Book Review – What If Our World Is Their Heaven?
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.