Dickian

• July 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, News & events, Other people's books

I’m taking part in several panels at the World SF Convention in London this August (details here).

Below are some preliminary thoughts for the panel on Philip K. Dick. (Through a Hollywood Adaptation, Darkly: Thursday, August 14th, 18:00 -19:00). The other panellists will be Christi Scarborough, Grania Davis and Malcolm Edwards, and the blurb for the panel is as follows:

Thanks largely to the ever-increasing number of film adaptations of his work, Philip K Dick is one of the small number of genre authors whose names have been commoditised: “Dickian” is now a shorthand for paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities, or even for the condition of twenty-first century life in general. But to what extent is this cliché precis an accurate reflection of the breadth of Dick’s work? What other themes and preoccupations can we see in his novels and stories? How far does his influence on modern SF really extend — and what rewards does his work offer to new readers today?

No one could deny that paranoia, shifting realities and unstable identities are major themes in Dick’s work, and Dick is indeed sometimes hailed as a kind of uniquely prophetic voice on ‘the condition of twenty-first century life’, a post-modernist ahead of his time. But yes, this is a cliché precis. Not only is there a lot more to Philip Dick than it suggests, but, even as a summary, it is somewhat misleading.

First of all, while Dick’s shifting realities may seem post-modern, Dick wasn’t really a post-modernist at all. Post-modernists emphasise plurality and flux: there isn’t one reality, but many different realities. Dick’s work may superficially seem to conform to this view of the world, but in fact what he depicts again and again are people dealing, not with many different equally valid realities, but rather with falsehoods and illusions which seem real, but are actually fake. Dick’s characters are always searching for authenticity, for reality in the singular. They may never find it, they may fear that it can’t be found, but they never stop looking for it. This isn’t post-modern, it’s positively pre-modern, and the more so in Dick’s later works where he is increasingly drawn to Christian theology, albeit in a particularly dark, scary and Dickian form. (No one ever describes as Dickian the belief that the world is a battleground between the followers of Christ and the servants of darkness – it doesn’t chime so well with a vision of Dick as edgy, contemporary, prescient – but it’s very much part of the vision of his later work.)

Secondly, I think the conventional precis of Dick’s work overemphasises the extent to which his work can be read as a social commentary. I would argue on the one hand that his work operates much more at the psychological level (as opposed to the sociological one), and, on the other, that he is at least as preoccupied with things that he sees as timeless, as he is with the condition of society at a particular point in history. (One of the appeals of writing SF, it’s always seemed to me, is that it does allow one to step outside the parochial concerns of the present moment.)  Of course Dick’s work reflects the time it was written in – a time which was simultaneously one of great optimism and one of terrible darkness and violence – but the two deepest roots of his writing, it seems to me, extend outwards on either side of the ‘social’. On one side, many of his preoccupations are very personal ones: for instance the figure of the dead female twin, which appears again and again in his work (Valis, Flow my Tears, Dr Bloodmoney…) comes directly from Dick’s own biography: his own twin sister Jane died in infancy. On the other side it is metaphysical, concerned with the place of the human soul in the universe (which is where Dick’s quirky version of Christian theology comes in). His greatness lies in the way he linked up the personal with the universal.

Here are some recurring themes I’ve noticed in Dick’s work:

A sense of loss.

This, I imagine, had very personal origins for Dick. Parents grieving a dead child are not best placed to welcome a baby into the world, and I would guess his life felt very lonely indeed from the start. (Look at the dark, lonely and guilt-ridden childhood depicted in the brilliant short story ‘I Hope I shall Arrive Soon.’) Dick’s experience wasn’t unique though. A feeling of loss, of absence, of insufficiency, is part of the human condition. Hence the Biblical legend of the Fall.  Valis is a particularly terrifying vision of a fallen world, a world in the sway of darkness, but the same vision is to be found in Flow my Tears and Palmer Eldritch among many others. And the figure of the dead twin sister (elevated in Valis to a dead female demiurge), which so clearly comes from Dick’s own biography, is turned into a powerful metaphor for the feeling of loss and absence which we all know.

Even those famous ‘shifting realities’ are also in a way representations of loss. That’s what loss is like. We think something is real and then it is snatched away from us. Ragle Gumm in Time out of Joint (surely the prototype for the film The Truman Show?) imagines the world he’s in is real, but it turns out to be a crude set of stage props, Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream finds what seems to be a real animal, and then finds the tell-tale battery compartment.

In the story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’, we find another take on ‘shifting realities’ and their relationship to loss. The main character Victor Kemmings is starting out on a ten year journey to another planet, during which he is supposed to be in a state of cryogenic suspension. Something has gone wrong. He is still conscious and faces the prospect of spending the next ten years lying all alone in a kind of coffin. Realising that he will go completely mad, the intelligent spaceship tries to ease the situation by feeding him his own memories, but Kemmings’ past is so painful to him that this only makes things worse. Finally the ship hits on the idea of feeding him, over and over, the illusion of arrival. Again and again, Kemmings reaches his destination and disembarks, only for the illusion to unravel and the ship have to run it all over again. It keeps Kemmings sane for ten years, but at a cost. When he really does arrive, he still can’t believe it’s real.

If we have to retreat into illusion to keep ourselves sane, the story suggests, the price we will pay in the long run is that nothing will ever seem quite real. This is very much a psychological explanation for those famous paranoid scenarios – and one consistent with the work of object relations psychologists such as Bowlbly, Klein or Winnicott – as opposed to a sociological, political or cultural one.

The cherished possession

Another figure I have noticed many times in Dick’s work is what I call ‘the cherished possession’. This is some treasured object which has huge significance for the character. In Do Androids Dream, for instance, Deckard longs to possess a real animal. He keeps an electric sheep as an affordable substitute, but what his heart is set on is a real one, and he spends a lot of time hanging around outside pet shops and thumbing through his catalogue.  In High Castle, Mr Tagomi possesses a jewel which somehow exists of itself, and not simply as a human projection. In Flow my Tears both the powerful policeman Felix Buckman and his sister-lover Alys are assiduous collectors of objects of many kinds and Buckman secures his sister’s co-operation at one point by making a present to her of a particularly fine postage stamp for her to ‘put it away in your album in your safe forever’. In the short story, ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’ (about which I once wrote an MA dissertation: hence my particular emphasis!), the cherished object is a poster of ‘Fat Freddy’ from the Furry Freak Brothers comics called ‘Speed Kills’, signed by the artist Don Shelton. (Both the poster and the artist are real, incidentally. The poster in question is below.)

FatFreddyPostCardSpeedKills

These cherished possessions are, of course, subject to the same anxious doubts as other aspects of Dick’s world. Supposedly real animals may turn out to be electric ones, a supposedly authentic object may turn out to be a fake. In High Castle there is a debate about the authenticity of a cigarette lighter alleged to have belonged to Franklin Roosevelt. Yes, there are letters of authenticity, but how do we know that they themselves aren’t fake? Exactly the same debate takes place about the Gilbert Shelton poster in ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.’

Hope

One other thing that isn’t so often commented on in Dick’s work is that, however dark the scenario, however terrifying the forces against which they are pitted, the characters themselves are never completely devoid of good humour or hope. ‘I mean, after all,’ says the indefatigable Leo Bulero in Palmer Eldritch, ‘you have to consider we’re only made out of dust… But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it.’

In the poisoned Earth of Do Androids Dream millions of people subscribe to the stoical religion of Mercerism, using devices known as ‘empathy boxes’ to connect themselves to the vision of their prophet, Wilbur Mercer, as he struggles eternally up the slopes of a bare mountain in spite of rocks and stones that are constantly being cast at him. At a certain point in the novel a TV programme exposes this central scene of Mercerism to be a forgery, faked up in a film studio with an actor playing Mercer against a crude painted backdrop (close examination reveals the actual brush-strokes).  And yet somehow in spite of this the truth of Mercerism – its utility in enabling people to engage with one another and with their harsh existence – remains undimmed while those who exposed the artifice turn out to be artefacts themselves.  (They are androids, famously distinguishable from human beings by their inability to experience empathy).

In suggesting that it is the would-be debunkers, not the Mercerists, who are missing the point, Dick cuts through all the paranoid doubts about reality and authenticity which are such a constant theme of his work, and challenges his own definition of reality (in Valis) as ‘that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away’. If we are to have a shared reality with other people then this has to be able to include things that are sustained only by belief. After all empathy itself depends on our belief in something that can never actually be proven to be true: that other creatures have feelings which are in some way equivalent to our own.

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Thought for the day

• February 23rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

It’s pretty depressing to learn that an Arizona state law has just made it legal for shopowners to refuse to serve gay customers, in the event that serving gay people is contrary to their religious beliefs.

It would actually make more sense if they refused to serve rich people, since the founder of their religion – I’m assuming that in Arizona the religion in question is Christianity! – spoke specifically of the difficulty of rich people entering the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24), but said nothing whatever about homosexuality.

No, to find biblical injunctions against homosexuality you have to trawl through the murky and Talibanesque depths of the Old Testament, which also prescribes (for instance) that if a man  sells his daughter as a slave she is not to go free after six years as male slaves do (Exodous 21: 7),  or that if a woman lies about her virginity, she should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:21).

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Voices from Eden

• February 16th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights, My favourite posts

There is already a British audio book version of Dark Eden (read by Oliver Hembrough and Jessica Martin), but I’m very much looking forward to hearing the new US audio book from Random House Audio which is still under development.   This will involve 8 actors, so that the book’s various narrators can all have different voices, but what is particularly intriguing about it is that the producer Janet Stark  and her cast of actors are attempting to develop a whole new Eden accent for the recording.

What will this sound like?   Everyone in Eden is descended from just two people – a white man from Brooklyn, New York, and a black woman from Peckham in South London – so one thing that we can be sure of is that the accent will bear traces of both those different sources.  During the early years too, the entire human population of Eden consisted of a single family – mum, dad, kids – and some of the characteristics of Eden English derive from that fact.   Parents with little kids tend to simplify their speech, even when speaking to one another, and this effect would be even more pronounced in the absence of other adults (or the written word) to pull the speech of family members back in the direction of adult norms. This is the source of the use of double adjectives for emphasis – something that little children often do – and the tendency to drop direct articles, but it will have had an effect too on pronunciation and on the rhythms of Eden speech.

But all that is only part of the story.  The accent of Eden would not just be a blend of its two sources.  People play with language, change it like clothes. They get bored with saying things one way, and try another.  New things appear and become cool, others fade out of use.  Who could have predicted the trend towards a rising inflection at the end of a sentence in spoken English here on Earth, or the more recent fashion of beginning sentences with the word ‘So’?  The people of Eden have lived in isolation for 160 years.  Less than 160 years after white settlers first arrived in Australia, Australian English had developed its own distinct and instantly recognisable accent, and that was in spite of continuing contact with the mother country, and continuing large scale migration (even today more than 10% of Australians were born in the UK).

I think the spoken language of Eden would be slow.   Both the source accents are fast, clipped and urban, but Eden folk are as rustic as it is possible to be, and rustic people tend to speak slowly (think Somerset, Queensland or Alabama).   I think too that it would be more musical, more singsong. These are people with no TV, no books, no video games, no movies.  The repetition of oral traditions is much more important to them than it is to us.  I think they would savour language and linger over it in a way that we don’t.

As to those double adjectives which everyone notices (and some people hate!), I hear them with the first adjective emphasised and drawn out, with a slight fall at the end towards the lower, shorter repetition:  B-I-I-I-G big.

But then again, sometimes Eden folk do it the other way round.  They just feel like it.  That’s what humans are like.

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The blog tour continued

• February 12th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

Following on from my post in this series, Tony Ballantyne and Una McCormack were the next links in the chain.  Links to their posts are below.  There are lots of things they say that apply equally well to me.  (I guess you expect that with friends!)

Here’s Una’s post.  ‘…What the trappings of science fiction allow me to do,’ she writes, ‘is move from the particularities of specific real-world situations in order to think abstractly about… well, everything really…’    Exactly so!

And here’s Tony’s.  ‘…I get ideas all the time,’ he writes, ‘and I write them down to be used later, but every so often one idea collides with another and I suddenly get really excited and I just have to begin writing.’   Precisely, and without that collision, there’s no storyIt’s the lightning bolt that brings it to life.

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The Emperor’s Last Laugh

• February 2nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

Because of my new-found interest in drawing, my wife gave me a book recently called A Short Book about Drawing, by Andrew Marr, the TV journalist, who turns out to be a pretty good drawer.  It’s a charming book, and much of it is simply about the pleasure to be obtained from the act of drawing itself, but at one point Marr speaks with some regret about the influence of Marcel Duchamp on our conception of art, and about all that has since emerged ‘like a vast glittery spout of magma from Duchamp’s urinal.’

He’s referring to the urinal which, in 1917, Duchamp signed with the name ‘R.Mutt’ and decreed to be a work of art called ‘Fountain’.   A work of art from then on wasn’t necessarily a painting or a sculpture.  It didn’t even have to be something that the artist had made.  It could be anything that an artist chose to designate as such.  Indeed, from what I’ve read, Duchamp deliberately chose objects for this purpose which had no meaning or significance to him at all.  What a strange, violent, mocking thing to do!  It’s as if I were to reprint a telephone directory, call it ‘Contact’ and declare it to be my next novel – and people accepted it as such, and actually made themselves read it as if it meant something!

If anything can be a work of art if an artist says it is (even an object that means nothing even to the artist!) this raises the question of who gets to be an artist.  Who gets this strange fetishistic power?  In the past artists would have been identifiable to most people, at least to some extent, by the skill evident in their work.   Some artists were doubtless much better than others at acquiring wealthy patrons, but some degree of skill in the creation of images would have been a necessary prerequisite also.  Now this was no longer the case.   An artist could be created by patronage alone.   With beauty and meaning set aside, the wealthy could create artists out of whomever they chose, and those artists could then return the favour by taking trivial objects and turning them, for the wealthy, into a kind of gold.

The emperor gets the last laugh, after all.  Who cares if the clothes are real or not, as long as they can be bought and sold?

Duchamp Fountain

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Drawing

• January 18th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

I’ve started going to drawing classes, one of my better ideas.  Drawing turns out to be a wonderfully engrossing and calming activity.

I particular enjoy drawing electric-lit scenes in charcoal, a medium that allows you to create a sense of luminousness by covering the paper in layers of grey and then removing it in patches with a putty rubber to create areas of brightness.

This is one of my better efforts so far: a glass ball in front of a lamp.

Lamp drawing compressed

I’m hoping that in due course I might be able to use this sort of technique to draw some of the creatures and trees of Eden, lit by their own luminosity or the luminosity of other organisms nearby.  That’s going to be a while though, because it is hard enough drawing what is actually in front of me.

In fact the exact thing that’s hard about this kind of drawing is that you must draw what’s in front of you, and forget what’s in your head.    The only way I could do the glass ball in the picture above (and, let’s be honest, I’m pretty damn pleased with it) is by stopping thinking about it as a glass ball and just noticing the various different shades of light and darkness and the shapes they made.

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Happiness

• January 18th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

I was reading a book in a warm conservatory when a splash of water fell on me.  I looked up, thinking the roof was leaking and that I might need to move.   But the water had come from a drop of condensation that was rolling down the underside of the glass roof, collecting more moisture as it went along.  It had become too heavy for its own surface tension to be able to hold it up against the pull of gravity.

It dripped a second time and a third, and then equilibrium was restored.  The droplet was no longer too heavy to hold itself up, and it carried on down the roof, leaving behind it a kind of snail trail as it passed through steamed up patches.  There were a whole lot of these snail trails up there, descending the roof at various angles, and each one was lined with a series of small static droplets like glass beads, which the larger rolling droplets seemed to leave behind themselves at more or less regular intervals.

I spent some time looking up at this little system powered by heat and gravity, lazily mulling over the physics of it all, when I noticed that, beyond the glass, a series of ragged clouds were passing rapidly across the blue sky above me, one after another.

I suddenly felt entirely at peace.

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Gravity

• December 20th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Story-telling

Film Review GravityI see so many films and read so many books that don’t really touch me and leave no lasting trace at all, but this film really got into me.  For a long time afterwards, I kept coming back to it, turning it over in my mind.  (There’s a clip here if you didn’t see it.)

It’s a pretty rare thing, actually: a satisfying work of art.

But what was so good about it?   The effects of course are wonderful, and space is of course the obvious subject matter for a 3D film, but the plot is almost laughably simple, and, in spite of the realism of those effects, it does require you to accept some fairly chunky implausibilities.   So what made this film so special?

I think the secret lay in what in itself was a very simple and commonplace story-telling move.  Quite early on it’s established the main, and soon to be sole, protagonist, played by Sandra Bullock, has suffered a devastating loss: her own child, dead at the age of four in a freak playground accident.   This isn’t laboured particularly, but the events of the movie provide such a perfect parallel with that experience that it doesn’t have to be.  A shower of debris that no one could have expected suddenly arrives, and the space shuttle which up to now has been an island of air and warmth becomes as empty and barren as the void outside.  The only hope lies in abandoning it altogether and venturing out across the emptiness.

3D movies achieve the illusion of depth by presenting the same scene from two slightly different angles, and story-telling works like that as well.   You need more than one angle if the thing is to come alive.   Here, the story in front of us and its amazing imagery combine with the story of the woman’s past to create a really wonderful meditation on the precariousness of existence.

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Glorified

• November 29th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights, My favourite posts

When I did an interview recently for the Pakistani station CityFM89 I got to pick 15 songs to be played on the programme.  A real treat, and an honour.  But I wasn’t allowed to pick any classical music, which meant leaving out some of my favourite pieces.

Here is one of them, the opening chorus of Bach’s St John Passion: ‘Herr unser Herrscher.’  Insofar as it is possible to have a single favourite piece of music, this is probably it.  There is so much going on here: immense energy (feel the tension, the exhilaration!), incredibly intricate architecture that is structurally perfect and yet fluid, working through time as well as space…  But running through it all is that wonderful quality of serenity, assurance, optimism that (for me) epitomises the Baroque era, back in the Age of Enlightenment, when the world was brutal and cruel, but so many many possibilities were opening up.  Will there ever be another time like it?

The words in German are:

Herr, unser Herrscher,
dessen Ruhm
in allen Landen herrlich ist!
zeig uns durch deine Passion,
daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
zu aller Zeit,
auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
verherrlicht worden bist!

In English this is something like:

Lord, our ruler,
whose praise
is glorious in all lands,
show us by your Passion
that You, the true Son of God,
at all times,
even in the lowest state,
have been glorified.

You don’t have to agree with the theology to recognise that the music embodies the idea expressed in those final words.   Even in the lowest state, it glorifies.

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Rings and mead halls

• October 24th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts, Other people's books

I enjoyed hearing the late Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf on the radio the other week.  There’s something wonderfully taut and muscular about the language of this epic poem.

One phrase stuck in my mind.  A good king is described as a ‘ring giver’.   As to where the rings come from the authors of Beowulf are completely unabashed.  A good king wrecks the mead halls of other kings and extracts tribute from their people.

Nothing very much has changed.  Political leaders are still judged by whether or not they have made us better off, and, though we’re a lot more squeamish  these days about where wealth comes from, it still has to come from somewhere.  As a character observes in Ann Leckie’s excellent novel Ancillary Justice, ‘luxury always comes at someone else’s expense.   One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish.’

Other people’s mead halls are still being wrecked to provide rings for the supporters of the powerful, but recent news items remind me that there are always additional options: stealing from the poor, stealing from previous generations (which is what is really happening when publicly owned resources are sold off at prices far below their real value) and of course stealing from our descendants, which is what is being done when efforts at mitigating climate change are dismissed as being too costly.

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