24 March 2008

Solar Lottery: PKD's first novel

Solar Lottery
Philip K. Dick

I'd had a copy of Dick's sublime Divine Invasion on one of my "to read" piles for a while, so when I instead read Counter-Clock World by pulling it off the shelf literally at random, I thought to myself that maybe it was time for a systematic study of the work of Philip K. Dick. That's right. A project.

So I went online and printed out what looked like a pretty thorough bibliography. The first on the list, published in 1955, was Solar Lottery, the book here being discussed. I had a mass market copy which I had read in college; I knew I had done this because I remembered the image on the cover, not because I had any recall of the book itself, which I did not. Instead of reading the yellowing pages of the fifteen-year-old mass market, I passed it on via the Books to Prisoners project and finally visited the new Champaign Library. (It is gorgeous, by the way. From the outside the architecture is interesting enough, but it is the interior, with its intriguing use of materials, space, light and shadow, which is so striking.)

So here's the plot: It is the year 2203 and a man named Ted Bentley has just lost his job working in the Hill system, apparently a feudal corporatocracy. He moves to Batavia (which, strangely, had I not seen a documentary on Krakatoa just previous to beginning this book would not have heard of or known was the contemporary city of Jakarta) in order to take a personal oath of fealty to one Reese Verrick, the Quizmaster. Or at least, he was the Quizmaster before the start of the novel. When the reader first meets him, he has been replaced a a result of a twitch in "the bottle," and has been replaced by Leon Cartwright who is, scandalously, a "Prestonite." For one thing this means that he still wears outdated double-breasted suits and for another drives an "ancient '82 Cheverolet." He is also an "unk" or "unclassified," an outcaste from the ubiquitous Classification System that assigns human beings worth based on their intellectual (i.e., abstract and theoretical) strengths.

We learn that in the past economic production had outstripped consumption, and so quizzes and lotteries were designed whose express purpose was the unloading of all this surplus stuff. Eventually stuff was supplanted by the random assignation of of power and prestige, through the use of a complex game rooted in the quantum indeterminacy of an atom's decay. This complex game is what they refer to as "the bottle." Through the implementation of game theory or Minimax across the entire human culture, humanity lost faith in natural law, cause and effect, and reliance on pure probability became the norm. Other details of Dick's vision of s 2203 that stood out include women going bare-breated in public as a matter of course and Christianity's status as a sort of fringe remnant. Against this backdrop is set the messianic quest of one John Preston, an astronomer turned "unk," whose discovery of a legendary 10th planet called "Flame Disc" started the Prestonite movement, of which the new Quizmaster is a member.

A Challenge Convention is held, the purpose of which is to elect an assassin as a corrective for the excesses of "the bottle." Reese Verrick, the old Quizmaster, is not quite ready to give up power based on the whim of an atomic nucleus. Using the same science that brought the nutritious mutant alga called Protine to the masses, Verrick has had his perfect assassin genetically engineered. The game includes the rule that whomever assassinates the Quizmaster becomes the Quizmaster, unless the assassin is under a personal oath of fealty to another, as the assassin, Keith Pellig, is to Reese Verrick. This is why Verrick personally offers $1,000,000 in gold to the assassin responsible for the death of Cartwright. No need leaving everything up to chance, after all, even when the world is left entirely up to chance.

Here's where Bentley comes back into the story. He discovers (through a terrifying prank played on him by one of his associates) just what Pellig truly is--an empty shell through which a team of controllers operates. Bentley is one of these controllers, switching into and out of control of Pellig randomly to thwart any attempt at a coherent strategy on the part of the "teeps" (telepaths) who defend the Quizmaster.
"You see...Pellig is Heisenberg's random particle. The teeps can trace his path; directly to Cartwright. But not his velocity. Where Keith Pellig will be along that path at a given moment nobody knows." (p. 79)

This is used to interesting effect in the story. For example, we see Pellig, with one controller in charge, being quite nice to a young woman on a train, only to change instantly and without warning into a completely different person as a new controller clicks into place. We also see the effects of that click on Bentley:
"While he was reflecting, the mechanism switched. Silently, instantly, he was back at the Farben labs.

It was a shock. He closed his eyes and hung on tight to the circular metal band that enclosed his body, a combination support and focus." (p. 106)

We also see the effects that it has on the teeps assigned to protect the Quizmaster. Each teep monitoring Pellig is driven insane whenever a controller switch takes place during their watch. While their eyes tell them that Pellig is standing directly in front of them, their telepathic minds tell them that Pellig's consciousness has simply evaporated, and most simply crack under this sort of dissonant assault.

Pellig isn't your run of the mill genetically engineered multiple-consciousness-housing assassin, either. He also turns out to be an interplanetary rocket designed to pursue Cartright all the way to the moon. Bentley, who is operating Pellig at the time of his transformation to spaceship, discovers that the switch into and out of Pellig is not random but is instead under the direction of Moore the associate behind the aforementioned practical joke. You see Pellig isn't just your run of the mill genetically engineered multiple-consciousness-housing spaceship assassin, either--he is also a bomb designed to kill Cartwright at the same time that it switches Bentley into the operator slot, taking out two birds with one android.

Bentley breaks his oath of fealty when he discovers the plot to send him to his death unwittingly (something that can only be done with unk serfs) and runs to Cartwright for protection. The rest of the novel involves the legal proceedings between Verrick, Bentley, and Cartwright over the breaches in fealty; the final resolution of the question of who is to be Quizmaster; and the haunting final message of Preston to those seeking Flame Disc.

It was definitely a weird book. The story and subplots don't ever really gel, a quality I've noted in many of Dick's novels which stands in stark contrast to the precision and directness of many of his short stories. Right out of the gate, though, many of Dick's perennial themes can be seen--free will and determinism, simulation and simulacra, the ubiquity and centrality of advertising and spectacle, totalitarianism in all its guises, and the quest for transcendence. There is also, as someone pointed out on Amazon, the fact that the protagonist in this novel, unlike those in most of the novels of his contemporaries, are regular folks. They aren't the raygun toting Duck Dogers types or Starship Troopers but bureaucratic functionaries, middle managers, and down on their luck cultural creatives.

My chronological reading of all PKD's SF novels is off to a good start and will only be sidetracked by my classroom readings and all the other books in my "to read" piles, not to mention all the books on our shelves and at our local libraries. What could possibly happen to derail this project?

One down, 35 or so to go!

20 March 2008

Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: Do androids dream of mechanical oddities?

Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick, edited by Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg
Southern Illinois University Press, 1984

Warrick and Greenberg did a masterful job collecting these stories. They focus on Dick's ideas while also showing his gifts as a coherent short story writer (much more so than as a novelist). They also provide brief, yet illuminating, essays that situate each story in the context of PKD's personal life, literary output, mental state, the state of affairs in American politics, etc. This is a model anthology and a book my wife recommends I keep.

Here are my thumbnail synopses of most of the stories in this collection:
  • "The Little Movement," 1952 --- Dick's first tale involving a robot presages Toy Story, albeit with a much darker tone. Toy soldiers are plotting something insidious against Adults by controlling Children; the soldiers understand them to be two entirely different species. Their machinations are thwarted by other toys, although whether for good or ill purposes is left unclear. Less like SF, more like a Twilight Zone teleplay.
  • "The Defenders," 1953 --- A more hopeful predecessor to the novel Penultimate Truth, in which an 8-year war has been raging on the surface of the planet, carried on by robots while humanity toils in safety of the underground bunkers. A human contingent investigates the surface and discovers that the war has actually not been going on, and that the world is intead a verdant garden that the robots have been stewarding. The robots, it seems, have realized the illogical nature of war and are preserving the earth until humanity is mature enough to emerge to the surface.
  • "The Preserving Machine," 1953 --- An inventor creates a machine to "preserve" music by somehow rendering it into the form of a living animal-like creature. One of the creatures is allowed to "evolve" through prolonged exposure to the world and it becomes feral. When it is translated back into music, the music is absolutely alien and strange. The inventor concludes that everything evolves. The story explore themes of evolution (particularly the idea of evolving ideas--prefiguring the notion of memes), chaos, and preservation as translation.
  • "Second Variety," 1953 --- After being driven off-world to the Moon by the early attacks of the USSR, the US/UN government begins creating robots ("churning sphere[s] of blades and metal") to ambush and slaughter Soviet soldiers, which they do with chilling efficiency. The story begins when Major Joseph Hendricks is called to meet with some of the surviving Russians. Along the way, he meets a small, apparently traumatized boy named David who clutches his teddy bear while saying little. He discovers, thanks to the intervention of a handful of remaining Soviet soldiers, that "David" is a lethal robot, one of three varieties believed to exist. ("David" is a type III robot. The type I is designed to resemble a wounded soldier. No one has yet encountered a type II robot.) During the night, one of the Soviet soldiers kills the other, claiming that he believed him to be the second variety of robot. Major Hendricks, the surviving soldier (Klaus), and Tasso, a prostitute who had been with the Soviets when their fellows soldiers were wiped out by robots, decide to trek back to the US bunker, only to find it overrun with scores of "Davids" and "wounded soldiers." During the ensuing melee, Klaus is revealed to be a type II robot. A gravely injured Major Hendricks, hoping to escape to the Moon Base, leads Tasso to a hidden rocket, only to find that it is a one-person vehicle. Tasso convinces him to let her fly to the Moon Base, the secret location of which he reveals to her, in order to send back a rescue mission. It is only after she leaves that Hendricks considers that there might be more than three varieties of killer robot...
  • "Imposter," 1953 --- It isn't bad enough that PKD imagined a world where an observer couldn't distinguish between a robot and a human; what's worse is this well imagined story in which the observer and the robot in question are one and the same. The protagonist expects a normal day at work only to discover that he is suspected of being an android replica of himself---a replica containing a U-bomb, intended to be used by the alien Outworlders in their war against the human race---and therefore destined for immediate termination.
  • "Sales Pitch," 1954 --- A nightmare scenario of everyday life in the future. After an extraterrestrial commute at 60,000,000 mph during which individually tailored advertisements are beamed directly into commuters' brains, the protagonist finds himself held hostage in his own home by a giant robot selling itself and not taking "no" for an answer. This astute story left me in stitches and also in awe of Dick's insights into the ubiquity of commercial dross and the inability of the average Joe to escape it.
  • "The Last of the Masters," 1954 --- In a post-nuclear war future, members of the Anarchist League wander the world and maintain a sort of anti-government in which no one is allowed to amass power over others. It turns out that one of the war robots, machines programmed to maintain military-industrial civilization at all costs, escaped destruction at the hands of the AL. A few AL members, in cahoots with the robot's own people, kill the robot and prevent a military invasion of the surrounding territories. But there's always tomorrow.
  • "Service Call," 1955 --- What is a swibble? That's the question on the reader's mind throughout this delightful story about a repair person who comes to the wrong address.
  • "Autofac," 1955 --- Life will find a way. Automated factories (the titular "autofacs") have virtually become life forms, cranking out weaponry for us in fighting one another as proxies in a long-lost war. Humanity has survived, but the autofacs insist on producing everything, as per their programming. In the process they completely monopolize all the planet's natural resources, preventing humanity from reasserting its prerogative to global primacy. People try to sabotage the autofacs, but the simple, elegant directives guiding these autofacs drive them to evolve.
  • "To Serve the Master," 1956 --- This story, published in 1956 and never reprinted before appearing in this anthology, complements the earlier story "The Last of the Masters." Applequist (you have to love those PKD character names) is wandering through a ravine when he comes across the wrecked remains of a dying robot. It calls out to him. Over the next week, he visits with and helps to repair the robot, in return for which the he learns the history of the robot-human war; his efforts to obtain information about the war from his own locked-down human society avail nothing and so he believes everything the robot tells him. Much to his chagrin.
  • "Electric Ant," 1969 --- Waking up after crashing his flying-car, Garson Poole discovers that he has lost not only his hand, but even more shockingly his very humanity. He is not a human being but is instead an "electric ant," an android whose subjective experience derives from a player piano-like roll of tape spooling through his thoracic cavity. In a fairly transparent reference to the culture of psychedelia prevalent at the time, Dick has Poole experiment with the tape and note the effects of these experiments on his perceptions of the world. Finally, Poole cuts the tape; the effects were catastrophic, and chillingly so. Dick himself had this to say about the story:

    "Again the theme: How much of what we call 'reality' is actually out there or rather within our own head? The ending of this story has always frightened me ... the image of the rushing wind, the sound of emptiness. As if the character hears the final fate of the world itself."

  • "The Exit Door Leads In," 1979 --- Although I don't know it for sure, I suspect that this story came out of Dick's friendship with Paul Williams, author of the biography Only Apparently Real. That's because it was written--on the request of the editors, no less--for Rolling Stone College Papers, a short-lived spin-off publication of Rolling Stone, for whom Williams wrote on PKD. In this story, Bob Bibleman--again, what a name!--faces a dilemma: should he reveal classified information and in so doing save millions of lives, or follow the rules set by the authorities and return the information to them. He makes the "right" decision and returns the information, only to find that it has been a test that he has failed. He is expelled because he falls prey to conformity too easily and does what authority tells him rather than what he knows to be right. A pretty transparent parable about free will and moral agency in an authoritarian context.

11 March 2008

Resurrection on the cheap

Counter-Clock World
Philip K. Dick
Vintage Books, 2002 (First published 1967)

"His most theologically probing" story is set in 1998. Time has been running backwards since the Earth entered the "Hobart Phase," an unexplained temporal inversion that only seems to affect the Earth (e.g., time on the moon flows forward normally). Because of this reversal of the direction of time, those who died before the world entered the Hobart Phase (a.k.a. the "old-born") are returning from the grave. One protagonist, Sebastian Hermes, runs a vitarium, one of the facilities where the newly resurrected are restored to life and sold to the highest bidder, as per W.U.S. law. A mild psychic, Hermes intuits that the resurrection of the Anarch Peak, a radical religious leader who died in the 70s, is imminent. This resurrection starts a chain of events in motion. Three forces vie for possession of the Anarch---the Library (a mysterious paramilitary organization whose purpose is maintaining public safety through "eradication of dangerous, disturbing written material"), the Udi religion (a psychedelic, consciousness-raising religion founded by Peak and now lead by Ray Roberts, whom we initially see as crazy and evil, but whom then turns out to be on Peak's side), and "Rome" (presumably the Catholic Church). The convoluted storyline ostensibly revolves around the resurrected Peak (and the potential danger of his revelations about postmortem existence) but rapidly goes off onto tangents about the protagonist's love for his ever-younger wife, her affair with Officer Tinbane (another protagonist), Hermes' affair with the daughter of the head of the library, and the true meaning of life after death (which all old-born experience, but only the Anarch is spiritually clear enough to recall with clarity). After the Library finally captures the Anarch, Hermes is "hired" by an alliance of Rome and the Uditi to rescue the Anarch; instead, Hermes uses the weapons his unlikely allies have given him to rescue his wife from the same enemies. Allusions to the race riots of the mid- to late-1960s and intimations of the Black Power movement appear throughout the novel. As the convoluted storyline comes to an end, the protagonist hears a slough of voices in the graveyard calling out to be reborn, and goes about his work digging them up. In typical Dick fashion, the sanest response to an increasingly crazy world seems to be to put one foot in front of the other.

Counter-Clock World is, like most PKD novels I've read, pure hallucinatory pulp. Another metaphor that came to mind while reading was that of a literary amphetamine. I couldn't help but suspect that the page-turning fervor with which I approached the book emulated the speed-driven fury with which he typed it. Maybe Dick took his time with this novel, but it certainly doesn't feel that way; instead, it's as if the ideas in this novel leaped fully formed like Athena from his brow directly to the page, inconsistencies and all.

People don't really read Dick for his plotting and character development, though. Instead, we read because we want to steep in the bottomless well of his intellect and imagination. This novel is filled to the brim with ideas that greater writers would have put to better effect, if only those better writers had been blessed with Dick's vision. Dick presents us with a new religion, Udi, which, like Timothy Leary's League of Spiritual Discovery, uses psychedelics to experience new forms of group consciousness. We have the aforementioned Hobart Phase, which finds its primary use as a narrative device. As with much of Dick's fiction, this novel presents us with an alternate vision of our contemporary world; in this case, the US has split into three different countries as a consequences of the secession of the Free Negro Municipality (FNM, the Udi nation lead by Ray Roberts). While the specifics aren't ever detailed, it seems that the Midwest (at least Kansas City) is part of the FNM, while California comprises part of the W.U.S. (Western US?). For those who like reading Dick for his wilder speculations on philosophical and religious, you won't be disappointed with this novel. He deals with
resurrection and immortality, deception, hiddenness, apophatic theology, God as negation (the "pulsing black presence"), the emptiness before life and after death, and how we learn love best through its absence.

Finally, it must be noted that Dick's greatest genius was perhaps his attention to the mundane details of these fictive universes. In this world where time runs backward, people say "Goodbye" to begin a conversation and "Hello" to end it. Sexual intercourse is engaged in at the end of a pregnancy, so that the fetus' life-force can become a part of a man and a woman. Metabolic processes aren't described in detail, but enough oblique references are made that the reader can understand just how weird things have become: people "disgorge" food bite by bite and tend to do so in private, they imbibe sogum (which, while never explicitly described as such, is hinted to be a form of reverse defecation), and they use the words "mouth" instead of "ass" (e.g., to be a "horse's mouth") and "food" instead of "shit" (e.g., "foodhead," "foodlist," "food!" "feood"). In this crazy backwards word, men even put on whiskers in the morning in lieu of shaving!

Another flawed must-read by one of the greatest minds, if not writers, in science fiction.