The World Jones Made

The World Jones Made – PKD; Vintage

The World Jones Made is the sixth novel authored by Philip K. Dick that I have read.  It is an early work by PKD, written in 1954 and published in 1956.  I read the 1993 Vintage Books edition (in which there were two typos).   It is a short novel, 199 pages total, but it took me two weeks to read it.  Not, really, because I am a bad reader – but because it just was not very interesting and/or gripping.

Usually, I can read a PKD novel in about two days.  I usually stay up far too late clutching the book and burning my eyes out.  Not so with this novel.  It does contain all of the usual PKD items such as characters’ worlds falling apart, political turmoil, weird “science,” and shocking moralities.  Nevertheless, it does lack the fun and potency that I have found in PKD’s other works.  Even a bad PKD novel is worth reading, though.  I will only grant this novel two stars, but will still tell people that this is worth reading.  And that statement, though seemingly contradictory, is why PKD remains a major author.  His “bad” novels are still worth reading.  There are not that many authors who can say the same.

So, the novel takes place in 2002, though that is not quite relevant.  The story is a somewhat dystopian one because it does touch on the fall of governments and societal paradigms.  FedGov is the international governing organization.  They were formed after a major world war which saw the release of a multitude of nuclear weapons.  Obviously, (this was written in 1954) Russia and China are hinted at as culprits.  However Dick does suggest that there is a higher cause other than squabbling nations, viz. the dogmatism of non-relativism.  Thus, the major thrust behind the governmental agenda of FedGov is:  to promote and protect the now official paradigm of relativism.

Without lengthy diatribes or didactic harping, PKD forces the reader to consider a world in which the dominant ethical schema is relativism.  Of course, PKD does not get involved in the picayune aspects of how this all works and he leaves the details up to the reader to puzzle out.  This is good:  it was a “challenge” for me because I am absolutely not a relativist whatsoever.  But imagining relativism – not merely as a possible option – but as a norm for society was vaguely interesting.  Sort of like a “flip” of things.  I say that, but relativism has really caught on in the contemporary era under the guise of “freedom,” so I cannot say the “flip” is as opposite as it was for PKD in the 1950s.

In the most poignant scene in the book (chapters 9 & 10), the main characters go to a bar which presents forms of entertainment to which the characters react in a variety of ways.  Some call it outright depravity and perversity, others recognize some aesthetic value, while others seem ambivalent and disinterested.  On page 82, the main character (Cussick) asks (in a general rhetorical sense): “Did we go too far?”  and ten pages later the same character calls the entertainment “depravity.”

Meanwhile, this same character is shown a manuscript to a text called The Moral Struggle in which the anti-FedGov leader’s plans and ideas are presented.  Cussick’s job is working in Security for FedGov.  His experiencing this sort of environment and being introduced to a variety of anti-FedGov items causes him to really evaluate the situation.  Especially since he really struggles with the anti-FedGov opposition leader, Jones.

Jones is a “precog” and therefore is forced to take a position on free-will/determinism that also informs his position against relativism.  How can be he a relativist when he can see the future and he is correct about what will happen?  Further, how trustworthy is Jones?  Everyone wants to know – and those he impresses with his foresight become loyal followers, moving beyond trusting to fanatical. He is a hero to many and is the invaluable key to the opposition to FedGov.  The “precog” and mutant elements of the novel seem very much like the PKD ideas found in Minority Report.

One idea really struck me.  In chapter 12 a character is explaining the efforts to colonize in space, off-planet.  He says:

Because, in the final analysis, we don’t want to adapt to other planets:  we want them to conform to us.  Even if we found one second Earth it wouldn’t be enough.

I found that quote practically precog on the part of PKD because I read it in light of all the recent news and hullabaloo about finding “habitable planets like Earth” that has been in all of the NASA and Science journals and news services lately. Cp. Gliese

Overall, PKD is working a lot of tough concepts and sometimes the storyline gets lost.  None of the characters are terribly likeable and the main character Cussick seems especially benign and flat.  This really is not a great novel.  But it does provide lots of food for thought outside of the covers of the book – so if you are a reader that just wants to play with ideas on your own, but need a little kickstart – this novel is good for you.  It’s a worthy read:  because reading any PKD is like getting kicked in the head. Other than that, if you do not read this novel, you probably are not missing out on anything amazing.  And there are plenty of better PKD options.

2 stars

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick; Mariner Books

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said was first published in 1974 and is the fifth PKD novel that I have read.  Once again, it’s difficult to rate a PKD novel – I want to give it either two or four stars:  so I am giving it three.  This novel was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1974, a Hugo in 1975, and it won the John W. Campbell award in 1975.  Although it was published in 1974, I think that PKD wrote it in 1970.  Regardless, this is one of PKD’s later works.   Based on the five books that I have now read, I think that I prefer PKD’s earlier material.

Like all PKD novels, there is not a lot of background or information on the setting.  It’s the future and the main character is a “six.”   A six is a category of genetically-bred, advanced human.  Why or how is not really relevant to the story and I feel like PKD, as an author, was leaving this option open for himself.  If the other aspects of the novel did not work out so well, he could always find a way to work in the “six” aspect.   Anyway, the main character is Jason Taverner and he is a famous talk-show/variety show host.

Taverner leaves the studio one night alongside his sometimes-squeeze and fellow “six,”  Heather Hart.  As they banter about how old they feel, what the mass public is like, and where they should go, Taverner gets a phone call from a demanding former lover. Taverner detours his vehicle to visit the girl.  They argue and the girl attacks Taverner using some sort of poisonous, parasitic life-form.

The next day, Taverner gains consciousness and finds himself in a seedy hotel in a dreary, low-income part of town. Through some trial and error he discovers, to his horror, that nobody knows who he is, he has disappeared from the TV listings as a celebrity, and his preliminary attempt to obtain any official identification fails.

I am typically against giving away spoilers or surprises and in PKD novels it seems like one really never knows what will happen next. So, I do not want to tell much more of the storyline itself.  The first thing I would like to complain about, however, is that Jason Taverner is not a loveable character.  I really do not know if PKD does this on purpose or not, but I rarely (never?) find his characters to be even likeable. Taverner is pompous, abrupt, and he treats women poorly. Frankly, I have begun to suspect that PKD himself was some degree of a misogynist.

But then, I consider the women that Taverner associates with and I do wonder if maybe they are just not very nice people at all. Heather Hart is probably the best of the bunch and there are a bunch in the novel.  First there is Kathy Nelson – totally insane and unchaste and often creepy.  This is one of the first people that meets the newly-forgotten Jason Taverner. Then he runs off to Ruth Rae’s apartment.  Ruth Rae is an “old friend” and lover that he knew might remember him. Rae lives in a Vegas apartment and she has been married over fifty times. They spend the night and day having sex and getting high.  Rae reminisces about the past, which irritates Taverner.  Taverner at several points is verbally cruel to her, and eventually his presence there allows the police to raid the building and gets them both arrested and dragged to LA.

There are two other women that Taverner meets and uses and is mean toward.  One of these woman is Alys Buckman, the hypersexual and drug-addicted sister of the Police General Felix Buckman.  Felix is monitoring Taverner’s case with the police department.  Felix is another character that I really do not like at all.  After Taverner is hauled in to the precinct and released, Alys finds him and brings him to her house.

Now, if you cannot tell from what I have already written here, I’ll say it explicitly:  this novel is the most “adult” of the novels that I have read by PKD.  When I say adult, I do not mean that it’s porn or that there are graphic descriptions. I am just saying that there are drugs galore, everyone seems hypersexual, and no one in the novel is a particularly good person. These are not nice people and they do some not-nice things.  Hence, I cannot recommend this book to everyone.  Or, actually, the audience is more limited than usual. I do not think that there are many books that everyone can read. But this one is the most limited of all the PKD books I have read.

The ending of the book was good and bad. I am impressed that there was one – an epilogue, in fact, where PKD bothers to write a page or two about how it all turns out.  I often feel the ending of PKD novels are not really his best writing. I think he likes to leave a lot of questions and make the reader feel creeped out.  However, this one has an ending and an epilogue – except I dislike the ending. The whole novel was explained away quickly through the mouth of the coroner to the police general.  And I am not sure that the explanation is not a quick cop-out ending by PKD.

The first half of the book spun its wheels a lot and did not really go anywhere. I kept waiting for the action and thrill of UBIK or Eye in the Sky, but got none of that. I was waiting for something, instead the book spun its wheels with the main character moving from girl to girl to girl.  The second half was shocking at points (the relationship between Felix and Alys), but I do think PKD has done and could do better.  So, there are no likeable characters, there are some icky and shocking elements in the story, and the beginning is slow while the ending is a letdown. Overall, I cannot give this more than three stars. Maybe it’s actually 2.5……

Finally, in 1978 PKD supposedly wrote this article/speech titled “How To Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later.”  It’s actually quite lengthy. At points it is witty and insightful, at other times, I swear I want to call bullshit! on PKD.  Is PKD lying? Is he crazy?  I think that’s sort of the point of what he was doing:  making us ask those questions.  However, after reading this novel, I recommend readers to look at that essay because it really has a lot of explanation about PKD’s novel topics. And some good quotes:

I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem.

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. George Orwell made this clear in his novel 1984. But another way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions.

In the writing of Flow My Tears, back in 1970, there was one unusual event which I realized at the time was not ordinary, was not a part of the regular writing process. I had a dream one night, an especially vivid dream. And when I awoke I found myself under the compulsion—the absolute necessity—of getting the dream into the text of the novel precisely as I had dreamed it. In getting the dream exactly right, I had to do eleven drafts of the final part of the manuscript, until I was satisfied.

3 stars

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick; Mariner Books 2011

The Man in the High Castle is the fourth Philip K. Dick novel that I have read.  It was first published in 1962 and it won a Hugo Award in 1963.  I will state right away that I am only giving the novel two stars because I have read better from PKD. Also, this novel was not as easy to breeze through and immerse within as the other novels by PKD that I have read were.  I think that the concepts in this novel are five-star concepts, no doubt. But I am docking for execution.

This is easily a good novel for discussing lots of philosophical ideas.  It would probably be best read within a reading group.  Some of the neat philosophical ideas PKD throws out there include:

  • historicity
  • notion of fakes/counterfeits versus value of original/authentic
  • the Japanese concept of Satori
  • duties to State versus duties to Self

But overall, the part of the novel that makes it qualify as science fiction is that it presents an alternate reality. I want to say a bit more on this point, but that would involve giving away spoilers.  Suffice it to say, PKD again makes the reader question reality – is this the really real or a false reality?

There are a whole mess of characters in this novel and the plot does not necessarily just hinge on one of them alone. I think I prefer books with a clear main character. I sometimes had a difficult time remember who was who and what and where. I hope your German is better than mine, because I had no mind for German names, phrases, or places. However, if you are a WWII buff, you may find this book of some interest.

Anyway, the character that I liked the most and followed most avidly was Nobusuke Tagomi – a trade missioner in Japanese-controlled San Francisco.  I think it is with this character that PKD gives his all in terms of character development and also the thread of the I Ching that runs through the novel.  Tagomi is the only character that I could feel sympathy for and was interested in. I think this is because PKD manages to pull off an “authentic” traditional Japanese persona here, whereas with the other characters, they are only playacting at their heritage/ethnicity.  For example, most of the Germans seem too obvious and the other Asian characters seem almost simulacra of stereotypes or something.

One thing this novel excels at – without a doubt – is presenting the concept of authentic/false.  This is done with objects, art, people, countries, beliefs, names, and even such small details as hair color and clothing.  This novel could really just be a study in simulacra and simulation. (In case you’re curious, no, no connection from Baudrillard’s book, which was published in 1981.)  If you are interested in the Philosophy of Art and are curious about the ideas of forgeries and fakes versus imitation – this would probably interest you, as well.

Ultimately, this book would interest a lot of readers for a variety of different reasons and aspects. However, the one group I do not really recommend it for is the science fiction audience.  This book is a little less psychological and a little less science fiction than the other PKD books that I have read, and maybe that is why I am only giving it two stars.

I hated the character Juliana Frink with great animosity. As soon as we meet her in the novel, I want to make her go away. It kind of sucks that she ends up as a device for the big reveal at the end. Overall, I find her to be a hideous person and I do not know who PKD modeled her after, but I am sorry for them.  Juliana is an annoying, sickening, vexing character. A novel with her in it cannot get more than two stars, sorry!  Also, I am starting to believe maybe the Hugo Awards are on crack…..

2 stars

Ubik

Ubik

Ubik by Philip K. Dick; Mariner Books

Ubik, another of Philip K. Dick’s novels, was published in 1969.  The edition I read was the 2012 Mariner Books edition.  I much prefer the Vintage edition from 1991.  Mariner Books is a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and was founded in 1997.  It seems to be the case that in 2012, Mariner Books reprinted all of Philip K. Dick’s novels.  I don’t really like their covers as much as the psychedelic covers Vintage used for PKD’s novels.

Ubik - Vintage

Ubik – Vintage edition

This is now the third novel by PKD that I have read and I am going to give it three stars – just like I gave the other two novels.  PKD’s writing is once again amazing for its fluidity and ease.  The pages turn so easily – it’s really easy to devour PKD novels.  It makes me a little sad, because the novels tend to end so much more quickly because the writing is so fluid.  I started the novel and was on page 70. Then I was on page 150 and suddenly, it was all over.

One of my friends (Robyn) on Goodreads wrote this in their review of Ubik:  “No time to gawk at all this odd stuff, we have IMPORTANT THINGS to do”  — and I feel this is exactly how to describe how PKD writes.  The novels are mostly in media res, the reader is not given lots of fine detail, we do not know the complete personal histories of every character, and there are truckloads of bizarre or weird scenes and objects.  Never mind! We have important things to do – meaning, the storyline is rolling onward and the characters are busy!  And this is how PKD writes; he just drops the reader into a world, throws a problem at the characters, and off we go!  No time to fret about the logistics or the background or the details.

I cannot tell you what this novel is about, per se.  To do so would involve plenty of spoilers and color your experience of reading PKD.  As with all PKD, the novel moves into the surreal, anti-real, dream-like settings that the author is known for.  This book, in particular, would make an awesome movie – and as I read along, I kept imagining this as a movie (something I rarely do when reading).  However, I think it would also be a very difficult movie to make.  What kind of movie?  Well, I was going to suggest a movie like Inception.  But I hated Inception.  In fact, several movies have been attempted of this novel – to include a variety of screenplays (one being written by the author himself).  Anyway, remember eleven PKD novels have been made into movies including the ultra-famous Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

Most of the time I dislike pinning PKD novels down into the science fiction category.  I tend to have stricter requirements for what qualifies as science fiction.  For example, space, aliens, and futuristic science always are integral to science fiction.  But what about PKD novels?  Ubik has scenes off-planet. Ubik takes place in the future (1992, which is the future for 1969).  Ubik has alternate life-forms (those identities in “half-life” cryonic suspension).   So, to say Ubik is not science fiction is incorrect.  But it would be improper to mislead potential readers into thinking this is the typical science fiction novel.  It’s not – but it is the typical PKD novel. Be prepared for surreal madness at breakneck speed.

The best (and worst) part of PKD novels, I’ve learned, is that they leave you wanting more.  More novels and ideas from PKD for sure, but also more of each story – tell me what happens, explain this, how did that play in?  As you read you wonder “is this bizarre object/person relevant or just a false trail?”   So I have read three PKD novels now, I gave them each three stars, but I am practically salivating to get my hands on another of his novels.  The obvious question is why do I give them such a low rating if I am addicted to them?  Well, the honest answer is that I have read five star novels and PKD has not shown me one of those yet.  Three stars is roughly average for all aspects of the novel. And I realize that these novels are not for everyone and sometimes the storylines are not great – but the experience of reading about them is unique and odd.

Having read three PKD novels, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Trial, Invitation to a Beheading, and two Stanislaw Lem novels this year – I am starting to feel reality is getting a bit shifty. It may seriously be time to read some hard-boiled detective fiction.

3 stars

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick; Mariner

This is the second Philip K. Dick book that I’ve read.  It was first published in 1957, but I read the Mariner Books 2012 edition.  Previously, the PKD books were published by Vintage – and they had really colorful covers.  I do not recall ever seeing Mariner Books before, but their new covers for the PKD books are somewhat. . . dull or uninspired.

I want to say, right off the bat, that I only gave this novel three stars – the same rating I gave the other PKD novel that I read.  However, I think of all the books that I have rated on this blog, PKD books are probably the most difficult to rate.  I definitely believe that overall, all things considered, the PKD novels are only three star novels.  Nevertheless, somehow PKD novels are in a category of their own and reading them (or not) based on a rating is not the best method.

Eye in the Sky has a hurried and cruddy ending.  The last few pages are just dumb. The main character, though smart, is often churlish.  I don’t really understand the purpose of the character Silky, and don’t like her in any case. These are the main complaints that I have about the novel.

Now the good stuff.  I love PKD’s writing style.  I have nothing to compare it to in order to give an example of how PKD writes.  Technically, this novel is written without overwhelming descriptions.  The whole thing takes place in California – a setting PKD was himself familiar with.  I wonder if he picked this location just to cut down on the amount of work he would have to do regarding the setting or if he picked it because he is always writing something autobiographical?

This whole novel is almost a reflection on an incident that happened to Dick and his wife:  in 1955, he and his second wife, Kleo Apostolides, received a visit from the FBI, which they believed to be the result of Kleo’s socialist views and left-wing activities. The couple also briefly befriended one of the FBI agents.  In the novel Eye in the Sky, Jack Hamilton is fired from his high-tech-for-government job because his wife, Marsha, is suspected of being a Communist.

A group of people on a guided tour of a new particle accelerator have an accident as the structure they are on collapses while the accelerator is running.  Somehow this forces their consciousnesses into one, so that the group experiences reality as it is understood and fantasied about by various members of the tour group.  Obviously, this is an awesome laboratory experiment in fiction playing with concepts of subjective reality. So, while the group is in a reality created by only one of their number, the rest struggle to return to their original “real” world.  Because now, the group has to consider what is “real” and what is better or worse about the worlds their consciousnesses are creating.

The first “world” is the most intriguing, in my opinion, and I feel that PKD develops this one the most.  In this world, created by an older solider who was on the tour, the group falls into a reality which is extremely theocentric.  In fact, this is so much the case that it seems everyone carries around with them a copy of the book Bayan of the Second Bab.  Sins and good works are punished or blessed in the same moment as the act, and prayer is responded to immediately.  It makes the act of prayer seem superficial, but also all of the actions of people are obviously under some statistical rubric which determines the what/how of the response to their actions.  PKD’s incorporation of elements of Babism (not sure if it’s the Persian spirituality or the re-evolved Bahai movement) is fairly interesting.  Everyone in this subjective reality tends to be fanatical believers and the main character finds this world the easiest to assimilate – even if he does consider himself a dedicated empirical scientist.  There’s a lot of neat stuff in this chunk of the novel.

The other realities of the consciousnesses of the tour group are not as developed as the first.  One is absolutely downright creepy and horror-film worthy.  One woman on the tour was a paranoiac.  And her reality expresses the constant press of fear and conspiracy that her worldview generally has.  The other characters are forced to resort to extreme measures to escape this particular fantasy-reality.  However, I think some of the elements in this “reality” are very scary and telling about the author.

Besides the character of Silky, I don’t really know what to say about the character of Bill Laws.  Laws is a black man who graduated with a science degree.  Throughout the novel, though, he alternatively blames and befriends Hamilton for his successes and failures.  Laws sometimes seems under the control of the “fantasy-reality” and sometimes it seems like he is faking the effects of the events (for example, his dialect which he seems to engage and disengage at random).   At one point Hamilton tells Laws that he’s the most “neurotic sonofabitch” he’s ever met.  Laws saves Hamilton’s “life” in one of the realities.  In another, Laws uses Hamilton as an example of how a privileged white man did not have the same experiences in college and has more career prospects simply based on skin color.  One of the reasons I don’t know how to interpret this character is because he is constantly shifting – even as much as all the realities are shifting.  In a lot of ways, Laws is Hamilton’s doppelganger.  But what PKD was trying to get across to me as a reader through the character….. I have no idea.

I love PKD’s writing – it’s incredibly fluid and smooth.  The pages turn and the story progresses and it all makes reasonable sense when you’re in the novel.  There is this ease with which PKD’s writing seems to have that makes me jealous – no one should seem to have such an easy time writing.  And of course, he probably did not – however, reading the finished product, it seems so fluid and easy.  I will definitely read as much PKD as I can – and I will probably still rate the novels three-stars.  And I will probably still marvel at how good a writer PKD is.

3 stars

VALIS

VALIS

VALIS by Philip K. Dick; Vintage

I finished reading VALISThis is a 1981 novel by Philip K. Dick.  The title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, Dick’s gnostic vision of one aspect of God.  The edition I read is the 1991 Vintage Books edition.

This is the first novel by Dick that I have actually read.  I know plenty of/about/by PKD, but this was the first time I owned a novel and read it through.  I have to say it was somewhat just as I expected it to be. PKD is one of those “tortured genius” types – I do not have the authority to speak on his personal experiences.  Maybe he was completely mentally insane.  Maybe he had religious epiphanies. Maybe he was just a cooky, oddball. I don’t know.

What I do know is that he is a really good author.  This particular novel is less “science fiction” than a memoir/thesis.  You can feel with each page that it is Dick trying to work out his experience via the medium of fiction.  It’s actually quite impressive. I feel that dozens of authors try to be pondersome and meta- but they try too hard or are too fake about it.  This book by PKD seems full of honesty.  It does not seem purposefully obscure or meta-.  PKD is an excellent writer – the topic, plot, and characters in this book are actually kind of crappy. But his writing is so honest, inviting, and open that I enjoyed reading the book just to have the joy of reading the writing.

The content is very unique.  If you are not comfortable with Gnosticism, schizophrenia, drugs, or death – this book is going to make you really hate it.  And if you are unfamiliar with Christianity – forget it, you’re really going to abhor the book.  Now, there are plenty of novels wherein the usage of drugs is glorified or the ruminations on death are obnoxious.  That is not the case with this book.  This book is actually a seeking of answers, of goodness, and a quest for peace of mind.  PKD is definitely a bit nuts – but he’s sharing it all and completely opening himself to everyone in this book.  He’s not hiding or lying – the honesty and struggle are in plain sight.  In some ways, I pity PKD, he was so befuddled and perplexed, but I suspect he had a good heart, as they say.

He wasn’t just theory-mongering for the sake of it; he was trying to figure out what the f*** happened to him.  – chapter 7, pg. 106

There isn’t much of a plot at all. It’s a thin bunch of characters, plotting, and storyline.  Maybe there’s no plot because the book, really, is just a stream of consciousness of PKD wrestling with his diaries and thoughts.  There are definitely parts in the book which are utter madness and confusion.  I am comfortable in philosophy and history and theology and even I had some struggle with certain paragraphs. I have no idea what PKD was writing.  Some times this came across as PKD just playing with words and maybe his whole effort was just to find new religious concepts and make an eclectic mess of whatever he runs across.  On the other hand, he is also surprisingly self-critical.  Particularly in the first half of chapter 14.  So, while PKD might sound crazy – he knows he does and he’s still wrestling with the fact.  I have a feeling that if you enjoyed Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, you might be interested in this. They are not the same genre, but there are themes that are similar. The eclectic collection of obscurantism is what makes me think the two are similar.  In any case, VALIS is not to be read for plot, but for the actual writing and maybe if a reader wants to get to know PKD.

3 stars

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