Philip K. Dick was one of the most brilliant and renowned SF writers of the last century, with perhaps his best writing done in the decade of the 1960s. He is also one of my favorite authors, so when I got a chance to review The Library of America’s collection of four of his most famous novels from the 1960s, I jumped at the opportunity. Jonathan Lethem does a very good editorial job, including at the end of the collection Chronology and Notes sections that make for interesting reading on
The Man in the High Castle (TMitHC) is the only one of the four novels that won SF’s coveted Hugo award (1963). I read it for the first time for this review, having read the other three novels in the 1970s. While I would say it deserved to win the award, the genre it’s written in, alternative history, is not my favorite, and I prefer the other three. Still, it transcends the genre, and like all P.K. Dick books, serves up many philosophical, religious, and moral questions to ponder and explore. Though some people think of TMitHC as Dick’s best book, I would recommend reading the novels out of order, starting with any of the others and coming back to this one later.
My reasons have to do with, in part, genre labels and preconceived expectations. P.K. Dick’s books are often thought of as surrealistic, mind-bending sorts of novels where the nature of reality itself is questioned, and of life and death; the other three novels fall into this loose category. I enjoy reading SF of this sort, so these three hold a special place in my literary heart and soul. TMitHC, while surrealistic in the sense that the history presented is an alternative one in which Japan and Germany won WWII, is actually in some ways realistic in that it mentions several people who really lived as well as actual battles. The Notes section is good at informing the readers of this collection about the history behind the novel.
Set in Japanese-occupied California (for the most part), TMitHC’s title character has written an alternative history book of his own, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which England and America win WWII. All of the diverse major characters (within subplots of their own that often interweave with those of other characters) read this influential book and are affected strongly by it in their own ways. The book’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, has, as a character, a relatively minor role in TMitHC. Not all of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy directly parallels the reality of (in our universe, anyway) events as they unfolded in history. Still, his fictional version of WWII’s outcome provides hope to some of the characters and provokes others (like the Nazi pretending to be an Italian, “Joe Cinnadella”) to try to hunt him down.
Another book that plays an extremely important role in TmitHC is the 5,000-year-old, two-volume book of Chinese wisdom, the I Ching. All of the characters consult it to one extent or another in the book, some using it to guide their every step and action. The throwing of yarrow sticks or coins and consulting the result in the I Ching by the characters to determine the correct paths of their actions is exactly what P.K. Dick claims he himself did in writing TmitHC. The entire book, Dick claimed, was written by this method. Also, Juliana Frink (wife of Frank Frink) gets Abendsen to admit that that is how The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was written, and that the I Ching was its real author.
P.K. Dick’s books are difficult to encapsulate; I’ve barely touched on the themes and characters of TmitHC here. There is some language in it, I should say before I move on to the other three books, that could be considered by today’s standards racist or non-PC. However, this language is that of the characters in the novel and used by Dick to show how each pictures the world and political reality he/she finds him/herself in. For instance, Robert Childan believes the Chinese as being inferior and thinks of them as being chinks.
Also, besides Nazi Germany’s Final Solution (the Holocaust) to deal with the Jews, Germany in TmitHC has another Final Solution that they almost totally succeed in carrying out: a scheme to exterminate wholesale all of the blacks in Africa. Robert Childan is impressed by the efficiency with which the Germans handled this, comparing it with how native Americans were killed by Caucasians:
Still, it had taken two hundred years to dispose of the American aborigines, and Germany had almost done it in Africa in fifteen years. So no criticism was legitimately in order.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (TTSoPE), the second novel of the four, focuses on people with psychic abilities called precogs, the Perky Pat empire of the Leo Bulero-run P.P Layouts, and how colonists on Mars cope with their lives by using the hallucinogenic drug Can-D, putting themselves in the places of the Perky Pat characters’ fictional lives. The wealthy Palmer Eldritch has miraculously returned from near-death in the Prox system a much-changed man with three stigmata upon him: his artificial arm, steel teeth, and electronic eyes.
What’s more, he’s brought back “a carefully maintained culture of lichen very much resembling the Titanian lichen from which Can-D is derived.” Eldritch promptly sets up in direct competition to Bulero’s Can-D with his own superior drug, Chew-Z. Taking Can-D is a religious experience for many of the settlers on Mars. Partaking of it socially with others produces what some settlers like Sam Regan affirm to be
...the miracle of translation--the near-sacred moment in which the miniature artifacts of the layout no longer merely represented Earth but became Earth. And he and the others, joined together in the fusion of doll-inhabitation by means of the Can-D, were
transported outside of time and local space.
TTSoPEleaves its readers questioning their own sense of what constitutes “reality”. The novel begins by introducing one of the major characters, Barney Mayerson, a precog who works for Bulero and is trying to evade the draft (joining the colonists on Mars) through the use of Dr. Smile, a computerized psychiatrist he carries in his briefcase. The purpose of the psychiatrist is not, unlike the human version, to make one well, but to make one sick - sick enough for the short term, anyway, to evade being sent to Mars.
The precog Roni Fugate spends the night with Barney, both knowing by their precognitive talents that they’d hit it off at some point in the future, so why wait until later for the inevitable? In the morning, Roni asks Barney if Dr. Smile has helped much yet, if he has made Barney “sick enough.” Barney doesn’t directly answer her, but asks the same question of Dr. Smile. He answers: “Unfortunately you’re still viable, Mr. Mayerson; you can handle ten Freuds of stress. Sorry. But we still have several days; we’ve just begun.”
The New York that Barney Mayerson inhabits is in the grip of a severe “global warming” of 180-degree days, where being outside for long could cost you your life. The rich attempt to overcome the problems inherent with the heat through medical treatments to help them evolve and become more reptilian, and more intelligent - assuming the treatments work.
And if you’re not rich? Richard Hnatt, who lives in a Conapt and has a wife skilled in pottery who wants to break into the P.P Layouts business with her line of pots, had his entire l-p collection
...fused together in a lump, back in ‘04, due to a momentary failure of the building’s cooling network....And at the same moment every parakeet and Venusian ming bird in the building dropped dead. And his neighbor’s turtle had been boiled dry.
Is Leo Bulero the “good guy” of the book, fighting off the perhaps alien-influenced Palmer Eldritch? Or is Palmer Eldritch the “good” one, merely trying to compete in the world and provide a needed service that is superior at a reduced price? Is Chew-Z a boon to mankind, or will it help bring about mankind’s destruction? This is a book that, like Ubik, gives a whole new meaning to the expression that we’re all members of a “consumer society”.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (DADoES) is my favorite of the four novels, with Ubik running a close second. It was made into the movie Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford as the android-killing bounty hunter Rick Deckard. This novel poses the question “What does it mean to be truly human?” The answer is empathy. Supposedly, empathy is the thing that sets us apart and cannot be installed by android manufacturers into their androids, no matter how much they would like to do so.
The Voigt-Kampff test, which measures empathy levels, is used by bounty hunters to determine whether or not a possible target to be “retired” is or is not an android. The test consists of a series of questions and statements, and wires and pads are used to register reflex movements of the eyes and facial muscles and the speed it takes to respond to the questions/statements. Since androids, unlike humans, aren’t capable of feeling empathy, the test is a sure-fire way to detect which is which.
Where do the “electric sheep” enter the picture? In Blade Runner, they don’t. While a very good movie, it is only similar to the book in the action scenes, the hunting down and retiring of the andys, as they’re called. Both DADoES and Blade Runner are excellent in their own ways, but the book can take the themes explored to “a whole ‘nother level.”
Animals and the longing to own animals are key to understanding and appreciating the novel. The time is years, perhaps decades, after World War Terminus. Radioactive fallout is still a danger to all life, making some humans sterile and/or affecting their intellect, turning them into “chickenheads,” as with the character John R. (J.R.) Isodore. Most animals have become extinct, making the few that remain a valuable commodity that people long to own and care for. People who can’t afford to buy real animals resort to buying electronic facsimiles. These satisfy the desire to own a live animal somewhat, but those who have an electric animal still long to possess the real thing.
The owning and treatment of animals is a sign of empathy for Deckard and the other post-war humans. A lot of the questions on the Voigt-Kampff test revolve around how animals are treated, and the reaction - or lack of one - by a test subject indicates whether or not one is a human. That, anyway, is how the test is supposed to work. But what if certain androids seem capable of showing empathy, concern, and love? And, if there might be androids like this, would they possibly dream of having animals, too - only maybe electric ones?
When Deckard learns that fellow bounty hunter Dave Holden has nearly been killed in the pursuit of an android named Polokov who has illegally immigrated to the Earth with seven others, Deckard steps in to finish up the job of retiring the remaining androids. Dave managed to retire two of them before Polokov got him, but the bounty money Rick could collect for retiring the other six would help him afford a live animal for himself and his wife, Iran. The trouble is, the androids are Nexus-6s, the newest and most intelligent andys thus far, and one of them is the same model Nexus-6 as an android he’s falling in love with, Rachael Rosen. Killing six in one day, the prospect he’s faced with, is one andy sort of the record - and that wasn’t set with Nexus-6's, but an older, slower, less human model.
DADoES? is a fantastic novel that any lover of SF should highly relish reading. It is multilayered, with much that is worthwhile to ponder. For instance, there’s a dichotomy presented in the novel between a quasi-religion known as Mercerism (named after Wilbur Mercer) and talk-show host and comedian Buster Friendly, who somehow is on both radio and TV twenty-three hours each day without ever repeating himself and whose goal is to expose Mercerism as a fraud. Through empathy boxes, people fuse their minds in unison and can live through the same experiences Mercer (a somewhat Christ-like figure) feels as he climbs up a hill and unseen enemies throw rocks at him. The people who meld their minds in this way themselves feel real pain and get wounds where rocks “strike” them. They feel the same persecution and emotions that Mercer himself must be feeling.
“Ubik is a book about a group of precogs going against a group of people who can neutralize precogs,” I said to my son, when he asked about Ubik because he’d seen the season-ending finale of Lost (a great show) and told me that some websites had drawn parallels between the TV program and Dick’s novel. At its most elemental, bare-bones level, this summation of Ubik is apt. But it is so much more than that, a story where the line between life and death, as the one between reality and surrealism, is tenuous, and such subtle distinctions are blurred. It’s also about commercialism, in this sense similar (on one level) to TTSoPE.
Also, P.K. Dick’s ongoing personal war against machines is comically portrayed when, for example, Joe Chip’s conapt door won’t let him in or out of his apartment unless he puts a nickel into a slot in the door. Chip, an “inertial” (anti-precog) in Glen Runciter’s “prudence organization,” as he euphemistically calls it, is not good at maintaining his finances or much of anything else, though Runciter thinks highly of his abilities at neutralizing precogs who infilitrate businesses as spies. When Joe Chip attempts to unscrew the bolt assembly of the door and the first bolt hits the floor, the door says: “I’ll sue you.”
Moratoriums are very important in Ubik, keeping the dearly departed not so departed. The technology keeps people who’ve died in a state of “half-life” in which their friends and relatives can communicate with them through being electronically connected with them. Glen Runciter is attempting, at the start of the novel, to communicate with his half-life wife and get business advice - she still advises him on every important move he makes regarding his company. He is in his nineties; she died at twenty (talk about your Winter/Spring romances). The problem is that every time a person in half-life is contacted, it diminishes their span of time left in the half-life, bringing them closer to their total death, or possibly to their future reincarnation. Runciter is trying to ask Ella, his wife, how he ought to deal with S. Dole Melipone, Raymond Hollis’ top telepath, when another voice interrupts him and intrudes into the conversation. It is the voice of another person in half-life, fifteen-year-old Jory Miller, whose “cephalic activity is especially good”. From the very beginning of Ubik, Dick forces the reader to confront his/her most basic assumptions about life and death.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Ubik is that each chapter begins with a short commercial for the product Ubik, though what the product is and does is different each chapter. This causes whoever reads it to think “What exactly is Ubik?” and “Why is this stuff, whatever it is, important to the meaning of the book?” It may be a contrived device to keep the readers’ interest high, but it’s a very effective one, nevertheless. One example of this is:
Perk up pouting household surfaces with new miracle Ubik, the easy-to-apply, extra-shiny, nonstick plastic coating. Entirely harmless if used as directed. Saves endless scrubbing, glides you right out of the kitchen!
Will I spill the proverbial beans and tell you what Ubik is? Of course not; I’d rather you read the book and experience the enjoyment of finding out for yourselves. And, if you like surrealistic, twisted sorts of SF that make you question your preconceived notions of reality, Ubik, along with the other three novels in this collection, are works that you’ll highly enjoy. Caution: Read only as directed. May be habit-forming.