This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
By 1960, Philip K. Dick’s writing career was had hit a low point. The work he was primarily interested in were his mainstream novels, all of which had been soundly rejected by publishers (not undeservedly). The work which was actually bringing in money, however, was his science fiction – but with the exception of Time Out of Joint he hadn’t produced any new science fiction since 1955, with the rest of his late 1950s sales consisting of expansions and revisions of earlier work. The early 1960s would see him turn out two more attempts to break into literary fiction, which would also fail, and there was a real possibility that he would quit writing and work to support then-wife Anne’s jewellery business which she operated from their home in Point Reyes. (After all, that was bringing in more money than Dick’s own writing.)
By the end of the time period covered by this article, Dick turned the corner from a frustrated literary author stuck in dogged pursuit of a creative dead end and become a rejuvenated SF author producing some of the best work of his career. The rekindled commercial and critical success he would earn from this material would cause Dick to become reconciled to his SFnal muse, laying the groundwork for a 1963 in which not even basking in a Hugo win and dealing with the disintegration of his marriage to Anne could slow down his output.
But before we get to the good stuff, we have to wade through more mainstream novels. Put on your waders, this is going to get messy.
1960: The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike
The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike is set in a rural California community which, like the setting of Confessions of a Crap Artist, can’t lie too far from Dick and Anne’s Point Reyes home at the time. The action is triggered when packaging designer and plastic moulding expert Walt Dombrosio has a fit of friendliness and decides to invite his car mechanic, Chuck Halpin, over for dinner. Chuck is black; Walt’s neighbourhood is very, very white indeed. Leo Runcible, real estate agent, Walt’s neighbour, and only Jew in the village happens to be entertaining a wealthy potential investor that same evening, who comments (with implied disapproval) on seeing a black man in the area.
Leo is ultimately an idealist, and takes such extreme offense to this that he throws out his houseguests, investments be damned. Then he takes it out on Walt – not for having a black person around, but for doing so in such an indiscreet manner, Leo’s idealism only going so far. Later, Leo reports Walt for drunk driving, and Walt loses his driving licence, and as a consequence loses both his job and his authority over his wife. (Later in the book he reclaims the latter by raping her.) Inspired by Piltdown Man and the local enthusiasm for fossils, and applying his moulding skills to some gruesome props, Walt plans a nasty practical joke on Leo which ultimately makes Runcible a fiscally ruined public martyr, but destroys Walt’s own peace of mind in the process.
So, Dick pulled a little bait-and-switch on me with this one. I thought that the book was going to be another example of Dick theoretically having his heart in the right place (or at least on the same street as the right place) but marring this with a clumsy execution when it comes to depicting people who aren’t white, but it actually isn’t that bad on that front. The nuanced way Dick presents Leo as loudly objecting to racism only to then gripe about Walt affecting house prices by inviting a black man to dinner feels uncomfortably well-observed, as does Leo’s own quiet exclusion and treatment as an outsider which never quite erupts into overt antisemitism but which you can kind of tell is informed by it. Chuck barely appears in the book, but to be honest at this stage of his career Dick was better at skewering white people’s attitudes to race than he was act actually depicting three-dimensional black characters so this might all be for the good. It ain’t perfect, but it ain’t as bad as I feared.
Here, though, Dick ramps up the misogyny dial to 11, which seems an odd decision for a story which could well have been carried by the Leo-Walt feud with their wives just as background characters – that approach would have been mildly erasing, but that’d be an improvement over recent atrocities like In Milton Lumky Territory or Puttering About In a Small Land. Sadly, it turns out that both men’s woes are at least partly connected to their interactions with their wives. Janet Runcible is a weak-willed drunk who decided she couldn’t cope with anything resembling responsibility after a disastrous stint working in Leo’s office prompted a nervous breakdown under the demands of mild secretarial work. Leo bemoans being married to someone he regards as a drunk waste of space who is constantly embarrassing him by being drunk and sad in public. This is exactly as miserable to read as it sounds.
However, it pales in comparison to the interactions between Walt and his wife, Sherry. I suspect Sherry is meant to be inspired by Anne Dick, like Susan from In Milton Lumky Territory; for instance, it’s mentioned in passing that Sherry makes homemade jewellery, which was a home business Anne had going at the time (and continues to this day). In common with Susan, Sherry is portrayed as a destroyer of men, ensnaring them with her irrational feminine not-logic and emasculating them. When Walt loses his driving licence, Sherry uses this as leverage to force Walt into letting her get a job at his own place of employment, a state of affairs he is pathologically incapable of comprehending or accepting, and bit by bit she exerts more control over their relationship, talking down to and belittling Walt all the way. Then he violently rapes her and she gets pregnant, and when he figures out she was seeking an abortion (not legal in California at the time) he cajoles, threatens, emotionally blackmails, weeps, begs, and hits Sherry with a thrown chair before she spontaneously and for no clear reason, despite appearing perfectly strong and resolute and defiant even in the face of flying furniture, decides to have the baby after all and do the conventional housewife thing.
Did I mention that this book seems to have been written either when Anne was pregnant with Dick’s first daughter, Laura Archer, or very shortly after Laura’s birth? Between that and Anne’s disclosures in more recent years about the outbreaks of violence that punctuated her marriage to Phil, this already grim and depressing feature of the plot becomes outright alarming.
The sniping at Anne doesn’t stop there either; apparently, the entire fossil skull subplot was inspired by an argument the Dicks had about whether Neanderthals were vegetarians, and the initial plan was for the book to set out Dick’s case for his position. In its discussions of human origins the book does take on some semblance of liveliness, Dick’s enthusiasm for the subject matter and eagerness to explore its implications momentarily overshadowing the bleak melancholy hatred that chokes the novel. (He would later explore similar ideas in a science fiction context in The Crack In Space.) But make no mistake, this book has more in common with his other mainstream work – particularly Confessions of a Crap Artist, which has a similar setting and a similar emasculating Anne analogue – than any of his SF. Walt’s story concludes with Walt having a vivid vision of a potential future, like Skip does at the end of In Milton Lumky Territory, but instead of a happy future that has been irrevocably lost he foresees a glum future for his unborn child which might come to pass. Runcible, meanwhile, has martyred himself for the community and probably improved the lot of the locals for generations to come – but unlike Christ, he has no disciples who recognise and proclaim what he has done for them, and offers no forgiveness for the cruelties inflicted on him. (Some time later, a certain Glen Runciter in Ubik would end up filling a “crotchety saviour” niche of his very own.)
The end result is not quite the bleakest of Dick’s mainstream novels – Puttering About In a Small Land, In Milton Lumky Territory and Voices From the Street all have it beat – but it’s still depressing reading. Somehow even the bleakest of Dick’s SF pales in comparison to the soul-destroying visions presented in his mainstream work; I think this is partly because in his SF Dick is open to the possibility of some transcendent experience revealing something more hopeful despite the grim reality presented, and partly because Dick allows himself to have fun when he writes SF but treats his mainstream writing as Serious Business, a tendency which would only be cured with the VALIS trilogy, in which the barriers between SF and mainstream fiction break down and Dick is open to the possibility that the joke’s on him.
At the same time, whilst on average this stab at mainstream acceptability by Dick is a little less bleak than some of his other material, in terms of the Walt-Sherry plot it’s by far one of his most misogynistic works. It is difficult not to see Walt’s resentment at Sherry bringing home more money than he does and not think of Dick stewing away in Point Reyes whilst Anne’s homemade jewellery business puts dinner on the table. On top of this, Dick’s string of mainstream failures had somehow stirred the interest of a mainstream New York publisher, who offered him a $500 to pen his next mainstream novel in return for them getting first dibs on it. The deal came with strings attached though, since the publishers assigned editor Eleanor Dimoff to look over Dick’s previous mainstream efforts and critique it to give him pointers on how they wanted him to tackle the next book. This is lucky for Dick scholars in some ways – since later on Dick wisely washed his hands of most of his mainstream work (aside from Confessions of a Crap Artist), we don’t have many sources where he talks about them except for his correspondence with Dimoff, and indeed these letters are our only source for inferring the content of some of his lost works from this time. At the same time, it’s hard not to see The Man Whose Teeth as an enormous “fuck you” to Dimoff, deliberate or otherwise, since it follows almost none of the pointers she’d offered. And his next offering, which he’d promised would be a radical reworking of A Time For George Stavros, was (according to Anne, at least, who is one of the few people to have read both) almost exactly alike with George Stavros.
1960: Humpty Dumpty In Oakland
Humpty Dumpty In Oakland, as the second submission to Dimoff was known, doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. It opens as Jim Fergesson, middle-aged owner of a car repair garage, comes to work having just arranged the sale of his business – on doctor’s orders, he can’t put his heart under too much strain any more, which means he can no longer do the hard work of actually repairing the cars. Al Miller, a younger man who is a used car salesman at the absolute trashiest end of the market, is left high and dry by Fergesson’s decision to sell, because he runs his business out of a vacant portion of the lot the garage is on and there’s no guarantee the new owner will let Miller stick around.
Miller is desperate to sort out his precarious financial situation – not least because if he’s unemployed and his wife Julie is working full time, she’ll pressure him to go back to college (which he dropped out of after a year) in order to get some brain-numbingly sensible degree like business administration. At the same time, he can only find the motivation to make token, fumbling efforts to try and secure a new lot. Both Fergesson’s drift into retirement and Miller’s slump into depression are shunted onto unexpected and ultimately destructive trajectories when Chris Harman, head of Teach Records, stops by the garage. Fergesson has known Harman for a while – he’s a loyal customer of the garage – and is intrigued by Harman dropping hints about a tasty investment opportunity which might let Fergesson not only get some passive income through the return on his investment, but also let him keep working as a garage owner, with a team of union engineers under him to take care of all the heart-straining work. Introduced to Harman for the first time, Miller is struck by his personable manner and obvious wealth; Harman seems to be a perfect example of the success that has so far eluded Miller in life.
When Fergesson mentions in passing that Teach Records produce pornographic records on the sly, it sets off a curious train of thought in Miller, who starts to believe that Harman is some sort of criminal bigwig – perhaps out to scam Fergesson out of his retirement money, and certainly someone who can pay him a better salary than any honest outfit. Bolstering himself with a stimulant (in the form of Dexamyl) to give him some confidence and a sedative to take the edge off the Dexamyl, Miller strides into Harman’s office and goes off on a bizarre rant which ends up landing him a job – but as his suspicions about Harman become ever more acute, Miller finds himself locked into a terrifying downward spiral of increasingly extreme delusions and erratic behaviour.
Although supposedly little changed between the preparation of this version of the book and the earlier A Time For George Stavros (George Stavros became Fergesson and is no longer Greek, though his wife Lydia still is; Lydia cares about Fergesson here, whereas she was apparently less kind to George in the earlier version), Humpty Dumpty In Oakland is an unintentionally revealing moment in Dick’s fiction which both offers troubling insights into Dick’s mindset at the time and points the way to the recurring themes of his subsequent SF. In particular, the Dick self-insert character (Dick, like Miller, drifted away from college after a year and ended up with a spouse with superior academic achievements to his own, for instance, and money troubles were a nigh-constant worry for him) is depicted taking drugs before he strolls into Harman’s office – and not just any drugs. Dexamyl (misspelled here as “Dexymil”) contains amphetamines, and was discontinued in the 1970s in the face of increasing levels of abuse and a ban on all weight loss drugs containing amphetamines. Dick refers to the other drug taken, Sparine, as a “sedative”, but he’s being coy there – it’s actually an antipsychotic drug with side effects so extreme it isn’t even considered safe for human use in the USA any more.
This is one of the earliest significant instances of plot-relevant drug use in Dick’s novels (though, as we will discover, by no means the last), and in particular one of his first attempts to depict drug use in a realistic manner. It also ties into ongoing developments in Dick’s life. Although she wouldn’t discover them until the wake of their split in 1963, Anne Dick uncovered receipts for substantial drug purchases she hadn’t been aware that Phil had made. This isn’t the only respect in which the novel portends bad times ahead in Anne and Dick’s marriage: for instance, before the story is done Miller has become convinced that Julie is part of a wide-ranging conspiracy orchestrated by Harman which intends ultimately to kill him, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of Dick trying (and briefly succeeding) to have Anne incarcerated in a mental institution because he was convinced that she was planning to murder him.
Of course, simply because Dick mentioned particular drugs – even if the mention betrays an in-depth and specific knowledge of drug abuse – that doesn’t necessarily mean he was taking them at the time (though in a Rolling Stone interview later in his life he’d assert that all his novels prior to A Scanner Darkly were written with the assistance of amphetamines). At the same time, though, the book from that point on, all the way as it chronicles Miller’s disintegration, takes on this fever dream quality which feels more real and evocative than any of the less chemically skewed interactions between people in Dick’s mainstream novels.
Dick’s assertions about his mainstream work rarely showed much insight (except when later in life he declared them inferior works that deserved to linger unpublished, unless his heirs happened to want some quick cash); about Humpty Dumpty, he said that the book is about “the proletarian world from the inside” (in contrast to books about the proletarian world by middle-class writers). I think it is more accurate to describe it as a book about the paranoid worldview from the inside. In Miller’s spiralling paranoia and his increasing conviction that Harman is a mafia boss who is out to kill him – despite Harman regularly showing him every kindness and trying to help him out over and over again – we see him falling into ever more alarming extremes of behaviour.
We also see the stirrings of the paranoid ambiguity which had long been a trademark of Dick’s SF and which he would refine in his subsequent SF novels; it’s not impossible that Harman really does mean Miller harm or is involved in something extremely dubious, and the narrative highlights this without presenting any clinching evidence that it is actually the case. Any evidence that contradicts Miller’s obsession – such as the mechanisms of the law and finance determining that actually, Harman wasn’t trying to scam Fergesson at all – is interpreted by Miller as proof of the reach and scope of Harman’s power. Eventually, he swings by the home of his friend Tootie and tries to find out where he can get an unregistered, anonymous gun, and Tootie perceptively realises that whilst Miller is talking murder, what he’s more likely steering towards is suicide.
The conclusion of the novel is somewhat botched because Dick seems to flinch at depicting the bottom of Miller’s downward spiral (or perhaps refrains from doing so for the sake of his editors). Just as Miller is grubbing about in his used car lot at night, a deus ex machina sweeps down in the form of Mrs. Lane, a matronly black real estate agent he interacts with throughout the book. She boasts of her weight loss, flashes her breasts at him to demonstrate that she is not wearing a bra, and decides not to go to a party she was planning to go to in favour of taking Miller home to look after him. Although the flashing kind of comes from out of nowhere compared to what we’ve seen of her so far, Mrs. Lane’s compulsion to mother Miller is less unprecedented, being part of this really awkward interaction between them throughout the story. Mrs. Lane is this impossible maternal fantasy figure who’s willing to drop everything to drive Miller around when necessary like she’s his chauffeur or something, and there’s this awkward scene earlier on in the book where Miller gets weirdly fixated on her hands and wrists. This isn’t the only instance where Miller sees black people as saviours who can understand him and help him better than any white person – Tootie is also black – but it’s perhaps the most extreme instance.
Dick writing about race at this phase of his career, as we’ve seen previously, is an embarrassing crapshoot. Here, there’s a frustrating mix of the helpful and the patronising. To give him his due, Dick introduces us to several black characters who have thoroughly middle class jobs – Mrs. Lane is a real estate agent, Tootie’s mother is a landlord who owns a number of apartment buildings – and to give Dick his due, the very existence of middle-class, financially secure and educated black people tended to be ignored by white writers addressing race at around this time.
At the same time, though, Dick attempts to make his black characters eloquent sorts who are able to articulate philosophical ideas that Miller can barely grasp whilst at the same time also making them talk according to his perception of how black people speak. (It involves dropping “am” and “would” and “will” and the like a lot and getting sloppy about past and present tense, so far as I can tell.) On the one hand, it’s definitely problematic to assume that “articulate and intelligent” automatically corresponds to “speaks English the way I speak it”. On the other hand, the way Dick executes this dialect doesn’t feel like it rings true. In a single character’s dialogue you’ll have complex and extended sentences executed to grammatical perfection next to Tarzan talk, which looks muddled, inconsistent, and cartoonish rather than any sort of solid depiction of an actual dialect. The inclusion of the black characters also feels a lot like an attempt to establish some sort of proletarian credibility; Al and Julie Miller live in an apartment building with black and Mexican neighbours in a way which I think is supposed to imply some sort of equality and solidarity in poverty.
Possibly this was how Dick and Kleo were living when the first draft of this novel was written in the mid-1950s (Julia seems a lot like Kleo in the sense that she has more educational accomplishments than Dick, as Kleo did, and supposedly has problems at work due to her philosophical opinions, which both happened to Kleo and is a regular feature of those characters who were inspired by her – see, for instance, Marsha in Eye In the Sky), but Dick would surely have been insulated from the proletarian life he was trying to capture in 1960 when he was living out in a rural town away from the urban centre he was trying to write about. And Miller’s neuroses do not feel like the neuroses of the working class. He has all sorts of fears and worries about accepting a job from Harman because he doesn’t want to be scammed into accepting a regular paying job which he won’t find satisfying, but if handed a job and a salary like Harman offers Miller on a plate, many working class Americans of the era would doubtless have jumped for it, because ultimately what Miller really needs right then and there is a steady source of income and Harman was providing exactly that.
Electing to impoverish yourself and those you live with out of some point of principle because you refuse to take a job you see as beneath you is not an impulse especially associated with any particular class, especially when the job is something like “artists and repertoire agent” and brings you into the inner circle of a generous and wealthy boss who seems willing to take you into his confidence and maybe snag superior opportunities later on. It would make more sense if Miller had something else in his life he felt he needed to maintain some reserve of time and emotional strength for – as Dick did with his whole starving artist deal – but Miller seems to have nothing in his life outside his job outside of a wife who wishes he’d apply himself and what looks for all the world like a case of major depression comorbid with the onset of paranoid delusions. Humpty Dumpty In Oakland is strongest when it steps back from Dick’s bugbears and political opinions and focuses on Miller falling deeper into the grasp of this paranoid worldview.
Ultimately, Dickian paranoia is best served in a novel format not by a solid, realistic setting, but by a disintegrating science fiction universe where not even the basic precepts of reality can be trusted, making Dick’s return to writing science fiction full time the next year timely.
1961: The Man In the High Castle
The Man In the High Castle is Dick’s first transcendently successful fusion of his science fiction interests with his literary goals. Although it takes place in an alternate timeline where the Axis powers won World War II, it is more interested in the characters it selects for special attention than it is in providing the sort of blow-by-blow account of the alternate timeline a less imaginative alternate history writer might have offered.
Precisely such a hack is present here in the form of Hawthorne Abendsen. Residing in the Rocky Mountain States, a quasi-independent country with close ties to the Pacific States of America (whose pinoc leaders in turn march to the beat set by their Japanese masters), Abendsen has penned a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy whose premise has rendered him persona non grata in the country that still calls itself the USA, as well as anywhere else in the German Reich’s sphere of influence, because it depicts a world where Germany and Japan lost the war, leading to a Cold War between a British Empire that tries to put a kinder face on colonialism and a United States which applies the philosophy of FDR’s New Deal to foreign policy and international aid.
The connecting thread between Dick and Abendsen is that both construct their alternate history novels by consulting the I Ching whenever they come to a decision point, allowing this random factor to shape their creative process. But whereas what extracts we get from Grasshopper seem very dry and info-dumpy (in a dead-on imitation of the bulk of alternate histories and future histories from the first half of the twentieth century), Dick is more interested in depicting slice-of-life stories focused on a group of people who almost live in separate worlds from each other in their own right, save for a few minor, tenuous points of contact and a shared interest in both The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and the I Ching.
Mr Tagomi, an official of moderate but not overwhelming importance at the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, becomes the unwitting mediator for a meeting between General Tedeki of the Imperial high command and Rudolf Wegener, an Abwehr agent dispatched to warn of a dangerous new development in the Reich’s plans concerning Japan. Robert Childan, operator of an emporium selling pre-War Americana (for which there is a craze among Japanese collectors), struggles to reconcile the pragmatic rewards of ingratiating himself to the Japanese elite on the one hand with his sneaking admiration for Nazi accomplishments on the other. Frank Frink, a craftsman who must hide his Jewish identity lest he get extradited to the USA and the concentration camps, loses his job at a factory producing fake Civil War firearms for the collector’s market, and is cajoled by co-worker Ed McCarthy into starting a homemade jewellery business producing new Americana – artifacts which attempt to assert a modern American identity instead of one rooted in the past. Juliana Frink, Frank’s ex-wife, finds her quiet life as a judo instructor in the Rocky Mountain States disrupted when she has a passionate liaison with Italian truck driver Joe Cinnadella, who talks her into a road trip to meet Abendsen which may have a sinister purpose.
Though ultimately it can’t really be said that the I Ching actually coauthored The Man In the High Castle – it was still Dick who chose which questions to ask, and still Dick who interpreted the answers he got – the introduction of this creative aid to Dick’s writing process helps to shunt him out of the rut his writing had very obviously reached during his efforts to gain mainstream success. The Dick who wrote In Milton Lumky Territory or Puttering About In a Small Land would without a doubt have found some way to turn Juliana into an outright hate figure, and would have probably had her betraying someone to the Nazis or something. Instead, although early on Frank gets a divination dissuading him from seeking reconciliation with her because she isn’t right for him, Juliana actually manages to be a more rational, intelligent and effective woman than anyone would have expected Dick to evoke at this point.
Now, don’t get too excited there. I’m not saying she’s a strong female character of the sort that 2014 audiences could unironically embrace and her plot does largely revolve around her sleeping with the wrong guy on a whim and then severely regretting it. At the same time, she shows a level of competence and independent motivation rare for women in Dick’s fiction at this time. Rather being the helpless dupe of Joe’s plot to assassinate Abendsen, she susses out what the deal is whilst they are still miles away from Abendsen’s home, and in defiance both of Joe’s physical threats and him dosing her with Nembutal to try and make her incoherent and compliant, she is able to improvise an escape which neutralises the threat posed by Joe and allows her to get a warning to Abendsen. What’s more, she’s also possessed of sufficient insight to realise that Grasshopper must have been written with the use of the I Ching, which seems to be trying to alert its users to the fabricated nature of their reality like a more expressive version of the improbable coin tosses at the start of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
(Additionally, Dick specifically avoids making her a fantasy figure. Oh, sure, she physically resembles his dark-haired girl archetype, and indeed is chosen by Joe because Abendsen, as the local Dick incarnation, has the same taste in women and so might be persuaded to let his guard down around her. As it pans out, though, Abendsen shows little sign of being dissatisfied with his wife, and on the whole seems more disturbed and uncomfortable by their meeting, setting a sharp contrast with those Dick protagonists who find themselves instantaneously smitten with his unattainable fantasy women elsewhere in his earlier and subsequent fiction.)
Dick’s worldbuilding here is something special too. Especially for a book which came out at the height of the Cold War, there is a distinct lack of American exceptionalism on display. The idea that the USA is something special and different from every other country in the world is a big deal in American culture; of course, “our country’s best” is a sentiment that isn’t unique to America, but the combination of the USA’s superpower status and the fact that it never actually faced any danger on the mainland during either World War (not to mention the roaring popularity of the whole Manifest Destiny deal prior to that) has made the US flavour of exceptionalism particularly spicy since at least the 1940s.
Here, Dick rejects it entirely. Like any other country, the US in this timeline proved capable of being invaded, partitioned, and ripped to shreds. In our world, Soviet analysts believed that an occupation of the US would be impossible, due to the gun culture distributing weapons so widely; here, however, Dick is more pessimistic about American resistance, with no real resistance movement being in evidence. (The fact that America is occupied by two powers may help here, prompting people to side with whichever power they hate less rather than wanting to go it alone.)
Another interesting choice is that except for one fleeting scene, Dick never actually takes us into the Third Reich’s sphere of influence; the closest look we get at ideologically correct Nazis revolves around the scenes in the local German embassy. The reader is left to infer what’s been going down in that half of the planet through hints and references here and there. Characters flinch back from thinking too carefully about what’s happened in Africa, but the precise details of what went down never come out (and don’t really need to – what do you think would happen to Africa if the Nazis owned it?). Hitler isn’t actually much of a presence in the novel because the Nazi personality cult can only exalt one Fuhrer at a time, and Martin Bormann has been firmly in charge ever since Hitler was shunted off to spend his last years in a sanitarum. (It’s suggested that he had full-blown neurosyphils, which I initially thought was a slightly trite way to explain away Hitler’s ideology, but on further consideration that’s only presented as a rumour – and it’s precisely the sort of rumour that you might expect would be spread to justify an internal coup.) Apparently the sparse attention paid to the Nazi side of this alternate history was in part due to Dick just not feeling emotionally able to cope with addressing them directly (though the diaries of Gestapo officers he read as part of his research would eventually form part of the inspiration for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), but it actually works quite well for a depiction of a Cold War scenario from inside the Japanese sphere of influence. After all, most Americans in 1961 knew little about what life was actually like in the Soviet Union other than rumour and conspiracy theory, so why expect this timeline to be different on that score?
Another distinction between Dick’s handling of the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire is that (with the exception of the Emperor) more or less wartime leaders of Japan are named as being still active in the Imperial government, whereas the Nazi hierarchy finds the whole infamous rogues’ gallery squabbling over the succession to Hitler and Bormann. I suspect a large part of this is due to the way the war was propaganidised in the West; whereas both the US and British publicity machines took the easy option of just demonising the Japanese as a race, the Nazi leadership has become a sort of aristocracy of Hell in the public imagination. Certainly, I can name an alarming number of Nazis off the top of my head, but when it comes to the Japanese leadership I only know Hirohito and Tojo, which is kind of pathetic. Equally, though, the brushing aside of Japanese war criminals seems deliberate on Dick’s part; he isn’t exactly erasing Japanese war crimes (there’s allusions to the invasion and early occupation of the West Coast witnessing some grim stuff), but there’s gentle implications that the War Cabinet was at some point dissolved and replaced by a technocratic group who are trying to manage the Japanese sphere of influence primarily through trade and economic means rather than jumping straight to the military option.
Although The Man In the High Castle represents a sea change in Dick’s writing, that isn’t to say his favoured themes don’t make an appearance. Racism is, if anything, exacerbated by the occupation; whilst this operates along obvious lines on the Nazi side (they’ve let the Southern states bring back slavery, for instance), in the PSA the Japanese follow the classic 19th Century colonialism playbook: pick an ethnic group, elevate them over the others in the area, and make sure they remember that you’ve got their back when it comes to enforcing their status, provided they act as your loyal administrators and middle managers. In the PSA a white “pinoc” government rules over a West Coast where the civil rights movement of our world seems to have been smothered; black people and Chinese are openly looked down on, Japanese are unfailingly deferred to. Aside from the exalted status of the Japanese, the racial order is much as it was before the war, preserved by the occupiers as a useful tool of control.
It is in hints from the I Ching and the fraying at the edges of this false reality that hope is to be found. Looked at on a macroscopic scale, doom is inevitable, thanks mainly to the power struggle in the Reich in the wake of Bormann’s death. If Goebbels secures his position as the new Chancellor of the Reich, nuclear war with Japan seems inevitable. The main alternative is Reinhard Heydrich, universally feared as a hardliner even by Nazi standards; short-term world peace would come at the cost of delivering half the world into the hands of the Butcher of Prague – who might decide to attack Japan anyway ten years down the line. No route out of occupation seems open to America; no route away from a third world war seems open to the two superpowers.
And yet, as the novel closes you can feel the start of a trickle of little victories gnawing on the edges of the status quo. Frank Frink is freed from custody and saved from deportation and the gas chamber by an act of deliberate diplomatic rudeness on the part of Tagomi, who has barely any idea who he is other than he’s a Jew that the Nazis want deported to the USA for extermination. Juliana has saved Abendsen from the assassination plot and discovered the truth behind the I Ching‘s hopeful messages. Childan has discovered a middle path that allows him to assert an American identity without accepting Nazi dogma. Goebbels fails to eliminate Heydrich, making it possible that a prolonged internal conflict will lead to the Nazi machine finally chewing its own guts out. Mr Tagomi, though his heart ultimately cannot bear what he has had to do to save Rudolf, has the consolation of a brief vision of our own world, brought about by meditating on a piece of Ed and Frank’s jewellery that he and others would otherwise consider junk. (Here, returning from Time Out of Joint and pointing the way to 2-3-74, is the idea of enlightenment and truth being discovered in the trash.) This whirl of little signs of hope in the depths of darkness is one of Dick’s most lucid expressions of his ideas about change arising from indirect and imperceptible peripheral actions when a direct attack on the centre isn’t possible.
Another source of hope in Dick’s fiction is youth, and here youth are represented by the Kasouras, a young Japanese couple who attempt to befriend Childan after they visit his store. Showing a genuine interest in American culture on the one hand whilst being gravely disappointed at Childan’s pro-Nazi outbursts during an uncomfortable dinner at their apartment, the Kasouras may hail from the occupying culture, but equally they seem to want to forge a more equal path, part of which entails nudging Childan into realising that what he really craves isn’t white dominance so much as it is an American identity he has had to set aside for professional reasons.
Childan is actually a great character study in how a white middle-class American might respond to living in an occupied country. Throughout the novel, Dick regularly has characters speak and think in that particular mode which was common in the 1960s for denoting that a character is a Japanese person who isn’t a very comfortable English speaker – extensive and somewhat over-formal vocabulary, slightly unusual grammatical structure, you know the drill. Where he lays it on the thickest is not with Mr Tagomi and other Japanese characters – it’s with Childan. To ingratiate himself to the occupiers, Childan overtly adopts what he perceives as their attitudes and modes of speech, but succeeds only in turning himself into an embarrassing caricature (not least because he’s a little insincere – he’s all flattery with the Japanese, but would rather be with the Reich).
I’m afraid this review’s meandered a bit, and that’s mostly because I don’t really have a single, central thesis to offer about The Man In the High Castle. Every time I think I’ve hit on the central, core pillar of the book, I remember some other dimension of it which takes me off in a different tangent. That’s Dick’s real achievement here; it’s not that he achieves a quantum leap in his handling of women (he doesn’t, he’s just less loudly and overtly obnoxious than he had been for much of the late 1950s), and it’s not that it’s an enthusiastic return to SF (though this is welcome), and it’s not that his characterisation is miles ahead of its predecessors (he’d been honing it through his mainstream novels even if he had been applying it to alternatingly tedious and noxious subject matter). What makes Castle so hard to summarise, and what makes it one of the really unique entries in Dick’s bibliography, is the way Dick is able to craft this vividly believable universe whilst actually being extremely sparse in the worldbuilding. Hawthorne Abendsen is a much more pedestrian alternate history author and the Grasshopper extracts we get seem to involve an awful lot of exposition of the sort typical to the subgenre, but The Man In the High Castle feels like this very simple, humble thing which, like the tatty jewellery that gives Mr Tagomi a momentary glimpse of our world, somehow contains an entire universe.
1962: We Can Build You (AKA A. Lincoln, Simulacrum)
Submitted to Dick’s literary agents in 1962, We Can Build You didn’t see publication until 1972 (a truncated version appeared as the novella A. Lincoln, Simulacrum in 1969, with a different ending tacked on – with Dick’s approval – by Amazing Stories editor Ted White). That said, aside from White’s ending being added to the short story version and removed from the novel, the text doesn’t seem to have been tampered with since it was originally penned – what insights we have into the timeline proposes divergent technologies and discoveries taking place throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which you’d expect for a SF story penned in 1962, and the references to the US President’s philandering ways feels like it has to be inspired by JFK’s playboy image. Moreover, a range of names and concepts from the novel would be recycled in the subsequent Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? whilst Dick had given up on the thing being published, but are retained here unchanged.
The novel is narrated by Louis Rosen, who along with his business partner Maury Rock operate MASA Associates, purveyors of fine electronic musical instruments. (Another thing which suggests that the bulk of the text was never revised is the lack of a mention of any post-1962 synthesisers). Business is declining, however, because MASA’s instruments are unable to compete with the Hammerstein Mood Organ – a device which can be used to evoke emotional responses in listeners through direct electronic stimulation of the brain without any of that “music” malarkey. (This gives rise to a neat bit late in the novel where a psychiatrist mentions that a particular drug evokes a mood corresponding to a certain configuration on the Mood Organ, and Rosen realises that that exact same configuration played on a conventional organ would be the opening of Beethoven’s Sixteenth Quartet.)
One day, Maury surprises Louis by proposing a radical new direction for the company. Basic human simulacra have already been developed to conduct those aspects of space colonisation that are too dangerous to delegate to actual human beings; Maury hits on the idea of giving the things actual personalities, meticulously researched from historical personages. (The resemblance to a certain real-life fusion of robotics and art installation would, no doubt, have pleased Dick to no end.) There’s a Civil War craze on which Maury reckons MASA can cash in on, ranging from re-enacted battles using simulacra to recreating major figures of the time to a level of painstaking detail that would tax the memory and mimicry of even the best actor. US Secretary of War Edward Stanton is the prototype, and the art is perfected with a recreation of Abraham Lincoln himself.
Louis, however, has misgivings about the project, not least because it is the brainchild of Maury’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Pris Frauenzimmer (who, unlike Maury, chooses to use the family’s old surname from back in Europe). Pris has schizophrenia, and in this future psychiatry has gone from being a private practice to a nationalised industry to a universal obligation. Testing for psychiatric ailments is pervasive, and those who develop disorders of a particular severity are subject to mandatory hospitalisation. Pris just got out recently, but Louis doesn’t believe she’s better – he thinks the entire simulacrum project has a sinister, morbid undercurrent born of Pris’ illness. Louis is further alarmed by Pris’ decision to bring the simulacra to the attention of the fabulously wealthy Sam K. Barrows, a land speculator who’s grown rich forcing the Supreme Court to respect his real estate claims on the Moon, and who soon hatches a plan to produce android simulacra of ideal suburban neighbours to be friendly pals for space colonists.
Yes, Louis Rosen’s potent imagination foresees all manner of trouble coming from this project – and becomes more and more fixated on Pris as simultaneously an agent of inhuman destruction and a glorious archetype of femininity. This is hardly the only eccentricity Louis reveals, and it becomes clear that he might be in need of a rest cure himself. Certainly, a wild trip to Seattle in which he veers wildly between threatening to kill Barrows and offering him MASA on a plate reveals that Louis is coming apart at the seams – and not even the kindly intervention of Abraham Lincoln can set him back on an even course.
We Can Build You is a bit of an oddity in Dick’s science fiction – in fact, in many respects it’s a mild throwback to his mainstream writing. Following the runaway success of The Man In the High Castle, Dick was at a creative crossroads; High Castle combined delirious SF imagination with the more mundane priorities of his non-genre novels, and Dick wanted to see if he could sell work which played down the SF side of his writing even further and leaned on the mainstream side a bit more. The failure of We Can Build You to find a buyer prompted him to steer a more garishly SFnal course for most of the subsequent decade.
To be honest, I can kind of understand why editors at the time rejected it. The toned-down, low key style would have been off-putting to the same SF publishers who would have been excited by the wilder and more radically divergent Man In the High Castle, whilst mainstream editors who had already turned down the likes of In Milton Lumky Territory would have probably been put off by the recurrence of the same repetitive obsessions and gloomy motifs that had turned them off those books. Indeed, We Can Build You shares the same Boise, Idaho setting as Milton Lumky, and Dick also recycles the motif of a character driven to the end of their tether dreaming an alternate outcome where they ended up reconnecting with the object of their obsession after all, though here it’s much clearer that this is supposed to be a delusional breakdown.
Indeed, the thing which makes We Can Build You a bit more complex than the simplistic misogynistic grumpfests Dick had been crafting in the late 1950s is not the simulacra, who are ultimately rather incidental to the key plot (which is the unravelling of Louis’ psyche in the process of his interactions with Pris), but the greater acknowledgement (or perhaps better communication) that the main character’s interpretation of events is not to be trusted. Of course, Dick had gone there to an extent with Confessions of a Crap Artist, but because of the way that novel wavered between first and third person narration, and the way the demonisation of Fay in that book seemed supported by multiple sources rather than being one character’s delusion, it still had the undercurrent of a hate letter to women in general.
Here, however, the consistently first-person narration conveys the idea that Louis is an unreliable narrator much more effectively – and no mistake about it, he’s very unreliable indeed. Louis is so far gone that his assessment of Pris simply has to be called into question, not least because his fixation on her is so central to his breakdown. Both his delusional experience where he chooses to imagine he’s finally caught up with her in Seattle rather than admit that he’s only found his father and brother, come to take him away for his own good, and the more directed hallucinations induced under psychiatric supervision as part of the mental hospital’s treatment process, make it clear that Louis doesn’t really want or understand Pris in the least bit and is far more interested in this version of her he’s built up in his head than the actual human being that inspired that fantasy.
That isn’t to say that Pris doesn’t embody one of Dick’s recurring misogynistic fantasies – the emotionless emotional manipulator and destroyer of men’s egos who is all too easily mistaken for the glorious saviour of men’s souls – to the hilt. However, Dick here seems to be engaged in a process of crafty self-diagnosis. Through the medium of one of Louis’ consultations with his doctors, Dick posits the existence of “Magna Mater schizophrenia”, a condition in which a portion of the patient’s consciousness which they are unable to reconcile with themselves is projected onto something in the exterior world – such as another human being – which is then worshipped by the patient who does not realise that what they are actually fixating on is a neglected part of themselves, rather than the person or thing that part of their personality is projected upon.
This is not just reminiscent of the cosmology of VALIS, in which divinity is traumatically divided in two and then spends eternity seeking reconciliation; it is also so directly reminiscent of Dick’s own lifelong fixation with his deceased twin that it is hard not to see it as being at least partly autobiographical. Thus, whilst the conclusion in which Pris gives Louis pointers on what he needs to say to the doctors to get out, but deliberately stays in the mental hospital herself, can be seen as her making a messianic sacrifice so that Louis may live, equally it can be seen as her tricking him into finally fucking off and leaving her alone where she’s happy. It’s this which makes me enjoy We Can Build You more than I otherwise would have – not only are there viable readings which fly in the face of Dick’s misogyny, but these readings seem clearly built in by Dick in the process of interrogating his own issues.
That said, I couldn’t blame readers for finding the character of Pris off-putting, or Dick’s self-interrogation to be unfulfilling. Certainly, this self-examination wouldn’t lead to much immediate improvement, however; in the very next year Dick would become convinced that his then-wife Anne was plotting to kill him (just as Louis spontaneously becomes afraid of Maury and Pris’ motives), and have her committed to a mental hospital for two weeks based on this, an incident which not only brought their marriage to an end but also saw Dick succumbing to the very loss of objectivity he portrays here to an extent which was clearly harmful to those around him. We’ve talked recently in the Playpen (concerning Marion Zimmer Bradley and her daughter’s recent disclosures of abuse) about even if you believe you should judge the work separately from the author, in practice there are some things you just can’t overlook; I’m sure some would find it impossible to contemplate reading Dick knowing that about him, and whilst I admire his work too much to abandon it even despite that revelation, at the same time it does cast a bit of a pall over this specific work..
One of the interesting things about the psychiatry angle here is that it isn’t presented in a full-on dystopian mode, which would be more typical for SF of this era; instead of being an unalloyed evil, or even a good thing that has run grotesquely out of control, it’s simply a fact of life with both good and bad aspects. Dr Horstowski, the first shrink Louis sees, is a little too ready to propose medication or surgery, and seems disinterested in his patients to an extent which seems to go beyond professional detachment and starts to smell like he just doesn’t give a shit about his job; on the whole, he seems realistically crap.
Conversely, Louis reports the mental hospital he is consigned to as a genuinely benign environment, where the staff may be overworked but genuinely try to help and where the surroundings are at points downright luxurious. It’s worth noting that in this future vast numbers of people of all social strata pass through the mental health system, and there’s been a radical weakening of social disapproval as a result – not only did the President get elected despite his past mental health difficulties being public knowledge, but his case history is actually an electoral advantage since he’s much admired for overcoming mental illness in his youth. Perhaps these factors have contributed in this timeline to ensuring mental hospitals are more pleasant environments – after all, if everyone suspects that they or one of their loved ones may pass through the system at some point, it’s much easier to sell people on the idea of improving them. It’s not quite a utopian retreat from the stress and suffering of everyday life, but it isn’t some squalid misery hole or totalitarian brainwashing centre either, setting it aside from the vast majority of the depictions of mental hospitals in genre fiction.
Although it ultimately doesn’t come to much, the simulacra/space colonisation/corporate politics subplot does provide some enjoyment too. Dick clearly went all out in researching Stanton and Lincoln and presents believable renditions of them – I particularly like the way they make themselves useful to MASA by taking up their old jobs as attorneys – and Barrows’ desperate plan to use corny cut-rate simulacra to salvage his doomed lunar colonisation project is impressively audacious. At the same time, the novel suffers a little that it’s two-fifths about the interaction between two people, two-fifths about the interaction between one person and the illusory version of the other person he creates in his head, and one-fifth about the simulacra (and that’s giving a generous portion to the simulacra): everyone who isn’t Louis, Pris or a robot feels shallow, and indeed Pris is the only woman in the book who receives anything remotely approaching characterisation (and 99% of that is “weird, inconsistent cypher who might or might not have any interior emotional life whatsoever”).
In the broad scheme of things, We Can Build You is an oddity in Dick’s bibliography that is more interesting for when he happened to write it and the ramifications its failure to sell had for his later writing than it is in its own right. The autobiographical aspect, and in particular Dick apparently getting some temporary insight into his issues with women, are both significant developments, but they don’t lead to anything artistically transcendent right here and now, and you can kind of see why White tacked on an extra chapter to round things off, because the ending as it stands is extremely abrupt. At the same time, perhaps because of the distinctive voice that becomes apparent through Rosen, I find it a lot more engaging than his mainstream books, and fans of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? may find it interesting as a pseudo-prequel. (Common threads include the Rosen Corporation being the manufacturers of the androids in Electric Sheep, the Deckards owning a Mood Organ, the name of Pris being preserved as the designation for a particular model of android, and space colonisation continuing apace with android helpers being part of the draw for human colonists.) None of this is really enough to put it in the top tier of Dick’s novels, though.
1962: Martian Time-Slip (AKA All We Marsmen)
Mars in the 1990s is undergoing a process of colonisation that has stagnated. In principle sponsored by the UN, with the superpowers back home becoming more interested in the new frontier of interstellar colonisation made possible by new propulsion systems the Martian colonies have been increasingly neglected of late. Most of them are affiliated with particular national governments back on Earth who have exported their terrestrial national rivalries and cultural prejudices to the red planet; for instance, one of the most successful colonies is New Israel, thanks to its colonists getting top-notch survival training in desert kibbutz settlements back on Earth, and the resultant tensions are depressingly familiar.
Some colonies, though, are backed by private groups. Next to New Israel, the most powerful colony on Mars is Lewistown, stronghold of the Water Workers’ Union, who hold great power by virtue of the fact that it’s them who keep the water the colonies use flowing through the ancient Martian canal system. Supreme Goodmember Arnie Kott, recently elected as head of the Union, is too politically savvy to take this political dominance for granted, and in particular is burning with curiosity about rumours of land speculators showing an interest in the apparently worthless Franklin D. Roosevelt mountain range. Kott wants to develop some means of working out whether the speculators are genuinely onto something or have been scammed, and hits on an audacious and unorthodox idea.
Manfred Steiner has autism to the extent that he is completely nonverbal, and lives in Camp Ben-Gurion, a home for “abnormal” children in New Israel as a result. Manfred comes to the attention of Kott when his father, Norbert Steiner – a black marketeer specialising in delicious Earth food who supplied Kott with most of his favourite treats – commits suicide in the midst of profound confusion and emotional turmoil prompted by a rumour that the UN would order Camp Ben-Gurion destroyed and the abnormal children exterminated so as to maintain the image of the off-world colonies as clearer and purer than Earth. Kott has heard an intriguing new theory – that autistic children possess a radically different perception of time than neurotypical folk, which is what hampers their communication with others and, in extreme cases like Manfred’s, their interest in the outside world. If Kott could find some way to communicate with Manfred, maybe Manfred’s sense of time includes information from the future – or the key to changing the past.
Jack Bohlen is a humble repairman who emigrated to Mars because Earth was literally driving him insane – Bohlen has situational schizophrenia, his schizophrenic symptoms only manifesting under certain stresses which are omnipresent on overcrowded Earth and blessedly absent on Mars. After inadvertently coming to Kott’s attention, Bohlen is hired to work on constructing experimental equipment to help communicate with Manfred. But Bohlen understands Manfred all too well, and finds his schizophrenic symptoms returning under Manfred’s influence – and in turn becoming changed in line with Manfred’s own perception. Faced with a child who has an absolutely pessimistic view of time and entropy due to the child’s experiences in old age, Bohlen finds it’s all he can do to stay functional as Kott tries to use Manfred to make a personal intervention in the past.
Martian Time-Slip presents an intriguingly unglamorous vision of interplanetary colonisation that is less about the technical challenge of getting the colony started and more about what happens when the colony stagnates. Centred around a surreal transplantation of the rural area around Point Reyes where Dick lived with Anne to the deserts of Mars, the colony depicted has hit a dead end, descending into a depressing repetition of the mistakes of old Earth and failing to craft a distinctly Martian culture. The children are taught an Earth-derived curriculum at the UN public school, staffed by simulacra of historical figures (Abe Lincoln has wound up here – no word on whether it’s the same Lincoln from We Can Build You, mind) as well as archetypal figures like Angry Janitor, but Bohlen wonders whether this isn’t just a neurotic symptom of a failure to create a new culture adapted to conditions on Mars. The UN has big plans to reinvigorate Mars, but these double down on the same failed “just like Earth, but on Mars” idea, and Manfred’s vision of the future suggests that in the long run the project will be a monstrous failure.
Dick had long been an advocate of pessimism in science fiction, but whereas previously he had applied this pessimism to the question of nuclear war, and whilst he had previously raised doubts as to whether interplanetary colonisation would be the clean, heroic process his peers tended to portray it as, never before had he gone after a beloved dream of the SF field with quite the devastating gloom he brings to bear here. The most troubling aspect of the colonisation process is the Bleekmen. Read between the lines carefully, note how ancient the Martian canals are and the occasional reference to genetic connections between the Bleekmen and ancient African populations, and a hidden backstory emerges that is essentially a callback to Survey Team, in which it is discovered that humans emigrated from Mars to Earth to escape the consequences of their destruction of the planet – and are now returning to Mars just as Earth is starting to get unbearable in turn. The Bleekmen, then, must be descended from the folk who didn’t get a spot on the colony ships to Earth – and here we are back again, taking their land and driving them into the deep desert so we can start the whole miserable process over.
That’s an unsubtle and heavy-handed example, mind – Dick even has Kott using Earthly racial slurs to refer to the Bleekmen to drive this point home – but the landscape of the novel is littered with signs of doom both direct and substantially more subtle than that. Manfred’s curse is not that he has precognitive powers which extend to a kind of time travel within his own lifetime, which he can extend to others at the price of capturing them within his own worldview; if anything, that’s a superpower which lets him escape the trap time has set for him by the end of the novel. No, Manfred’s doom is that he perceives the entropy chewing at the heart of the Mars colony with painful, unflinching clarity, whilst simultaneously being unable to perceive any sign of hope. This vision of entropy as a hidden and active force is shared not just by Bohlen; it also slips into other works by Dick such as Ubik or A Maze of Death, both of which depict in their own way false worlds that are in the process of decay like Manfred’s subjective world here. (Notably, in The Man In the High Castle the Nazi reality is also decaying, but the decay is positive because that universe is actively evil, and in Ubik there is posited a counter-entropic opposing force which is benign – a force Dick would come to believe he encountered in his 2-3-74 experience.)
We get our first glimpse of Manfred’s view of the world in one of Dick’s more successful experiments in nonlinear narration – a dinner party between Kott, Bohren, and Doreen, Kott’s lover that he allows to sleep with Bohren to keep him loyal and sane, with Manfred in attendance. Narrating the scene multiple times from each character’s perspective, it becomes clear that everyone perceived the evening differently – but subtly informed by Manfred’s terrifyingly bleak outlook. Where it gets really odd is where it becomes apparent that the characters are remembering (or experiencing) the party at different points – for instance, the narration of Bohren’s take on the party is followed by some narration about stuff Bohren does before the party, during which Bohren seems to vaguely remember what is going to happen at the party, and the end of the party is not narrated ever and Bohren can’t remember it, needing to be reminded by Doreen what happened just as we need her to narrate this stuff to follow what is going on. This, plus Kott’s eventual inability to tell whether he is in the objective universe or that of Manfred’s creation, makes the reality of suburban Mars just as fragile as that of Japanese-occupied San Francisco.
Returning from We Can Build You is a continuing fascination with schizophrenia, expressed jointly through direct portrayals of schizophrenic experiences (heightened in this case by the construction of realities which, as in Eye In the Sky, work according to the axioms set from a schizophrenic perspective), and in terms of theorising (both realistic and fantastic) about the nature and origin of schizophrenia. Here both Bohlen and Manfred represent different takes on the condition at different severities; Bohlen has occasional episodes but has a shot at setting them aside and living like anyone else in his society, provided that society isn’t cruel enough to break him, whilst Manfred for better or worse does not have that option and must find a way of life he can tolerate rather than adapting to a society (and a precognitively viewed destiny) he cannot accept.
Again, I think back to Dick’s asides in the Exegesis that his AI voice started talking to him whilst he was in high school. Dick’s post-2-3-74 novels of the 1970s have tended to be viewed as psychiatric autobiography, Dick trying to pick apart what is going on with his brain from all angles, but it’s hard not to see this trend in his work as extending back before that (consciously or otherwise). Read as some sort of universal theory of autism or a generalised, sweeping statement about schizophrenia, there’d be a lot that’s problematic about the novel’s handling of Manfred and Bohlen, but the tone of the novel comes across to me as more personal, an attempt at depicting schizophrenia from the inside out.
Martian Time-Slip is by no means perfect. The depiction of the Bleekmen veers into Noble Savage territory in the way their culture and way of life turns out to be magically so much better for Manfred than Earth culture, or in the way that compassionate Bleekmen give Bohlen and Manfred crucial help at different points in the book. (This is particularly distasteful when you set this next to the off-hand mentions of a Bleekman-Africa connection.) As far as women go, we are treated to a brace of stock characters – an interfering middle aged busybody who organises letter-writing campaigns for worthy causes, a bored housewife who has an extramarital affair and then decides she regrets it just in time to reconcile with her husband when he gets back from his own extramarital affair, and the recurring “sexually intoxicating woman who has an interest in both the protagonist and a rich, powerful antagonist” Dick character who also appears in We Can Build You and Solar Lottery account for more or less all the women with actual names. But between the unique take on interplanetary colonisation and the depiction of a genuinely unusual worldview, I find that there’s more than enough to enjoy here that I can look past all that, though readers will have to make their own judgement on how true that is for them.
This set of books covers a really crucial time in the development of Dick’s writing. In the mid-to-late 1950s he’d turned from an SF author who I quite liked despite his weaknesses and quirks into a mainstream author whose skills were more polished but whose work I could hardly stand. Then, all of a sudden, he sits down with the I Ching and transforms into a SF writer whose work is consistently fascinating, writing books which were unique at the time and haven’t successfully been imitated since. That doesn’t mean that dross like Humpty Dumpty In Oakland can be forgotten about, and it doesn’t mean Dick is infallible from here on out – We Can Build You shows how during this era Dick could still write himself into a corner, and could still allow his less enlightening obsessions derail a book entirely.
But from The Man In the High Castle onwards Dick’s science fiction hits a new level of quality and originality, forged in the dark pits of his mainstream novels, which is consistently higher than that of his 1950s output. I personally consider The Man In the High Castle and Martian Time-Slip to be two of his best; they are not flawless, little of his work is, but when I weigh them in the balance their virtues consistently come out ahead for me. It’s this sort of work which made me a Dick fan; the way I see it, if you’re going to be a fan of problematic things, you may as well select really top-quality problematic things to be a fan of. Obviously, your own mileage will vary when it comes to the race issues and sexism on display and whether that renders the material unreadable for you; if you can read and enjoy other SF works of this vintage, you probably won’t find High Castle or Time-Slip radically more problematic than that, and Dick at least seems to think about and examine his attitude to this stuff on occasion, which is more than I could say for some authors.