philip k. dick

The Penultimate Truth

Penultimate TruthThe Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1964.  I have not read a PKD novel since August 2016 and I really feel bad about that. This novel made me feel better about my reading; PKD is a heckuva writer. The only really bad thing about this novel was that my copy is the 1998 Harper/Voyager edition. The cover is awful; allegedly by artist Chris Moore. The female on the cover looks android-ish; strange skull shape and her neck seems too long. But the issue is that there are no female main characters, only very minor ones, so why is there a weird girl on the cover?

Anyway, the main characteristic of this novel is that it is the most like the “typical” and “usual” style of novels that one reads.  I mean, structurally and style-wise. It is somehow the most normal of the PKD novels. There is a linear storyline and the plot, though futuristic, is not bizarre. The ending is actually one of PKD’s better ones! Sometimes I cannot recommend a PKD novel to a fellow reader because his novels do not appeal to all readers, even if I think they are interesting or exceptional. This novel, a dystopian imagining, should appeal widely. Still, it feels PKD was really holding the reins tightly on this one.

Not to say that there are not key PKD elements to this novel.  This entire novel is about one’s possible worst fears regarding governmental control. So, it belongs in that category of 1984, We, and other works that highlight extreme totalitarian governments. In this story, however, the “government” (and I use that term quite loosely) is a gigantic facade that the masses wholeheartedly believe is working for their best interests. Perhaps it was originally, because this novel depicts a future that takes place during/after World War III.

The War is between West-Dem and Pac-Peop.  Human soldiers are not involved in the actual combat. Instead, leadies, which are intensely powerful robots that can survive nearly anything, fight the battles.  The entire planet is enveloped in warfare. Extreme hazardous conditions result from the war and humans are forced into “ant tanks” in order to be protected.  These ant tanks are deep underground. The inhabitants spend their lives on rations and they are employed in repairing leadies and sending the parts back into the war effort.  Above ground remain the few necessary figures – the government and other such ranking groups.

But the war ends and nobody tells the majority of human population that is underground.  Instead, the simulacrum of a world still at war is fed to the masses.  Thoroughly misinformed about the state of their country, the war, the planet, the people in the tanks are held as prisoners not by force, really, but by fear and lies.

Now, this sounds fairly interesting, but probably not too unique. There are plenty of novels that have similar totalitarian dystopian visions. However, what is great about this novel is that PKD does not let us have one truth, two truths, three truths. And, really, at the end of the novel we may only have reached the “penultimate truth.”  What is truth?

For decades truth has been manufactured – and it is always manufactured – by the group in power. So, layers and layers of lies/truths are the reality and are there no good men left to save us all?  No matter how the storyline plays out, there is a deep feeling that in this novel PKD truly loses his faith in humanity.  I have now read twelve PKD novels. Some are more frivolous, some are more bitter. Some are soul-searching. But this one, I am starting to believe, is the turning point. From early PKD with some hope to latter PKD, who is without hope for humanity.

None of the characters in this novel are good. They are not wholly altruistic, moral, self-sacrificing men.  In fact, in several places, they are despicable and conniving and utterly self-serving. They display cowardice, greed, violence, and deceit.  PKD even manages to squeeze in a little moralizing here:  in a cruel, totalitarian simulacra, does traditional morality get displaced? Are some actions, normally taboo and immoral, now considered necessary?

This is a very good novel. It is creepy and frightening in many ways. The characters are a little difficult to follow every so often, but its easy reading and not slow and sluggish.  It is also accessible to most readers, I would think. However, most of us spoiled-rotten readers do not turn to PKD for worlds that “make sense” are “typical” and stories which have a “beginning, middle, end.”  We read PKD when we want to be put in a super-fast rocket as everything is  turned upside-down and inside-out. The bizarre and wacky that PKD usually paints his dystopian stories in is missing. And I missed it.

4 stars

 

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The Man Who Japed

The Man Who JapedAfter reading a couple “young adult” novels and a couple of mysteries, I hopped back into vintage science fiction with Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed.  It was first published in 1956. It is the ninth PKD novel that I have read.  Straightaway, let me share that I give this novel three stars.  This is not unusual – this seems to be my standard rating for a PKD novel. However, I do think that although this novel contains all of the “standard” PKD elements, it is not one of his finest works. Still, it is worth reading and I do recommend it to most readers.

All of the elements that make PKD novels “PKD Novels” are included in this one.  Because this is one of his earlier works, I think that maybe some of the elements are a bit messier and choppy than in some of his truly excellent novels.  Frankly, though the reader of PKD should be comfortable with his in media res action thrillers, this one did seem even more challenging for the reader to get a foothold.  I think I was well into chapter six or seven before I was feeling much of the story.

The thing is, it is difficult to read PKD without knowing something about the novels. I knew something of what this novel was about because this is 2016 and there is an Internet and I read a lot. By this I mean:  yeah, I knew the basic broad strokes here.  However, I did try to imagine a reader approaching this novel without that knowledge and I do think they would not get very far with it or it would frustrate them a little too much. Needless to say, I think this, early work or not, should not be one of the first novels a reader reads of this author.

The novel is set in 2114 and the main character is Allen Purcell, a late-20s administrator in a corporation designed to produce propaganda for the Committee.  Society, after a terrible worldwide war, has fallen to a totalitarian state as directed by a South African military general named Streiter. Streiter assumed control of society by enacting “Moral Reclamation” policies.  These policies are basically forms of Puritanical reduction. The totalitarian government operates mass surveillance and, through propaganda and coercion, enforces an oppressive moral code.  In 2114, the government is led by a descendant of Streiter, Ida Pease Hoyt.

Elements of PKD that readers should recognize: Purcell’s life is nearly totally demolished and deconstructed.  He is backed into situations in which there is no escape or option. PKD was merciful because in this novel, Purcell manages to keep his wife.  Purcell fights against the current government by subversive actions and mild disobedience.  But he is no saintly hero.  It seems his rôle is almost coincidence.

Another element is that of the oppressive and ever-intrusive government.  PKD is forever afraid and suspicious of who the government really is and what their actions are.  It is really very strong in this novel and it does parallel the Orwell novel 1984. Still, the novel ends with hope for the citizens regarding this totalitarian government.  Not jaded and bitter PKD – yet.

The other major element is that of psychology/psychoanalysis. PKD’s obsession with this field is apparent here in the form of spoofs and satire.  In fact, he is extremely obnoxious with his handling of this sphere in this novel.  As I alluded to earlier, I feel like the key elements are in this novel, as in his later works, but the writing itself is smoothed and refined in those later ones.

Now, some websites (including the publisher’s) consider this a “light-hearted” or amusing read.  Well, there are satirical elements, I suppose. But this is not a comedy.  And if the reader is laughing it is a rueful sarcastic sort of laugh, I think.  Dark humor, I guess. It is lightweight because it is a fast read and there is not a lot of heavy pontificating.  But in PKD there never is.  Purcell’s actions are subversive and taken as mockery – japing – but it is not necessarily amusing. Extremely absurd sometimes, but I do not think “humorous.”

My favorite part of the novel – and one that I wish was expanded or developed a wee bit more – was when Purcell visits Hokkaido in chapter nine.  It is really interesting and I was rather curious about the relics from the pre-war time that were bandied about. Ulysses by James Joyce is one of them, for anyone interested in knowing.

It is a silly thing to say that some of this novel was a little difficult to follow along. I mean, its a PKD novel. However, I guess, I mean that the writing is not as polished and snazzy as I am used to from the author. This is a good novel for all those loving dystopian societies, for those who love Orwell, for those who like satire and characters who are crushed by the unseen Establishment.  But it is not the best of that subgenre and it is not the best of PKD. Nevertheless, readers and writers could get quite metafictional about all of this – and I am surprised it has not yet been attempted (to my knowledge.) I mean, it could be japed. And circle back.

3 stars

Ghosts (The New York Trilogy part II)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

Ghosts is the second part of The New York Trilogy.  It was published in 1986.  It runs to a mere seventy pages in length, so I feel we would be better off calling it a novella. To be clear, when it is referred to as the “second part” of the trilogy, the reader must not think that these are interconnected storylines or continuations of plots/characters.

Its been said that these novels are detective story metafiction. That description is even more accurate of this second part than the first. However, calling it detective fiction conjures up examples of all kinds of gumshoes and private investigators. Literary thinking folks might immediately associate “detective fiction” with Poirot, Holmes, Sam Spade, and Henry Merrivale. None of those associations are incorrect, but the pulp/noir style novel wherein the detective traces the clues and catches a criminal are absent in Auster’s novels.

Again, like in City of Glass, the setting and location is very important to the story.  Auster seems to enjoy locating his characters in rooms. A lot of the scenery and storyline are guided by the presence of the four-walled room(s) that the characters inhabit. There is a sense of being enclosed, imprisoned, isolated, and contained.

In this story, Blue is the main character – he is the one that will face the existential crisis and the identity struggles as the story moves along.  Without being told why or being given any background, we are told that Blue is hired by White to watch Black. (The characters have colors for surnames.  And yes, there is plenty of symbolism and playing with words, too.) Black is staying in Brooklyn Heights on Orange Street. White has rented an apartment for Blue to stay in that is directly across from Black’s location. Blue collects his “detective gear” and goes directly to that location.

The story begins on February 3, 1947. Blue is excited about his job – he settles in to do it to the best of his ability. However, after some time, Blue becomes bored, restless, and then frustrated.  The man he has been hired to watch does nothing of interest.  Nothing really happens. In fact, most days, it seems that Black is mirroring what Blue does.  At one point, Black is found reading a book. Naturally, Blue buys a copy as well.  However, it is not until he is thoroughly bored and at wit’s end that Blue decides to read the book.

Blue ends up reading the book twice.  Mainly because the first time he felt ripped off and annoyed by it so he decided to re-read it in an effort to see what he had missed.  Frankly, I hate the book, so I totally understand Blue’s reaction.  The book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Most folk have read the book and therefore know it is about a hermit-like existence. Thoreau wrote about his attempt to return to a simple life wherein he could contemplate society, ethics, and the nature of man.  It is full of introspection and reverence for nature.

Some vague parallels can be drawn from all of this.  As time progresses, Blue loses most of his “life,” thereby returning to a simple existence – contained within the apartment.  He loses contact with his girlfriend, his former employer, his personal aspirations, etc.  He turns into a brooding, empty shell of his former self.

Now, suddenly, with the world as it were removed from him, with nothing much to see but a vague shadow by the name of Black, he finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before, and this, too, has begun to trouble him.  If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a slightly more modest term – speculation, for example – would not be far from the mark. To speculate, from the Latin speculatus, meaning to spy out, to observe, and linked to the word speculum, meaning mirror or looking glass.  For looking out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself. – pg. 171

This is really quite insightful and skillful of Auster.  The subtle layering and connections between Walden and mirrors and spying and speculating are well done.  An excellent example of metafiction’s capacity to layer reality and characters.

Obviously, there are questions of identity here.  Auster really lays these on heavily for the entire piece.  Along with Blue, the reader is questioning just WHO IS Black, White, etc.  Is this a wild goose chase? WHO IS the one who started this whole circle of identity confusion?  These questions are particularly poignant when Blue uses disguises to interact with Black.

Secondly, but quieter, is the process of transference that also runs through the work. Blue kills time by creating possible backstories to the case. Blue also finds that eventually he does not need to constantly watch Black because they have gotten so “close” that he knows (instinctively? internally?) what Black is feeling, doing, thinking.

Well, like most metafiction, the reader is not given detailed and specific answers. The case falls apart (as do the characters) a la PKD.  In fact, since PKD, I doubt I have read anything besides Ghosts in which the characters have such an existential crisis which so disassembles them. The lack of information is frustrating because one does want closure and resolution.  However, because there are so many questions and layers, the interpretations are endless. For example, I feel like if one were to write a Reader’s Guide to this piece, it would be one possible interpretation after another after another….  After finishing it, one ought to ask:  and then what? what was the point?

This novelette can be boring. I mean, ultimately, nothing really happens. We sit alongside the main character in a small apartment for about a year and a half, during which he reads Walden, sometimes paces Black around the city, and otherwise lives a droll and dull routine. In order to appreciate this work, the reader must have some care and interest in the concepts of identity/transference/isolation.

In many ways, Auster took the section of City of Glass wherein Quinn becomes an alley-dwelling ascetic outside of the apartment he was originally hired to conduct surveillance upon, and magnified those elements.  It seems as if Auster really wanted to explore just that particular chunk of the first story.  And so, in a much shorter fashion, we have this layered noir tale that deconstructs another couple of characters.

Not to say that there are not moments of suspense and eerie weirdness.  Nevertheless, those are not breath-taking enough or sustained for this to engender being anything thrilling or exciting.  And maybe those feelings of suspense/eeriness are just more transference from reader to character/scene?

4 stars

Our Friends From Frolix 8

Our Friends From Frolix 8 - PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

Our Friends From Frolix 8 – PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

I just finished reading my eighth novel by Philip K. Dick, Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970).  I read the 2003 Vintage Books edition. I really felt this novel was going to be somewhere in the 4 – 5 star range as far as my rating goes.  It surprises me (maybe not that much) that it is going to get a solid three star rating.  I think there are two “halves” of the book, the first half is exciting, wild, and unique.  It is typical of what I have come to expect from PKD’s writing.  The second half had parts that tanked and the ending was miserable.  This is unsurprising as well, because PKD’s endings are always poorly done.

The year is 2208 and, as usual, everything is falling apart.  In this novel, PKD disassembles the lives of every character and the political/social structure of the planet.  The two main characters that get tore up by PKD are Nick Appleton and Willis Gram. Nick Appleton is one of the Old Men – normal, unenhanced,citizens.  Willis Gram is the telepathic Council Chairman of Earth – he is basically the President of the planet. The catalysts that start the whole mess are that Nick’s son allegedly fails a government test and Thors Provoni is allegedly returning to Earth after a ten-year absence in order to overthrow the current political schema.  (Willis Gram has been Chairman for over two decades.)

The best thing about PKD’s writing is how it makes the pages turn.  Readers starting a PKD need to wear their seatbelt and watch for wind sheer from the pages turning.  This novel begins by presenting a multilayered madness of future awesome.  That sounds neat, but actually does not say much, so let me say this:  events occur and PKD does not build up to big events or let the reader acclimate to the setting.  There is a lot going on, on a variety of plot levels, and you do not need to worry about all the details. Standard, masterful PKD writing.

In my opinion, there is a lot more emotion in this novel than in early PKD novels. Emotion from PKD himself, but also in the characters – as motive or as part of their personality.  For example, Willis Gram is one of the most temperamental characters I’ve met in awhile. Gram is positioned as the antagonist of the novel, but hardly the villain.  PKD rarely has heroes and villains. Anyway, Gram is full of emotion – he is impulsive, stubborn, and resentful.  His largest challenge is trying to separate his personal life (and its difficulties) from his role in the public sphere as Chairman.  [Here’s a really good essay to be written by a college student:  the concept of holistic characters in PKD novels.]

When we meet Nick (protagonist), he is disheartened, confused, and unsettled by the status of the government and its social policies.  Most of his actions in this novel are driven by his emotions, particularly after he meets Charlotte Boyer.  Nick’s world goes to pieces in this novel, sometimes because of his own choices, but many times because of his bad luck and coincidence.  Nick, several times, traces back the pattern of events to find out the catalyst.  Oftentimes, it is some minor choice or event that sends his life down a wild trajectory towards mayhem.  My main issue with Nick is that toward the end of the novel, this emotional and busy man seems to be burned out.  His character becomes quite a bit duller and matter-of-fact. So much so that I think it is one of the reasons that the ending is so poor.

Beyond that, there is a large measure of emotion from PKD.  Maybe it is my imagination, but it really seems to be there throughout the novel. The author seems angrier and more sorrowful than usual.  There is a seething undercurrent in many of the characters and scenes. Nothing I can necessarily put my finger on – but a definite recurring tone throughout the novel.  Maybe an example is in how Nick deals with his wife. Or perhaps how Nick feels the emotion jealousy, truly, for the first time. Gram, too, has to deal with his own wife, and it involves the same anger and frustration that Nick feels.

Chapters 14 and 15 are particularly well-written.  PKD loves aggravating his characters. The chapters also include a very good sample of how Gram is temperamental and the extreme emotion in the novel:

“What a renegade.  What a dispiteous, low-class, self-serving, power-hungry, ambitious, unprincipled renegade.  He ought to go down in the history books with that statement about him.  . . . . Add to that mentally-disturbed, fanatically radical, a creature – note that: a creature, not a man – who believes any means whatsoever is justified by the end.  And what is the end in this case? A destruction of a system by which authority is put and kept in the hands of those physically constructed so as to have the ability to rule.” – Willis Gram discussing Thors Provoni, pg. 94

No, Gram is not friendly with Provoni.  Rarely do I come across a character so vehemently obvious in their distaste. And yeah, if I didn’t tell you who was speaking and who they were speaking about – I think there are actually several viable choices for this quote.  I think I could be convinced that that quote was spoken by Nick about Gram.

Thors Provoni, isolated as he is from Earth and humanity, seems very worn out.  He is sorrowful and depressed – even though he still is carrying on his “mission.”  Physically and psychologically, Provoni is quite beaten down and sad. Chapter Eighteen is the most thoughtful writing of the novel. Parts of this chapter even caused me a sniffle – definitely a bit sad (the pets thing).

Overall, this is typical PKD.  Everything is crumbling, the government cannot be trusted, and people’s choices are what spin the globe.  There is a bit more emotion and depth to the characters in this novel, but PKD still stinks at writing endings. I have to mention that throughout the novel, I felt that the character Thors Provoni was actually PKD. So, three stars for a rating and recommended mainly to PKD fans and people who like tortured characters.

3 stars

Clans of the Alphane Moon

Clans of the Alphane Moon - PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon – PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon is the seventh novel that I have read by Philip K. Dick.  The first I read was Valis – and I was totally unsure what to make of it, except a strong inclination that it was quite good.  It stuck with me for awhile after I finished it.  The next five books were a bit easier to digest, but they challenged me as to rating them.  They are very good, but also had some not good elements to them.  I gave most of them three stars for a rating.  PKD has become, for me, a very difficult author to rate.  His novels are not like any other novels.  PKD novels stand on their own, so I do not think I can compare them with anything else.  However, after I finished this novel, I immediately knew what I would rate it. It is definitely five stars.

There are three main points I want to state in this review and that readers of this review should take away from my commentary.  First:  this novel was the most science fiction-y of all the 7 PKD novels I’ve read.  Second (and perhaps very related to the first):   this novel was the most exciting and adventurous as well.  Third:  this novel really seems like it contains more PKD than the others.  More honest, open, and present PKD than in the other novels.  That’s rather impressive considering how close some of the later novels come to being semi-autobiographical. I think that while Valis is very revealing, it is also far darker and somber.  This novel gives us a lighter PKD with hope still in his heart.

The novel started off a little blah for me – interpersonal marital relationship dispute is not of interest to me.  And very quickly I decided I disliked the main character’s ex-wife.  She really is a harridan.  She really got my goat, as the saying goes.  But then, too, Chuck was toxic.  He seemed so spineless and droll.  His misery was just as bad as his ex-wife’s hostility.

But then things got quickly complex.  And then there were aliens – intriguing and interesting aliens.  Psi-aliens.  Aliens with neat “powers.”  But of course, there was this jerk in the TV entertainment industry who was involved in the storyline and was mucking things up for Chuck and his already wretched life. Luckily, Chuck has this police officer friend who can turn back time – but no more than fifteen minutes.

Be sensitive to the scenes and situations in this novel and you can practically feel what PKD was thinking or feeling as he was writing them…. or as he lived them.  It is slightly creepy, very intriguing, and shockingly real feeling.

I particularly appreciate the ethical questions that roll through the story.  There is not a heavy-handed pounding on the reader – the morality story is just there and the reader may participate or not as they choose.  I like that PKD does not feel the need to preach or argue – he presents unique and sometimes convoluted scenarios and then merely asks:  now what?

It was first published in 1964.  In June of 2014, a contributor to The Guardian wrote an article which mentions this novel by PKD.  The author of the article (Sandra Newman) seems to think she is praising the slack, hackneyed, works of the era.  She lumps this novel by PKD in with a few others, commenting that these novels are quick and dirty and certainly not high literature – but that they are really satisfying and unbeatable.  Frankly, I think her comments backfire on her. I do not think her so-called classification is valid.  I do not think this is just “typical of the times” in which it was written.  Also, I think her article bespeaks a very superficial read.

If this was the only PKD novel I had read, I might still give it four stars.  I would not appreciate it like I do or feel that I have as good of an understanding of PKD qua PKD if I had not read six other of his novels.  I was never a rabid PKD fan.  I just know there’s more going on here than a “wild west / beam-me-up” science fiction adventure.  If you don’t think a moon colony composed of former groups of mentally ill people has anything considerable to offer, well, you probably don’t have much of an imagination.

Yes.  The key location in this novel is a moon in the Alpha Centuri system.  An alphane moon, if you will.  At one time it was a mental institution of Terrans (Earth-folk), but for the last 25+ years it has become an autonomous, individual “colony” with each mental illness group forming their own society.  These clans then work together (tentatively, but still necessarily) to govern the planet.  And now Terra wants her moon back.  But there’s more politics in the mix.  The aliens with which Terra recently fought a war want this moon, too.  PKD’s playing with the concepts of mental illness is fascinating.  He clearly has an interest in the topic and he uses this concept in his novel without disdain or babble. He handles it perfectly – a seamless element in the novel.

PKD is also at his funniest.  For example:  the slime mold Lord Running Clam (who possesses St. Paul’s caritas).  In chapter 12 when Hentman and Chuck mix up Paraclete and parakeet – I laughed out loud.  Its really funny. And its really PKD.

5 stars

The World Jones Made

TheWorldThatJonesMadeThe 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