Why do so many legions of science fiction fans still read the novels of Philip K. Dick decades after his death? You have only to read the five novels of his that have been reprinted in The Library of America’s Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s to find out. It includes some of his best fiction: Martian Time-Slip; Dr. Bloodmoney; Now Wait for Last Year, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Scanner Darkly, which was made into a graphic movie of the same title. While I feel that as a whole the novels in The Library of America’s previous collection of P.K. Dick books, Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s, reach and attain an even higher level of excellence than the five in the new edition, still this is a very worthwhile collection to add to your science fiction libraries.
As with all of Philip K. Dick’s works, those in this collection are difficult to do justice to in summation; they are rich, dense, and complex, as is the case with fine writing in any genre. The basic themes featured in these five novels are repeated in most of his fiction – war, chaos triumphing over order, infidelity, drugs; alternate realities, and the stubborn persistence of hope in spite of overwhelming odds.
Many critics recognize Martian Time-Slip as one of his masterpieces. I find it to be somewhat uneven, but it is a good pioneering effort of his that definitely has its place as one of the classics of science fiction. Its main character is Jack Bohlen, a repairman and recovering schizophrenic from Earth who has traveled to Mars to try to better his life and find work. Repairmen are a valuable commodity in the colonies seeking to make a go of it on our sister planet, despite Mars’ harsh environment and the feelings of depression and alienation that many of the colonists harbor.
The colonists are in direct competition with each other for Mars’ scarce resources, especially water to irrigate the scant crops they’ve managed to scratch out of the nutrient-poor soil. Big-wig and bigot Arnie Kott becomes Jack Bohlen’s boss, and though Arnie intensely dislikes any of the people born on Mars who have some sort of disability or strangeness about them based on where they were born, he is, above all else, an astute businessman. When he learns of the supposed ability of one of the children, Manfred, to see into the future, he hatches a plan to utilize Manfred’s talents to make money in land speculations.
The catch is that Manfred is autistic and seems to be living according to a different rate of time than normal people do. In order to communicate with him, Kott has Bohlen work with the boy and fashion a machine to allow Manfred to communicate with them better. But the visions Manfred has are filled with decay and the eventual ruin of Kott’s - and the U.N.’s - ventures into establishing apartments and a community in the FDR Mountains of Mars.
Interestingly enough, the Bleekmen, a black-skinned humanoid aboriginal race of Mars looked down upon by most of the colonists from Earth, are able to communicate rather well on an unspoken psychic level with Manfred. Also, this novel, like many of Dick’s stories, deals with alternate visions of reality; Manfred’s future as an adult with parts of his body replaced by machinery is reminiscent of what happens to Dick’s titular character in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
Dr. Bloodmoney is set in a post-apocalyptic future where much of America has been devastated by hydrogen bombs. Pockets of humanity survive, trying to rebuild and maintain a semblance of civilization. Though the novel is entitled Dr. Bloodmoney - he's a scientist who helped bring about a previous nuclear holocaust in P.K. Dick's alternate-reality vision of 1972 and is a major character (nee Dr. Bruno Bluthgeld) in this book - the novel is more about the other characters and their attempts to maintain a semblance of civilization. He feels intensely guilty about his role in the previous holocaust and has moved to the Californian town of West Marin to try to start his life over again, sheep farming there under the name of Jack Tree.
This novel is populated with some of Dick's best-developed characters – such as the phocomelus Hoppy Harrington, a person who becomes West Marin's Handy, or handyman. He is a Thalidomide-induced flipper-armed and -legged person with psychic abilities who also happens to be very good at repairing machinery, vital in a future where machines exist, but the knowledge to keep them going is gradually becoming a lost art.
The people of Earth who remain are inspired to keep struggling by listening to the folksy voice of Walt Dangerfield on the radio. Sent on a voyage to Mars with his wife, who died, his ship's retrorocket didn't fire. He now endlessly circles the Earth, dispensing wit and acting as a disc jockey of sorts, playing requests from the ship's vast store of recordings and reading from Of Human Bondage. A major crisis and turning point in the novel results when Dangerfield starts experiencing chest pains, worrying the planet-bound survivors: his death would mean the death of one of their own reasons for living.
A complex work, Dr. Bloodmoney is not Dick’s best novel, but it has many moments of sheer brilliance and some of Dick’s most memorable characters. In addition to the doctor and Hoppy Harrington, black TV repairman Stuart McConchie builds a new life for himself as a salesman of traps for a vermin exterminating company, ironic in that Hoppy Harrington envisioned a future in which McConchie would eat rats to survive - which he actually is reduced to doing, after the first bombs fall.
Now Wait for Last Year is one of the best of the five novels in the collection, as are the last two, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly. Earth is embroiled in a war against aliens called the Reegs; another alien race, the ‘Starmen, from Lilistar, are our allies. The supreme leader over all the Earth, Secretary Gino Molinari is a dictator, though one who has the best interests of humanity at heart. The ‘Starmen often behave more like our enemies than do the Reegs, wanting there to be a greater involvement and sacrifice of humans to further the war cause and bring about the ultimate defeat of the Reegs. The Reegs, for their part, would prefer to negotiate a separate peace with Earth and only seem to be the “bad guys” because the ‘Starmen paint them that way, as does the Earth’s media.
Dr. Eric Sweetscent, who works (as does his wife, Kathy) for the Tijuana Fur and Dye Corporation, is Mr. Virgil Ackerman’s) personal physician, charged with keeping Virgil alive and prolonging his 130-plus years by being at his beck and call 24/7 and transplanting artificial organs into him as the old ones wear out. Virgil is obscenely wealthy and has had an entire recreated city built for him on Mars, a “babyland,” of Washington, D.C. in 1935. It’s called Wash-35, and it’s the job of Kathy to obtain antiques from the time period to help make Wash-35 more realistic.
Virgil knows Molinari and suggests to him that Dr. Sweetscent be a member of his staff at a meeting at Wash-35. Eric, whose wife is cheating on him, is offered the job but told it will be even more demanding of his time than Virgil was, since Molinari suffers from a seemingly never-ending list of maladies. Is he a hypochondriac, Sweetscent wonders, or, is he habitually sick and at death’s door because it makes for a good reason to temporarily escape or halt negotiations with the ‘Starmen and save people’s lives?
The ‘Starmen hook Kathy on a bizarre new drug that TF&D has developed to aid the war effort, JJ-180, by having one of her friends give her a capsule of it at a party. Besides being very addictive, and toxic, it alters a person’s perceptions of time, even taking its users literally and physically back in time. They get her addicted to recruit her to follow Eric with the excuse that she wants to reconcile then use her to influence Eric and Molinari. The last third of the book is really mind-blowing, exploring various alternate realities. Along with Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Now Wait for Last Year is one of my favorite P.K. Dick novels.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is another excellent tale exploring alternate realities and the nature of reality. It makes you wonder, as do many of Dick’s books, what is “real” and what is “not”. Is reality only the result of someone else’s attempts to, through drugs, alter everyone else’s lives to fulfill in some way their selfish desires? That’s what appears to be happening to famous actor and singer Jason Taverner. Overnight, he’s transformed from the most-known face on the planet into an unknown bum in a flea-bag motel room. He awakens there with no ID cards; if caught by the police without them, he is subject to being placed into a prison camp.
His first order of business is to obtain new forged ID cards. Being a genetically superior 6 with handsome features and loads of charisma, he figures that he can evade the police and eventually make it back to his own time and view of reality, though it may not be easy. Fortunately he has a wallet full of money to pay for the forgeries, and he gets a teenaged master forger, Miss Katherine Nelson, to make the cards he needs. They are beauties that could fool anyone, and they get him by one police checkpoint. Though Nelson works for the police, turning over and informing on many who come to her for forgeries, she takes an immediate liking to Taverner.
Police General Felix Buckman is the policeman of the title. An interesting character who seems to be sympathetic to the people he persecutes, he lives with Alys, who is his sister, his lover, and the mother of their son, who they have sent off to Florida to live. Alys is a drug addict, who deliberately tries to embarrass her brother/husband. She believes he is too straight-laced, not counting the kinky nature of their relationship.
To rebel against Buckman’s wishes, she decides to help Jason and drives him to their house. While there, she takes a drug and offers it to him, promising that with it she can return Taverner to his own time/reality. However, under the drug’s influence and wandering around the house, he comes upon her dead body. She looks as if she’s been dead and somehow mummified for years. Jason runs out of the house and tries to escape. Though he’s done nothing wrong and is not responsible for her death, he knows he’ll get blamed for it. While Buckman on some level regrets it, realizing that Alys ended her own life with drugs, he sets Taverner up for her murder, to cover up both their perverse relationship and that she took drugs. Given the situation Taverner finds himself in, can he ever make it back to his own time and reality?
I have not seen the movie adaptation of A Scanner Darkly to see how it compares to the book. This novel also deals with people’s visions of what the nature of reality is, and how certain drugs can change their perceptions of what is real and what is solely a product of their minds. It follows the lives of several roommates in a house owned by the main character, Bob Arctor, all addicts of a drug called Substance D. The “D” stands for Death; it’s highly addictive and will eventually destroy one’s brain and spirit, resulting in irreversible brain damage or, ultimately, death.
Bob Arctor has another persona, in the world of the straights in the novel. He’s one of his department’s top cops, in charge of investigating and arresting drug dealers. Known as Fred, he is intensely against drug users and pushers; as Bob Arctor, though, he takes them every day, both to fit in and be accepted and simply because he wants to. As Fred, he constantly wears a “scramble suit” that turns him into a sort of human chameleon, constantly shifting his appearance and voice. Everyone perceives him differently.
What job is he given by his superiors? To spy on Bob Arctor, whom they suspect is a major drug dealer, not knowing that he is also a cop. His love interest, Donna, is unbeknownst to him also a cop, and a drug dealer, who is trying to stop the pushing of the very drug she deals in - you guessed it: Substance D. She calls it mors ontological, the death of the spirit. She realizes it’s destroying Fred’s/Bob’s mind, and though she feels guilty as the one responsible for selling it to him, it’s a part of her job.
A Scanner Darkly’s title refers to a Biblical quote from Paul about how we now see as through a glass (or mirror) darkly but eventually will see everything more clearly, with Christ’s help. It is very funny at times, though also very sad. One of Dick’s better later novels, it is dedicated to many of the people he knew that, through having fun and trying to enjoy life, were disabled, made mentally ill, or died because of drugs, which Dick himself took in abundance.
P.K. Dick was, and remains, one of science fiction’s greatest writers, and this collection of his novels is one I highly recommend. It’s one that you’ll want to add to your libraries, whether it’s to read and enjoy them for the first time or to re-read old favorites in sci-fi’s pantheon of classics.