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Three-Book Review of Philip K. Dick: Lies, Inc; Vulcan's Hammer; Dr. Futurity
First up is a Vintage Books paperback of 197 pages. Vintage Books is a division of Random House, Inc., in New York. The first Vintage Books edition was put out in March of 2004. The novel was originally published in 1964 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company.
Let me start by "reading to you" the blurb from the back cover. It goes:
"In this wry, paranoid vision of the future, overpopulation has turned cities into cramped, industrial anthills. For those sick of this dystopian reality, one corporation, Trails of Hoffman, Inc., promises an alternative: Take a teleport to Whale's Mouth, a colonized planet billed as the supreme paradise. The only catch is that you can never come back. When a neurotic man named Rachmael ben Applebaum discovers that the promotional films of happy crowds cheering their newfound existence on Whale's Mouth are faked, he decides to pilot a spaceship on the eighteen-year journey there to see if anyone wants to return."
Let's try to unravel a few things.
The first thing to say is that this book began its life as a short story, which was later expanded. The second thing to say is that the original title of the narrative was The Unteleported Man. This was an title that was at least as appropriate as "Lies, Inc."
You see, in the world of this novel the technology of teleportation exists. However, this technology does not---at this point, anyway---work like magic, like it does on Star Trek. The process can bring about a prolonged period of cognitive disorientation, like the worst hangover you've ever had, lasting for about two months or so.
You see, people who are encouraged to emigrate via teleport to Whale's Mouth are in ignorance of two things: the true conditions at planet Whale's Mouth; and how sick the very process can make you, if you are so predisposed.
Rachmael ben Applebaum wants to investigate true conditions on Whale's Mouth. For various reasons he decides to take his spaceship, even though the trip will take eighteen years that way. Thus, Rachmael ben Applebaum, cutting across the grain of what "everybody" is doing, is "The Unteleported Man."
One or two things to point out
I have to say that, as a huge fan of the work of Philip K. Dick, I nevertheless found this to be his most confounding book. The book is confounding, in my opinion but not boring. Philip K. Dick never commits the sin of boring his readers.
Still, I did find the novel confounding. If you want to start reading Dick's work, this is NOT the novel to start with; it will give you a misleading impression. What I am saying, to be blunt, is that he was a much, much, much better writer, in every facet, than that novel would lead you to believe.
Look, Philip K. Dick was a human being, like you and me. And like you and me, he put on his pants one leg at a time; and what this means, finally, is that he could not be expected to "knock it out of the park" every time he "stepped up to the plate," as it were.
When I say that I was "confounded" by this book, you have to keep one thing in mind before you approach this writer's work. One of the core themes of his work was the very fabric of reality itself. Indeed, it was precisely his concern with the very fabric of reality itself that was---in my opinion---the source of his creative brilliance and speculative fearless; but, occasionally, things can be pushed "too far," in that a piece of literature is produced, whose presentation remains opaque to readers.
I know like it sounds like I'm giving you a lot of double-talk. But its just that I hesitate to actually "criticize" Philip K. Dick in particular, and professionally published authors in general---because I am merely an amateur Internet writer.
Let me say this...
I found this novel to Philip K. Dick's version of "hard"-style science fiction---which was not where he excelled and was not what made him great.
When I say "hard-style science fiction," I am talking about that specific sub-genre of science fiction that is literally called "hard" science fiction. What characterizes this style of SF, in my view, is what I would call persistently and aggressively scientific-sounding nomenclature and terminology.
It seems to me that the purpose of this nomenclature and terminology is to create a sense of plausibility: You really are in the forty-fifth century; You really are on a planet millions of light years away from Earth; You really are dealing with beings and forces that are completely alien to anything known to ordinary human, contemporary Earth-bound experience.
Does that make sense?
I think this pursuit of plausibility can be---and perhaps is---sometimes taken to far, having the paradoxical effect of actually alienating readers, when your purpose had been to, naturally, draw them in.
How about that? Are you still with me?
Philip K. Dick's work has always struck me as the exact opposite of that. Indeed, this is precisely why I frequently like to say that Philip K. Dick is the writer for people who think they do not like science fiction.
Lies, Inc., is a departure for Dick. Perhaps the plot demanded this degree of what I call "over-exoticization;" however, in his best work Dick always avoided it.
I know that still sounds vague, so let me put it this way. Mr. Dick has written this kind of novel much more effectively.
Check this out...
You know when you go to the dollar store and buy a bottle of generic, white-colored lotion? There is a label on it to suggest that its just as good as the name brand. Do you know what I'm talking about? You might see a label that says: (compare to Lubriderm).
Well, let me provide you the same service. Instead of reading the Philip K. Dick novel, Lies, Inc., read the Philip K. Dick novel, The Penultimate Truth. The latter is the same kind of ('The world we know is all a lie.') novel as the former; but is written much more effectively and clearly than the former.
Next up is Vulcan's Hammer. The edition I have in my hands is a Vintage Books paperback of 165 pages. Vintage Books is a division of Random House, Inc., in New York. The first Vintage Books edition was put out in August of 2004. The novel was originally published in 1960 by Ace Books.
From the back cover we read:
"Objective, unbiased, and hyperrational, the Vulcan 3 should have been the perfect ruler. The omnipotent computer dictates policy that is in the best interests of all citizens---or at least, that is the idea. But when the machine, whose rule evolved out of chaos and war, begins to lose control of fanatics and the mysterious force behind rebellion, all hell breaks loose."
"Vulcan's Hammer" is a strangely appropriate title. In Roman mythology, as you know, Vulcan was the forge of the gods. He was a god that made the armor and weapons of the other gods. Vulcan made the very thunderbolts of Jupiter, the King of the Gods.
What would happen if Vulcan were to ever pull an Ayn Randian, "Atlas Shrugged" number and go on strike, as far as making weapons and armor for the other gods were concerned? Indeed, supposed he decided to only make such things for himself and his "crew"?
Vulcan and his boys could probably take over up there, couldn't they? It would be the equivalent of a coup by the military-industrial complex. It would be like the Pentagon and Boeing jointly overthrowing the American federal government and setting themselves up as the new ruling authority.
But why would Vulcan do something like that?
Well, as I understand it, people in history who had overthrown their own governments, did so because they desired to "save" the country they "loved" from this, that, or the other. The despot always believes that "only I" can make X country "great again," and so forth.
In the eyes of the despot, the national greatness was squandered in some way by the previous regime.
Another major theme in Philip K. Dick's science fiction is artificial intelligence (AI). How far can it develop before we, humans, have cause to be concerned? How far can it be developed before there is a problem? How far can it be developed before it thinks about taking us over? What should the proper relationship between machines and humans be?
Are "thinking machines"---as they are called in the Dune universe---really the best option wherever a human can be replaced by a machine? In some of Dick's books---not "Vulcan's Hammer"---even school teachers have been replaced by human-looking, human-sounding robots.
Human beings are somewhat divided on this issue. Some do not favor excessive automation, others are full steam ahead; and I suppose others are "somewhere in the middle."
In Vulcan's Hammer, the Vulcan computer, essentially becomes their god; and favored humans its high priests; and there is one favored human above them all who is, for all intents and purposes, The Chief High Priest of Vulcan!
The question is this: Is it a matter of 'Us' or 'Them'? Or is the key the re-negotiation of the relationship between 'Us' and 'Them'---even to the point where, what comes out of the process, is a new sense of 'We'?
Read Vulcan's Hammer and find out!
Dr. Futurity is a Vintage Books (a division of Random House, Inc., in New York) paperback of 169 pages long. The first Vintage Books edition was put out in August of 2005; originally published in 1960 by Ace Books.
From the back cover of the book we read:
"Jim Parsons is a talented doctor, skilled at the most advanced medical technologies and dedicated to saving lives. But after a bizarre road accident leaves him hundreds of years in the future, Parsons is horrified to discover an incredibly advanced civilization that zealously embraces death. Now, he is caught between his instincts and his training as a healer, and a society where it is illegal to save lives. But Parsons is not the only one left who believes in prolonging life, and those who share his beliefs have desperate plans for Dr. Parsons' skills, and for the future of their society."
In the science fiction universe of Philip K. Dick, you would do well to put a label on various appliances and equipment that says something like this: Danger! Misuse of this device may cause unintentional time traveling or falling into parallel dimensions! I suppose this one feature of his work makes the novels of Mr. Dick "comedies" of a sort, so-called "black" or "dark" comedies.
I must confess to you, the term and concept still proves somewhat elusive for me. Dark comedies are certainly not, for the most part, "ha ha" funny works. You know, Quentin Tarantino describes his movies as "comedies," and while they are a little "offbeat," as it were, they are also certainly not of the "ha ha" funny type.
I don't even think the term "ironic" quite covers it. The way I usually define irony is the coming together of two pieces of reality which seem to undermine each other. In other words the "irony" forms a structure in which A undermines B and B undermines A; therefore A-B should not form a coherent structure---it should not work, but it does.
Dr. Parsons is catapulted hundreds of years into the future by a traffic accident. I don't see how it is appropriate to call that "ironic," since there is nothing that links up with it as a connected pair of event-outcome, in this novel.
Does that make sense?
An example of Irony: It is ironic that he died of lung cancer (outcome), since he never smoked a day in his life (event; the non-event; the event of his not smoking).
Usually, if you hear someone is afflicted with lung cancer, you expect to find that he had a history of smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; or that he worked in a coal mine, or something like that. Am I right?
It is the union of not smoking and not working in a coal mine, together with the affliction of lung cancer that creates irony; because those two things seem to undermine each other. In other words, in popular thinking at least, it should not be the case that not smoking or not working in a coal mine, or anything, should get you lung cancer.
Do you follow me?
It is not, therefore, "ironic" that Dr. Parsons is propelled hundreds of years into the future, by way of a traffic accident---because there is no other outcome that forms a pair with that event.
In other words, he has a traffic accident (event) and is propelled hundreds of years into the future (outcome). That is not an ironic structure---at least not in the way that I usually define the term irony.
There are at least two reasons that I can think of for this:
1. The event of the traffic accident, in order to form an ironic pair, must be joined to an outcome, which directly undermines the former and is directly undermined by it---so that either the event should NOT have produced the outcome that it did; and/or the outcome should NOT have been generated by the event in question.
Is that clear?
An example of an ironic pair concerning a traffic accident:
He got behind the wheel of the car stone drunk, without putting on his seat belt, smashed the car up and caused it to roll over eight times, in noonday traffic on the freeway (event); and yet he didn't get so much as a scratch and, more amazingly, he caused not a single injury to anybody else (outcome). This event and outcome are "ironic," because the event and outcome seem to undermine each other. That is to say, it should not be the case that a man can get behind the wheel of his car, "stone drunk," without putting on his seat belt, and smash up his car so that it rolled over eight times, in noonday traffic on the freeway; and not only not injure himself but cause not even a single injury to anyone else.
2. The event-outcome of Dr. Parsons time travel-causing traffic accident is also not "ironic," in the imprecise way that some people might use the term, in application to this novel. That is because in the science fiction universe of Philip K. Dick, it is perfectly natural that, occasionally, the improper use of certain appliances or machinery can cause accidental time- or parallel dimension traveling.
To be clear, Dr. Futurity is a deadly serious novel, as is all of Philip K. Dick's books. There is nothing "ha ha" funny about it. The same thing can be said about his other thirty-five novels and five short story collections.
And yet, I feel that it is appropriate to call the novel, Dr. Futurity a "dark comedy," because it is "funny" that a traffic accident could propel a person hundreds of years into the future.
In the same way it is "funny," in the Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, that a hit man quotes Bible scripture before blowing his victims' brains out. In that same movie, it is "funny" that hit man #2 can accidentally blow their "informant's" head off, in the back seat of the car, as the three of them are discussing whether or not it was a miracle that the two killers were not even hit by the twelve shots somebody shot at them, at close range, just minutes before.
You know something? Perhaps we have hit on it! Maybe "dark comedy" can be defined like this: familiar, heavy drama, which is "ironically" generated by an absurd, comical (but not "ha ha" funny) premise.
So, in addition to being "funny," it is "ironic" that a hit man (in "Pulp Fiction") would quote Bible verses before committing murder. The two don't seem to go together.
So, after all that, what did we learn?
We learned that the Philip K. Dick science fiction novel, "Dr. Futurity," is a "dark comedy."
Having said that, I will make only one more point. If you read carefully, you will find the "funny" thing that goes on. A deadly serious endeavor is engaged upon based on an "absurd," "funny," "comical" in its naiveté.
It involves the use of time travel to try to remake history for the better. A group of heroes in the distant future try to do that. What makes the endeavor "darkly funny" is that it never occurred to them that their enemies might have had the same idea. You see, it never occurred to the heroes that as much as they might want to change history, their enemies---for whom life is good under the status quo---might want to make sure nothing changes; and that they can counter anyone who might want to remake history in such a way that takes away their own privileges.
Does that make sense?
I hope it does. If you read this very concise, well-written, fast-moving, and wildly entertaining novel, you will see what I mean clearly enough.
Thank you for reading!
Addendum added 02/08/2016
I am adding this piece because, as I thought about it over the weekend, it occurred to me that my explanation of irony was a bit incomplete.
The traffic accident example I gave is NOT irony, even though, in it, you have an "event" and an "outcome" that do not seem to fit together, "on paper," which seem to undermine each other. The outcome---the fact that neither the drunk driver nor anyone else was hurt, as the car rolled over eight times on the highway in noonday traffic---is simply luck. It is in the nature of luck to either enable or undermine.
Therefore, the fact that no one---including the drunk driver---was hurt by that devastating traffic accident, does not undermine the drunk driver's recklessness. Luck just happened to prevent the likely and foreseeable consequences of such recklessness.
If we want to create a truly ironic structure, we have add something. The way irony actually works in speech, in our understanding of narrative is something like this:
He got behind the wheel of his car stone drunk, without putting on his seat belt, smashed the car up and caused it to roll over eight times, in noonday traffic on the freeway; and yet he didn't get so much as a scratch and, more amazingly, he caused not a single injury to anybody else. (This entire story is the "event").
We need something to go with it to create an ironic structure. Something like this:
Ironically, six months later, while he was cold sober, he caused the death of three people on morning, as he step out of the bath tub, onto a piece of soap, which sent him sliding into his wife, with whom he slid right out of their two-story window, crashing down upon the mailman. The three of them were killed instantly.
Now that is ironic! Death was delivered by the man stepping out of the tub onto a bar of soap. No death was delivered by the man's drunk driving, in noonday traffic, on the freeway. On paper those two stories don't go together; or rather, we can say that the results were "mixed up," as it were.
That is to say, that death should have been delivered by the man's drunk driving, in noonday traffic, on the freeway, but it wasn't.
Death should not have been delivered by the man, being cold sober, stepping out of his morning tub, onto piece of soap, but it was.
What we say, then, is: His drunk driving, in noonday traffic, on the freeway led to him causing an accident, which made his car turn over eight times, yet no one, including himself, came out of it with even a scratch; and yet, ironically, six months later, cold sober, he got out of his morning tub, stepped onto a bar of soap, went careening into his wife, with whom he flew out of their second-story window, right on top of the mailman. The three of them died instantly. Isn't the universe funny?
Again, not "ha ha" funny.
The tub incident of also tragicomic, an occurrence of "dark comedy." A deadly serious thing happens as a result of something stupid, silly, utterly ridiculous, otherwise comical.
You can still have my original idea of two bits of reality coming together to undermine each other.
For example you can say something like: Ironically, the one-handed man was the best sculptor in the class. This works as irony; the two things don't seem to go together; they seem to undermine each other. We would not ordinarily think of a one-handed person being the best sculptor in a class full of, presumably, two-handed people.
Or you can say something like: The Dallas Cowboys football team of the early 1990s, was comprised of an offensive line that did not contain a single star, pro bowl caliber player; and yet ironically, they came together as a unit to form the number one ranked o-line unit in the National Football League, which deserves the lion share of the credit for the three Super bowls they won in those years.
We're looking at one of those "the whole is more than the some of the parts" things, here. The fact that the Cowboys offensive line did not contain a single star player, "on paper," does not seem to fit with the fact that the o-line, as a unit, was the number one offensive line unit in all the National Football League. Those two facts seem to undermine each other.
But again, my initial example of the traffic accident was not ironic, because the offset was merely luck.
Thank you, again, for reading.