by John Brunner
[from: New Worlds, No. 166, September 1966, pp. 142-149]
the most consistently brilliant sf writer in the world, author of over a score of excellent novels (including a Hugo winner) and more good short stories than I can count, is a man whose books the average reader of new worlds has probably never seen unless in their scantily-imported American editions. Something, I hear, is likely to be done in the near future to rectify this appalling neglect, but over the past few years I’ve become sadly accustomed to raising his name at the Globe, where the London Circle holds its monthly meetings, and finding that the person I was talking to had read only the odd few magazine stories by him.
Right. Let’s get a couple of hard facts down on paper. The name is Philip K. Dick. Philip K. Dick is more brilliant more often in more of the books he writes than any other six writers in contemporary sf put together. And in case I’m still leaving room for misunderstanding: Philip K. Dick is so good, just thinking about it sends shivers down my spine.
Trying to explain a subjective preference, like mine for Dick’s work, is next to impossible; the sensible thing to do now I’ve declared my appreciation is to send you all out to buy his entire published output and sit down and read it. Unfortunately, as far as I can determine, only three of his books (not including the Hugo winner) have been published here, and of these I can only find one currently in print. While waiting for this to be set right, therefore, I’ll attempt to analyse the strength of Dick’s talent.
First, and most important, as a craftsman he is to be compared with the very best writers currently working in the English language. Under this head I’d subsume such necessary abilities as the structuring of plots and subplots, the description of environments, and the creation of convincing dialogue which properly corresponds to the character of the person uttering it. In some senses, one might even say he’s ahead of his competitors in other fields, for while it requires primarily a faculty of observation to conjure up in fiction the modern American scene, for instance, to do the same in sf with the same degree of vividness calls for an imagination as detailed as most people’s ordinary external senses.
And this is his second great gift: an almost hallucinatory sharpness of detail in whatever non-real world he cares to create. One of the worst faults exhibited in the general run of sf is a lack of consistency in a scheme of extrapolations into the future. Dick is not immune from this – no writer is – yet omissions and inconsistencies, if they occur in his work, don’t jar while you’re actually reading the book; at most they show up when you think back afterwards and start to ask the awkward questions. While the book is open before you, however, the mind is too gripped for such disturbances to intrude.
The third remarkable quality of his work is paradoxical in its nature: he is able to revert again and again and again to a theme which cropped up in an earlier book and which he felt was not exhausted by the treatment previously accorded it, and prove he was right to think so. He can strike more sparks from an idea he’s used in six books already than most of us can from a notion we’ve never encountered before.
These themes form a kind of pattern, which is orchestrated through his novels – this I can’t compare to anything in literature, but find I must parallel with a musical image: the way a jazzman can keep coming home to the blues for fifty years of his playing career and still have as much fresh material to work on as he did when he started.
What are these recurrent themes? Well, there are so many of them that I have room to cite only the most conspicuous. The empty world; the use of power; illusion substituting for reality; the malleability of externals under the influence of psychosis or drugs; the conflict between chance and determinism. (And separating these is ultimately futile!)
What I’m nicknaming “ the empty world” is a situation in which the people who matter are reduced to a mere handful: a device which he exploits further than most people would dare to carry it. In early novels like The World Jones Made and Eye in the Sky he employs it rather conventionally: Jones is a man part of whose awareness exists a year into the future, who has achieved world domination by this talent and organised “people who matter” into a group centred on himself, while the alternate worlds of Eye are successively centred on a single individual’s imagination and preferences. Likewise, in Vulcan’s Hammer, the administrators of Earth form a tight, enclosed circle on whom outsiders impinge randomly.
In later novels, the world is emptied in a more literal sense. The Mars of Martian Time Slip consists of a small California town transplanted to the Australian outback, in the strict analysis; the protagonist is important because he’s a handyman and handymen are rare, and the book’s action is dominated by the chairman of the Plumbers’ Union, Martian Local. Even more literally emptied is the Earth of two other novels: in The Game Players of Titan a sterility-inducing weapon has depopulated the planet to the point where there is room for only one rare-record store, and in The Penultimate Truth a handful of cynical survivors after nuclear war have decided to leave the majority of their fellows underground in “tanks” where they are fed with phoney propaganda to convince them the fighting is still going on. The Bondsmen in Titan hold title to whole chunks of the Earth’s surface on a kind of villeinage basis, while the super-admen of Truth have to stake out their own demesnes with robot labour, taking as much radioactive land as they can hold against their rivals.
The use of power shows a similar development throughout the sequence of Dick’s novels. The underlying concept seems to be that of seizing one’s chance through determination and alertness, however, rather than – for example – Heinlein’s assumption that conventional political and committee tactics are incapable of improvement. Apart from The World Jones Made, Dick has concerned himself with total world power in only one of his novels: World of Chance, which is based on the “minimax” strategy evolved in theory of games as the optimum course for the average player to follow. Here he has a world organised on the basis of one of his favorite ideas, the workings of chance, but systematised by the semi-feudal method of committing people’s power cards – i.e. lottery tickets in the world-wide draw for dictatorial office – to the leaders of groups called Hills (for ant-hills, I assume) who thereby increase their own chance of achieving the top post.
Later, the exercise of power becomes more and more remote, climaxing in the deliberate lies by which the lords of Earth in Penultimate Truth protect themselves against the vengeance of the deluded millions cowering underground.
Illusions substituting for reality crop up in virtually every book Dick has written. He is – one must say this – obsessed with the idea that a human being might be manipulated by unseen forces, and consequently exploits the ultra-humanoid robot both literally and symbolically. Part of the protagonist’s job in World of Chance is to control a robot on its way to assassinate the current world dictator; in Clans of the Alphane Moon (no ordinary clans, those, but descendants of an isolated community of lunatics whose behaviour exhibits a socialised extension of the classic divisions of mental disorder!) an expedition to the stars is supervised secretly by remote-controlled humanoids, and in The Simulacra almost nothing is what it appears to be. The delusions suffered by the psychokinetic musician Richard Kongrosian are among the finest examples of mental illness I know in fiction.
But Time out of Joint is the novel most explicitly linked to hallucination; its central character, Ragle Gumm, has retreated to an imaginary past time (our present), and the action revolves around the gradual dissipation of the clues and symbols with which he has been encouraged to support the fugue.
The malleability of the external world – the willingness of human beings to accept not a hypothetical “reality” in the Kantian sense of das Ding an sich but a construct elaborated from the impact of preconceptions on the curious chemical stew we keep inside our crania – is perhaps the most personal element in Dick’s writings. Ragle Gumm, while retreating to a non-existent private world, is at the same time preserving his sanity; the tankers of The Penultimate Truth would rather accept the propaganda from the surface despite the blatant errors of historical fact which it contains than take the trouble to go look for themselves and see what the outer world is really like; the adoring TV audience in The Simulacra almost worship the First Lady – a kind of Jackie Kennedy to the Nth degree – and ignore the absurdity of her eternal youth for the sake of hoping that they, one day, may be invited to appear at the White House even if only to play arrangements of classical music for jug-blowing duet.
Combined with and making a sharp contrast to this notion of malleable externals is the converse of it. Whereas the dénouement of Game Players of Titan – in which a team from Earth is forced to play a Titanian game against creatures which can exercise virtually every psi power including that of extra-temporal perception – hinges on the ability of drugs to interfere with psionic talents, thus returning the game to the domain of randomness, Jones, in the world he made, goes mad when he proves unable to elude the certainty in twelve months’ time of his own death.
This uneasy, undecided wavering between the acceptance of reality as fixed and the conviction that it’s an illusion bred of subjective assumptions finds explicit formulation in some of the latest novels. I’ve already outlined World of Chance an early attack on this theme, but the super-Monopoly game played for the title-deeds to cities and actual feudal rulership over them in Game Players takes it probably as far as it can be taken in the classical context of games with winners and losers. However, as you might guess with Dick, he doesn’t stop there! He pushes it further yet in two much subtler directions.
In an early novel, The Man Who Japed, he first broached one of the related questions developed from the two foregoing key concepts: the malleability of reality and the operations of chance. In essence, he was noting the fact that for most human beings our conception of the external world is not private – it’s conditioned, perhaps even imposed, by conformity with our neighbours’ prejudices. In the present-day world this tends to be discernible chiefly on a superficial level: if one lives in a prosperous district, for instance, one will tend to take the complexion of one’s political opinions from those who live nearly. At one masterly blow, Dick carried this through to another level. By assuming a world-wide ideology which eliminated the range of choice open to us in a more liberal society, he transferred this group-imposed view of reality to the physical rather than the subjective. (A more sophisticated treatment of the same idea occurs in The Simulacra, by the way, with its “relpol” tests.)
And almost at right angles to this situation, in which the protagonist can only express his private view of the nature of the world and man’s place in it by – so to say – blaspheming against the revered founder of the common ideology (in a hilarious sequence where he attributes cannibalism to him in a TV programme), is the one in which it’s taken for granted that the world itself, our lives, and indeed the universe, are manifestations of a randomly fluctuating, plastic substratum on which we human beings by our decisions and perceptions impose a form meaningful primarily to ourselves alone.
I’m now talking about the book which won Dick his Hugo: The Man in the High Castle. It is, incontestably, his best novel to date, although the very recent Dr. Bloodmoney or How we Got Along After the Bomb similarly exhibits his talents in full flight. I’d give Castle the edge for two reasons, nonetheless.
First, for the thoroughness with which he has elaborated the decorative detail over his ingenious basic structure – a United States, defeated in World War II, which has been partitioned three ways, with the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards respectively occupied by the Germans and Japanese and a rump state forming a buffer zone between the two spheres of influence.
Second, for the absolute originality of the underlying assumption, which is not the rather commonplace “Nazis won World War II” gimmick of Giles Cooper’s The Other Man or Kornbluth’s Two Dooms, cleverly though the latter was argued. It’s something which probably only Dick would have dared to tackle and certainly only Dick would have brought off with such magnificent aplomb.
You’re probably not familiar with the I Ching, or Book of Changes, unless (a) you’ve read Man in the High Castle or (b) you’ve read Hesse’s Magister Ludi (Das Glasperlenspiel) or (c) you’re a student of the oriental or the occult. This is a shame. It’s one of the great creative works of the human imagination: the classical Chinese oracle, consulted by a complicated system of drawing long and short yarrowsticks or – more simply – by tossing a series of three coins. An inquiry to it yields a six-line poem, of which one or more may be “moving lines”; interpretation of this poem in accordance with the classic commentary furnishes a prediction.
Under the influence of the Japanese, people in Dick’s occupied America have come to consult this oracle. The action of High Castle develops around the quest of a number of the main characters for the author of a book set in a world where the Allies were not defeated (i.e. one corresponding to our own), and when located the author declares that he didn’t write the book himself – he plotted it entirely by consulting the I Ching. In other words, the Book of Changes itself wished to inform the world that this sour defeat was not reality – that elsewhere there was a truer world in which all had turned out for the best.
High Castle represents the climax of so many interlocking themes in Dick’s total work that here I can only point out one especially significant factor, which again is paradoxical: he represents his characters as being the product not just of a human imagination, but of the system of intangible forces for which the I Ching forms a nexus analogous to the pole of a magnet…yet seldom in any work of fiction, and almost never in sf, will you come across characters who are more deeply felt and more effectively portrayed.
I have no space to reprint examples of Dick’s technique: the way in which he presents subsidiary characters so that they leap alive off the page; the way he creates obsessive, almost paranoid terror when the action calls for it; the way he ties his plot-lines into knots by time-travel devices and then meticulously untangles every last thread again; the way he drives barbed spears of humour into our smug self-satisfaction to underline the relevance of his imaginings to our own contempoary existence. I can only say, urgently and often, that if you want to witness a master of sf ringing changes the rest of us have never dreamed of on the most fundamental themes and symbols of the genre, go and read any book by Philip K. Dick.
Better still, go and real all of them.
Now Wait For Last Year (forthcoming in U.K.)
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Cape, 21s.)
Clans of the Alphane Moon (forthcoming in U.K.)
The Cosmic Puppets (Ace)
Dr. Futurity (Ace)
Eye in the Sky (Ace)
The Game Players of Titan (Ace)
A Handful of Darkness (Panther, U.K. 3s. 6d.)
The Man in the High Castle (forthcoming in U.K.)
The Man Who Japed (Ace)
Martian Time Slip (Ace)
Solar Lottery (Ace)
Time Out of Joint (Serial in new worlds, U.K.)
Time Pawn (?)
The Variable Man and Other Stories (Ace)
Vulcan’s Hammer (forthcoming in U.K.)
The Zap Gun (?)
The Penultimate Truth (Belmont)
The Simulacra (forthcoming in U.K.)
World of Chance (Panther, U.K. O/P)
Dr. Bloodmoney (forthcoming in U.K.)
Cantata 140 (?)
The Crack In Space (Ace)
(?) – Publisher not certain at time of writing.