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Book Review: Philip K. Dick – Five Novels of the 1960s and ‘70s by Philip K. Dick, Jonathan Lethem (Editor)

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"We who read science fiction," Philip K. Dick wrote in 1981, a year before his death, "read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create — and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness."

But what of those who write science fiction? Anyone familiar with Dick’s contributions to science fiction — the bulk of 100 stories and 44 novels in a genre he reluctantly acquiesced to after his early mainstream literary aspirations didn’t pan out — knows this was a totemic visionary who gave as good as he got, and then some, with not just the final ingredient of newness in his works, but with sustained force and startling originality from the start. Political, sociological, metaphysical, and theological themes are threaded throughout his works, while Dick drew upon his own life experiences with drug use, paranoia, reported schizophrenia, and mystical insights — experiences that seemed to constitute a mindset from which, as Dick wrote in 1980, “The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It's not just ‘What if’ – it's 'My God; what if’ – in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming."

So to speak. Though Dick wrote his fair share of pulp magazine stories when he was getting his start in the 1950s, any of the standard-issue SF trappings with alien life forms, zap guns, and planetary colonies were curtailed by the overriding emphasis — especially as Dick evolved into a full-time novelist into the ‘60s and ‘70s — on humanity and the nature of reality, no matter how wild the possibilities.

And so the haunting Martian Time-Slip (1964), which kicks off The Library of America's publication of Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s and ‘70s, the companion volume to 2007’s Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s, may constitute a misnomer in search of a fantasy, as the Martian angle is largely relegated to a setting on the colony of Mars as Dick uses extraterrestrial real estate scams, politics, and murder to infiltrate the mysteries of being, while the same moment in time is played over and over again, each time shown from a slightly different standpoint. Which interpretation of reality is real?

Back to this world enough and time — assuming we have world enough and time, let alone what “our little fragile world … this puny society” has become. Dr. Bloodmoney; or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965) reads like a black-humored Dr. Strangelove sequel crossed with a post-apocalyptic Flannery O'Connor Gothic tale transplanted to Dick’s San Francisco Bay stomping grounds — and in those regards it may be among the least sci-fi of Dick’s sci-fi. The title character, who is actually referred to by the Germanic "Bluthgeld," is a god-like scientist who believes himself capable of bringing down atomic destruction simply by willing it. But the strength of the book lies in the kaleidoscopic character shuffle — comprising as it does a testament to the endurance and ongoing spirit of humanity — as we focus in on the coping skills of such figures as Hoppy Harrington, a deformed mutant with telekinetic powers; Walt Dangerfield, stranded in an endless orbit around the earth, broadcasting daily radio shows to lift the spirits of his devoted listeners in the war's aftermath; Bonny Keller, who seeks consolation for her troubles with a series of unsatisfying affairs; and Stuart McConchie, an African-American salesman who exemplifies the power of fortitude and optimism.

At least the survivors of a nuclear holocaust who eke out a subsistence in Dr. Bloodmoney can claim, at least, the dignity of existence. This is more than can be said for the protagonist of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1973), a famous television personality who awakens one day in his totalitarian state setting inexplicably unknown and unrecognized, with no identification and all proof of existence ostensibly revoked.

Not that he’d be more content in the every-which-way-but-lucid society of Now Wait for Last Year (1966), or the paranoia-noir A Scanner Darkly (1977), both centered around the wide-scale dilemmas of drug addiction, at least in part. The initially fascinating Now Wait bursts at the seams with countless intricacies and ideas as it launches from its 2055 San Diego-Tijuana setting to where Dr. Eric Sweetscent’s home planet is caught up in an unwinnable war and his wife is addicted to a drug that tosses its users helplessly back and forth across time. Furthermore, Sweetscent's newest patient is not only the most important man on Earth but quite possibly the sickest. As political intrigue, shifting loyalties, and hallucinogenic insidiousness abound, Now Wait — before it starts straining too much for convoluted ill-effect toward the end — subtly conveys the nuanced elements of human relationships.

"Happiness, he thought, is knowing you got some pills,” according to the narrator of the masterful and much more cohesive A Scanner Darkly. Indeed, we're far from warm puppy-land, despite the fact that we're in Disneyland’s backyard, and a Happy Meal is on every corner:

    They had by now, according to the sign, sold the same original burger fifty billion times. He wondered if it was to the same person. Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; It just spread out farther and farther in the form of neon ooze. What there was always more of had been congealed into more of long ago, as if the automatic factory that cranked out these objects had jammed in the on position. Someday, he thought, it’ll be mandatory that we all sell the McDonald’s hamburger as well as buy it; we’ll sell it back and forth to each other forever from our living rooms. That way we won’t have to go outside.

The main futuristic twists are a highly addictive drug that cancels out the link between the hemispheres of the mind, leading to irreversible brain damage; a special suit which allows undercover cops to be completely anonymous; and hologrammatic scanners used by police for surveillance. The main character is a schizophrenic police agent who goes deep under cover as a dealer of the hallucinogen, developing an addiction along the way. So successful is he at forging a secret identity, he eventually lands the assignment to investigate himself. The ensuing development is a surreal journey through a world of splintered identities and paranoia, junkies, and scam artists.

The Martians are always coming…

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch