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Book Review – The Twisted Worlds of Philip K Dick by Umberto Rossi

Umberto Rossi’s The Twisted Worlds of Philip K Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels (henceforth TW) is a welcome breath of fresh air in the world of PKD criticism, after a number of critical works that have failed to satisfy hardcore fans for various reasons. Rossi never tries to shoehorn PKD’s work into any particular theory, other than in demonstrating that the writer’s work is dominated by the condition of ‘ontological uncertainty’: that is, uncertain states of being. Rossi’s text provides fans of PKD’s work with a knowledgeable and detailed study of twenty novels, arranged thematically, not chronologically (although it is true that there is a degree of overlap anyway). I found the style of TW admirable in that it is highly readable without being fannish, and exhaustive without being tedious. Furthermore, Rossi sheds light onto a number of underappreciated PKD novels, as we shall soon see.

One of the great strengths of Rossi’s work is that he is well versed in what has gone before in the world of PKD criticism. Thus there is extensive reference to critical works by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson, Darko Suvin, Frederic Jameson and others,  references to biographical texts by Lawrence Sutin and Gregg Rickman, and reference to the author’s letters. In short, Rossi knows his subject inside out, which has not always been the case in previous studies of this writer. Rossi also utilises Jonathan Lethem’s concept of ‘Finite Subjective Realities’  (FSRs) from his novel Amnesia Moon  in explaining PKD’s craft. As Rossi explains in his introduction, PKD’s novels are peculiar in that they blur inner worlds (idios kosmos) with so-called reality (koinos kosmos) with often startling results. Furthermore, Rossi explains how PKD deployed what Thomas Disch dubbed ‘The Game of the Rat’, in which the author frequently changed the rules of the fictional game, not only destabilising reality but also set genre distinctions using frequent ‘shunts.’

Chapter One starts us off with two rarely discussed works by PKD, The Cosmic Puppets and The Game-Players of Titan, the former of which Rossi asserts to be an important, if early work. In part this is because here, in PKD’s earliest work, we find evidence of a dual godhead, represented by Ormazd and Ahriman, which can be seen as a reinterpretation of the Zoroastrian tradition. Rossi also shows how PKD uses a ‘shunt’ to shift the narrative from a mystery/paranoia mode to outright fantasy. Far from being unimportant, it is Rossi’s contention that the novel is a key work. The same cannot be said for The Game-Players of Titan, written during PKD’s creative burst in the early sixties, but Rossi’s discussion does shed light on PKD’s genre  ‘shunt’ technique, which he uses extensively in this minor novel, stacking the deck in the Game of the Rat so as to leave the reader utterly bewildered. Rossi helpfully includes the first of many tables he uses to illustrate the use of genre shunts in the novel.

Chapter Two discusses two early novels that have long been regarded as critical in PKD’s ouevre, Eye in the Sky and Time Out of Joint. The former of these, written in 1955, displays a full blown ‘ontologically uncertain’ environment in that the characters who are knocked unconscious by the Belmont Bevatron inhabit each other’s idios kosmos as though it were the koinos kosmos. Here, for the first time, PKD deployed the basic narrative strategy that he would repeat again and again over the course of his career. Rossi uses Lem’s concept of Finite Subjective Realities to explain PKD’s methodology in Eye in the Sky. Time Out of Joint is somewhat different in that it deploys a very significant genre shunt around three quarters of the way through the narrative, shifting us from paranoia/mystery to fullblown science fiction. Rossi discusses the troubling issue of the disappearing soft-drink stand at length, which can’t be explained within the framework offered in the latter part of the novel (that is, that Ragle Gumm’s environment is being physically, not virtually, simulated).

Chapter Three is devoted to The Man in the High Castle, although it does begin with a brief discussion of Confessions of a Crap Artist, the only one of PKD’s mainstream novels to be published in his lifetime. Castle deploys a somewhat different narrative strategy to that of PKD’s other SF novels, namely alternate history, as a means of creating ontological uncertainty. But as Rossi explains, PKD adds layers of complexity not normally associated with this genre in the form of the novel-within-the-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies, not the Axis, won WWII. The role that the Chinese oracle, the I Ching, plays is also discussed, especially insofar as PKD claimed that he used the oracle in plotting his novel. Lastly, the presence of a multitude of fakes in Castle creates still another layer of ontological uncertainty, as the reader is never sure who or what anyone in the novel ‘really’ is.

Chapter Four discusses three novels, Martian Time-Slip, Dr Bloodmoney and Clans of the Alphane Moon, all of which use mental illness as a way of projecting ontological uncertainty into the texts. Rossi discusses PKD’s multiple viewpoint method, which found its high point here in his novels of the early sixties. He explains that in Martian Time-Slip PKD pitted the idios kosmos of many different characters against each other, some of whom are suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia (Jack Bohlen) or autism (Manfred Steiner). The fact that PKD’s Mars seems very much like sixties California is also addressed. Time travel is used as another means of creating ontological uncertainty, but not in as full-blown a fashion as in some of PKD’s other novels. Dr Bloodmoney works in a similar fashion in that the idios kosmos of certain characters can be seen as deranged (Bruno Bluthgeld and Hoppy Harrington), and the ontological uncertainty stems from the influence these characters appear to have on the koinos kosmos of post-apocalyptic California. The third novel discussed in this chapter, Clans of the Alphane Moon (which has normally been regarded as a minor work), similarly uses categories of mental illnesses as a means of structuring the novel.

In Chapter Five, Rossi focuses on three novels ‘which have generally been considered as minor works’: The Simulacra, Now Wait for Last Year and The Penultimate Truth. The first of these, The Simulacra, seems to suffer from an overloaded narrative in which too many different story arcs compete and do not necessarily coalesce. Nevertheless, ontological uncertainty abounds, and the reader cannot be sure what is real, not even the President. The Penultimate Truth, perhaps the most political of PKD’s novels of the sixties, postulates a situation in which the poor live underground, supposedly due to a war which has ravaged the planet, while the rich cavort on the Earth’s surface. In Now Wait for Last Year, PKD uses drug-induced time travel and the historical figure of Benito Mussolini as a way of heaping uncertainty upon uncertainty as alternate futures collide. All three of these novels feature characters who are somehow ‘outside of linear time’: Bertold Goltz in The Simulacra, David Lantano in The Penultimate Truth and the many versions of Gino Molinari in Now Wait for Last Year.

Chapter Six, which discusses the novels We Can Build You and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, shows how the concept of what is or isn’t human can create ontological uncertainty, demonstrated first by PKD in his story “Impostor”. Here we have an interesting discussion of one of PKD’s underappreciated works and the highly-celebrated noir police thriller that sprung from the ashes of the unloved earlier novel (a situation similar to that regarding Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS). As Rossi explains, in these novels PKD unsettles our concept of the human, rather than the world itself, as a means of creating ontological (and narrative) uncertainty.

Chapter Seven features four of PKD’s most celebrated novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, A Maze of Death and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. In Eldritch, PKD uses the drugs Can-D and Chew-Z as a means of creating FSRs, with differing results. The increasingly-ubiquitous figure of Palmer Eldritch himself is also discussed in detail. A somewhat similar situation is found in Ubik, where the half-lifer Jory seems to be running the show, and Glen Runciter keeps trying to tell Joe Chip that he is alive while Joe and his colleagues are dead. A Maze of Death is somewhat similar to the earlier two novels, except that here PKD is on the verge of degenerating into self-parody, and the situation at the end of the novel, in which the characters discover that they are on a doomed spaceship, is possibly the bleakest ending to a PKD novel. The novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is seen as a transitional work, incorporating the reality dysfunctions of PKD’s sixties novels and the more explicitly metaphysical thinking of the novels written in PKD’s final period.

The final three chapters in TW deal with the ‘VALIS trilogy’: VALIS, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Rossi goes to some length to justify the existence of a VALIS trilogy, especially seeing as many followers of PKD (myself included) think of the unwritten The Owl in Daylight as the third in the trilogy, with Archer being a mainstream offshoot. I can’t do justice to Rossi’s argument here, except in saying that he provides an extremely stimulating and enlightening discussion on the three novels, particular in terms of the genre shunts PKD deploys in these novels (and especially in VALIS).

The Twisted Worlds of Philip K Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels should soon be seen as a key work in the world of PKD criticism. As I’ve said, it’s both highly readable and theoretically sophisticated. It helps to explain PKD’s methodology in producing his greatest works. It synthesises earlier critical discussions and addresses weaknesses in such studies. It discusses neglected works in the PKD canon and rehabilitates them (and encourages them to be re-read). And finally is it a fitting tribute to this most loved of twentieth century science fiction writers. Buy it, borrow it: serious PKD fans and scholars must read it.

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