Phillip K. Dick left an indelible mark upon science fiction, even though he never really managed to become a household name. Despite his lack of rock star status in contemporary consciousness, however, Rolling Stone nonetheless managed to once call him “the most brilliant sci-fi mind on any planet.” In Thomas Disch’s historical study of science fiction, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Transformed the World, Disch notes both Dick’s inventive imagination and his tenuous, perhaps delusional grasp of reality (he spent a considerable portion of his later years believing he was a Buddha, channeling the voice of a vast alien consciousness). Despite that – or perhaps because of it – Dick turned out a body of work that has long been the not-so-secret source of Hollywood sci-fi, from Blade Runner to Total Recall, Paycheck and Minority Report (hey, nobody said that all of the adaptations of his work had to be good).
Vintage Books has been reprinting all 34 of Dick’s books. They recently completed the process with the publication of Dr. Futurity, one of Dick’s mind-bending applications of time-travel theory. The story is the tale of Jim Parsons, a doctor in the early 21st century who is suddenly and unexpectedly hurled centuries into the future. As he stumbles along a road after a car accident, Parsons is nearly run down by a person who then unwillingly picks him up and takes him into the nearby city. Parsons quickly discovers that this future society features incredible technological advances and also has adopted a very different perspective on death.
Doctors such as Parsons are criminals. It is illegal to save lives; when someone is injured, the only purpose of intervention is to make death quicker and less painful. The citizens of this future look upon the practice of medicine as a perversion. After he saves a young woman’s life, Parsons is arrested for the unlawful intervention and convicted of his crime. He is exiled to a colony on Mars and is sent out on an otherwise unmanned ship to his new home.
However, there are others interested in preserving or saving lives, and they have need of his skills – a need which has compelled the creation of the time travel device which first brought Parsons forward in time. They intervene to bring him back to earth to perform an emergency operation. In doing so, they unleash some of the many paradoxes of time travel, both in the inherent contradictions which are possible and the almost endless permutations of a “loop” in time.
Like many of Dick’s works, Dr. Futurity is a short, fast read. Sometimes his narrative glosses over improbabilities or the like, and characterization is often sketchy. But he manages to fuse the tale with a sense of urgency and also willingly embraces some of the mind-bending possibilities and challenges inherent in time travel, all of which demonstrates why his stories continue to evoke such a potent response.
Science fiction is generally defined as a speculative form of fiction which examines the impact of an imagined science upon societies and the individuals which comprise them. Time travel has long been one of the core components of science fiction because of the varied paradoxes it could create. In his short story “Paycheck” Dick explored some of them more humorously as he mixed a character whose mind has been “wiped” of the events of the past two years with the idea of that same character (who had been working on a device to forecast or “see” the future, unbeknownst to his future self) would learn of his employer’s plan to kill him and consequently concocts a plan to save his own life with just the seemingly random contents of a manila envelope. In truth, the Ben Affleck movie of the same name did little justice to the story, but I expect that is not much of a surprise to many people.
In Dr. Futurity, the paradoxes are more nuanced and artfully explored. The principal paradox is that time travel becomes a bit like Pandora’s Box. Once you know how to travel in time, you may well be trapped in a cycle of unknowingly attempting to undo your own mistakes, and the idea that time is essentially unalterable (or that it “snaps back” in the face of tampering) may well be more the function of one’s own efforts to remedy something that went awry earlier. For example, in Dr. Futurity, Parsons finds himself in the future, then carried even further forward, then back, then back centuries before his own birth, then into the future, then back into the past again, and so on and so forth. Each component of the shift between time becomes part of a singular narrative in that Parsons discovers that events which he encounters “now” are actually set in motion by his “future” self or others who have a similar knowledge of events which his “present” self lacks. All together, Dr. Futurity is an interesting and complicated time travel tale.