10 May 2008

Time Out of Joint: Some don't accept the reality of the world with which they are presented

Time Out of Joint
Philip K. Dick

Ragle Gumm lives with his sister Margo and brother-in-law Vic, doing little apart from flirting with his neighbor's wife and obsessively playing and winning a nationally syndicated puzzle called Where Will the Little Green Man be Next? Although he appears to be little more than a couch potato, Ragle's puzzle-solving manages to bring more money into the household than does his brother-in-law's honest work at the local grocery store. Little does he know that, in true PKD fashion, his simple life is not at all what it seems.

This revelation takes place gradually. Vic has a moment of deja vu when he reaches for the light cord in his bathroom only to remember that the bathroom lights have a wall switch and not a pull cord. Then in the midst of a bout of self-loathing, Ragle watches stunned as a soft drink stand dissolves into emptiness, leaving behind a slip of paper reading "Soft Drink Stand." (This reminded me of the Roddy Piper vehicle They Live, in which everyday objects are revealed to be alien artifacts imprinted with subliminal messages---like this fistful of dollars.)

Gumm keeps a small metal box in the pocket of his coat in the hall closet, and in this small box the strange slip of paper keeps company with its five predecessors. Thus far Gumm has seen a door, a factory building, a highway, a drinking fountain, and a bowl of flowers disappear in the same way as did the soft-drink stand. "The time is out of joint," he muses, quoting Hamlet as his world begins to fall apart around him. He then discovers that his nephew has also found several similar slips of paper in "the Ruins," a collection of abandoned lots, and on his subsequent journey there Gumm uncovers an odd phone book that references unfamiliar telephone exchanges. In the Ruins Gumm also finds a magazine featuring someone named Marilyn Monroe who is apparently quite famous although no one that Gumm knows has ever heard of her.

Of course, at this point Gumm thinks he is losing his mind. His neighbor Bill Black, who knows more about these goings-on than he reveals, suspects something different. He fears that Gumm is becoming sane.

This is indeed the case, as Gumm (and the reader) discovers after he and his brother-in-law manage to escape their small town via a stolen truck on the highway. It is not 1959, as Gumm, his family and (all but one) neighbors accept unquestioningly:
Anyhow, he thought, we've been out and we've seen that it is 1998, not 1959, and a war is in progress, and the kids now talk and dress like West African natives and the girls wear men's clothing and shave their heads. And money as we know it has dropped out somewhere along the line. Along with diesel trucks. But, he thought with sudden pessimism, we didn't learn what it's all about. Why they set up the old town, the old cars and streets, kidded us for years... (p. 217)

Then he figures it out. The war is being fought between the Earth--now under the control of the "One Happy World" government--and lunar colonists known as "loonies" or "lunatics."
A civil war.
I know what I do, now. I know what the contest is, and what I am. I'm the savior of this planet. When I solve a puzzle I solve the time and place the next missile will strike. I file one entry after another. And these people, whatever they call themselves, hustle an anti-missile unit to that square on the graph. To that place and at that time. And so everyone stays alive... (p. 222)

One more question remains to be answered, and one more surprise awaits Gumm. Why was the elaborate deception necessary to keep Gumm "playing the game" and saving the people of the Earth from lunar missiles? Because Gumm had actually planned to turn traitor and leave the Earth behind in order to migrate to the lunar colonies---after he got his first taste of zero gravity, he saw through the anti-space migration chauvinism. Luckily for all involved, his final defection to the "lunatics" is not accompanied by the extinction of the human race courtesy of the loonies space arsenal. In fact, the only thing preventing a cessation to all hostilities had been Gumm's continual playing of the game. His liberation into sanity is also the liberation of humanity.

This was Dick's sixth published novel, and the third that I have re-read for my "PKD project." As with Cosmic Puppets, I originally read much of this book whilst riding the BART trains between SF and the East Bay. I distinctly remember reading this book on a concrete bench outside the Dublin-Pleasanton station, biding time until my wife and mother-in-law arrived from Modesto to pick me up. I think that was Christmas vacation back in 2005 or so. My memories of the book are that it was so-so, and that the wild ending really came out of nowhere; on second reading, the novel holds together better than I remember, but the ending still doesn't seem to gel completely. What is initially a philosophical exploration of a man's awakening from the dream of his daily life turns into a classic SF genre story about war between the planets and a paean to space migration. It's definitely well worth a read, as are all of PKD's novels, though its premise won't be that much of a shock to folks familiar with The Truman Show (a film that is not based on this novel, from what I can tell and contrary to some online rumors).

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

There's a VERY good reason why Dick chose a quote from Hamlet as the title of this book, can you guess what it is?