Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Obvious Influence: The Philip K. Dick Reader

American science fiction is generally divided into a Golden Age from the 1940's to the 1960's or so, when the giant names of Clarke, Bradbury, Asimov, and more wrote. The transition between their short, pulp novels or entertaining short stories to today's modern science fiction isn't always easy to grasp, but reading a set of Philip K. Dick stories all at once, such as the collection in The Philip K. Dick Reader demonstrates where that transition may have taken place.

The short stories of early SF were often more entertaining than the early novels, for the simple reason that they let the authors show off a sense of humor. They were generally based on some scientific or pseudo-scientific concept discussed and implemented by scientists, which leads to some kind of twist ending, usually ironic, occasionally horrifying. The Arthur C. Clarke short story, "The Nine Billion Names of God" exemplifies this model: A few computer engineers are called to a Himalayan monastery to help the monks there achieve their goal of writing down all nine billion mathematical combinations of letters which could spell any name for God. Having achieved this task, the engineers leave the monastery, pleased with themselves, only to notice that the stars in the night sky are starting to disappear.

The first story in the collection, "Fair Game," operates under this model. A well-respected professor of physics at a Colorado university starts noticing a giant eye observing his movements, and seems to be having surreal traps placed for him. It could be mental illness, but he and his colleagues, a little too easily, decide that it must be a race of giant aliens who take all their ideas from humans, and have chosen this professor because of his genius. After trying to run, he eventually gives in, rationalizing that he'll still be an important and respected physicist...only to discover himself being thrown into a frying pan.

The form is the same as most early SF, but it involves Dick's most characteristic attribute in his writing: the intersection of mental illness with science fiction, or more generally, the psychological argument of what is perception and what is reality? Mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or psychosis, cause people to mistake their perceptions for reality. Mind-altering drugs, a characteristic common to later Dick works, also have many of the same issues. In Dick's science fiction, technologies which can alter perception or reality offers fertile ground for growing interesting stories. Dick would later write a novel called The Simulacra, which sums this up in a single word.

The second story in the collection, "The Hanging Stranger," builds on the perception theme while adding in another of Dick's focuses, totalitarianism. An ordinary man notices a hanged man on a lamppost, and determines, through logic little different than mental illness, that other people aren't noticing the hanged man because they've been taken over by alien beings. He escalates the situation - horrifyingly believing his young son has been taken over, and killing him - until the reader discovers that the main character was right all along.

The fourth story, "The Golden Man," brings in the last of Dick's major themes, fear of nuclear war and radiation-based mutations. An overwhelmingly powerful government organization dedicated to hunting down mutants discovers a man with golden skin which they try to study, then kill, only to find out that the Golden Man, who can see the near future, is also irresistible to women, which he uses to escape. The implication is both that the Golden Man, a near-animal who lives entirely in time that he can perceive, is also able to breed at will - and the mutants will end up destroying humanity.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's not just that Dick is generally influential, but may be the author who's most connected to Hollywood. The recent Nicholas Cage film Next was loosely based on "The Golden Man." When published in 1997, The Philip K. Dick Reader contained two stories which had already been turned into the movies Total Recall and Screamers. In the next decade, three more just from this collection were turned into films: Minority Report, Next, and Paycheck. These are generally some of the best stories in the collection, and they demonstrate Dick's flair for both cinematic and psychological writing. "The Minority Report" especially stands out, both for its inherent quality, and when compared to the Tom Cruise film it inspired. The original story is similar, but isn't quite so excessively twist-filled, and has a significant anti-totalitarian aspect of the storyline largely missing from the plot (though not the setting) of the film.

The story "Shell Game" brings together many of Dick's favorite themes in an entertaining satire. A small colony of humans on a distant moon are convinced that they're under constant attack from an elite group of Terran soldiers. Everything that goes wrong on the planet is sabotage, and constant military presence is necessary to fight off the soldiers. Some of the leaders, concerned as to why they never see the Terran attackers, find evidence their colony was actually a rocket of mentally ill paranoids who crashed onto their moon. How, they ask the others, can they even know if they're under attack or mentally ill? They try to find a scientific test to see if the colony is in the grips of a collective mass paranoid hallucination, but others, still-paranoid, treat them as in league with the Terrans. The story ends with the paranoids loading up the repaired rocket with H-Bombs to attack Earth. Group-think infiltrating politics with disastrous results made the story disturbing to me having seen how the media and political class did much the same thing with the Iraq War, and I'm sure the story had the same effect on people who saw Watergate or the Bay of Pigs Invasion or McCarthyism or the rise of fascism in Europe or the French Revolution. It is, quite simply, science fiction at its best.

Not every story is a winner, but with nearly 30 to choose from, that is no surprise. This is an excellent collection of stories, as well as a historically important collection of influential science fiction.

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