It is said, jokingly, that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve. It was certainly that way for me. At that age I devoured anything in the genre I could get my hands on, most of which came from the library at the high school I attended in Craigie (sadly now demolished, both library and school). Golden Age SF it was too, much of it from the fifties. I would read anything, but I was particularly fond of those old stagehorses Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I liked the Foundation series, including the later reboots that had been published in the eighties. My favourite was Foundation’s Edge. But it was Clarke that held my attention longest, in books like Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End and A Fall of Moondust. There was the occasional newer title on offer at the school library, like Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. I loved that too. I didn’t exclusively read SF. I was and still am a voracious reader, but I loved the genre above any other. I say this with a tinge of sadness now. My first attempts at novel writing were informed by the above writers and their newer counterparts, such as Stephen Baxter. I had a whole novel, my second, that was essentially a Baxter rip-off.
My obsession with SF continued into my late teens and beyond, far beyond the age of twelve. By my late teens I was starting to map out the history of the genre in my mind. I was an expert on fifties and sixties SF and here I had recourse to that fat, blue brick of a book, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I would pore over it for hours and then digitally dash off to abebooks, as it was then at the turn of the millennium, to make my purchases. Not only that, but I used to go on what I termed ‘book jaunts’ around the secondhand bookstores of Perth, often taking in four or five stores in a carefully-planned trip. I was a young man obsessed, but it was an obsession that had already passed its zenith. Like a jaded, restless lover, it took more and more to satisfy me.
By the age of twenty, three important things had happened that would prolong my involvement in the genre for a few more years. The first had occurred in 1999, at Angus & Robertson bookstore at Whitfords City Shopping Centre. I had been hovering over the SF and Fantasy section (more on these sections later) not much liking what was on offer. I was on the verge of buying another Baxter novel, Titan, a book which, as it turned out, I’d never read. What drew my attention instead was the very first volume in the Millennium Masterworks series from English publisher Orion. The book was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. It had a beautiful cover and thus I bought it. Haldeman didn’t make any particular impression on me, although I did enjoy the book, but some of the books that followed in this series impressed me greatly. I adored Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, books I’d heard of but never read, but it was the thirteenth volume in the series, Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, which had the profoundest impact. Upon reading that, I fell into a reading delirium that lasted many years and was only to be extinguished for a lack of further fuel. That was after I’d read every word by and about PKD, and that meant an awful lot. In truth, that delirium lasted throughout my twenties and has only really fully abated now, at age thirty-two. There were other writers I loved too, but these tended to be writers who had started in SF and ended up writing something else, such as J. G. Ballard.
The second important thing that happened was that I came into email contact with SF writer Barry N. Malzberg. I’d stumbled upon a Malzberg blog run by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, now a renowned SF writer in his own right, and to my surprise received an email from Malzberg himself in response to a forum post I had written. I had read several of Malzberg’s novels and would end up reading virtually all of them. Over the course of an email correspondence that lasted about a year, Malzberg educated me on some of the lesser lights of SF or those I’d neglected to read, such as Cyril Kornbluth, James Tiptree Jr. and Malzberg’s personal favourite, Mark Clifton. Malzberg ended up sending me signed copies of several of his books. My two prized possessions in this regard are signed and dedicated copies of Malzberg’s book of essays on the genre, The Engines of the Night, and his then recently-released newest (and best) collection, In The Stone House. Malzberg was even kind enough to read and respond to a short story I was working on at the time, which he praised voluminously. This was right at the time of the 9/11 attacks and Malzberg lived close enough, in New Jersey, to witness the carnage firsthand. Another writer, Malzberg’s friend Carter Scholz, narrowly missed out on being on one of the ill-fated planes and was thus ‘consigned to life’, Malzberg told me. About my story, he’d have a word with David Pringle of Interzone and off I’d go. I was of course ecstatic. I sent the story off but nothing ever came of it, not even a rejection letter.
The final important thing that prolonged my involvement with SF was that I’d managed to get a job at Supernova Books, a F&SF bookstore on William Street in central Perth. I had my job interview on my twentieth birthday and my recollections of that time are recorded here. I worked at Supernova for around two years, but although I didn’t quite know it yet, I’d already fallen out of love with the genre. I had loved the New Wave of the sixties, yes, but not so much what came after. I probably read less SF in those two years working at Supernova than in the two years preceding. There were exceptions, like Jeff Vandermeer and his magnificentCity of Saints and Madmen, but these were few and far between. I walked out of Supernova for the last time in 2003, at age twenty-two, its owner as it turned out with only months to live.
I did read SF in my twenties, but it tended to be by writers who had moved onto other genres. Since 2008 I have kept detailed records of every book I’ve read and the stats display my dwindling interest. In 2008 I read sixteen books that could be termed science fiction, but many of them were PKD re-reads. In 2009 that number was two (including Vandermeer’s wonderful Finch, which I think is still his most recent novel). By 2009, I’d finally found other genres and other writers to sustain me. Raymond Chandler opened up the world of crime fiction to me and Harry Crews introduced me to southern Gothic. By 2010 I had discovered local small publishers like Twelfth Planet Press but I still only managed ten SF books read for the year if you exclude PKD. In 2011 it was eleven, but that included Australian writers like Paul Haines and Kaaron Warren who’d be better classified as writers of horror. In the past two years, me reading SF has been very much the exception and not the rule. In 2012 I enjoyed China Mieville’s The City and the City (a book which owes at least as much to crime as it does to SF) and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (alternate history and only SF in some people’s estimation), but little else. This year I’ve barely dabbled in the genre at all. My affair with SF is over.
None of this would matter greatly to me if not for one salient point: reading informs writing. The things I write, I’ve learned, lag years behind the things I read. I stopped reading SF years before I could stop writing it. All ten novels I’ve written, the last three of which have been published, are SF. I’ve only been able to make the break in my newest novel, Dan: A Cautionary Tale. In part the decision to stop writing SF has been a mercenary one. I might not have liked what I saw in the F&SF section at Angus & Robertson in 1999, but over the past 14 years the amount of SF in F&SF has dwindled to a trickle. For years this has been the realm of the fat fantasy series punctuated by the occasional SF title by someone like John Scalzi, whom I’ve neglected to read. Recently I saw, for the first time, one such section named, finally, Fantasy. At another store, SF had been relegated to one lonely, half-sized shelf, and even that was mostly taken up by Stars Wars and Doctor Who spin-offs. SF writing might not be dead, but it’s very ill. Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice the burgeoning world of crime fiction in all its guises.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had some success in publishing short fiction. These stories have for the most part been SF/crime crossovers (my ‘Tyler Bramble’ series) but they barely tip their hat to the genre. The newest of these, “A Void”, is not really recognisable as SF even though it is certainly reminiscent of the mindfuckery of PKD. The stories and novels I plan to write in 2014 and beyond will be crossovers between crime and literary fiction.
So I’m finally jumping ship. Farewell, science fiction. Our affair is at its end.
Ah, lists. I love ’em and periodically I feel the urge to produce another one. Here’s a list of the authors I’ve read (and probably own) nearly everything by, with some brief thoughts on each of them.
She’s written six novels – I own and have read all six. My favourites are Queenpin and The End of Everything, but I like them all. I first encountered this author less than two years ago when I picked up a copy of her The Song Is You on a discount pile. I love discount piles.
J. G. Ballard
He wrote an awful lot, novels and stories, and I own and have read virtually all of it. Ballard had a profound impact on me at a crucial age (19-20), probably second only to Philip K. Dick in this regard. Ballard has definitely seeped his way into my writing subconscious. His essays are also extremely interesting – the man was nearly a genius. I recently read Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 and was duly blown away.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs published a number of little chapbooks and other ephemera, so I can’t claim to have read everything he wrote, but I have at least 20-25 of his books and I’ve read numerous biographies and both volumes of his letters. I’ve even read Here to Go, his collaboration with Brion Gysin. I must have read Naked Lunch 5-6 times by now.
I’m fairly new to Barker, only having discovered her in the past 3-4 years. I very much enjoyed her Regeneration Trilogy and was especially enamoured with the recent Toby’s Room. She’s an outstanding writer and there are 2-3 of her books that I’m still yet to read. I tend not to like her contemporary stuff as much as those books set in WWI.
In fact I hadn’t read a word of him until earlier this year, so it didn’t take me long to read all his short story collections (except for some posthumous stuff) and a biography to boot. Terrible person, amazing writer.
Without Chandler I might still shy away from crime fiction. I was enraptured by novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, and I’ve read some of his novels multiple times. I never really got into his short stories. I’ve also read numerous biographies and a book of his letters.
J. M. Coetzee
Coetzee only barely makes this list, simply because there are 5-6 of his books that I haven’t read as yet. But I’ve read at least 10 of them and enjoyed them for the most part. I especially liked Disgrace and his trilogy of memoirs. Coetzee can be dry at times, but at his best he has no peer and he is the spiritual successor to Samuel Beckett.
Most of the writers on this list are pretty famous, but Crews decidedly isn’t, not anymore. Dead and more or less out of print, Crews is nevertheless on a par with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, in my humble opinion. I’ve never read a fiercer book than his dark masterpiece A Feast of Snakes.
Philip K. Dick
What can I say about him that I haven’t said already? I’ve published a 40,000 word long article on his work in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and I dedicated years to reading everything he wrote and everything wrote about him. That adds up to a hell of a lot and takes up about two shelves in my study. PKD is my number one influence as a writer, by far.
The best prose stylist of the twentieth century, bar none. There, I’ve said it.
Barry N. Malzberg
Another mostly out-of-print writer, Malzberg was one of my favourite SF writers a decade or so ago. I had a fairly extensive email correspondence with the man a decade ago as well. His best novels include Underlay and Galaxies.
I very much liked her novel Half the Day is Night many years back, and now I’ve managed to assemble her complete ouevre, even if there are a couple of things I haven’t read.
James Tiptree Jr.
In actual fact a woman by the name of Alice Sheldon, Tiptree is famous for some amazing short stories written mostly in the 1970s. I’ve read virtually all of them. “Her Some Rose Up Forever” is among the best.
Vandermeer is among beautiful stylist and author of numerous works, none better than his collection thingy City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve been following his career with interest.
Another writer I’ve only recently discovered, I discovered Woodrell on another discount pile in the form of his novel Winter’s Bone. I liked that plenty so I ordered everything else he’d written. Right now I’m very much enjoying his most recent novel, The Maid’s Version.
That’s fifteen writers I’m very fond of. Eleven of them are men. Eleven of them are Americans, three British and one South African. All of them are contemporary or near-contemporary. Chandler was born earliest, but Greene published earliest. There were a few others who didn’t quite make the list for one reason or another, such as Iain Banks, John Crowley, William Gay (haven’t read his stories), M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem (plenty more of his to read), Kim Stanley Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh and Ma Jian (he’s only written about three books). And then there are Australian writers I like but haven’t read everything by, such as Garry Disher, Andrez Bergen, Simon Haynes, Paul Haines (I have read all of his), Bruce Russell, Kaaron Warren, and plenty of others.
So, which writers would make a similar list if you were to construct one?
I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?
I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.
Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.
The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter
Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan
The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson
Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle
Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka
Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman
Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney
Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin
Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick
Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden
Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger
James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips
In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.
Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and 84 are out and freely available on efanzines.com. That’s well over 200 pages of SF criticism, reviews and letters. Seriously, if you are into SF then you need to check it out. Bruce has people like Brian Aldiss writing in regularly. SF Commentary 83 also features my reviews of Philip K Dick’s novels, which runs to more then 22,000 words. Thanks to Bruce for the amazing amount of work that goes into producing this fanzine, which is now comfortably into its fourth decade.
Philip K. Dick’s mainstream novels, all but one of which remained unpublished until after his death in 1982, are normally regarded as the poor cousins of his science fiction works. To an extent this attitude is justified, but some of his mainstream novels are better than he is normally given credit for. At the time they were written, in the 50s and the early 60s, these novels were seen as too strange and too bleak to be publishable (and too poorly titled: The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike; really, Phil?) But I for one find a lot to like in some of these novels, especially the later ones. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is a fine work, even if it is very despairing, and so is The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (henceforth Teeth).
This must be the second time I’ve read Teeth and the first was a decade ago, so I didn’t remember a lot about it except that it was really depressing. Well, it’s still depressing but not poorly written despite PKD’s sometimes clunky sentence structure. What I noticed this time around was that the book is primarily about the treacherous landscape of gender politics long after WWII but long before second wave feminism. It’s a book about the anxieties of masculinity and the manifold ways that men try to subjugate women: through keeping them jobless in the home; through defining success almost exclusively in career terms; through violence and, if worst comes to worst, through rape. There are some harrowing scenes, but PKD handles this dark material far more adroitly than he had done in the earlier Voices from the Street. In short, I think Teeth is due for some rehabilitation as a serious work not entirely dissimilar to Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.
PKD almost always used a shifting third person point of view in his novels, and Teeth is no exception. Written when the young (31) PKD had had some minor publishing success in the ghetto of science fiction but none at all in the wider marketplace, the novel mirrors many aspects of PKD’s life at the time in Marin County, California, alongside third wife Anne (who would write of these years in her excellent memoir Search for Philip K. Dick 1928-1982). Here our main characters are two married (but, crucially, childless) couples by the names of Leo and Janet Runcible and Walt and Sherry Dombrosio. According to Anne, these characters are based on real people who lived in Marin County at the time of the novel’s composition. Anne and Phil’s scholarly disagreement over whether Neanderthals were meat-eaters or vegetarians (Phil contended, wrongly, that they were vegetarians) even managed to worm its way into Teeth.
PKD had this way, even in his supposedly straight-laced mainstream novels, of marrying seemingly unrelated elements into a bizarre but cohesive whole. Only PKD could produce a novel that is on one hand about the angst experienced in childless families, and on the other about a hare-brained scheme to fabricate a Neanderthal finding on US soil as a way of getting back at a hated neighbour, and have it make some kind of sense. Teeth weaves together disparate plot strands into a strange but oddly beautiful fabric, including: what it was like for a man to happily work for an advertising company until his wife gets it into her head that she wants a job there too; what it was like to be a Jew, and a relatively successful businessman, in mildly anti-Semitic America; semi-scholarly debate about the origins of the species; the problems of the water supply in Marin County and what fate might have befallen the area’s earliest White inhabitants. And it makes sense. Teeth is not a nice novel by any means, and it paints a gloomy picture of human relations on a number of levels, but it’s a fine novel all the same.
Precious: Artifiacts: A Philip K. Dick Bibliography is another worthy contribution to the world of PKD appreciation from the mind of David Hyde, a.k.a. Lord Running Clam. Hyde has a long history in the world of PKD fandom; in recent years he ran the inaugural Philip K Dick Festival in 2010, and he published the essential Pink Beam: A Philip K. Dick Companion. This time he’s teamed up with Henri Wintz, PKD collector extraordinaire and the brains behind the Philip K. Dick Bookshelf to produce the first bibliography of PKD’s novels in more than fifteen years. Not just a book for those who actually buy and sell PKD books for profit, Precious Artifacts is in fact another long love letter to that greatest and most humane of twentieth century writers: Philip K. Dick.
PKD produced a LOT of novels in his relatively brief lifetime: 37 novels that have been deemed science fiction, 9 that have been deemed mainstream (only one of these, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was published during the author’s lifetime) plus a handful of lost novels. For information on these lost novels, refer to Lawrence Sutin’s essential biography: Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. But if you’re after information on the various editions of the 46 novels published in the US and UK with the name Philip K. Dick on the cover, as well as the numerous novel collections and various versions and titles that have existed over the years, then you’ve certainly come to the right place. Wintz and Hyde know what other resources exist in the world of PKD appreciation, so they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Precious Artifacts is a worthy and worthwhile addition to your PKD collection, however large or small that might be.
This book is a labour of love, and it’s full of the kind of meticulous detail that only a true aficionado (or a pair of them) could produce. Precious Artifacts contains a number of supplementary essays, all of which are worth reading. There’s a Foreword, two Introductions, Collector’s Notes, essays on collecting signed editions of PKD novels and cover art, a brief Biography, a Guide to the Collectible Editions, a Glossary, and a Chronology of PKD’s publications. The last of these, the Chronology, I found especially useful given that it is helpfully provided in table form, although personally I’d like to see the lost novels listed here as well.
Those items are just the trimmings, however; the main course is more than 100 pages of bibliographic information on more than 50 publications. The first thing I noticed is that the layout of the pages is exquisite and, even better, the covers are reproduced in full colour. ALL of them. As mentioned before, the novels are separated into sections for Science Fiction Novels and Mainstream novels, and there are also sections dedicated to Story Collections and Non-Fiction. Personally I would have preferred to see each section organised by order of composition, rather than alphabetically, but that’s a small quibble. Rather than attempt to explain the way these pages are laid out, here’s a graphic I stole from David Gill’s Total Dick-Head blog (it’s okay; he stole it from the dickien.fr website):
What we have here is a wealth of bibliographical information on the US and UK editions, all presented in an easy to read format. Wintz and Hyde cannot be praised highly enough for producing this. I predict that in the future Precious Artifacts will be just as important a resource for the budding PKD acolyte as Sutin’s biography. Why? Because you can figure out what you want to collect in advance, dammit. When I started collecting PKD in 1999, I was limited to the three UK Millennium Masterworks editions that existed at that time, US Vintages editions of several other titles, and crusty old paperbacks of the rest. If I was starting my PKD adventure now, I’d use Precious Artifacts to decide which set of PKD novels I’d like to own, partly on the basis of cover art, but also on which publishers have complete or nearly complete lines of PKD, not to mention cost. I’ve never liked the covers of the Vintage editions (some of them, like The Man in the High Castle, are just awful) and I’ve always preferred Chris Moore’s UK covers, but maybe now I’d just collect the brand new Mariner editions, a line which even includes the one PKD novel I don’t own and have never read: Gather Yourselves Together. But that’s just me. Maybe you have tons of cash and you want to collect first editions? Precious Artifacts can help you. Maybe you’ve lucked upon what you believe to be a rare edition of a PKD novel that you’re weighing up whether to keep or sell? Precious Artifacts can help you. Incidentally, my one experience of happening upon a relatively valuable edition of a PKD novel is the Rapp and Whiting hardcover of Ubik, which I spied in a secondhand bookstore for $7 a decade or so back. I sold the book on ebay a few years ago for about $100, which Precious Artifacts tells me might not have been too bad a price. Had it been a first edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, however…
Virtually all of PKD’s work is in print at the present time; we are at a high water mark in his popularity. What, if anything, is out of print? Deus Irae (which was written in collaboration with Roger Zelazny) doesn’t appear to have had a UK edition in a long time. In the UK, three of PKD’s weaker novels have been relegated to Three Early Novels, although they remain individually in print in the US. PKD’s only novel for children, Nick and the Glimmung, was reissued by Subterranean Press in 2008 after its long obscurity, and the same can be said for PKD’s only published dramatic work: Ubik: A Screenplay. There’s the odd PKD novel that has undergone a name change, such as The Crack in Space, which is now known as Cantata-140 in the UK, and The Unteleported Man which now goes by the title of Lies Inc. As far as I can see, the only one of PKD’s science fiction novels to be out of print in 2012 is his collaboration with Ray Nelson, The Ganymede Takeover. I knew all of the above already, from more than a decade of ferreting around on the internet and in the pages of various volumes that include bibliographic elements but are not fully-fledged bibliographies. The point I’m trying to make here is that the budding PKD collector can save all of that time and effort by referring to this precious artifact, Precious Artifacts.
There’s more. Over the years several companies have decided, for whatever reason, to gather some of PKD’s novels together, most notably in the recent Library of America editions. All of that information is contained here. Once you’ve collected PKD’s science fiction novels, you’ll probably want to collect and read the almost-all-never-published-during-his-lifetime mainstream novels. You might decide, as I did, that Gollancz’s covers are the most handsome, but then there’s the problem of not all of the mainstream novels being available in this line. US publisher Tor can bridge the gap, but then you’ll end up as I have with some mainstream novels in Gollancz and others in Tor. That most elusive of PKD novels, Gather Yourselves Together, has just been reissued by Mariner (and I guess I’d better get myself a copy, even though it’s reputed to be virtually unreadable), and then there’s the problem of The Broken Bubble, which isn’t available in Gollancz OR Tor and would presumably be out of print at the time of this writing. In that case, the 1991 Paladin edition is probably the cheapest option. As I’ve tried to illustrate here, these are some of the problems that face the PKD collector, especially collectors like me who desire order in the form of uniform editions (but with stimulating cover art, which rules out Mariner). Here, again, Precious Artifacts will be your guide.
Then there’s the Story Collections, and it doesn’t get any less perplexing there either. You’re collecting PKD, so you might as well grab the Collected Stories, right? How complicated can it be? Well, pretty complicated. Refer to pages 116-119 for the details. But hey, Subterranean Press are bringing out several volumes of their ‘Complete Stories’, aren’t they? Unfortunately those editions aren’t without their problems either. You might end up going back to the original collections, as I have done, and there again Precious Artifacts can show you the best way to go about it.
Finally there’s Non Fiction. Item #1 is a strange and beautiful volume called The Dark Haired Girl, which I happen to own. Some of the best of that book, however, is collected in the even more useful The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, which doesn’t appear to have been reprinted since 1996. If you wanted to dip into the (in)famous Exegesis, you used to have to track down an obscure publication called In Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis, but now you can have the extended edition from Harcourt: The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. And then there’s the Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick from Underwood-Miller, in six volumes. Published over fifteen years. Most of which are now out of print. Sigh. Such is the life of the PKD collector! Imagine how we fared before Precious Artifacts: A Philip K. Dick Bibliography came along to light our path.
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.