July 25th, 2014
I recently finished reading The Library of America’s collection of four of Philip K. Dick’s novels from the 60s: The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which was later adapted to make the film Blade Runner) and Ubik. It’s been many years since I last read P.K. Dick, & I slipped back into his prescient, idea-crammed, black-humored & metaphysical prose with much, much delight & warm sense of homecoming. It was all there just as I’d left it, all those hallmark Dickian elements: Breakneck chapters bursting with remarkably imaginative visions of earths to come. A proper amount of mundane (as described, not relative to our experience) day-to-day detail that helps stabilize those imagined future earths and render them believable. Characters who are all a bit too hysterical & over-emoted, but whose very ‘loudness’ emotionally helps ground the narrative when the metaphysical & ontological conundrums that arise become a challenge to untie. A fascination with the idea of spirit-fusion to create intersubjective unity; a fascination with the theme of the real/authentic vs. the facsimile. Dystopia and how humankind adjusts to cataclysm. A zest for depicting how marketing and commodification affect what we know to be intangibly human (memory, a felt sense of spiritual oneness, various emotional responses) & thereby render these things purchasable, customizable products. A recurring focus on telepathy, predictive talents & general psionic powers. And most importantly, a passion for the classical philosophical (and science fiction) questions of the nature of underlying objective “reality” (to the extent we can say it exists) vs. all the ways that objective reality can be mimicked: drug trips, subjective simulations, memory, technological constructs, dissociative/mystical experiences, etc.
With so many ideas and themes bubbling through Dick’s prose, boiling up from the author’s imaginative flame, and with the author’s palpable haste to get everything out as fast as he can, it’s a testament to Dick’s skills as an author that we pass through his ontological pyrotechnic and are only momentarily blinded. This is thanks to many things: his relatively straightforward prose style (particularly his diction, descriptors, sentence structure, cadence, rhythm), his bluntly drawn characters, his commitment to immersing you immediately into his futures with little to no preamble or backstory (which serves to immediately engage the reader in helping him or her puzzle out the setting, which in turn drives earned connection to the narrative).
In this regard, he’s the opposite of the kind of science fiction author who feels she has to explain by way of physics and chemistry every device, object, technology or element of her future before she can get to the actual story: people, feelings, conflicts, crisis, resolution. We’re able to therefore take Dick’s future-physics, future-tech & the whole of his narrative context on faith and experience him more importantly not as a mere exacting nebbish gearhead of worlds to come, but as the maximalist writer, spiritualist & prophet that he was.
Speaking of prophesy, re-exploring Dick’s fiction made me think about dystopic science fiction in this light. There’s a tendency to marginalize our modern science fiction authors as whimsical lightweight talents with a penchant for rocket ships, supernovas, aliens and circuitry; greasy kids’ stuff. This is unfortunate, as many of our finest modern science fiction authors, our Huxleys & Bradburys, our Ballards and Dicks and Lems and Butlers, offer something more than just far-reaching what-if? talespinning (nothing wrong with that mind you) — they’re prophets too. Think of the God of the Old Testament speaking through Ezekiel to judge Israel, judge its neighbors, and deliver final messages of hope, all in powerful, often visionary language. In a similar way, that’s what many of our modern science fiction authors do. These inspired minds offer their stark warnings & implicit judgments of how we’re living our lives in scores of books and stories, loudly addressing post-industrial, tech-age humanity in no uncertain terms: be careful with how you are using science to forever alter creation. Be careful with the pacts you make, there may be no turning back. Do not lose your souls.
We need prophets like P.K. Dick more than ever, to brilliantly, wittily peer into the near or far future, extrapolating from our modern abuses and excesses to make us face dystopias to come.
(Various Google Image Search Results for “Man in the High Castle”)
Now, back to the four P.K. Dick novels — let’s start with The Man in the High Castle. This is the first of the novels in the Library of America collection, and since I read the collection in chronological order, it’s the one that’s dimmest in my memory. Just a disclaimer. High Castle, written earlier than the rest of the collection (published in ’62), was the weakest of the bunch, and bears the least similarity to the hallmark works that distinguish Dick’s career (though it’s not weak *because* it’s an anomaly in Dick’s canon, mind you). It’s not about the future, it’s not a dystopia, there are no androids, no interstellar trips to off-terra colonies, no mind-warping drugs. Rather, High Castle is set in an alternate earth, post-WWII, one in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have won and co-control/defile (in the case of the Nazis) the globe. The premise is great, but the characters — and there are many, with their individual stories commingling– are often flat and caricaturish. Juliana, the ill-fated judoka, has a meltdown that rings false; the Nazi spy/assassin posing as an Italian truck driver is much too much with his perpetual smolder, and a lot of the dialogue feels inauthentic (especially the internalized, kind of goofy Japanesque English that you read in certain characters’ minds). Unfortunately, shaky dialogue is a flaw of all Dick’s novels; in his haste to advance plot and explore his themes and ideas, he sometimes renders his characters as badly acted props.
These are serious flaws, but the novel’s virtues are considerable, and make this a book worth reading — & not just for P.K. Dick fans, or fans of science-fiction/speculative fiction/alternate histories, but for anyone who might enjoy an intricately-plotted story of several seemingly-disconnected (but eventually intersecting) lives (a common device in modern fiction, overdone in my opinion, but I wonder how common it was in Dick’s day?). For instance, I love the sub-plots involving the San Francisco-based Americana antiques dealer Childan, a self-important ass, grovel & kiss-up to the ruling Japanese class which occupies the western United States. I found the suspense unbearable when a timid jewelry-maker tried hard to sell his strange, non-traditional (but innovative, contemporary) ware to a hardened, chiseling Childan, who ends up duping the sad-sack salesman into dropping it off on consignment. Or how about Childan’s uncomfortable encounters with a Japanese couple in their home, where his provinciality and anti-semitism come to light, causing his hosts quiet disappointment and sadness. Finally, I found particularly powerful his moment of change/conversion near the end of the novel when he deliberates on whether to mass-produce the innovative jewelry he’s taken on consignment. Realizing the jewelry he has in his possession could be highly desirable to the Japanese market, he wavers between selling out and keeping the work to himself, finally opting for the latter. You can feel the character begin to re-establishing his self-worth, and it’s a powerful moment in the novel. It’s an authentic moment of character maturation that comes as quite a surprise, and hits all the harder because of its seeming abruptness (there were actually seeds planted earlier in the novel; it’s as if the more Childan experienced his own pettiness and small-mindedness, the more he grew his potential to change).
I also felt powerfully Mr. Tagomi’s dissociative breakdown in the park: holding the silver jewelry he had purchased from Childan, willing it to give him answers or guidance, asking the children if there are cabs nearby. It’s among the most powerful Dick passages I’ve read. He captures the moment of approaching psychosis with breathtaking verisimilitude — indeed, I found the passage almost too much to take. Everything fed into Tagomi’s crisis: his brush with Nazi abomination, learning of the atrocities they’ve committed, his loss of faith in humanity, in his own future, his crisis in having killed Nazis — but humans nonetheless — in the defense of his superior, all of it. I believed every bit of his near-suicidal fugue state. It’s all the more affecting given Tagomi’s character depicted thus far: clipped, kindly, very methodical and rational, very composed.
Probably the most intriguing element of this novel for me is its use of the I Ching as a plot device. In the novel, one of the consequences of a victorious Imperial Japan is the adoption by the U.S. populace of the I Ching as a divination tool. Multiple characters throughout the novel throw the I Ching at key moments, using it to advance the plot of their own lives, to justify actions already taken, to help shape their moods or perhaps (and this is probably unconscious) adjust them to what the I Ching is suggesting, to feel a firm, astral guiding hand during times of stress and obscurity of purpose. In this way the I Ching becomes a character in its own right, exerting influence, being addressed, & making its utterances during the span of the novel. And, what’s more, in a classic Dickian move, we learn that the Man in the High Castle himself — one Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a work of very popular (and banned) fiction that depicts Germany & Japan having lost the war — we learn that he, too consults the I Ching, having used it every step of the way when composing his much loved alternate history novel. Every plot change or development grew out of these consultations. Want more meta? You got it: Dick himself consulted the I Ching during the process of writing The Man in the High Castle. Typical layered, nested realities in a Dickian narrative.
But it’s the ending that really got me. Juliana, a massive fan of Abendsen’s book, shows up shaky & determined at the author’s Colorado home, this after having murdered the Nazi double-agent sent to kill him. She walks right into a smallish evening party the author has thrown, confusing everyone, single-minded in her mission to query Abendsen, understand his method, & figure out who the man is behind this remarkable novel. What she discovers, in a breathless sequence of questioning, is that Abendsen has consulted the I Ching at every step of his novel, effectively rendering the tome the author, or at least some proportion of co-author. At this point, in the presence of the whole gathering, including an emotional, anxious Abendsen, she consults the I Ching to answer two all-important questions: “Why did you write this book?” & “What is it we’re supposed to learn?”
The divination is clear: the I Ching wrote this novel because it is true. Because Germany and Japan lost the war. The novel ends shortly after.
What can this possibly mean? There are several possibilities, roughly arranged in order from least to most plausible:
1) Every human in the novel’s earth suffers from some powerful form of mass delusion, and in fact, all along, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy has served as a document recording the underlying reality (US/UK victorious);
2) The I Ching is correctly observing that Germany and Japan lost the war — but not in The Man in the High Castle‘s reality, but in an alternate reality in the multiverse (unlikely; wouldn’t explain the powerful impact this has on Abendsen & Juliana);
3) When the I Ching says Germany and Japan lost the war, by “lost” it means they are about to lose imminently, thanks to the efforts of Baynes, a German double-agent posing as a Swedish merchant, who successfully connects with Imperial Japanese general General Tedeki in order to warn him of an impending German attack on Japanese territory. This can’t help but bring about impending political collision and conflict;
4) The I Ching, directly upon issuing its answer to Juliana, has effectively altered the reality in which the novel takes place, retroactively speaking as well, almost as if it was attempting, through Abendsen, to all along overturn the course of history and set the globe on a different, improved path (the assumption being any reality where the Nazis aren’t in power is an improved reality). In this sense the I Ching is a kind of moral agent actively intervening with the course of human history;
Now, based on the reactions of the gathering, especially Abendsen, who seems to view Juliana as some kind of rogue disturbing force who just crashed their party, I would choose #1 — the kind of information that is most likely to provoke shame, rage, and whatever other clear discomforts Abendsen suffers during her visit & divination.
But given the fact that I can’t always trust Dick’s emotional signifiers, and that he is prone to writing over-emoted characters, my gut goes with 3) — else why go to such effort to set up the Baynes’ efforts? This effectively ties up the plot and gives a foretaste of Baynes’ success. Thus the Swede-Tedeki-Tagami subplot’s close coincides with the reader learning, through Juliana’s divination, that the ramifications will be global and positive (again, if we agree that no WWII outcome where Nazi Germany wins is positive).
Those who’ve read this novel: what do you think?
In Part two I’ll continue writing about the other novels in the anthology. Next up: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
For a great online community made up of fans of Dick, click here.
For Part one of a NY Times article on Dick, click here.