02 May 2008

The Cosmic Puppets: Cosmic game in Virginia town

The Cosmic Puppets
Philip K. Dick

It begins in all innocence with some children molding clay into various shapes and a little boy named Peter watching them.

Ted and Peg Barton are traveling through Virginia on vacation. Ted wants to visit his home town of Millgate, which he hasn't seen in 18 years; they get there and he realizes that it isn't the same town in which he grew up. I'm not referring to the normal strangeness that comes over once familiar sites with the passage of time, either. In typical Dick fashion, an alien strangeness descends into an otherwise normal world and the world of appearances is revealed to be not quite what it seems.
Barton's face was waxen. 'I've never seen this town before,' he muttered huskily, almost inaudibly. 'It's completely different.' He turned to his wife, bewildered and scared. 'This isn't the Millgate I remember. This isn't the town I grew up in!' (p. 10)

The streets have different names. The landmarks are all gone, having been replaced with completely different houses, storefronts, etc. The house in which he grew up is gone and the street name is different. It is as if his entire past has been erased. The biggest shock comes when Barton visits the office of the local newspaper and reads about his own death at the age of 9:
The second child [to die of scarlet fever] was Ted Barton. He hadn't moved out of Millgate on 9 October 1935. He had died of scarlet fever. But it wasn't possible! He was alive. Sitting here in his Packard beside his grimy, perspiring wife. (p. 17)

Barton justly wonders who he is and where his store of memories have come from since Millgate is apparently not the town he remembered it to be. He begins to suspect that someone, or something, is behind this manipulation. As to who this someone may be, he has no idea.

We return to Peter Trilling, the little boy from the very beginning, and learn that he too is not what he seems. Somehow this small child has the power, like the juvenile Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, to bring clay to life. As soon as the reader is given this glimpse into something going on in Millgate, Ted Barton pulls up outside Peter's house; it turns out that his mother runs the town boarding house, where Ted plans to stay while he investigates the world turning upside down. Peter begins a conversation with Barton and inadvertently discloses his knowledge of the strangeness surrounding the town:
'How did you get through?' he demanded. 'Most people don't get through. There must be a reason.'

'Through?' Barton was puzzled. 'Through what?'

'Through the barrier.' Suddenly the boy withdrew; his eyes filmed over. Barton realizes the boy had let something slip, something he hadn't meant to tell. (p. 24)

Then Peter reveals an absolute humdinger. The town of Millgate, completely surrounded as it is by mountains is also encircled by two vast figures, each one of which overhangs and controls half of the bowl-like valley. Later in the novel Peter hands Barton "what looked like a cheap, nickel-plated magnifying glass" and instructs him to look to the haze overhanging the mountains; the scene resolves itself and Barton is able to see one of the two cosmic figures:
He had figured it out wrong. He had expected him to be part of the scene. He was the scene. He was the whole far side of the world, the edge of the valley, the mountains, the sky, everything. The whole distant rim of the universe swept up in a massive column, a cosmic tower of being, which gained shape and substance as he focused the filter-lens.

It was a man alright. His feet were planted on the floor of the valley; the valley became his feet at the farthest edge. His legs were the mountains--or the mountains were his legs; Barton couldn't tell which. Two columns, spread apart, wide and solid. Firmly planted and balanced. His body was the mass of blue-gray haze, or what he had thought was haze. Where the mountains joined the sky, the immense torso of the man came into being.

He had his arms out over the valley. Poised above it, above the distant half. His hands were held above it in an opaque curtain, which Barton had mistaken for a layer of dust and haze. The massive figure was bent slightly forward. As if leaning intently over his part, his half of the valley. He was gazing down; his face was obscured. He didn't move. He was utterly motionless.

Motionless, but he was alive. Not a stone image; a frozen statue. He was alive, but he was outside of time. There was no change, no motion for him. He was eternal. The averted head was the most striking part of him. It seemed to glow, a clearly radiant orb, pulsing with light and brilliance.

His head was the sun.

Likewise, Peter and Ted are sitting in the shadow of the other cosmic figure:
The figure rose around him. He couldn't exactly see it; he could sense it vaguely and no more. It flowed up on all sides of him. From the rocks, the fields, the tumbled heaps of shrubs and vines. This one, also, formed itself from the valley and mountains, the sky and haze. But it didn't glow. He couldn't see its head, its final dimensions. A cold chill moved through him. He had a distinct, sharp intuition. This one didn't culminate in the bright orb of the sun. This one culminated in something else.

In darkness?

Although Ted is loath to admit it (and who can blame him?), he has stumbled upon the secret of his missing hometown. Soon after he left it, this sleepy little Virginia mountain town became ground zero for the eternal struggle, first described by the Persian prophet Zoroaster, between Ohrmazd and Ahriman, the cosmic forces of order and chaos, of creation and decay. So of course, he tries to get the hell out of Dodge, only to discover that the road out of town has been rendered impassable, blocked by a jack-knifed logging truck.

He returns to town and meets up with the only other person left in Millgate who can see these looming figures and who remembers what life was like before they arrived--the town drunk, William Christopher. He reveals to Barton that soon after Barton's family left town, the Change came upon Millgate literally overnight. All of his fellow residents disappeared (they actually became these strangely luminous beings called Wanderers who nightly flit from one home to the next) and were replaced by a town full of strangers. No wonder Christopher, who was sober before the Change, has become the town drunk; it is his only means of staying sane.

Finally, after Barton and Christopher discover that they can literally "remember" the original town back into existence, and then ally with the Wanderers to do just that, all hell breaks lose. The little boy Peter is revealed to be none other than Ahriman himself, while Ohrmazd is the town doctor, Dr. Meade, who imposed forgetfulness on himself as one of the conditions of his contest with Ahriman. Once the charade has been exposed, the two forces expand their conflict out into the universe at large and the town of Millgate returns to normal. When we see Barton for the last time, he is leaving Millgate for a new life, his wife Peg having left him somewhere along the way.

Reading through this novel again, I was reminded of the places where I had read the story the first time. Images of the interior of BART trains and of my first apartment in the Richmond Annex came rushing into my mind unbidden; I'm guessing that I first read this book around a decade ago, soon after I had moved to California. At the time, the novel felt a little flat, but this time I really appreciated the nuances of the story. I also recognized this novel's relationship to Dick's later works dealing with various themes like maya and gnosis; these ideas obviously informed his writing long before his strange experiences of 2-3-74 brought them from his imagination into his waking life.

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