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The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick: (A Book Review)

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Today we're considering the novel by science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick. It is a paperback version of The Cosmic Puppets. It is a very brief 143-pages, first published in 1957. The publisher is Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

The first thing to say is that although the book is short, it does not feel short. That is not to say that it is a ponderous read, because that is rarely the case with Philip K. Dick fiction. I suppose I'm just saying that it "punches above its weight," as it were, in packing a bigger "punch" than its brevity might suggest. In other words, I think I'm just saying that despite its mere 143 pages, there is a lot of there there.

The second thing to say is that although Mr. Dick was primarily known as a science fiction writer, per se, he did write other kinds of books. He produced a body of work that does not easily fit under any single label.

Strictly speaking, The Cosmic Puppets is a work of fantasy, not science fiction, per se. It is not science fiction because the imagined alternate reality is not sustained by an imaginatively augmented scientific/technological apparatus. The story is also not, as is characteristic of science fiction, forward-projected in time. That is to say, the story is not set in an imagined distant future, which might give us such scientific and technological goodies.

The story is set nowhere else but good old Earth---Millgate, Virginia, in fact.

The novel is a work of fantasy because the imagined alternate reality is a world sustained by purely by "magic." As I said, the tale is in no way forward-projected in time. Ninety-nine percent of the characters are perfectly ordinary human beings, most of whom have undergone extraordinary transformations, at the hand of one extraordinary being.

I would call this story "contemporary fantasy," because the imagined alternate reality was a world sustained purely by "magic," set in what was the "present" for Philip K. Dick, when he wrote the book, the 1950s, and because the vast majority of characters are ordinary human beings. There are exactly three extraordinary beings in this novel, all of which, for a big chunk of the story adopt the guises of ordinary human beings.

There will appear to be another set of extraordinary beings, the "Wanderers," who will turn out to be ordinary human beings. Here's how you can start to think of the "Wanderers." Remember the Nicole Kidman movie, "The Others"? Just recall that there was a question as to who were the "ghosts" and who were the living mortals; who were the haunting and who were the haunted.

This book highlights Mr. Dick's career-long, basic thematic concerns such as: What is reality? How do we know 'God' is real? As in many other of his novels, one can see the profound influence that Hinduism had apparently had on his ideas. The Cosmic Puppets is also a book that explores the fluidity of personal identity.

The basic story revolves around Ted Barton. On his way home from vacation he is compelled to stop over, on the way, at his old home town of Millgate, Virginia. However, nothing---and I mean nothing---is as he remembers it. Indeed, in this upside down reality "Ted Barton" had died of scarlet fever when he was nine-years-old. Barton is thus compelled to investigate.

This story reminded me slightly of the Biblical story of Job. In the Genesis story God gave the Devil permission to test Job's fate by putting the man through various hardships, trials and tribulations, so long as Job is not killed. What this story reminded me of even more was the movie Dark City (1998), starring Rufus Sewell and Kiefer Sutherland.

You may recall that "Dark City" was about aliens who studied humanity. The alien beings took an Earth city and transplanted it to their world. Their approach to studying humanity was to keep switching the personal and professional roles they played. A police chief will be put to sleep and wake up the next day a baker; a baker will go to sleep and wake up as mayor of the city. And so on and so forth.

The religion of Zoroastrianism makes an appearance in this novel. The two supernatural antagonists are the good god, Ormazd, and the evil god, Ahriman. The story seems like a combination of the Job Biblical story and the movie Dark City.

Ahriman has put a veil of illusion over the town of Millgate, Virginia. This veil of illusion---known by those in the loop as the 'Change'---has altered the physical landscape of the town (buildings and businesses disappear and new, other ones appear out of thin air. Almost nothing is where its supposed to be and none of the people are exactly whom they are supposed to be.

Let me leave it there because I don't want to give too much of the story away. If you like Philip K. Dick's work and you like the way he pursues the themes of reality and identity, you will definitely enjoy this quite concise novel.

Thank you for reading.


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