I had long been aware of Philip K Dick, but the only book of his I had tried was complete and utter rubbish. Unfortunately I cannot remember what it was called. All I know is, it read like it had been knocked up late at night on an unhelpful cocktail of caffeine and amphetamines. That, of course, is pretty much the story of Dick’s life; dead at 53 after thirty years of knocking out 44 novels and upwards of 140 short stories.
Then I picked up The Man in the High Castle (1962), which turned out to be a brilliant alternative history dystopia. That led me to The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which was also pretty good. Then I happened upon the Millennium collection of three early novels which it just so happens immediately precede The Man in the High Castle, namely The Man Who Japed (1956), Dr Futurity and Vulcan's Hammer (both 1960).
It appears that one way to get into print in the postwar period was to write the back-up novells for a piece of throwaway crud by a better known author slumming in the pulp paperback market purely for the money. That is how the three long novellas or short novels first appeared.
THE MAN WHO JAPED
The Man Who Japed is set in the second decade of the 22nd century but it looks and sounds a lot like 1956. What Dick is doing is satirising the homely, apple-pie culture of the American Fifties and preserving its worst aspects - the sanctimonious self-righteousness, the fetish of the upwardly mobile, and above all the hysterical dread of infiltration by the unclean outsider.
Armageddon devastated the Western World in the 1970s. A hero arose from the ashes, Major Streiter. Unfortunately Streiter was a South African major at a time when the Boer state was not exactly known for its liberality. The society that Streiter created in his own image was called Morec - Moral Reclamation. Provided they remained moral, a family can aspire to rise over the generations, winning leases on one-bedroomed flats ever closer to the omphalos, the statue and spire honouring the New World Patriarch in Newer York.
Allen Purcell is one such high-flyer. In his late twenties, he has his own agency providing 'packages' for the state broadcaster Telemedia (TM). One morning Purcell is offered the ultimate promotion - director of TM. There's just one problem: earlier in the week Purcell spent the night in Hokkaido, drinking wine with two outsiders of his acquaintance; on the way home he passed through the park and 'japed' the statue of Major Streiter. That is to say he vandalised it. Big time. His unauthorised absence has been noted. A couple of days later he is seen with an attractive young woman who is not his wife.
The young woman is in fact the sister of Dr Malparto, a key figure in the flip side of Morec, the side polite society doesn't like to talk about - the Resort, where Morec sequesters the ne'er-do-wells, the artistic, the antisocial, the morally unreclaimable. The Malparto siblings kidnap Allen Purcell, try to psychoanalyse him, but Allen escapes, takes the job at TM, and ends up committing the ultimate jape.
Like so much of Dick's work this is satire but not as we generally think of it. Allen Purcell is by no means the archetypal Star Wars freedom fighter. His weapon of choice is not a laser gun but mockery. Yet he is a rebel, he has a cause, and in the end he turns his back on the easy solution. He is, unusually for a Dick hero, quite likeable. I liked him anyway.
The sheer weight of ideas Dick manages to cram into these early novels is amazing. Here we have Jim Parsons, a doctor in 1998 America, which as usual is a technologically advanced, freedom-stunted version of America circa 1957. A couple of pages in and Parsons is abducted into the distant future. He sees a vehicle coming towards him, waves for it to stop. Instead the young driver, little more than a boy, deliberately tries to run him down - because that is the expected, courteous thing to do in these times.
Parsons finds himself in a super-city full of very young, good-looking people who all look broadly the same because they share the same blended racial heritage, a sort of dark coppery flesh tone. Parsons tries to save a young woman's life, which is a crime here. In these days they don't have doctors they have euthanors, because everyone agrees to limit the population. Couples don't have children. The men are sterilised at puberty and the women donate their eggs to the central sperm bank to be fertilised as and when required.
For his inadvertent crime Parsons is exiled to Mars. His prison ship is intercepted and he finds himself back on Earth, in the tribal lands outside the city. The tribe that has captured him - the tribe that brought him forward in time - is the Wolf Tribe, and they do things slightly differently. They are clearly more Native American in ancestry and they have old people. Loris, the queen, has her mother and grandmother still secretly living. Moreover, her father Corith is in a cryogenic tank with an arrow in his chest. Corith is dead but Parsons has the skills to bring him back. No one since Parson's time has possessed those skills. The Wolf tribe have been able to track him down because they, alone among the tribes, have perfected time travel.
Parsons removes the arrow, repairs the damage and gets Corith breathing again. He has learnt by now that Corith was killed back in the sixteenth century when he went back to try and stop Sir Francis Drake landing in the New World and wreaking genetic havoc. Overnight he examines the extracted arrow. It looks like an authentic sixteenth century arrow - except the feathers are plastic. Next morning he is called to his patient. He finds another arrow jammed into Corith's chest.
To try and solve the riddle everyone goes back in time to Drake's Californian landfall. They aim to intercept Corith as he runs down the hill to confront the Englishman, thus intervening before the arrow is loosed and he is killed. Then things get really complicated and really ingenious. And the whole tangled web is satisfactorily sorted in a total 150 pages. A mini masterpiece.
The last of the three short novels in this collection is Vulcan's Hammer. Is it the best? Hard to say: they are all different, all effective in their way. Is it the one I enjoyed most? To an extent. Is it the one that gave me the frisson? Easy answer. Yes it is.
Vulcan's Hammer was published in 1960, when computers filled warehouses and could barely count up to ten. Dick posits a post-apocalyptic world of about now when the world has come together in the utopian concord that everything will be fine so long as we agree to have policy determined by rational machines instead of emotional men. That machine is Vulcan 3 which, spookily, occupies a facility in Switzerland not unlike CERN. In order to generate the best policy Vulcan has to be fed with every scrap of information available. Hands up who's thinking Google right now? Google's motto, Do No Evil, seemed cool to begin with, now it's morphed to ironic. Vulcan is also served by a multinational corporation. They call it Unity.
Dick accurately foresees the problem with super-super computers. There comes a time when they will replicate themselves, repair themselves, and if we stop feeding them information they will take measures to gather it for themselves. Should we be foolish enough to try and attack them, they will defend themselves. They may even fight back - which is where the hammers come in, in case you were wondering; I'm afraid they end up in their ultimate version as a prime example of an author who is halfway through his story when he realises he hasn't justified the title.
The writing is very measured for Dick, who notoriously wrote at a furious rate. The characters are very well drawn - as rounded as the protagonists in longer works such as The Man in the High Castle, written two years later and very much my kind of Dick novel. Essentially what makes the story zing is that the characters have doubts and consciences, a trait often missed in lesser SF where, of course, such things are personified as the enemy.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
The Man in the High Castle is not only a good dystopian novel, it is a good novel, many-layered with rounded characters and a cunningly contrived writing style. The action is set in San Francisco in 1962, but California is the Japanese part of North America, the East Coast being part of Germany. Thus Japanese people are high status and the indigenous population converse with them in a form of pidgin shorthand. Yes, the Axis of Japan and Nazi Germany won World War 2. Baldur von Shirach has drained the Mediterranean to provide extra farmland and Lufthansa runs a rocket service that can cross the Atlantic in under an hour.
The Japanese are much more easy-going than the Nazis. The Reich is run by Bormann. Goebbels, Goering and Heydrich are all still active, though Adolf himself is in an asylum. Genocide is still very much the order of the day (presently concentrated on the African continent) but the Japanese consider such policies subhuman. The Japanese collect prewar American artefacts, like Colt pistols and Mickey Mouse watches. Rickshaws ("pedecabs") thread their way through downtown traffic. The Nazis meanwhile are exploring space.
The current bestseller on the Pacific Coast (it's banned in the Reich) is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, a dystopian novel in which the Allies overcame the Axis in 1945. It is said the Nazis hate it so much that Abendsen has to live in a fortified tower to protect himself and his family. He is the Man in the High Castle.
The book which everyone on the West Coast is obsessed with is the I Ching. Everyone, irrespective of race or status, is casting hexagrams at every opportunity.
There are various narrative strands, loosely linked: the retailer of high-end Americana Robert Childan; Frank Frink, the secret Jew who actually makes some of the so-called antiques Childan sells; Frinks estranged wife Juliana, a judo instructor who takes up with an Italian trucker and sets off in a quest to find the man in the castle; Tagomi, who heads up the Home Islands trade mission in San Fransisco; the mysterious Baynes, who purports to be a Swedish businessman. Everyone seems to have a position, but everyone has to review their position - usually in consultation with the yarrow stalks of I Ching - when the third Fuhrer, Martin Bormann, unexpectedly dies.
The Man in the High Castle is brilliantly constructed, the writing polished without ever toppling over into bland. It transcends genre.
THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH
Stigmata is Dick at the height of his powers, in the early Sixties, when he was knocking out books at the rate of at least two a year. It appeared a year or two after The Man in the High Castle.
The setting is the late 21st century. The world has become an uncomfortable place to live, with temperatures fatal by lunchtime. Capitalism has progressed to the inevitable stage, where a few monopolies control the world. The elite pacify the plebs with the drug Can-D and the miniature world of Perky Pat, a Barbie-type doll with every conceivable accessory to collect, forming a perfect self-contained picture of the world as society's romantics would like it to be - essentially, smalltown America circa 1968. Indeed, Perky Pat (and Can-D) is the only thing that keeps conscripted colonists sane on the dust-bowl that is Mars.
Can-D is a social drug; it allows users to enter the Perky Pat world as a group. But then the renegade capitalist entrepreneur Palmer Eldritch returns from exploring the outer reaches of the solar system. He brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, which threatens the monopoly of Can-D. Any threat to Can-D is a threat to P P Layouts, miniaturists of Perky Pat and her world.
P P is where our keys characters work - the pre-cog Barney Mayerson, who assesses the viability of objects offered to be 'minned', and Chairman of the Board Leo Bulero. The story begins when Richard Hnatt, current husband of Mayerson's ex-wife Emily brings in a selection of her hand-made ceramics for minning. Mayerson cravenly rejects them. His fellow pre-cog and current squeeze Roni Fulgate disagrees and tells Bulero. Bulero fires Mayerson and, with no real alternative employer to take him on, Mayerson volunteers for Mars.
Actually there is another option, a rival for P P. A strange example of humanity called Icholtz strikes a deal with Hnatt and offers Mayerson a job. Bulero responds by offering Mayerson his old job back. But Mayerson is determined to go to Mars and the best Bulero can do is persuade him to become his eyes and ears in the colonists' hovels.
Bulero is a bubblehead, one of the elite who pay Dr Denkmal (of the Eichenwald Clinic) to artificially evolve their frontal cortex. Hnatt, suddenly in possession of a wodge of truffle skins (the only acceptable cash in the late 21st century) signs himself and Emily up for the full programme, although she is reluctant and fearful of the occasional glitch which is accidental regression. For the proles, like Mayerson, who are not so low in the pecking order that they have to subsist on drugs and dreams, but who can never put together a sizeable stash of liquid funds, there is Dr Smile, the pyschoanalyst in box, who is probably a simulation because he never gets your name quite right.
Palmer Eldritch, too, might be a simulation or simalcrum. Many times when we encounter him, he turns out to be a projection. He is known everywhere that mankind lives by his three stigmata: the artificial mechanical arm, stainless steel teeth and wide-vision artificial eyes. The downside of his challenger drug Chew-Z is that people who appear in your visions often display the three stigmata, as do people who are themselves under the influence. Chew-Z is antisocial drug; you go into your inner self, a world which consists of you and simulcra of Palmer Eldritch.
Mayerson figures this out:
It's an illusory world in which Eldritch holds all the key positions as god; he gives you a chance to do what you can't really ever do - reconstruct the past as it ought to have been. [SF Masterworks edition, p. 176]It is not so much a question of which reality is real as which reality does the least harm? Yes, it's a genre work but The Three Stigmata is also a novel of serious intent and genuine insight. On the one hand it forecasts the future we now have - are Can-D and Chew-Z Facebook and Twitter? is Palmer Eldritch a simalcrum of Richard Branson? On the other hand, it is a vision of its time and a mirror of our time. I highly recommend it.