Dickian

• July 10th, 2014 • Posted in All 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.

Comments

My Loncon schedule

• July 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

LONCON3_logo_270w

I’ll be taking part in several panels at the World SF Convention in London in August (Loncon 3), and my schedule is below.

  • Not with a Bang, but with a Metaphor: Panel, Thursday (14th August) 12:00 – 13:30 Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

Blurb: From Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, apocalyptic and dystopian futures are a perennial favourite with writers who might be labelled ‘mainstream’ or ‘literary’. Why do such scenarios have an appeal that goes beyond a genre readership? What does a non-genre apocalypse have to offer that a science fictional one might not, and vice versa? Do we all share broadly similar nightmares, regardless of what ratio of science to sensibility we prefer?

Other panellists: Jacob Weisman, David Hebblethwaite, Paul Weimer, Noa Menhaim.

(A few thoughts about apocalyptic stories and their appeal here.)

  •  Through a Hollywood Adaptation, Darkly: Panel, Thursday (14th August) 18:00 – 19:00. Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)

Blurb: 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 commodotised: “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?

Other panellists: Christi Scarborough, Grania Davis, Malcolm Edwards.

(Some thoughts of mine on this topic here.)

  • Autographing 3 – Chris Beckett.  Friday 12:00 – 13:30, Autographing Space (ExCeL)
  • Kaffeeklatsch.  Friday 14:00 – 15:00, London Suite 4 (ExCeL).  With Kim Stanley Robinson.
  • Launch oaaa marcher coverf Marcher.   Friday 16.30-17.30.  Launch of the new and revised edition of my 2nd novel Marcher, from Newcon Press, along with Nina Allan’s new novel The Race.
  •  The Canon is Dead. What Now? Panel, Saturday (August 16th) 19:00 – 20:00. Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

Blurb: On the one hand, initiatives like the SF Gateway are helping to ensure the SF backlist remains accessible to today’s readers, and an increasing number of “classic” SF writers are receiving the establishment seal of approval in series like the Library of America (Philip K. Dick) and the Everyman Library (Isaac Asimov). On the other hand, the SF readership is increasingly diverse, with fewer readers who have come to the field via those “classics”, and many who find little of value in them in any case. In other words the traditional SF canon is no longer tenable — but the history is still out there. So what alternative models and narratives should we be using to understand the field’s past? Should we be working to expand the canon, or to describe multiple overlapping histories — or something else?

Other panellists: Kate Nepveu, Connie Willis, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Joe Monti

  • Interzone and Beyond: British SF magazines of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s: Panel, Sunday (August 17th) 15:00 – 16:30.  Capital Suite 3 (ExCeL)

Blurb: Interzone has been a stalwart of the British genre scene since it first launched in 1982, publishing early stories by Charlie Stross and Stephen Baxter, as well as authors from outside Britain like Aliette de Bodard and Eugie Foster. But the past thirty years have seen a number of genre magazines launched in the UK, including Postscripts, Black Static, Infinity Plus, and The Third Alternative. How have they influenced the British genre scene? How did they find their own niches in the UK SF market, and which careers have been launched in their pages? And what is the importance of British SF magazines in an increasingly global and online market?

Other panellists: Wendy Bradley, Malcolm Edwards, David Pringle, Gareth L. Powell.

Comments

The new Marcher

• June 4th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

aaa marcher coverI just received a copy of the new Marcher today from Ian Whates at NewCon press.   It’s always a lovely feeling, that first time you put your hands on the actual physical book.  And I love the cover image by Ben Baldwin, loosely based on the famous painting by Magritte: ‘Not to be reproduced’.

The book won’t be available for sale until the August launch at Loncon.

Comments

Sferakon 2014

• April 30th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

I’m looking forward to Sferakon 2014 in Zagreb, Croatia, which takes place from 16th to 18th May. I’ve been invited as a guest of honour.  Which is an honour.  Hvala lijepa!

Comments

Dort.con

• April 17th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

Ich freue mich sagen zu können dass ich am DORT.con 2015 als internationaler Ehrengast teilnehmen werde. Weitere Details hier.

*   *   *

Easter 2014 not yet here and I’ve got something in my diary for Easter 2015!   I’m proud to be a guest of honour at Dort-con (Dortmunder Science Fiction Convention) in Germany.  If you can read German, more details are here.   I’m looking forward to it.

Currently the only book of mine available in German is Messias Maschine.  I wrote a few notes for  German readers here, kindly translated by my friend Thure Etzold.

Comments

US release of Dark Eden

• April 2nd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

DARK_EDEN

Dark Eden came out in the US and Canada yesterday!!    Random House have sent me a bunch of N American blog reviews that have appeared so far, and I’ll post the links here.  Haven’t read them all but the ones I have read are pretty good.

o   http://pili-inlovewithhandmade.blogspot.com/2014/03/mark-this-book-monday-arc-review-of_7244.html

o   http://books-forlife.blogspot.com/2014/04/dark-eden-chris-beckett.html

o   http://shetreadssoftly.blogspot.com/2014/03/dark-eden.html

o   http://www.fridaynirvana.com/fiction/2014/04/book-review-dark-eden-by-chris-beckett.html

o   http://www.fromlefttowrite.com/tag/feed-your-reader/

o   http://www.sfx.co.uk/2014/03/24/coming-up-in-the-sfx-book-club/

o   http://www.giantfreakinrobot.com/scifi/giant-freakin-bookshelf-week-march-31-2014.html

o   http://www.myfriendsarefiction.com/my-to-read-list-for-march

o   http://anateasbookshelf.blogspot.com/2014/04/out-today-4114.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FNjvri+(Anatea%27s+Bookshelf)

o   http://thatvoice.net/blog/

o   http://carolsnotebook.com/2014/03/31/mailbox-monday-68/

Comments

Panel at Cambridge Science Festival

• February 27th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

I’ll be part of a panel discussion – “Science as the spark: literature inspired by science” -  on Thursday 20th March, 7 – 8.30, at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.   This will be part of the Cambridge Science Festival.  The panel includes Dave Clements, Laura Dietz, and Kelley Swain and will be chaired by Dr. John Holmes, Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science.  See you there!

Comments

Publication plans 2014

• January 21st, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

I’ve got three new publishing events coming up in 2014.

First of all, there’s the US publication of Dark Eden in April.   There will also be a new US audio book version, which I’m really looking forward to hearing: it will have a large cast of actors and a lot of trouble is being taken with the Eden dialect.

DARK_EDEN

US edition of Dark Eden from Broadway Books

Second, there’s the revised version of Marcher, to be published in the summer by Newcon Press.  Marcher is my second novel (the first was The Holy Machine, which was reissued last month by Corvus with a new cover).  It includes some of my very best writing – I have met people who consider it the best of my three novels to date – but the original edition, published by Cosmos, was flawed on a number of levels (ranging from sloppy editting on my part to a lack of proofreading on the part of the publishers).   I’ve revised it extensively and I’m keen to get it out there in its new and improved form.  The cover image below, by Ben Baldwin, depicts the book’s main protagonist: a solitary immigration officer who is obsessed with boundaries and mirrors.

Marcher New Cover

The cover of the new revised Marcher

Thirdly, Mother of Eden, the sequel to Dark Eden, will also be coming out, some time in the the second half of the year.  This depicts an Eden a couple of centuries on from the events in Dark Eden,  where the two halves of the original family of Eden have become two distinct societies, with their own starkly different takes on the events described in the original book.  Mother of Eden cover

Comments

The Holy Machine: new cover

• December 6th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, Audible delights, News & events

New Holy Machine coverThe new edition of The Holy Machine is now available.   It’s the same book inside the cover, of course, but books are objects too, and this new version seems to me a pretty desirable thing.

The contents aren’t bad either:

“A triumph.” – Paul di Filippo, Asimov’s SF.

“…the sparse prose and acute social commentary of a latter-day Orwell…”  – Eric Brown, The Guardian.

“The most amazing book I have ever read…. Simply amazing. A must read for all human beings!”  – Rafael from Brooklyn: enthusiastic Amazon.com reviewer!

The Holy Machine is also available as an unabridged AUDIO BOOK, read by John Banks.

More about The Holy Machine here.

Comments

Dark Eden: N. American edition on its way

• November 22nd, 2013 • Posted in All posts, News & events

DARK_EDEN

I’ve just received the book proofs of the North American edition of Dark Eden, looking very smart with its eerie new cover image of the sunless forest of Eden.

And it’s now available for pre-order from Amazon.com and from Amazon Canada.  A new US audio book version is also under way.

Comments