Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, July 13, 2008
      ( 7/13/2008 10:06:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"PURPOSE OF LIFE IS UNKNOWN AND HENCE HIDDEN FROM THE EYES OF LIVING CRITTERS." As a writer, Philip K. Dick's reputation has steadily grown since his death in 1982: a status that can only bring a sense of satisfaction to those readers who first came upon the man in cheaply glued s-f paperbacks in the fifties through seventies. Some of this cultural elevation can be linked to the writer's emergence as a source for evocative futuristic movies (Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly arguably being the most successful attempts at putting Dick's vision on-screen), but a more recent factor has to be the re-publication of Dick's seminal novels in a Tony hardbound format by the Library of America. Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s is the second volume in this series, and it's an attractive package indeed. Featured in the book: Martian Time-Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney, Now Wait for Last Year, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly. A heady selection, indeed - in more ways than one.

As a science-fiction writer, Dick is best-known for his reality-shifting plots (think of the "who's human and who's android" storyline of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a.k.a. Blade Runner), which I have to admit was his most salient feature for me when I first read his books as a teenager and college student. But as a fiction writer, he also was superbly gifted as a world and character creator. The Dick protagonist is unlike the hero of any other genre work being produced at the time. A profoundly average figure, he struggles to get by in the mundane world and just barely makes it - when all of a sudden even that modicum of stability slips away and our hero finds himself scrambling to hold onto his sanity.

So let's take a look at Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s one at time. First in the set is the 1964 Martian Time-Slip. I own a copy of the Ballantine paperback of this gem, and, like so many of Dick's first publications, the cover of the novel barely gives a hint of the strangeness within it. Set in a futuristic 1980's, the novel concerns a group of settlers who are living on the Martian dessert. As with many Dick novels, the point-of-view shifts between several characters, but the central figure is a service maintenance repairman named Jack Bohlen. Jack is a schizophrenic (an affliction that Dick apparently suffered in real life) in remission who has migrated to Mars out of the mistaken belief that its simpler, less complicated society will keep him less prone to dissociative episodes. When his black marketer neighbor Norbert Steiner commits an unexpected suicide, the act has repercussions for Bohlen and other members of the Martian colony.

Steiner, we learn, is the father of an autistic child named Manfred, who is presently being housed in a camp for "anomalous children." Manfred's autism, his therapist believes, is the result of the child's both living and perceiving outside the main stream of time. The boy sees his own future on a Mars where all the grand colonizing schemes have fallen to decay and entropy, though he is unable to communicate this vision to anyone around him.

Manfred's abilities attract the attention of Arnie Kott, head of the all-powerful Water Workers Local, who wishes to tap into the child's ability to foresee the future. He enlists Jack's aid in a dubious scheme to build a device that allow Manfred to "share his perceptions" with others around him. Before long, several colonists are experiencing Manfred's time-skewed sense - going through the same events repeatedly - and Jack feels his old schizophrenic paranoia once more manifesting itself. When Artie takes the autistic boy to Dirty Knobby, a rock held sacred by the aboriginal Bleekmen native to Mars, time and reality grow even more confused.

Kott is the novel's great villain: the first time we see him, he's in a steam bath pointedly designed to waste water on the desert planet. Acquisitive, capricious and incapable of seeing beyond his own short-term gain, he represents colonial capitalism at its most avaricious. (That he's the Supreme Goodmember of a plumber's union is an irony that probably played more strongly in the early sixties.) He pushes Jack to complete his project, even as he knows that doing so will most likely drive the repairman into a full mental breakdown. We wait for this greedy s.o.b. to get his comeuppance, and he thankfully does.

On the sidelines, striving to get a piece of the action, are psychiatrist Milton Glaub and Kott's sexy mistress Doreen Anderton. With Glaub, you can perhaps see Dick getting his writer's revenge after years of doubtless listening to insincere empathy and psychobabble. The shrink proves an inept social player who rationalizes his own failings by diagnostically blaming everyone around him. In one of the writer's typically inspired bits of social commentary, we learn that one of the jobs of the future psychotherapist is to attend social functions and stand in for phobic patients: "instead of curing the patient of his phobias, one became in the manner of a lawyer the man's actual advocate in the man's place . . ." The goal, then, isn't curing the patient but making it socially convenient for them to maintain their mental illness.

Doreen, while beholden to Artie, remains a surprisingly sympathetic figure. As a novelist, Dick was perhaps at his weakest working with female characters, who frequently come across as bourgeois, petulant and unsatisfied. (Which may partially explain the man's multiple marriages.) But Doreen proves to have a stronger sense of empathy for Jack than does the professional empathizer Glaub - and is the subject of a particularly disturbing time-slip vision from Manfred, besides.

Dick's futuristic worldview occasionally reflects the time of its creation. The United Nations, for instance, is a major power in the story, while one of the background subplots revolves on a proposed plan to close down the special needs children's camp which strikingly is named after David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister. But his core ideas and characterization remain transcendent; even if some of the jargon employed to explain the psychological ideas seem a bit dated. His Martian desert society has more than a trace of the American west - right down to land grabs and exploitation of the indigenous population - with a satirical overlay of good ol' twentieth century alienation.

In one memorable sequence, Jack is called to the colonists' Public School to do some repair work; the building turns out to be staffed entirely by androids. The malfunctioning unit, the Angry Janitor is designed to teach children to respect property. "Very righteous type, as the Teachers go," Jack notes, understandably uneasy about the human-seeming mechanisms. To Jack, whose first schizophrenic breakdown led to his questioning the living reality of everyone around him, the imitation humans prove particularly repellent.

As a science-fiction writer, Dick never saw the same level of public success in his lifetime as Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein. His writing intentionally lacks either the self-conscious poesy of Bradbury or the entrepreneurial optimism of Heinlein. Where the latter liked to pepper his works with ultra-competent spokesmen, for instance, Dick made his heroes struggling craftsmen. Where Bradbury honed his writing to make it moodily evocative, Dick maintained a fairly plain writing voice - the better to throw both his readers and characters when all of their assumptions about where the story's going are shown to be inadequate. For many s-f readers of his day, Dick was too beyond the fringe to suit their reading tastes. Happily, time has proved this visionary writer's salvation.

(Next: Dr. Bloodmoney, Or How We Got Along After the Bomb.)
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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