FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1960s
Philip K. Dick
Library of America, 2007
In Isaac Asimov’s story “Living Space,” there’s an infinite number of alternate universes that people can access, including ones in which the Axis won WW2. It’s played for laughs, since even with victory, history moves beyond the great men that our societies prop up. Dick goes in another direction, meditating on historical representation itself. And mirroring his kaleidoscope plotting are all the props.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is full of odd objects. On the west coast, occupied by imperial Japan, the white Americans have to cope with being the subalterns for a change, while the aesthetically inclined Japanese colonial citizens buy up quaint antiques of US culture: comic books, Mickey Mouse watches, Civil War pistols.
In good formalist fashion, this novel ends up being about its own construction. The characters are enthralled with an alternative history thriller novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in which the Allied powers win World War 2. While a woman is travelling with an veteran from the North African theater to meet the author of this book, her ex-husband, a Jewish man living incognito with the aid of plastic surgery, gets into the jewelry business. His wares are described as metallic blobs: modern art.
On one hand, art works are aesthetic objects, whose vale comes from their very lack of use value, that is, they’re materially made from the world, but exist apart from the world. On the other hand, everyone is consulting the I Ching. Even the novel within the novel has been procedurally generated, OuLiPo style, by it. One Japanese officer has two somewhat mystical experiences: one is a bout of nausea triggered by the byzantine happenings in the Third Reich, and the second one is triggered by one of the “contemporary art” jewelry pieces. The world fills up with correspondences, and he comes very close to perceiving the truth of history. But the most amusing part of this nightmare of nightmares is that the characters point to Grasshopper and say, it could have been worse.
And things do get worse in THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH. There are no terraformed edens on Mars, like in Bradbury or Robinson. Instead there are half-assed farms and equipment left to rot, SF images of post-industrialism. The colonists are in their hovels strung out on the semi-illegal drug Can-D, which can merge the consciousness of the users and transpose them onto the Perkie Pat layouts. The latter are legitimately manufactured and distributed from Terra, and they function like a Barbie and Ken world of mass consumerism, unravaged by global warming like the real story world is.
But Palmer Eldritch, rescued from a crash on Pluto after an interstellar journey to the Proxy system (the name Palmer means pilgrim), introduces a rival product to the market: an alien substance called Chew-Z. This drug shunts the user into a psychic netherworld.
This novel turned out to be a lot like THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O’Brien. A Chew-Z trip may last hours, days, millennia (and you can time travel as a ghost), but in “reality” only a few minutes, and no matte how long you spend in this dimension you don’t age. The weird basement O’Brien’s narrator is taken to works in a similar way. Among the strange allegories in both novels are two notions of power: the stick and the carrot; the overt and brutal despot, and also the third policeman, the Foucault and Nietzsche type of power, the one that circulates itself among individual subjects and seems to have surpassed history.
The character Barney Mayerson isn’t “brave” like his name, except maybe he is, ’cause as his lover says, it takes bravery to let people down. He doesn’t rescue Leo from a deep Chew-Z trip while held captive by Eldritch, because his precog abilities give him knowledge of his own death if he tries. His self loathing (even before this failure) leads him to repeatedly blow up his life. He ships off to Mars on the UN colonial draft, living the sickness unto death, fearing his sins will never be forgiven.
He takes Chew-Z to time travel and try to get back with his ex-wife Emily, with ambiguous encouragement from Eldritch. While he tries to return to a lost oneness, there are other characters who sign up for E-therapy, and accelerate the natural process of human evolution until they have enlarged craniums (“bubble heads”) with coconut-like rinds.
Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today. In this story, in which psychoanalysts offer their services through voice chat in portable suitcases, the humans are stoic to a degree that has them all pathologically disturbed. No one can cope with the present moment, except maybe Miss Roni Fugate.
Toward the end, Barney has an encounter with a telepathic Martian jackal. The creature almost eats him, but realizes he’s “unclean.” Indeed, more and more people in the solar system are bearing the three stigmata: false hand, false eyes, false teeth: alienation, blurred reality, and despair. “Felix rattled his documents mechanically — oh God, Leo thought; literally mechanically!” (427). At the level of language, the sign is also unclean. It is ambiguous as the psychic spaces (and spaces within and between spaces) created by Chew-Z: is it a window or a wall? And is Eldritch really running the whole show, like the Wizard of Oz?
It’s interesting that Barney as a precog and Leo as a bubble head are enhanced humans, but their abilities do not help them one bit coming up against Eldritch, against the weird, the elf, the way it would have played out in a more commercially satisfying pulp. But this backs up the suggestion of structuralist theory that the fundamental gap problem in language, between the sound and meaning of a word, is not because of our inadequate perception, but is built into the system itself.
What a surprise, there’s nothing in DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? that leads to the 80’s-tastic, titty-filled, techno-orientalist future vision of the two BLADE RUNNER films. The androids are such close simulacra to humans that the only sure-fire method of sorting them out is a “bone marrow test,” which indicates how ontologically unsettling these entities are, not really androids or even cyborgs. The replicants in the films take this even farther when you see their heads get blown off.
And there’s finally a word for these heaps of chaotic objects filling up the story world: kipple. Which apparently he coined. Entropy in Dick is more material and immediate than in Pynchon.
If I were as smart as Jameson I could draw up a semiotic rectangle with humans, androids, animals, and electric animals. But I don’t know which would go where.
Plot-wise, UBIK is the most straightforward, though it’s still crazy. And it has the scariest villain. A faithful adaptation would be wild just from the costume department: tweed togas? dirndls on men? It could be staged for a ball, as a musical.
Without giving too much away, we’re in a world with two master forces: demonic entropy (like in the other novels) and an angelic counter-force. No prize for guessing which one wins out. Ubik itself is an aerosol can of wish-fulfillment. A parallel is drawn between the rigorous language of 60’s miracle commodity advertising and religious mantras, the former a degraded version of the latter.
In the lore of the Russian formalists, fairy tales come in two types: a journey to the object of desire, and a series of labors, like Hercules. The important part, the part that creates variety, is not the hero or the goal, but the wizard and his or her magic instrument that assists the hero. Maybe, in the middle of the explosion of masterpieces Dick had in the 60s, UBIK was a brief return to basics, as far as form goes.