Philip K. Dick

I came to Philip Dick’s work relatively late, but it has a big influence on me.  I would find it difficult to say  which is my favourite one of his books and stories, though at times I decide The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which many people seem to pick, and which I may write about some other time.  At other times I decide on Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, a wonderful book in which the most complex and sympathetic character is a police chief in a brutal police state, in an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, whose death is a turning point in the story  (one of countless references in Dick to a dead female twin: his own twin sister died in infancy).

I also particularly admire his short story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’  (I once wrote a 20,000 word dissertation on this one story, and I may at some point write more about it here.)

Although I started reading science fiction as a teenager in the seventies, I didn’t come upon Dick until some time later, and I found his work a revelation: I could use science fiction not just for sociological and political speculation, not just for ‘sense of wonder’, but to write about everything!

The first Dick book I read was  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I was blown away by the reckless, even careless, daring with which Dick flung together ideas, bothering not at all with technological plausibility, and combining  deep darkness with playful absurdity.  Dick can be very funny. The opening pages of Androids are some of the funniest writing I have read anywhere, and  who but Philip Dick would have a character (as in Ubik) engaging in an argument with his own sentient front door (he threatens to kick the door down, at which point the door threatens to sue him.)

Some people say Dick has good ideas but does not write well. I find this hard to understand.  His writing can sometimes be sloppy – many of these books were churned out at great speed – but I envy the precision and clarity of  his best prose, and at times it is really beautiful.  The following is from Androids. Isidore stands in his decaying apartment in a nearly empty building, in a decaying and depopulated world:

Silence.  It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill.  It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting.  It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived there.  From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling.  It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it – the silence – meant to supplant all things tangible.  Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive.  Alive!  He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait.  The silence of the world could not rein back its greed.  Not any longer.  Not when it had virtually won.

But above all what stands out about Dick’s work is that, however bizarre and ludicrous the worlds he creates, the characters within them are entirely human.   The author has inhabited them and looked out of their eyes (not always the case in science fiction writing, where characters are often very much seen from the outside, their characteristics added-on, rather than integral to their nature).   Dick’s characters’ dramas are real, however strange (or even silly) the worlds in which they take place, just as the drama in a well-acted play is real, even if the actors’ costumes are absurd and the stage set is only bits of painted plywood.

And of course, famously, the great theme of Philip Dick, is that the so-called real world is like that too: painted plywood concealing something else.  We don’t know where we are, or even who we are, but yet somehow we still really do exist.

Grave of Philip Dick and his sister Jane

 

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover imageWhat’s your favourite book?   It’s a meaningless question of course.  If you’ve read a lot of books, you can’t really have one favourite.  But if I’m asked the question I’ve been known to answer The Unconsoled. I first read this some 16 years ago when it first came out, having heard Ishiguro talking about it on the radio.   I have just re-read it to see if I still rated it as highly.  I did.  It’s a long book, but I could hardly bring myself to put it down.

I was drawn to the book in the first place when I heard Ishiguro say that he had decided to write the book using the narrative technique of human dreams.  In a dream, he explained, a person can go through a door in one town and emerge in a different town (saving the many pages of rationalisation and explanation you might need to get a person from one place to another in a realistic novel).   These jumps happen frequently in the novel, as do other dream-like devices, such as one  person doubling up as another, or of a person standing outside a building being able to see what is going on inside, or a person or thing from the past turning up in a completely different context without this causing anyone any surprise.  But the novel isn’t in any way ‘dreamy’.   The dream-technique is used for compression, not for random weirdness, the writing is in Ishiguro’s usual spare exact stiff-upper-lippy prose, the characters are precisely and poignantly drawn, and even though the situations are often bizarre, the human relationships are painfully real.

The story is about an eminent pianist, Ryder, arriving in an unnamed European town (the town is unnamed but the characters have German-sounding names: there is a definite debt to Kafka in this book, and in my opinion, if not a debt then a faint kinship with the work of another of my  favourite writers, Philip Dick).  The town expects great things of Ryder, and he is very taken with the idea of himself as a great and important man, but what unfolds (for I guess some 200,000 words) resembles  one of those anxiety dreams (I have them frequently) in which you are trying to get somewhere, but are constantly thwarted by endless complications and obstacles (for example by a brick wall built for no reason right across a street).  Or the ones in which you are never quite sure what part you are supposed to be playing.

In the course of this, a whole cast of characters appears, mostly rather lonely and tortured souls, many of them so driven by a need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their imagined superiors, or their parents, or their own eyes, that they neglect and forget about those they are supposed to love.  (Themes apparent also in his previous novel The Remains of the Day).   There are many truly heartrending moments, for example when parents simply fail to see how much their children need their approval, but the book is also often funny enough to make you laugh out loud.  The banality of everyday thoughts are wonderfully mocked by having the vain and self-centred Ryder expressing them in the same pompous language that he uses to talk about his big projects, and often the book is simultaneously funny and excruciatingly sad.  Here is Ryder, who has promised to spend an evening playing boardgames with his little boy, but is distracted by… the need to read every word in the local paper:

Returning to my sofa, I saw that, by putting my plate down on a cushion beside me,  I would be able to eat and continue to read my newspaper at the same time.  I had decided earlier to examine the newspaper very carefully, scrutinising even the adverts for local businesses, and I now continued with this project, reaching over occasionally to my plate without taking my eyes off the newsprint.

There’s no way of doing the book justice in a summary, and I’m sure that, even on two readings, I have only understood part of what is actually there, but it certainly remains one of my favourite books, unsurpassed I think by Ishiguro himself, and I’m surprised it isn’t more famous than it is.

I particularly love the idea of using the narrative devices of dreams because my own view is that dreams are the original archetypal stories.   When people say they don’t have the imagination to write stories, I often wonder how it is that people can say that, when every night they weave themselves complicated intricate stories without even trying, rich in layers and layers of meaning, and often full of truths which waking minds just don’t grasp.  Freud saw dreams as the disguised representations of desires, but that’s only a little part of what dreams do.  In my experience dreams tell me who I am, and often direct a sharp light onto my own self-deceptions, my own little acts of cowardice.  And it is exactly that kind of light that The Unconsoled enlists to shine into the lives of its characters.

 

Christopher Priest: Inverted World

Feeling that I would like to steep myself a little more in the history of the genre in which I write,  I’ve been buying books in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, and have just finished this one which I had never come across before.   The cover sold it to me, and more than most covers do, sums up what the book is about.

Priest’s own website includes a scathing review of this book by Martin Amis (complete with a spitefully gratuitous spoiler),  pointing out the wild implausibility of the story.   Amis also suggests that a ‘courteous editor’ would have reduced the first 100-odd pages to more like 20.

It’s true that there are a lot of holes in the story.  It isn’t plausible and, even looked at within its own terms, there are obvious questions left unanswered (why, when the inhabitants of the city are constantly interacting with the people around them, has no one in the past 200 years ever thought of asking the locals where they actually are?)

But the central image is incredibly compelling.  A city is perpetually being very slowly hauled along railway tracks that must be laid ahead of it, and then taken up again after it has passed.   It must keep moving forward to escape annihilation which is never far behind it.   Surveyors go out ahead of it (or ‘up future’ as the characters in the story call it, for they conflate distance and time and measure their lives in miles) to try and work out the best route to follow.    Others ride out from the city to recruit locals to labour for them… and to bear them children, for the city does not produce enough girls of its own.

Amis’ comment about the length of the first 100 pages misses the point.   The joy of this book is this central image.  It’s very rich in metaphorical possibilities and we need time and the accumulation of detail to let us savour it,  let it soak in, allow us to inhabit it.    One Amazon reviewer mentions that the book prompted a very vivid dream.   Yes, this city on rails does have a feel that is like the odd places we come back to again and again in our dreams, full of meaning, yet not amenable to simply being decoded into a single, simple message.

The Space Merchants

It can be disappointing rereading a book that impressed you years ago.   When I attempted to reread Kerouac’s On the Road, which at 19 I thought was wonderful, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into it.  It was sentimental, baggy, misogynistic, and I couldn’t get past that to see the energy that had first impressed me.

But, though I must have read The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth at at even earlier age, I was just as impressed with it on recently rereading it as I was first time round the better part of four decades ago.

Like all SF of its era, it depicts a ‘future’ that falls very wide of the mark technologically (daily passenger shuttles to the moon, but no computers or mobile phones), but considering it was written in 1952, it is impressively relevant.   The global struggle between Capitalism and Communism that was occurring at that the time the book was written, has long since passed.   The adversary of rampant global capitalism is not communism but conservationism.   Consies not commies, are the pariahs.  Advertising agencies, and their huge networks of interlocking sales campaigns, rule.

I’d forgotten (or more likely did not notice aged 16) how funny the book is.  Told from the viewpoint of Mitchell Courtenay who as a star class copysmith with the Fowler Schocken advertising agency (vastly superior in his eyes to the sleazy Taunton agency), is a member of the elite who (for much of the book) accepts the rules of his own society without question, a society in which sales are everything and even to mention a concern about the environment is to mark oneself out as a consie sympathiser.

“She’d been bought up in a deeply moral, sales-fearing home…”

“…the basic drive of the human race is sex.  And what is, essentially, more important in life than to mould and channel the deepest torrential flow of human emotion into its proper directions?   (I am not apologizing for those renegades who talk fancifully about some imagined ‘Death-Wish’ to hook their sales appeals to.  I leave that sort of thing to the Tauntons of our profession: it’s dirty, it’s immoral, I want nothing to do with it.  Besides, it leads to fewer consumers in the long run, if only they’d think the thing through.)”

“The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain.  And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies…  ”

You have to read the book and read these things in context to get the full effect.  It’s brilliant satire.  Still sharp after almost half a century.

The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson

As a child I loved the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson.  She created (both in words and in pictures) an utterly absorbing and intricate world that was comforting, yet mysterious and not without sadness.  They were like nothing else and I found them completely enchanting.

It’s nice to have one’s childhood judgements confirmed.  I recently read one of her adult novels – published in English as The True Deceiver – and I found it just as absorbing and fascinating as I had found her children’s books, and just as original (I have never read anything like it).

The main protagonist, Katri, is a strange solitary woman with yellow eyes who despises friendliness and the ordinary pleasantries of life as being fake and dishonest.  She doesn’t even give a name to her dog.  The book deals with Katri’s relationship with an elderly and wealthy writer of children’s books who likes to be seen as likeable and nice.   Slowly they change one another.

It is much darker than the children’s books, and yet has a lot in common with them too:  its creation of an absorbing world, evoked in a wonderfully concrete and quite sensual way, its evocation of a Nordic spring, emerging from under ice and snow, its interest in solitude and integrity…  (The Moomin books include many proud and solitary characters too).

Quite brilliant!   The Summer Book is great too.