Bottled Fantasies: Philip K. Dick’s Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky is another early Philip K. Dick novel that is uneven, but uneven in a different way to his later writeitinaweekonspeed works. While it may be silly to just compare Dick’s efforts to each other in lieu of considering their merits individually, I’m pretty much a neophyte when it comes to SF. I like it, a lot, but mostly I read Dick (see my last essay) because I really like Dick, so I can’t really say how Dick’s early work fits in to the canon of 50’s/60’s SF. I can however, talk about the experience I’ve had with Dick so far and how much the less popular work lives or doesn’t live up to the Dick everybody’s read because they saw the movie.

So, Eye in the Sky. It seems at first to be very much Dick. An accident with a particle accelerator causes the minds of the people present at the accident to become trapped in an alternate universe, which is quickly revealed to be constructed along the lines of, and controlled by, the particular feelings and ideologies of one character at a time, a kind of revolving door of personal anxieties and pet peeves. A religious fundamentalist society, a world ridden of everything someone thinks is “nasty”, a world in which paranoia reigns and everything really is out to get you, including a house coming to life and trying to eat people just like in the movie Monster House, which is excellent and you should watch, by the way.

The idea of multiple realities or things not being as they seem is so prevalent in Dick as to almost be a calling card, but in this case the idea is not explored as thoroughly (or as weirdly) as Dick would later do in novels like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Instead of making points about the construction of reality itself, he is more using the fractured reality to discuss character quirks and ideologies themselves. The novel almost has a setup like a bottle episode in a TV series, or an episode in which every character has a kind of fantasy that is played out at length. Remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer reads to the kids? Bart as Hamlet, Homer as Odysseus, that kind of thing. In Eye in the Sky all the character’s bodies remain in the place of the accident, it is their minds, their fantasies, that wander. You could almost argue it’s a series of cleverly disguised character sketches strung in to a plot. A plot, however, that doesn’t really fundamentally question anything, but instead elaborates the private fears and thoughts of a group of characters, all of which you get to know very well, although, yup, the women are still (rampantly misogynistic) caricatures.

The distinction people make (Kingsley Amis does, in New Maps of Hell, anyway) between SF and sci-fi tends to be that SF has a core idea or ideas that are used to shape the story, that are based on some kind of science, whether natural, chemical, electrical, sociological or whatever. Sci-fi on the other hand uses the trappings of science to tell a story that could be told just as well otherwise (the best example of this is probably that Star Wars is basically a western, but ~in space~). In Eye in the Sky, it’s a particle accelerator called the Bevatron, which to me sounds like some pornographic software for the matrix, but your mileage may vary (let me know in the comments). So, it’s not the hardest SF, or even “SF” at all, that Dick wrote, but you could consider it from the angle of New Wave SF, in which case it is SF. Confused yet? Despite the Bevatron basically being a magic plot device that allows Dick to elaborate on characters, he does use this magic plot device to chart out inner space, as opposed to outer space. After all, psychology is a science, as hard or soft as it might be. In this sense it’s SF the same way J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach is SF. Still, the focus the plot takes is very uncharacteristic of Dick.

I don’t mention the sitcom plot structure/focus (I’m aware it’s anachronistic, but bear with me) just because of a vague resemblance, either. Because the largest part of the plot happens in a dream world, and as far as I can tell there isn’t any “if you die in the matrix, you die in real life” kind of thing, there’s no real sense of threat, or questioning of reality as a structure, or the paranoid vibe that is another calling card. The protagonist works for a defence company contracted to the military, and the plot begins with him essentially losing his job because his wife is a communist (a real world parallel the kind of which doesn’t often occur in Dick’s work), but this just serves as a bookend to the character sketches, really. It figures later in her dream world, sure, but apart from that it’s largely forgotten. The characters might face challenges and threats in the real world and the dream worlds, but the tone, in addition to the structure, can be so silly at times as to undermine it (see: aforementioned Very Hungry House).

And there’s a happy ending! A proper dénouement with everything tied up and everyone returning to their normal lives having become friends, overcome their challenges and learned something. It’s a nice ending. You do come to care for these characters and the bookend plot does get resolved, but it results in an uneven tone. Again, it reads like the end of a sitcom episode. Perhaps the simplest way to put it would be that it’s a Dick novel in which reality is bent and twisted, but in the end “true” reality returns and nothing is really questioned, no thoughts provoked, no lingering anxieties. Just things returning to normal. Normal is very, very strange in Philip K. Dick’s work.

For what is a mainstream novel with sci-fi trappings, Eye in the Sky is still plenty weird and plenty interesting if you’re in to Dick. If you liked Ubik, then you’ll probably like this too, just realise that it’s not quite as accomplished. As I said in the last review, Dick was always known as a spotty writer in terms of craftsmanship, and this is another example of a spotty writer in his even spottier youth. That said, there may be more to this than I’ve elaborated on. There’s probably a reading in Eye in the Sky about ideological conflict, or about how we all construct our own, more preferable versions of reality to try and shield ourselves from The Real. Or a story about the dangers at the extreme fringes of ideology. Or a parable of McCarthyism. Plenty here if you care to dig for it, just be aware that it’s not Dick at his ego death inducing best, and that, depending how you look at it, either it’s not SF or it’s SF in the truest sense of the word. It’s still pretty interesting for a bottle episode, though.

What My Problem Looked Like In June

A fairly quiet month by my standards. All were gifts to me

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Arcane Knowledge: Philip K. Dick’s Solar Lottery

Solar Lottery was Philip K. Dick’s first published novel, and a “PKD” novel it certainly is. Someone whose output was as large and as varied as Dick’s is bound to have a few clunkers, and his early work (early SF anyway, I haven’t read any of his “straight” novels yet) is no exception, despite coming before the mixture of amphetamine-psychosis fuelled misfires and, “Oh God, the FBI really did burgle my house!” Godhead paranoid freakouts the kind of which he is (generally) most loved and remembered for. It is great fun when you’ve read enough of someone’s work to be able to pinpoint, within a few pages, that it is definitely their work, without necessarily being able to say where that pinpoint landed. Here’s a little laundry list of weirdness that evidences that early Dick was very much Dick, in this instance:

- A world split into fiefdoms, run by mega-corporations. Government as we know it (yes, I am aware “Government as we know it” isn’t a natural fact) does not exist.

- Complete with serfs, oaths, pledges of allegiance and so forth.

- An autocratic leader elected by random chance, a system of government based on a sub-theory of Cold War game theory, called Minimax, itself used to develop strategies pertaining to nuclear weapons.

- As another check/balance, an assassin selected randomly from whoever puts their name forward, whose role is to attempt to assassinate this randomly selected leader.

- A corps of telepaths whose job is to protect the supreme leader. This telepathy being caused by “Nuclear Fudge Magic” (that’s my term and you can’t have it).

- The main “antagonist” is an android designed to be controlled remotely by the consciousness of someone selected randomly from a group of people hooked in to a bank of machines (almost the reverse of the empathy box from Do Androids Dream). These consciousnesses (say that three times fast) are selected randomly and switched “in” to the android at set intervals to prevent the android from being easily predictable/readable by the previously mentioned telepaths.

The Voice of God (which turns out to be a pre-recorded message) does not figure in this list of Dickian oddness because it is something that takes part in the subplot, a subplot that never feels quite like it fits in to the story in a whole and, in the final analysis, marrs the ending to the point where it becomes an unsatisfying, inconclusive (not in a good, Dickian, “is Deckard an android?” way) mess. He may not have made his quota doing so, but it seems that without the “Flame Disc” subplot, and then concluding the main plot about half a chapter earlier, he could have written a much more cohesive work. One feels like Dick originally began by fleshing out a short story, then, upon realising he still hadn’t made word count, wrote another of his short stories in. Still, saying this, the main plot is very much Dick, which throws up questions and problems that we’ll get too soon, but with the clumsy subplot included, this is evidently a work in which Dick could be said to be feeling out his craft, or perhaps more accurately, how badly he could fail in some element whilst still creating a work of immense originality and interest.

I like the weird. I love the weird. I read Naked Lunch when I was sixteen and it fucked me up forever. Hence my yardstick for Dick (heh) being the weird factor. This is something of a disservice to him, however. I am willing to forgive failings that would traditionally kill a novel (things like characterisation) if the ideas are good. Hence, I like Dick, the man lauded/criticised for finding SF to be the ideal platform for posing philosophical questions, which, along with his ferocious (See again: amphetamines, and needing to pay the bills) work ethic, led to novels that are very, very readable if one forgives lapses in craft and focuses on the explication/demonstration of ideas. This is not to say he wasn’t capable of craft, however. He put by far the most effort, time and research of any novel he wrote in to The Man in the High Castle, which is a masterpiece; and A Scanner Darkly is filled with humanity and pathos, and includes probably his best written (of what I’ve read: not everything, yet) female character. He could damn well write.

On that note, Solar Lottery includes one of the most egregious examples of Dick’s writing of female characters; by far the most developed (and not very, at that) female character in the novel dies in an event in which she is literally tossed aside, an event which, even though it is horrific, has the emotional resonance of a tub filled with custard.

But, to consider Dick’s strong point, Solar Lottery does contain a very interesting idea, and in considering this idea raises problems that piqued my interest enough to keep reading, not just because I am a Dick-head, but because it was worthy in and of itself (NB: despite an interest in it, my area of expertise is not in the philosophy of politics, so forgive me if I should transgress). The de facto leader of the world, and its colonies in the solar system, is randomly selected, as mentioned above. The system which does the selecting is not explained in too much detail (if I remember correctly), but it appears to be some form of computer apparatus that parses atomic decay. The problem raised is slightly more specific than what he could have settled for, namely: what is truly random? Instead, Dick supposes a kind of Homo Ex Machina. A random system, or a system that parses randomness, must be designed by someone, and in this instance, maintained by someone. Were we to choose something like this as a system of governance, one would need a method that is tamper proof, as the system in question is not, rigged as it is by one of the engineers who maintains it, causing himself to be selected as leader. That a system of governance is kept working by arcane knowledge, that someone can manipulate a system by virtue of understanding it better (at all), is shown to be problematic. Yes, the assassin is intended as a check against this kind of event, against manipulation by someone who wishes to gain absolute power for himself, and the narrative must have the assassin come so close, only to be foiled, to be exciting. In this sense, one could suppose that Dick poses a question and then tries to answer it, and then tries to discredit the answer, to play out the idea. Dick doing what Dick does, and doing very well at it.

Solar Lottery, then, despite being one of Dick’s earliest efforts, evinces fully the later Dick, in both what it succeeds at and what it fails to achieve. The wacky and the weird, with the underlying serious philosophical conundrums, are present already, and are not far off the kind of ideas that Dick would later present. The characterisation is very thin, and yes, this is a Dick novel, but then, it is a novel, so it bears mentioning. This would improve, spottily, as he refined his craft, but here he is still figuring things out. And yes, he really, really seemed to have trouble writing women, like, at all, which again he would improve on, but not quite as much. Solar Lottery might be early Dick, but it is, very much, Dick. For better and for worse.

My First Book

My First Book

My first collection of poetry, More Poems About Cats and Teeth, was published today! If you’ve liked any of the poetry posted on this blog, then you will probably like this collection, which includes poems previously seen here (with a final bit of polishing), and some new poems that you won’t have seen! Buy it!

May, 2014’s Acquisitions

I continue to  pick up more books than I can read. Very happy about the Selected Letters of James Joyce though, got it for a quid.

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A quick review of Joelle Herr’s James Joyce: The Essential Works in One Sitting, from Running Press

A nice enough little introduction if you’re a lay reader (I want Harold Bloom’s job. Give it to me.) who honestly has no idea about Joyce and just wants the dirty, quickly, and for whatever reason hasn’t just used Wikipedia. For people studying Joyce, or literature in general, in a more serious (you are citing your research) capacity, look elsewhere unless you just fancy a bit of fun. If you already know a bit, the factual errors and omissions will put a serious dampener on your fun, and for this it loses a few points. For example, Herr states that Stephen refuses to pray at his mother’s funeral, whereas he actually refuses to pray at his mother’s deathbed. Yes, I am the kind of person that writes a thesis on Joyce and then goes back and reads an introduction to Joyce, so he can get annoyed about the inaccuracies, perceived or otherwise. I want Harold Bloom’s job. Give it to me.

Go Home or Face Arrest

Oh England, the people on the bus
look so unhappy

Oh England, you have left me with an
archaic
poetic
diction

That isn’t mine and never will be

I felt like the world was ending
or at least a world

Oh England, your newspapers tell us to
hate each other
Who killed Diana?
Eat each other

Oh England, your own are the tastiest
Despite having sampled every dish

Oh England, you drove my father mad

oh, oh, oh
England

You are driving me mad

 

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