25 April 2008

Eye in the Sky: Mind manifested

Eye in the Sky
Philip K. Dick

In Dick's first three published novels he brings characters to life within alternate worlds of his imagining; in this, his fourth, he brings these worlds to life within his characters. This was also the first of his novels I have read in the course of my "PKD Project" that I would rate really highly in terms of how fun it was to read and how well it seemed to hang together. (The first three were all what I call "solid"--as opposed to "great" or even "good"--books. When I'm grading, saying your writing is "solid" is a tip-off that you're probably going to get a "B" on that particular essay.)

At 4:00 PM on October 2, 1959, a proton beam deflector at the Belmont Bevatron malfunctioned, releasing its charge---a six billion volt beam of energy---and incinerating an observation platform overlooking the giant device. The eight people who had been standing on the collapsed platform drop to the floor and into an alternate reality.

In a flashback, we are introduced to Mr. Jack Hamilton, the novel's primary protagonist and a senior research scientist working on the Belmont Bevatron. He is called into a meeting with Colonel T.E. Edwards, one of the top brass of the company, where he is given an ultimatum: leave his wife, who has been classified as a security risk due to her flirtations with left-liberal politics, or leave his position at the Bevatron. Wisely, he chooses the latter course of action. After breaking the news to his wife, the two of them make their way to the Bevatron for its inaugural test; there they encounter a motley group of visitors whose number includes an elderly soldier, a middle-aged mother and her son, a severe woman in a rough-woven suit, and their "Negro" guide.
The last member of the group is Charley McFeyffe, the company cop responsible for turning Mrs. Hamilton in as a Communist and who is, inexplicably, a friend of the Hamiltons. Of course, these eight are those caught in the path of the errant particle beam, which is when the fun starts...

Hamilton awakens to find himself in an alternate universe, one that he shares with the other seven "participants" in this accidental experiment. At first, though, no one knows that they are in an alternate reality. He and his wife suspect that something is amiss based on vague intuitions, but they discount these by ascribing them to shock resulting from the accident. Strange little details begin to appear---Jack swears and is then stung by a bee, a shower of locusts descends from nowhere to plague Hamilton, prayer is revealed to be immediately efficacious---and it dawns on the Hamiltons that something is indeed not right with the world in which they have found themselves.
Everyone around them is devoutly religious and almost single-mindedly focused on the Second Bรกb, "the One True Gate to blessed salvation," and the laws of physics operate on a medieval, geocentric basis.
The values that made up [Hamilton's] world, the moral veritites that had underlined his existence as long as he could remember, had passed away; in their place was a crude, tribal vengeange against the outsider, an archaic system that had come from--where? (p. 66)

As it turns out, the world has arisen from the mind of the old soldier, who was the first to awaken after the incident with the Bevatron. Somehow the accident has caused his solipsistic fantasies to become reality for himself and the other seven on the collapsed platform.
"All eight of us dropped into the proton beam of the Bevatron. During the interval there was only one consciousness, one frame of reference, for the eight of us. Silvester [the old soldier] never lost consciousness... Physically, we are stretched out on the floor of the Bevatron. But mentally, we're here. The free energy of the beam turned Silvester's personal world into a public universe. We're subject to the logic of a religious crank, an old man who picked up a screwball cult in Chicago in the 'thirties. We're in his universe, where all his ignorant and pious superstitions function. We're in the man's head." (p. 105)

Having discovered their predicament, they go from the frying pan into the fire when Silvester is knocked unconscious. As the geocentric cosmos fades, it is replaced not by reality but by the next delusional inner landscape, this time belonging to the prudish Mrs. Pritchet. Sexual organs disappear, leaving everyone with the smooth, neuter bodies of Barbie and Ken dolls. Hamilton's laboratory has changed its focus from scientific research to bringing culture to the masses, one of Pritchet's Victorian obsessions. Luckily, Mrs. Pritchet's prudishness is easily manipulated, so much so that the rest of the party manages to talk her into "abolishing" every single aspect of reality :
The world's layer of atmosphere swept out of existence. His lungs totally empty, Hamilton descended into a crashing blur of death. As the universe ebbed away, he saw the inert form of Edith Pritchet roll over in a reflexive spasm: her consciousness and personality had fled. (p. 172)

Only to be replaced, of course, by the next consciousness in line, that of paranoid psychotic Joan Reiss. Because of her delusions of conspiracy and persecution, every aspect of her reality is out to get everybody. The house they are in becomes a living thing intent on devouring them all; Hamilton's cat is turned inside out while still alive, because Ms. Reiss doesn't like cats; and, because she sees the rest of her party as aliens intent on claiming her life, that's what several of them become, sealing her fate and ending her reign of delusion.

The world that arises to fill the void is characterized by a definite "Communist sensibility" in which a shoddy parody of American life, complete with slogans and cutout soldiers, unfolds. Of course, Hamilton is faced with a big question: is this his wife's world? Does this mean that she really is a Communist and a threat to national security?

I won't tell you how the book ends, but suffice it to say that the final resolution is not a let-down.

This has been the best PKD novel I have read thus far in my project. The pacing, plot, and characters are all relatively well developed without sacrificing any of the ideas the Dick fan comes to expect. In fact, this novel is so packed with ideas---involving religion, politics, consciousness, and reality itself---that it demands re-reading just to begin to get them sorted out.

And since the book was such a fun read, that doesn't sound like a bad idea.

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