Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Philip K. Dick, How is it That I've Just Finally Gotten to Reading You???!!?

Funny how a writer can be at your periphery for years (such was the case with Nabokov for me), and once you finally get to their work you are stunned by how you had ever managed to dodge reading them before then. Philip K. Dick has proven in my first reading of him to be that kind of writer. Most everyone has heard of him, and he has a huge following, but he's easy enough to ignore as a genre science fiction writer.

Perhaps this commonplace dismissal is best described by Kurt Vonnegut, who once said of his own label as a science fiction writer, "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since [the novel "Player Piano"], and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." And I agree with Vonnegut's assertion and consider its truth a shame, because while I can see how a lot of science fiction doesn't demonstrate the mastery of prose that you find in more turgid canonical works, it still often demonstrates a uniqueness of insight, of explicating the magical mysteries of our human condition and wondering who we are, that to me always matters more than artful and mellifluous composition / an author's meditative dexterity.

But, while not Nabokov, Philip K. Dick was above the median writing abilities of, even other widely read, science fiction novelists if you ask me. He has a straightforward way of expressing his narratives, but this always feels natural enough. There's no stilted or affected quality to it.

Moreover, I read on the back cover of my copy of "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" (which is the novel of his I read, likewise) an endorsement of his stating, "Dick [was] many authors: a poor man's Pynchon, an oracular postmodern, a rich product of the changing counterculture." In particular I'm struck by the parallel to Pynchon, which is apt, actually. I hate to refer to Dick as a "poor man's" anything, but still Thomas Pynchon is a worthy comparison. This is especially true as goes each writer's deftness with absurd puns meant as satirical stand-ins for the kinds of needful-things products that define American consumerism.

In "Palmer Eldritch" what we are presented with is a world of unreality. The people of earth live under the auspices of the UN (become a kind of world government), and given the unsustainable population explosion, said people are frequently conscripted to live in the less hospitable terrains of other planets and so forth in our solar system (Mars and the moon, most notably). So to escape the monotony of existence in these desolate places the colonists take mind-altering substances. They're illegal, yes, but more or less tolerated by the UN because of the otherwise intolerable conditions of the colonies. "Can-D" is the drug of choice at the story's outset, sold covertly by the forces of Leo Bulero, owner of P.P. Layouts, which manufactures, among other things, human-like dolls in which takers of "Can-D" will assume conscious control during their fantasy, drug-induced moments. This in itself is a very trippy idea, certainly, but the story only becomes more so as the plot thickens -- a readily apparent defining characteristic of Dick's work.

The story centers primarily on Barney Mayerson, a precog under the employ of Bulero and P.P. Layouts. Mayerson is exceptionally skilled at precognition. His job requires that he look into the future and see what trends will become popular, and then allow for P.P. Layouts to capitalize on them by purchasing exclusive rights (a kind of question-begging proposition in itself, although not quite because Mayerson checks to see if products are hits or misses rather than what is verifiably trendy, cornering that market in advance).

Cue the return of Palmer Eldritch, a wealthy industrialist and space navigator who returns to our solar system after a decade of traversing other regions of space, most notably the Prox system, crash landing on Pluto. More importantly it's what Palmer Eldritch has brought back with him, a new drug called "Chew-Z." What ensues is a battle between Bulero and Eldritch for rights to the drug market in our system. "Chew-Z" promises to be much more than "Can-D" ever could, of fact which Eldritch demonstrates to both Bulero and Mayerson in separate moments. What it also seems to be is much more than just a drug, a means of living forever, if only seemingly within the illusion of the drug's escape.

More than anything, both the characters in the story and the reader are left to wonder what is reality after a certain while into the narrative. Which brings to mind, if "Inception" wasn't inspired somewhat by the works of Philip K. Dick I'll eat every shoe I've ever owned.

(Disclaimer: Matt Rowan will not actually eat shoes belonging to himself or anyone else if proven incorrect in the preceding assertion.)

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