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.