Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On "Martian Time-Slip" by Philip K. Dick ****

The last and only time I read a Philip K. Dick novel was while I was an undergraduate in college, taking a class in film adaptation. I had not much enjoyed the movie Blade Runner, the basis for which was Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But as I watched the movie over and over and over for a class paper, I began to gain a certain appreciation for it (especially for the director's cut, since the narration is, to me, overbearing). The novel struck me as even more profound and direct in terms of its themes but at the same very much a pulp book: the writing didn't seem to me terribly sophisticated or strong.

Having just completed reading a biography of the man, I feel like virtually all of the elements of this most recent book I've read could be filtered through the things that that biographer--a former wife--had to say about it. I saw in the Mars setting certain preoccupations Californians have with landscape--namely, the need for water, and the way in which water comes from the mountains. Also, there's the preoccupation with real estate speculation, another common California motif. In fact, I'm not recalling exactly, but this might have been one of the novels the biographer mentioned as having been written straight, and then, failing to sell it, Dick simply reset the novel on Mars and sold it as sci-fi. That would make sense, except that the book veers more and more heavily into the fantastic as the plot progresses, such that Mars seems integral to the plot by the novel's end. Still, Dick himself did feel like, with this novel and Man in the High Castle, he had finally found a way to merge his desire to be literary writer with the fact that the only thing people wanted to publish or read of his was science fiction.

Indeed, if anything, this book is extremely focused not on questions of man in the universe per se but on psychological questions. Reading someone's ideas, from the 1960s, of what life on Mars would be like, it was kind of funny to see him referencing tape recorders and the like constantly, a technology that has pretty much gone away (I'm reminded of a really cool animation short that was nominated for an Academy Award a few years ago--it was sci-fi drawn as if Victorians were conceiving it, with space ships looking like huge wooden vessels). So too, the psychological themes stem to ideas that were in vogue at the time--Dick had a huge interest in Jung's work, as well as the work of existential psychologists'. And so we get vast sections--in fact, the heart of the novel--revolving schizophrenia and autism and the idea that these are related and might be related to a person's ability to live within time.

Sure, the book is about time travel, but interestingly, that travel takes place completely within the heads of the various characters, within schizophrenic seizures and dreams. In this way, the characters' can learn of the future, but they can't do anything to change the future (by going back to the past). What's there is already fated to happen, and that fate is death. The most we can do in light of this, it seems, is ignore such and struggle on.

The plot itself revolves around a scheme to develop a portion of the FDR Mountains on Mars. A human settlement has been planted on the planet, but the lack of water has kept the place from thriving. Developers, however, have word that the best prospect for water is in those mountains, and so the native Martians (yes, Mars has natives, who like so many other natives in history are thought to be essentially primitive and are pushed aside by "humans," even though it seems clear that Martians are actually of the same stock), the native Martians are pushed out. Meanwhile, hearing of this scheme, one local immigrant named Arnie Kotts sets out to find out where the best place to develop is so that he can beat the Earth UN developers to the spot and sell out the undeveloped land for huge prices; unbeknownst to him, some Earth-side investors have the same idea. And the race is on to find someone who can tell Arnie the future.

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