKD wrote this as a novel because that is what he did for a living. As a novel, I’m not sure that VALIS can be deemed a success. As a snapshot of PKD’s mind, however, it is fascinating. This is both an attempt at autobiography and a ‘selection from the exegesis,’ long before Lawrence Sutin’s In Pursuit of Valis.
My sense of unease with VALIS is reflected in my attempt to write about it. Am I stupid to question this book? Am I unable to think on the level required? But the book itself seems to question its own findings: “Fat’s encounter may not have been with God, but it was certainly with something.” (p 120) As proof of the ‘reality’ of VALIS (or God, or Zebra), PKD cites an experience from his own life: his miraculous diagnosis of his infant son’s serious medical condition. We are on uncertain ground here. How much of this is to be believed? Even if we do believe it, we are being asked to consider something beyond the scope of the book itself, i.e. Christopher’s condition and subsequent recovery. This seems perilous to me. The notion of three-eyed invaders from Sirius is particularly difficult to swallow. This reflects nothing if not Kurt Vonnegut’s time-defying Tralfamadorians from his novel Slaughterhouse Five. There’s only one difference: Vonnegut was joking; PKD, apparently, isn’t: “We are talking about Christ. He is an extra-terrestrial life form which came to this planet thousands of years ago.” (p 125)
At long last, the ‘plot’ actually gets going when Horselover Fat, Phil Dick, Kevin and David go to see the film ‘Valis.’ This psychadelic film seems to corroborate much of Fat’s ravings, and suggests that the U.S. circa 1974 is in fact a ‘Black Iron Prison’ which God is trying to reconquer. (As a small aside, the U.S. circa 2008 seems to reflect nothing if not a Black Iron Prison. Most of PKD’s fears have been confirmed.) After the film, the four friends go to see the filmmaker Eric Lampton and his wife. It turns out that they believe they are God-like aliens. Furthermore, their two-year old daughter is in fact a Saviour in a line including Jesus Christ. At least, at this late stage, the novel starts to question the veracity of these wild claims. Horselover Fat and Phil Dick merge back into one entity, and the (now reduced) group of friends retreats back to their homes. Not long after, it transpires that the infant Saviour has died, which seems to cast the entire framework of ideas into doubt. And then Horselover Fat makes a late re-appearance, leaving California to search for the next Saviour around the world. He sends postcards.
I like something that Phil Dick says to Horselover Fat so much that I will transcribe it in entirety here: “‘There is no ‘Zebra’, I said. ‘It’s yourself. Don’t you recognize your own self? It’s you and only you, projecting your unanswered wishes out, unfulfilled desires left over after Gloria did herself in. You couldn’t fill the vacuum with reality so you filled it with fantasy; it was psychological compensation for a fruitless, wasted, empty, pain-filled life and I don’t see why you don’t finally fucking give up.” (p 245) I guess here we are getting down to my beliefs, not PKD’s: I am more inclined to believe this ‘version of events.’ But I suspect that VALIS is as much a book the reader helps to create as any other. You can take or leave anything you find here.
Wow, I’m a little shocked that I’ve done what is essentially a hatchet job on this novel. I hope I haven’t offended anyone. It’s not that I think that PKD had lost his mind, nor had he lost his abilities as a writer. His last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, serves as a testament to that. The latter novel is beautifully written, sombre, searching and controlled. VALIS, on the other hand, is unruly. The character of Phil Dick himself admits at one stage that the material is starting to get the better of him. It’s this lack of control and lack of shape that troubles me. Well, there it is: I’ve said what I wanted to say about VALIS. I would appreciate your comments, but please be kind. Don’t flame me for daring to doubt the genius of Philip K. Dick.
Ubik, written in 1966 and published in 1969, is widely regarded as one of PKD’s best novels. But if you were to read the first 70 pages or so, it would be hard to imagine why. More on this later. At the time of Ubik‘s composition, PKD was living with Nancy Hackett, who would soon become his fourth wife and bear him his second child, Isa. Thus his life was relatively stable, which is a surprise, as Ubik is nothing if not a train-ride (some might say train-wreck) through a realm of uncertainty and despair.
The start of Ubik is unpromising. In the year 1992 (a mere 26 years into PKD’s future), a man called Glen Runciter heads an organisation that employs telepaths, precogs (as in precognitive), inertials and other people with psionic powers. Okay. Runciter’s organisation is engaged in a struggle against a rival organisation for control of the psionics market. Right. Runciter’s young wife Ella is in ‘cold-pac’ (a form of cryogenics) in a facility in Switzerland. There’s another boy in cold-pac called Jory who is starting to invade the half-life world of Ella Runciter. But the main focus is on Joe Chip, one of Runciter’s employees who appears to be Dick’s attempt at self-parody.
Joe Chip is in fairly dire straits. His life is a mess (he’s indebted to his front door, among other things) despite the fact that he is in Glen Runciter’s employ. There is an amusing interlude in which Joe has to argue with his door over the need for it to open. This seems to prefigure the kind of humour that Douglas Adams would make famous in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Part of Joe’s job is to interview new talents, such as Patricia Conley, who apparently has a unique gift: she can alter the past. This would make her of great interest to Runciter. Pat is a typicial PKD ‘dark-haired girl’: a young and attractive, but emotionless and manipulative woman. This is pretty standard PKD fare. Pat decides to alter the past so that she and Joe are married, although it goes without saying that she does this to gain control over him.
I’m making this sound a bit more promising than it actually is. To illustrate my point, I want to give an example of how PKD describes G. G. Ashwood, a minor character: “Square and puffy, like an overweight brick, wearing his usual mohair poncho, apricot-colored felt hat, argyle ski socks and carpet slippers, he advanced toward Joe Chip.” (p 25) This is surely a crime, not just against fashion, but against correct grammar as well. The other characters are dressed in similarly ridiculous garb. PKD isn’t taking his novel seriously at this stage. There’s nothing in the first five chapters to suggest that Ubik is going to be anything other than another PKD potboiler. To this stage of the novel, it’s pretty much on a par with The Zap Gun, a completely undistinguished PKD romp. But then something happens. Before I go on with the plot, I want to discuss a couple of side issues.
PKD often spoke about the idea of the ‘God in the gutter’ or finding jewels (or insights) in the trash. This is an important idea. He recognised that his novels are trash, but that he fashions this ‘kipple’ (a neologism from another novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) into something worthwhile. You can actually see this process at work in Ubik. It’s almost as if PKD has piled up all this SF detritus deliberately, only to transmute it into something worthwhile. But it’s a mistake to think that Ubik is deliberately poor in its first third. One must keep in mind that PKD was churning out novels through the 60s in order to feed his family. Many of these novels are poorly written (Ubik included), and many are just poor. Ubik totters on the edge of a writerly abyss that would consume many other PKD novels. But then something happens: “Squeaking in his metal-insect voice, Stanton Mick floated to the ceiling of the room, his arms protruding distendedly and rigidly [...] His rotund, colorful body bobbed about, twisting in a slow, transversal rotation so that now his feet, rather than his head, extended in Runciter’s direction. [...]The bomb exploded.” (p 67)
The situation preceding this explosion is quite dull. Runciter decides to send a team to the Moon to do a job for Stanton Mick, a shady character who may in fact be Runciter’s competitor. Joe Chip is to lead this team. But the explosion, which is curiously reminiscent of a moment in the film Total Recall (which is based on one of PKD’s stories), signals the real beginning of the novel. To gain an insight into Ubik‘s composition, we will briefly turn to Emmanuel Carrere’s ‘biography’ of PKD: I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. Carrere’s book is a curious attempt at getting into the mind of PKD. Overall it seems somewhat less successful than Lawrence Sutin’s biography Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. One major (and I think warranted) criticism of Carrere’s book is that there are no footnotes, endnotes, bibliography…in short no references at all. Thus it is difficult to tell where ‘fact’ ends and Carrere’s opinions begin. But there are some areas in which Carrere’s book is superior to Sutin’s: namely with regard to the genesis of Ubik.
Carrere speaks of the ‘kipple’ that had invaded PKD’s own life, of the ‘termites’ that he got to write his novels for him. By this, Carrere means that PKD had learned to write novels on auto-pilot, completely devoid of soul. The beginning of Ubik was written by termites, then. But the termites did such a poor job that the novel threatened to collapse entirely: “The program wasn’t working. What point was there trying to pile up the words, one on top over another, only to have them come crashing to the floor, as his letters were doing now, with a hostile recalcitrance that terrified him. [...] And if he didn’t get them moving, his zombies would be stuck on Luna forever” (p 162). Apparently, PKD got up in the middle of the night to write the section after the explosion, and wrote in a trance-like state. I know from experience that writing in this kind of state can be very effective, but it’s not a state of mind that you can just simulate.
OK. So there was an explosion and now Runciter needs to be put into cold-pac like his wife. Unfortunately, Joe Chip and co start seeing some strange manifestations that seem to suggest that something is wrong. The air is cold, cigarettes crumble to dust, and phone numbers turn out to be obsolete. Even coins seem to be regressing to earlier kinds of currency. It would appear that some entropic force is working on Runciter’s employees. Concurrently, however, there is another movement: Runciter is trying to communicate with them, even though his body is lying in a half-life coffin. A minor character, Don Denny, explains this dual phenomenon: “I think these processes are going in opposite directions. One is a going-away, so to speak. A going-out-of-existence. That’s process one. The second process is a coming-into-existence.” (p 106) But what is coming and what is going? What on Earth is happening to Chip and co? There’s a scene in which another minor character, Al Hammond, sees an elevator regressing to a 1910 version. Joe Chip sees nothing except a 1990s style lift. This is important: things are regressing at different speeds for different people. One by one, the members of Chip’s team are shriveling up and dying.
There’s a wonderful scene in which Hammond and Chip go to a urinal and see a message from Runciter on the wall: “JUMP IN THE URINAL AND STAND ON YOUR HEAD. I’M THE ONE THAT’S ALIVE. YOU’RE ALL DEAD.” (p 120) This is a crucial message, as we begin to understand why the world is devolving: it seems that Runciter, instead of being the one who died, is actually the only one who survived the blast. It is thought that the ‘going-out-of-existence’ is the entropic process engendered by being in cold-pac, and the ‘coming-into-existence’ is Runciter’s attempts to help them. And Runciter’s tool in helping them is Ubik, which isn’t mentioned in the body of the story until page 127. But what is Ubik? Ubik is another way of spelling ubique, which means everywhere. Ubiquitous. But what, specifically, is Ubik supposed to be in the context of this story? It comes in a spray-can, and later in very different form, but Ubik appears to be a benevolent force of some kind. A ‘coming-into-existence.’
When Joe Chip sees his apartment reverting to one that might have been found in the 1930s, he raises an interesting point: “But why hadn’t the TV set reverted instead to formless metals and plastics? Those, after all, were its constituents; it had been constructed out of them, not out of an earlier radio. Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato’s ideal objects, the universals which, in each class, were real.” (p 132) This is where Ubik really warms to the task, so to speak. Time has reverted to 1939 or so. Joe Chip is trying to find a can of Ubik, but even that has regressed to an ‘Elixir of Ubique.’ This is a bad sign, as it would seem to suggest that the forces of entropy are winning. And Joe suspects that it is Pat Conley who is doing ‘this’ to him and the other employees. A word of warning. Nothing in Ubik is clear or easily understood. I suspect that PKD was as much trying to interpret his own strange visions than trying to weave an elaborate web of competing ideas. But it works. On this occasion, it works.
The situation basically boils down to Ubik and Runciter on one side, and entropy and Pat Conley on the other. Joe Chip is the helpless object of this tug-of-war. There’s a magical scene in which Chip tries to buy some Ubik from a drugstore that no longer exists. When he looks intensely at the site of the drugstore, it comes back into existence. This is mysterious and highly effective, but not very science-fictional. Then there’s a second explosion when Chip and co. confront Pat about her role in what is happening. Then we get to the masterpiece chapter: Chapter 14, in which Chip tries to get back to his apartment, harassed at every step by Pat. This is SF as only PKD could write it, and here he has triumphed over the kipple, over the termites that had been writing his novel. Now Ubik soars. Runciter comes to the rescue with a handy can of Ubik, saving Chip from certain death. And then there’s a twist or two in the tail.
For a long time, it had been suspected that Pat represented the forces of entropy that was causing the world to devolve. Now it transpires that it isn’t Pat who has been doing it after all. The antagonist is in fact young Jory, the half-dead boy who was taking over Ella Runciter’s half-life reality early in the novel. This makes sense. If Chip and co. are in half-life, then it follows that Jory should be the one influencing their world. And now it is revealed that the whole 1939 set is being animated by Jory himself. This is where Ubik starts to read like another PKD masterwork, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Jory is everything and he is everywhere. Worse, he is malignant and vengeful. But not omnipotent. Ella Runciter makes a late entry into the novel proper with another can of Ubik. Chip manages to ward off Jory’s attempts to finish him off. And then there’s one more twist, which isn’t explained. The final chapter shows Runciter, in his apparently ‘real’ world, discovering that he now has a pocket full of Joe Chip coins. The end.
What does it all mean? It seems significant that PKD himself did not think much of Ubik at the time of writing. He only began to see its value in later years, when others convinced him of its importance. One French critic claimed it was one of the best five novels ever written. Surely not, but I see what he meant (it’s possible as well that the French translator cleaned up the prose somewhat). Ubik is about two competing forces, one representing growth, and the other decay. In this sense, there’s a smattering of Taoism here, which PKD explored more fully in The Man in the High Castle. The actual manuscript presented as the novel Ubik itself seems to mirror this dual process. I’m sure we’ve all read novels that start well and fade out badly, but how many novels begin poorly and then heat up as dramatically as Ubik does? It’s a shame that PKD did not have time to work on the ms. of this book further, as it is crying out for some revision. PKD would get a second chance at Ubik, however, in the form of a screenplay. Ubik represents a fantastic achievement in the face of grueling adversity. It’s hard not to envy a writer who could produce such luminous work in such trying circumstances.
The obsession with all things PKD led me to obtain around 50 books by or about the great man. This includes around 40 novels, 6 story collections and a couple of miscellaneous items: a biography, a book of interviews, a book of essays, and a book containing selections from PKD’s ‘Exegesis.’ Anyway, there are around 5 items with Philip K Dick’s name on them that are absent from my PKD bookshelf. Most of these are rather obscure, and not particularly interesting or important, but there is one exception. I will get to this in a minute.
5. The Book of Philip K Dick, published by DAW Books. This early story collection is reported to be PKD’s worst. It is long out of print.
4. Nick and the Glimmung. This is a children’s SF novel, of all things. I have read this, as Murdoch University had a copy (incidentally, they have an outstanding collection of SF). This book is short, weird, and only barely interesting enough to keep reading.
3. Gather Yourselves Together. This is actually PKD’s earliest extant novel. It’s about a love triangle which takes place in the early years of Mao’s China. The book itself is reputed to be overly long and not very interesting. It was published by the obscure WCS books, which makes it expensive and difficult to obtain. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
2. Voices from the Street. PKD’s other long lost and then found novel is at least more widely available. In fact, I saw it on the shelf yesterday at Planet Books in Mt Lawley (which is surely Perth’s best bookstore, certainly the best for SF). Another overly long and meandering tale, reviews have generally been unkind. I will probably end up buying this sometime though.
1. Ubik: The Screenplay. This is the only important book by PKD I don’t own, and that’s because it’s currently nearly impossible to obtain. Originally published by Corroborree Press, it’s very expensive to buy second-hand these days. Luckily, Murdoch University again came to the rescue (several years ago now). They have or at least had a copy on the shelf. And Ubik: The Screenplay is well worth hunting down. What’s so good about it? Well, PKD fans will recognise Ubik as one of PKD’s most interesting novels. The French were once besotted with this book, and I’m inclined to agree with them. The only problem is that Ubik, as published, is a mess. Sloppy doesn’t even begin to describe the first third…anyway, PKD was contracted to write a screenplay for his novel in the 70s, and the results are quite spectacular. I don’t remember all the details, as it was many years ago that I read this now, but the screenplay is well worth having.
And there’s some good news! Ubik: The Screenplay is actually due to be re-issued by Subterranean Press in Aug 08. It’s not cheap at all, US $35 for a hardcover (or $150 for a lettered, signed edition) but it’s a must have for any PKD-phile. Anyway, the exchange rate of the Australian Dollar versus the American means that it isn’t so expensive for me after all. I’m definitely getting this…
UPDATE: Well, I just investigated how much it would actually end up costing including shipping. If you buy direct from Subterranean and want it shipped outside the U.S., it would cost $35 for the book and $17 shipping. But if you get it from Amazon.com instead, the book itself is discounted to around $23 and shipping to Australia is $10. So it’s costing me around $35-40 Australian Dollars to buy this, which is definitely a bargain. Attention all PKD-philes! Hurry up and pre-order Ubik: The Screenplay before they all sell out again! To give you an idea, the original Corroboree edition costs upwards of US $100 on abebooks now. This edition will become an instant collector’s item.
Martian Time-Slip, first published in 1964, is widely regarded as one of PKD’s top-tier novels, although most people probably don’t think of it quite as highly as I do. I will explain why this is so. Martian Time-Slip was re-released in 1999 as part of Orion’s SF Masterworks series, when I was 18 years old. This was the right book at the right time, and it had a profound effect on me. I once described this book’s power as “like a bomb going off in my head.” After reading Martian Time-Slip, I was compelled to spend the next six or so months hunting down virtually every novel and story collection PKD had written.
What is Martian Time-Slip about? The premise doesn’t seem especially promising. In the 1990s (!), there is already a flourishing colony on Mars, which appears to be something akin to a cold, blustery desert, but certainly nothing like as inhospitable as the real Mars. This colony is populated by a relatively small number of Earth immigrants, as well as native Bleekman, which seem extremely similar to Australian Aborigines. The settlements are connected by a series of canals, and most travel seems to take place via helicopter. Mars is officially run by the U.N., but in a practical sense is actually dominated by small-time feudal barons representing various unions. In short, this is a Mars of PKD’s imagination only. As was his custom, PKD subverts SF conventions for his own ends. In the case of Martian Time-Slip, this is done to spectacular effect.
In Martian Time-Slip, PKD perfected a narrative technique that is deployed in extraordinarily successful fashion. His technique is to have a large number of viewpoint characters, swapping from one to another every few pages. Furthermore, the story told in this novel is intricate: each character comes into contact with the others in a variety of different ways, in different contexts. Thus we get to read snippets from each characters point of view, creating an overall tapestry which drives the narrative forward. PKD did not invent this technique, but he surely perfected it. He is able to pit the prejudices and intentions of characters against one another by giving us an insight into their states of mind.
One of the great strengths of PKD, and Martian Time-Slip in particular, is the characters. Jack Bohlen is the schizophrenic repairman who emigrated to Mars because he could not handle the pressures of an overpopulated Earth. His wife Sylvia is a bored housewife who slumbers her life away in a drug-induced haze. Jack’s father Leo is a land speculator intent on buying up vast tracts of Mars. Norbert Steiner is the suicidal health-food salesman who would rather face oblivion than confront the reality of his autistic son Manfred. Otto Zitte is Steiner’s handsome offsider who starts up his own black market operation, which includes seducing bored housewives such as Sylvia Bohlen. Dr Glaub is the ineffectual psychiatrist whose attempts to influence people backfire horribly. Doreen Anderton is Jack Bohlen’s lover and confidant. But the greatest character in Martian Time-Slip is its ambivalent antagonist, Arnie Kott.
PKD had a particular talent to imagine the inner lives of other people. Throughout his career, he created a series of ambivalent antagonists, and none are better realised than Arnie Kott. Kott is not an evil man. He is sexist, racist and exploitative, but he is also generous, cultured and adaptable. He is a gentle tyrant, a small-time crook with a soft underbelly. Kott is the Supreme Goodmember of the Water Workers’ Local union. In other words, he’s a big fish in a small pond. And it’s not long before he has drawn Jack Bohlen, who might in theory be regarded as this novel’s protagonist, into his sphere of influence.
The plot of Martian Time-Slipis quite complex and I’m not sure it would serve to outline it here. Suffice to say that while the ‘plot’ is interesting enough, it is PKD’s technique and deeper purpose which are more enlightening. The narrative technique has been discussed above, but what of this deeper purpose? What is Martian Time-Slip really about? The basic idea seems to be that the mental illness known as schizophrenia is in fact some kind of ‘derangement of time.’ We learn about this in a number of ways. Autistic Manfred Steiner lives in a world outside time, where he can see people, including himself, in death. Jack Bohlen himself had a schizophrenic episode in which the sequence of cause and effect seem out of order. Late in the novel, Arnie Kott travels back in time in order to get the jump on his adversaries. But there is something terribly sinister about all of this, like the Public School teaching simulacrums, which break down and begin to repeat themselves. We read of something called the Tomb World, a dead place where nothing further can happen. It is the place of psychosis, a maelstrom that Jack Bohlen feels himself being drawn into. And when Manfred draws a picture of the future Martian settlement, a decaying ruin, we begin to see that this world outside of time is in fact death itself.
PKD pulls off a narrative trick in the middle section of the book that few writers would even dream of attempting. What we have is a series of garbled accounts of the same event told from a multitude of different perspectives. The event itself is not especially meaningful: it is just a conversation between Jack, Doreen and Arnie. Crucially, these accounts are mediated and moderated by Manfred Steiner, whose presence hangs heavily over these pages. It seems that Manfred might in fact be able to control time, and thus the lives of those around him. And hereabouts is the ever-present ‘gubbish,’ which is never defined. Is gubbish time, or is it decay, entropy, death? Whatever it is, we sense that the characters are in imminent danger of being swallowed up by the Tomb World. Even Arnie, who is usually contemptuous of Jack’s schizophrenia, cannot but sense the dislocation.
And then we get a fairly routine ending. Arnie decides that he needs to travel back in time to fix a number of mistakes, and to repay a number of debts, but he ends up getting lost between real worlds and imagined ones. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for him. Jack is reunited with his wife after his adultery with Doreen, and Manfred Steiner returns from the future to thank Jack for helping him. The end. Or is it? Martian Time-Slip is a book which defies easy description. There seems to be an enigma at the heart of this book that even PKD cannot answer. Why does Manfred see living people as though they are dead? What is gubbish, and how is Manfred able to influence the realities of those around him? These mysteries remain unresolved.
Martian Time-Slip isn’t a perfect novel by any means. Some of the dialogue is quite wooden. The setting is basically unconvincing. Furthermore, PKD’s depiction of women is terminally mired in the 1950s. Women ‘fix’ iced-tea, they lie on their backs and allow men to have their way with them, and they cheat on their partners at every opportunity. This is a fairly fatal flaw, and some passages are cringeworthy. But I suspect that we can forgive PKD for his primitive attitudes toward women. PKD would write dozens more novels after this one. He would write better storylines, more rounded characters and develop his philosophy more fully, but he would never make narrative work for him as completely as he made it work in Martian Time-Slip. PKD was a genius. There is a lot we can learn from him.
To give you an idea of which writers and novels I am most interested in, I hereby present a list of my favourite ten novels in the world. They are ordered alphabetically, not by preference. I intend to write detailed reviews or essays on at least some of these books over the next few weeks. You will notice that these 10 books were written by a mere 4 writers, which probably gives you an idea how important those 4 writers are to me.
The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard
High Rise by J. G. Ballard
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
The Place of Dead Roads by William S. Burroughs
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Climbers by M. John Harrison
The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
You will notice that these 4 writers have all been associated with science fiction at some stage in their careers. Only Burroughs did not begin his career writing science fiction, but none of these can be regarded exclusively as science fiction writers. What do these guys have in common? Well, they’re all great writers in my estimation. Two are Americans and two are English. They’re all men. Only two of them are still alive, and one of those, J. G. Ballard, has inoperable prostrate cancer. I would regard Philip K. Dick as the greatest of these four writers. Certainly his writing has had the greatest influence on me. See my PKD bookshelf at the top of this page.