Book Review – Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
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.