Tag Archives: Philip K. Dick

The Philip K. Dick Primer*

4 May

Hi Dr. Michelson,

Going through the blog logs, I’ve found that I’ve actually never written a proper review of any Philip K. Dick novel—it seems that I just make hipster-esque references in passing, which may be more embarrassing than having an actual link to send you.  Still, here is my list of PKD books for non-initiates, in my personal (but probably less-than-preferable) reading order:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): The movie Blade Runner was adapted from this novel, and as much as everyone loved Harrison Ford, the book is better.  For one thing, it’s something by Philip K. Dick with a discernible plotline (a miracle!).  It’s short, relatively lucid, and all this being said probably the introductory text for a SF 101 course somewhere.

VALIS (1981): Almost universally accepted as his masterpiece, and very much in the style of 1980s PKD (highly mystical, barely coherent, and as one reviewer wrote “known as science fiction only for lack of a better category).  This is probably the one you’d be most interested in, and, interestingly enough, is semi-autobiographical (Horselover Fat is PKD himself, and his Roman Catholic friend David is my former high school English teacher’s brother, apparently).  Essentially, it’s a book about a quest for God, and I have no doubt you’ll be able to make more sense of PKD’s theological treatise than I ever could:

“The proponent of the novel, Horselover Fat, is thrust into a theological quest when he receives communion in a burst of pink laser light. From the cancer ward of a bay area hospital to the ranch of a fraudulent charismatic religious figure who turns out to have a direct com link with God, Dick leads us down the twisted paths of Gnostic belief, mixed with his own bizarre and compelling philosophy. Truly an eye-opening look at the nature of consciousness and divinity.”

The Man in the High Castle (1962): PKD’s most famous counterfactual/alternate history novel, wherein the Allies lost WWII and the United States is a slave-owning outpost of Nazi Germany.  This is the only book by dear Philip that won the Hugo (it was also nominated for the Nebula, but that’s an honor he never won).  Maybe he was one of those artists not fully appreciated during his time. Of course, now, Philip K. Dick has his own award—given to giants of the genre like Richard K. Morgan (Neuromancer, Altered Carbon) and China Mieville (The Scar), and less notable authors like my aforementioned high school English teacher’s brother Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).

Time Out of Joint (1959): If you’re interested in the “reality is a state of mind” aspect of Philip K. Dick’s writing, this is the book to read.  SFsite.com reviewer Martin Lewis commented, aptly: “Ragle Gumm is a perfectly realised example of the classic Dick protagonist; the paranoid man who discovers he has every reason to be paranoid because he inhabits a world where people know more about him than he does and reality itself is fluid.”  That’s pretty much the thematic underpinning of all of his books, but here the idea is central—Ragle Gumm lives in a world where the structure of the universe is, literally, held together by tiny hand-lettered strips of paper.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965):  Everyone with any sense who doesn’t think VALIS deserves the top spot puts this one there—Palmer Eldritch not only wins the award for best SF title ever, but presaged PKD’s more mystical novels like VALIS.  But fair warning—I read this while I had a cold earlier in the semester, and I’m convinced that this book made such a chaotic muddle of my mind that it prolonged my illness.  From Amazon’s book description:

“Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.  Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?”

Philip K. Dick’s other 39 published novels can be found (or at least, synopses and links on where to purchase can be found) at the official website of the PKD estate.

There’s also some “exclusive content” that I haven’t seen before—including a two-page summary of an unwritten novel in which Saul of Tarsus never converts and Christianity is overtaken by Manichaeism.

Maybe this is a book project you can encourage the Syriac portal-ers to take up?

All the best,

Isabela

* Happy Publish Your Private Emails Day everyone!  In honor of this festive occasion, always Cuatro de Mayo, I’m posting an email I sent to my fantastic Digital Humanities professor Dr. David Michelson.  Hey, he asked for a PKD reading list–I generally try very hard to keep my secret life as a second-rate science fiction blogger out of the hallowed halls of academia.  Not really.

Also, it makes me feel like kind of like Erasmus, publishing highly literary letters for the world to see!  Not really.

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Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?

16 Apr

After three years living in Tuscaloosa, I’m beginning to despair that I’m the only person in the state of Alabama who’s read anything by Mervyn Peake.  If I get that Lifestyles columnist gig on the campus paper, the first thing I’m doing is plugging Titus Groan and Gormenghast like crazy.  Mervyn Peake is the grandfather of steampunk, the dedicatee of Perdido Street Station, and the forerunner of PKD’s psychological madness.  In sum:

Why aren’t we reading him in the States?


I realize this is an indie speculative fiction blog, but Mervyn Peake is so little-known in this dear city (and state… and country) of mine that I’m going to give him a well-deserved blog post–for in truth, he deserves a blog of his own.  One that deals in Literature with a capital L.

So, a little background:

Mervyn Peake was a brilliant, badass English artist, illustrator, poet, and writer–today, he’s best-known for his Titus books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and, in a few short months, the posthumous Titus Awakes).  He was the child of medical missionaries in China, a soldier in WWII, a war artist, an author and, tragically, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’m no fan of C.S. Lewis in general (he reminds me of a smug, Modernist Thomas More), but I can agree with him on this: “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Mystical-sounding?  Definitely.  But it’s about as good a description of Mervyn Peake’s writing as anyone could give.  Peake’s poetry and the Gormenghast books are less about plot, shall I say?, than effect.  It’s often categorized as fantasy, but Peake doesn’t write about elves or magic.  His writing is surrealist, gothic, and something of a social comedy.  And threading through the themes of stagnant tradition and freedom and oppression, there’s that element of madness.  Gormenghast is grotesque, gory, ghastly, mystical, lyrical, monstrous, mind-bending, and inarticulably beautiful.  His characters are strange, sympathetic, and Machiavellian by turn, and he names them with Dickensian flair (Steerpike, Flay, Fuchia and Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan).

I had Titus Groan on my bookshelf since I was eight.  Didn’t pick it up until I was eighteen, of course, but that’s another story.  This story, in fact (hey, you clicked on the link; you get the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical book reviews):

A very long time ago, my dear beloved mother took me to a used book store.  I wandered around the disorderly stacks of books, sneezing, because unlike many people who love the smell of musty old books (the same people, I might add, who sniff haughtily and turn away when they see my Kindle 2 with the Dharma Initiative decal) stale, yellowing paper just makes my eyes water.  Unless it’s part of a 19th-century historical manuscript collection–then it’s cool.  Anyway–

Seriously--wouldnt this give you nightmares when you were eight?

I came to a straight-backed wooden chair piled with books.  Sliding down the side was a book with a brightly-colored cover, Titus Groan.  My mother was at the check-out, so I grabbed the book, ran back to her, and smiled, as always quite pleased with myself, when she purchased it without a second glance as the clerk bagged up her nth copy of Jane Eyre.  For better or worse, she let me read whatever I wanted from the moment I could.

Of course, when we got home and I looked more closely at the cover, I was a little disturbed.  And the title was a bit frightening too.  So I hid it at the back of the bookshelf and trained my eyes to slide over it every time I looked up there.

Ten years later, college freshman me was packing boxes to ship to the University of Alabama, surreptitiously taking books from the family cache and slipping them into my suitcase with the justification that having read them more than my sisters, they were “mine.”  But Titus Groan really was mine, and I read it my first semester, and praised Palgolak that serendipity had led me to the best series I’d ever (and still have ever) read.

The book shortly fell apart, and is currently held together with scotch tape.  My copy was thirty years old when I got it, and I’ve never worried about breaking spines.

Neither was Steerpike… but that’s another story too.  And how about, instead of me boring you, you read it yourself?  This has the Scattering’s eternal seal of approval.

Here’s the link to Titus Groan on Amazon

Cures for the Common Cult (Lenten Reading for the Non-religious)

5 Mar

As Ash Wednesday draws near, science fiction initiates may be wondering what devotional reading they can delve into this shriving season.  Accordingly, here is the Scattering’s list of the Top 10 classic irreligious SF for Easter (or Eostre, as you’ll have it) 2011:

1. VALIS, by Philip K. Dick

This one’s hard not to see coming.  Not only is it a prominent piece on Benjamin Linus’s bookshelf, VALIS is classic 1980s PKD: incoherently, barely-intelligible, highly theological, and just plain weird.  The back cover description might be a little too lucid:

This disorienting and bleakly funny work is about a schizophrenic hero named Horselover Fat; the hidden mysteries of Gnostic Christianity; and reality as revealed through a pink laser.  VALIS is a theological detective story, in which God is both a missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.

2. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by (surprise!) Philip K. Dick

I haven’t written so many posts about my beloved PKD since my stint at OCON 2009 (Objectivist Conference in Boston)–where reality was getting so objectively rational that I had to break out the crazy.  Three Stigmata is classic 1960s PKD: visionary, genius, and a masterpiece of science fiction.  Still weird (of course), but far more understandable.

Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.

Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?

Maybe I should have made this #1, after all.

3. Dune (and the rest), by Frank Herbert

I’ll always have a special fondness in my heart for sandworms and female Jesuits of the future–the first research paper I ever wrote, after all, was a pseudo-biography of Frank Herbert (I don’t think li’l Brian did him justice).  Not to mention that he was a world builder par excellence who mastered above any other single SF author the craft of really, really elaborate backstory.

“A portrayal of an alien society more complete and deeply detailed than any other author in the field has managed…a story absorbing equally for its action and philosophical vistas.” —Washington Post Book World

Considering anyone reading this has probably read Dune and all its subsequent iterations as many times as there are incarnations of Duncan Idaho, there’s not much more I can say.  But with 40 days of penitence looming, I think the Bene Gesserit would approve of a re-read.

4. Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov

Somewhere on the books, there has to be a law that no science fiction reading list of any kind can go to print without including something by the superhumanly prolific Isaac Asimov.  His 1941 short “Nightfall” has a sort of legendary quality about it–and rightly so–but the novelization’s pretty damn good too.  Even if it was co-written with Robert Silverberg.

The planet Kalgash is on the brink of Chaos–but only a handful of people realize it.  Kalgash knows only the perpetual light of day; for more than two millennia, some combination of its six suns has lit up the sky.  But twilight is now gathering.  Soon the suns will set all at once–and the terrifying splender of Nightfall will call forth a madness that signals the end of civilization.

And you thought Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was terrifying.

5. The Stand, by Stephen King

Yes, it’s 1,100 pages (that’s almost Atlas Shrugged status, there).  But the read is worth it–and the pace gallops along about as rapidly as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  King called the book a “dark chest of wonders,” and I must humbly agree: this is the End of Days novel to end all End of Days novels.

In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it.

The Stand is like that. You either love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Stephen King’s most popular book, according to polls of his fans, is an end-of-the-world scenario: a rapidly mutating flu virus is accidentally released from a U.S. military facility and wipes out 99 and 44/100 percent of the world’s population, thus setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation between Good and Evil.

“I love to burn things up,” King says. “It’s the werewolf in me, I guess…. The Stand was particularly fulfilling, because there I got a chance to scrub the whole human race, and man, it was fun! … Much of the compulsive, driven feeling I had while I worked on The Stand came from the vicarious thrill of imagining an entire entrenched social order destroyed in one stroke.”

There is much to admire in The Stand: the vivid thumbnail sketches with which King populates a whole landscape with dozens of believable characters; the deep sense of nostalgia for things left behind; the way it subverts our sense of reality by showing us a world we find familiar, then flipping it over to reveal the darkness underneath. Anyone who wants to know, or claims to know, the heart of the American experience needs to read this book. –Fiona Webster

Also, it will give you nightmares.

6. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

This is, admittedly, an anomalous choice.  It’s more psychology text than science fiction (and it’s definitely not a novel), but if you’ve read anything by that most eminent Canadian Robert J. Sawyer, you’ll know that he uses his characters to mention this book in almost every single one of his own.  The WWW series, at least.  It was getting really annoying, actually, until I made my father track down Julian Jaynes for me for Christmas last year, and then I got it.  Warning: Not for the faint of heart… or the myopic.

At the heart of this seminal work is the revolutionary idea that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but was a learned process that emerged from a hallucinatory mentality only three thousand years ago.  The implications of this scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history, our culture, our religion–indeed our future.

Makes you wonder whether Philip K. Dick ever did emerge from that hallucinatory mentality, right?

7. Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer

After the star-crossed tv series FlashForward lost favor with…well, everyone, I started reading Sawyer to fill my time before V came back on air (much good that did me).  I quickly realized that, as a writer, Sawyer likes his characters to talk.  And think.  But mostly talk.  The climax of Mindscan‘s “action” is actually a really long courtroom scene, in which various individuals debate philosophy.  Which is fine with me–when the philosophy involves clones, robots, and the origin of consciousness.

Jake Sullivan watched his father, suffering from a rare condition, collapse and linger in a vegetative state, and he’s incredibly paranoid because he inherited that condition. When mindscanning technology becomes available, he has himself scanned, which involves dispatching his biological body to the moon and assuming an android body. In possession of everything the biological Jake Sullivan had on Earth, android Jake finds love with Karen, who has also been mindscanned.

Meanwhile, biological Jake discovers there is finally another, brand-new cure for his condition. Moreover, Karen’s son sues her, declaring that his mother is dead, and android Karen has no right to deprive him of his considerable inheritance. Biological Jake, unable to leave the moon because of the contract he signed, becomes steadily more unstable, until finally, in a fit of paranoia, he takes hostages. Sawyer’s treatment of identity issues–of what copying consciousness may mean and how consciousness is defined–finds expression in a good story that is a new meditation on an old sf theme, the meaning of being human. —Regina Schroeder

There was a Twilight Zone episode kind of like this, if I recall.

8. Kraken, by China Mieville

A deep and abiding love for the much-neglected Mervyn Peake (in the States, that is) led me to China Mieville’s lyrical prose and fantastic urban settings.  For the best contemporary world-building in science fiction today, I commend you to Perdido Street Station.  For the cult of the giant squid, I give you Kraken.

British fantasist Miéville mashes up cop drama, cults, popular culture, magic, and gods in a Lovecraftian New Weird caper sure to delight fans of Perdido Street Station and The City & the City. When a nine-meter-long dead squid is stolen, tank and all, from a London museum, curator Billy Harrow finds himself swept up in a world he didn’t know existed: one of worshippers of the giant squid, animated golems, talking tattoos, and animal familiars on strike.

Forced on the lam with a renegade kraken cultist and stalked by cops and crazies, Billy finds his quest to recover the squid sidelined by questions as to what force may now be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Even Miéville’s eloquent prose can’t conceal the meandering, bewildering plot, but his fans will happily swap linearity for this dizzying whirl of outrageous details and fantastic characters.

Cthulhu might just have a run for his money.  Wait… please… I didn’t say that… have mercy O Ancient Ones!

9. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

He came to my school!  Neil Gaiman actually visited the University of Alabama last fall–and I couldn’t make it.  But I’ll make it up by adding his novel American Gods to this list, so no one else misses out on the dark fantasy writer that is Neil Gaiman.

Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow’s dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost–the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book.

For fans of the New Weird, see Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a somewhat less intense Kraken.

10. Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory

Julian Jaynes indicates that religiosity might be a mental illness, but Daryl Gregory takes that idea and runs.  Demonic possession has never been so scientific.

In this fascinating alternative time line, thousands of demon possessions have been carefully recorded by scientists each year since the 1950s. Each case is always the same: a recognizable, named strain of the disorder possesses a person, wreaks havoc and then jumps on to its next victim. Del Pierce’s case is unique: when the Hellion possessed him at the age of five, it never left. Now an unhappy 20-something, Del undertakes a dangerous quest to exorcise the Hellion as it fights him for control.

The trim prose keeps the pace intense and the action red hot through some emotionally disturbing scenes and heavy backstory. Absorbing psychological discussions of possession abound, from Jungian archetypes to the eye of Shiva. Readers will delve deeply into Gregory’s highly original demon-infested reality and hope for a sequel.

Verdict? Whom God Would Destroy, by Commander Pants

4 Mar

I hope PKD would approve.

What can I say?  This is a novel of celestial proportions.  The tag line alone (“a novel about taking reality with a pillar of salt”) had me sold on the eccentric Commander Pants’s irreverent speculative fiction novel.

The plot–a second incarnation of Jesus Christ returning to 1980s America to “infect” humanity with faith via public access television–is impudent, incredibly imaginative (bizarre might be a better word), and immaculately written.  I expected the book to be good if not exactly godly, but Whom God Would Destroy turned is nothing if not great.  For that, I am officially awarding Commander Pants the Scattering’s prestigious Heretic Badge of Honor for Spring 2011.  Wear it well, mysterious pseudonymous author.  Wear it well.

The best comparison I can make for the advanced SF reader would have to be Philip K. Dick’s classic The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.  Not only is WGWD in a similar league of impressive titulature, the author’s writing style has a comparable what the heck? effect.  Like PKD, CP’s novel WGWD (see what I did there?) treads the border of idiosyncratic and incomprehensible–and does so admirably well.

 
Recommendation: Devout Christians probably shouldn’t read WGWD.  No, devout Christians definitely shouldn’t read this book.  Spoiler alert: Devout Christians might start crying if they read this book.  But for the rest of us, Whom God Would Destroy is the most brilliant irreligious romp I’ve been fortunate enough to read.

Reading Time: 2-3 weeks in a busy month.

Availability: At $0.99 as an ebook, WGWD is a blasphemous bargain.  This is one of the highest-quality indie books I’ve reviewed on the Scattering, and far and away the most entertaining.  You can get it (really, get it) at this link to Amazon.

Warning: Religion Can Be Dangerous to Your Health (review: Whom God Would Destroy)

4 Mar

This cult and flu season, be careful what you’re carrying.

Turn on the History Channel this month and you’ll have no trouble finding any number of Lenten specials on the mysteries of the Life of Jesus.  Or on the mysteries of The Da Vinci Code.  Or that really bizarre 2000 adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  But my favorites of all the sensational religion specials have always been those that deal with the “missing years” of Jesus of Nazareth’s childhood.  All the canonical gospels leave major holes in the narrative, and it’s almost as if they’re hiding something…

Like the possibility that baby Jesus didn’t just sit on Mary’s lap and smile for the Renaissance artist paining him?  Anyone looking for some vaguely sacrilegious reading for Easter need look no farther than the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, one of those fun apocryphal texts written by fun-loving Christians of the 2nd or 3rd centuries.  Thomas has some interesting insight into those missing years.  Apparently, a side effect of befriending li’l Jesus was, disturbingly often, death or serious maiming.  Wikipedia tells us this:

The text describes the life of the child Jesus, with fanciful, and sometimes malevolent, supernatural events, comparable to the trickster nature of the god-child in many a Greek myth. One of the episodes involves Jesus making clay birds, which he then proceeds to bring to life, an act also attributed to Jesus in Qur’an 5:110; although in the Quran it is not attributed to him as a child.

In another episode, a child disperses water that Jesus has collected, Jesus then curses him, which causes the child’s body to wither into a corpse, found in the Greek text A, and Latin versions. The Greek text B doesn’t mention Jesus cursing the boy, and simply says that the child “went on, and after a little he fell and gave up the ghost,” (M.R. James translation).

Another child dies when Jesus curses him when he apparently accidentally bumps into him. In the latter case, there are three differing versions recorded the Greek Text A, Greek Text B, and the Latin text. Instead of bumping into Jesus in A, B records that the child throws a stone at Jesus, while the last says the boy punched him.  When Joseph and Mary’s neighbors complain, they are miraculously struck blind by Jesus.

How badass is that?  Almost makes me wish I were a Christian… almost.

In any case, as I read Whom God Would Destroy, I began to mentally refer to the book as The Apocryphal Gospel of Commander Pants.  Because, honestly, what’s more ridiculous–a second reincarnation of God coming to earth in the 1980s to create a public access tv program and New Age incense store, or junior Jesus killing kids and growing up with delusions of messiah-hood?

That first clause is pretty much the plot summary for Commander Pants’s irreverent (and that’s way too inadequate or word for the blasphemy going on) novel of the second coming of the son of God: Jeremy Christ.

For 2,000 years, Jeremy was up in Heaven–tediously bored.  He must’ve been listening to Billy Joel instead of his choirs of seraphim, too, because it would seem that the Savior got an idea that chilling with the sinners would be way more fun than crying with the saints.  In any case, he plops himself back into the body of a charismatic thirty-something and sets out to renew the earth.  But like any tragic hero, Jeremy has a few mishaps–like killing a harmless receptionist with a too-divine smile.  Though, all things considered, literally dying of happiness can’t be too bad a way to go.

Then there’s the matter of celibacy, which Jeremy finds problematic–considering that he’s inexplicably attracted to a seriously schizophrenic young woman named Abby, who happens to be the love interest of Jeremy’s first apostle, the rock on which he will build his church, a mild-mannered zealot named Oliver.  But let’s not give any divine love triangle plot points away (not that I could explain in any coherent way just what the connection between Big Macs and eternal orgasms may be).

Whom God Will Destroy is, in a word, brilliant.  In another few: hilarious, irreverent, and downright heretical.  Commander Pants’s imaginative take on religion is as ridiculous as his (her… it’s…) pen name, and the writing is true laugh-out-loud quality.  But like all good science fiction, WGWD has a social commentary, couched as it is in the blasphemous and absurd.  In my opinion, it’s this quote from one of Jeremy’s interior monologues:

Like Abraham, the booty that Oliver possessed was far more important than charisma: he had faith.  And faith was contagious.  Jeremy wanted to be a virus, and here, sitting on the floor sporting headphones and a goofy grin, was his first carrier, Typhoid Oliver.

As readers will soon discover, the resulting pandemic can be catastrophic.  Astonishingly funny, but catastrophic.

Whom God Would Destroy is available as an ebook on Amazon for $0.99.

Parallel Universes Where the South Won the War

25 Feb

Whooosh, it’s the Flash-Sideways… again!

I’ll have to wait 8 years or so before I can say with some validity that this is the kind of question professional historians daydream about without daring to publish, but I’ll make an educated guess that they do.  I imagine some Civil War re-enactors daydream and talk about it shamelessly, but as an undergrad history major who only pretends to be an Alabamian, I really can’t speak with authority on either account.  I do know that in 9th grade my world history class reenacted the battle of Waterloo and I got all of us disgruntled French soldiers pumped up on ABBA before we waged a water-balloon shock and awe campaign on that smug 14-year-old Duke of Wellington and put Napoleon back on the throne for good.

Our teacher wasn’t terribly pleased.

But that sort of counterfactual history is the bread and butter of science fiction writers–remember Murray Leinster’s Sidewise in Time? And it’s not just temporal shifts in general that SF writers posit, either, but specifically Confederate/Nazi Americas.  Another classic example: Philip K. Dick’s (love him!) The Man in the High Castle.

PKD’s novel was first published in 1962–I call that the “coherent period.”  Come 1978 and you get something like VALIS, which almost makes House of Leaves look intelligible.  Almost.

(And that, my friends, is called postmodern name-dropping, included in honor of my *friend* and fellow blogger (well, she’s 3 posts in), Marina Roberts, who doesn’t get one of my weird pseudonyms because she’s an anthropology major and I don’t care about her Internet safety, and who called me a “scary hipster” the other day, which really touched a soft spot because I’ve never even been in a thrift shop.  The salespeople kind of freak me out.  But then, I won’t step into J. Crew either.)

In any case, and to preach to the choir, The Man in the High Castle is fantastic and well-deserving of its Hugo.  Remember the Sidewise Award for Alternate History?  I’ll bet that in an alternate universe where he lived to 1995, PKD won that too.

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of a glimpse into Philip K. Dick’s twisted mind, here are a couple plot summaries for TMITHC.  Since it’s Phil, I figured we might need two:

Dick’s Hugo Award-winning 1962 alternative history considers the question of what would have happened if the Allied Powers had lost WWII. Some 20 years after that loss, the United States and much of the world has now been split between Japan and Germany, the major hegemonic states. But the tension between these two powers is mounting, and this stress is playing out in the western U.S.

What if the Allies had lost the Second World War …? The Nazis have taken over New York – the Japanese control California. In a neutral buffer zone existing between the two states an underground author offers his own vision of reality, an alternative world that offers hope to the disenchanted …Hugo Award winner Philip K Dick is one of the most original contributors to American sci-fi, and his books were the basis for the critically acclaimed films “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”.

So it’s not exactly a Confederate States of America, but slavery is legal in this alternate America and freedom definitely isn’t ringing.  It’s a book that came to mind earlier this week as I watched a screening of Kevin Wilmott’s “Confederate States of America,” an event hosted by the University of Alabama’s brilliant history department.  From Wikipedia, because I’m lazy:

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a 2004 mockumentary directed by Kevin Willmott. It is a fictional “tongue-in-cheek” account of an alternate history, in which the Confederates won the American Civil War, establishing the new Confederate States of America(that incorporates the former United States as well).

The film primarily details significant political and cultural events of C.S.A. history from its founding until the 2000s. This viewpoint is used to satirize real-life issues and events, and to shed light on the continuing existence of discrimination in American culture.

A particularly interesting segment of the film involves the CSA’s participation (or lack thereof) in World War II.  In this reality, Hitler visited the States, whose Aryan leaders impressed him with the slave economies in North and South alike.

More insightful bloggers than me (read Cory Doctorow, and yes, that’s a double entendre) have written about the role of science fiction in society; a couple years ago, he wrote an article titled “Radical Presentism,” about “the way that science fiction reflects the present more than the future.”

For some years now, science fiction has been in the grips of a conceit called the “Singularity”—the moment at which human and machine intelligence merge, creating a break with history beyond which the future cannot be predicted, because the post-humans who live there will be utterly unrecognizable to us in their emotions and motivations.

Read one way, it’s a sober prediction of the curve of history spiking infinity-ward in the near future (and many futurists will solemnly assure you that this is the case); read another way, it’s just the anxiety of a generation of winners in the technology wars, now confronted by a new generation whose fluidity with technology is so awe-inspiring that it appears we have been out-evolved by our own progeny.

Confederate States of America isn’t science fiction in the way that The Man in the High Castle is, but both are counterfactual (alternate) histories–telling us less about what could have happened than what is happening.

In the question-and-answer session after the film screening, director Kevin Wilmot (hell yes, he was there) suggested that–to paraphrase–the reason that South fought so hard in the Civil War was because they felt betrayed.  The country started out as the Confederate States of America–slavery and the 3/5 law were enshrined in our very Constitution, and let’s not forget how very many Virginians we had for presidents back in the day.

Every move we make toward true democracy, Wilmott argued (and that’s not just emancipation, but Civil Rights, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc), makes the country more of the United States, and less the Confederate States.

If filmmaking ever falls through for Wilmott, I’d suggest a career in science fiction.

Btdubs, I’m currently fascinated by the I Write Like tool, which has for months told me that in both the blogosphere and academe I write like H.P. Lovecraft.  Probably the prohibitively long sentences.  This post, however, has been textually analyzed and came out, quote the machine, as comparable to Cory Doctorow.  Nothing’s comparable to Cory Doctorow’s writing, but I’ll take what I can get.

The Paranoid Universe

7 Jul

About a week ago, while reading Philip K. Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint, I was dredged up from the depths of borderline-incoherent science fiction by one of my younger cousins asking me:

“Is that book about drugs?”

“No,” I replied, not bothering to inquire as to why his thoughts immediately jumped to drugs from the word ‘joint,’ when elbows, knees, and large pieces of meat cooked whole could have been equally applicable to the word.  “It’s about a man who doesn’t know if the universe is real or not.”

We discussed time travel paradoxes for a few more minutes before he left me to finish the book.  I promptly forgot about the conversation until this morning.

In Boston for OCON 2009, I’m attending a course on the psychologist James J. Gibson’s theory of perception.  It’s an extraordinarily radical conception of the universe, and so discounted by many psychologists today: basically, Gibson believed that there was a real world, and that people could experience it.

Crazy, right?

Most normal people recognize this intuitively, but let’s be honest– academics and so-called intellectuals aren’t exactly normal people.

Gibson’s idea is formally called Direct Realism, but also occasionally Naïve Realism (probably by the academics) and Common Sense Realism (probably by the rest of us).  He states that the senses provide us with direct knowledge and experience of the external world.  This is as opposed to the notion that the world only exists in our own consciousness.  Not sure what you personally think?  Here’s a simple grade-school test:

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one’s around to witness it, did it really make a sound?

Gibson says– Of course it does!

Philip K. Dick, on the other hand, has his doubts.

My cousin was more perceptive than he probably realized when trying to analyze the title of my book.  Drugs are “mind-altering,” producing new sensations or a new a state of consciousness.  What’s happening in your mind becomes primary– the things you see or hear or feel that don’t really exist in the external world.

PKD’s novels are all about altered consciousness.  One fan website’s home page, for example, bears the phrase: “Reality is a point of view.”  And protagonist Ragle Gumm in Time Out of Joint, for example, lives in a place where the universe is held together by neatly lettered strips of paper; and, if you look really, reallyhard at an object, you can see down to its molecular structure.

I might enjoy torturing my brain with PKD’s particular brand of “paranoid fiction,” and many people enjoy the recreational use of “mind-expanding” drugs, but really: wouldn’t you rather live in Gibson’s universe?

Androids vs. Neandertals

15 May

Yesterday I gave my younger sister a Voight-Kampff test– just in case.  I never truly believed she was an android, but I figured it’s better to be safe than sorry, and letting my own emotions cloud my judgment of her potential replicant status would have been dangerous in the extreme. (Although, that very disregard for my emotions heightens the chance that I am a replicant…)

No fear– she’s human.    

Involuntary pupil dilation indicates empathy and increases the likelihood that subject is human.

Involuntary pupil dilation indicates empathy and increases the likelihood that subject is human.

For those who haven’t read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or seen the movie Blade Runner, a V-K test is an exam designed to provoke a specific emotional response in subjects– compassion.  It’s based on the premise that androids/replicants are incapable of experiencing empathy, and that emotion is the foundation of what makes a human human.

Sounds a little like David Hume, who wrote: “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.”

He explained this more fully in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

“Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice: Render men totally indifferent toward these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions.”

Basically, Reason (which androids have in abundance– and which the Nexus 7 model has in excess of human beings) may be useful for moral reflection, but is only subsidiary to sentiment.  What makes us human is this idea of benevolence, or “sympathy,” which prods us to desire the well-being of others– if we suffer when others suffer, and rejoice when other rejoice (no schadenfreude here, sorry), humankind’s going to turn out all right after all.  Androids, on the other hand, experience no such mudita, not even for their own kind.

Or at least not yet.

But speculation about the emotional capabilities of non-human life forms extends beyond science fiction or future technology– the idea is just as applicable to past non-human life as well.  And, as bizarre as it is to imagine, at one time in the history of Homo Sapiens, a co-dominant intelligence shared the planet: Homo Neanderthalensis.

[Note: Yes, I know, the “scientific” English pronunciation is NeanderTAL, rather than NeanderTHAL, but seriously, if you’re not an anthropologist and still use the former version, be prepared to sound like a jerk.  With that said, I’m going to be scientific…ish.]

Admittedly, there is some debate as to whether the Neadertals were a separate species or a subspecies, but let’s go with the separate species advocates here– if only for the sake of android parallelism.  Because if the Neandertal was indeed a separate species, then ancient man has already shared the planet for thousands of years with a non-human intelligence.

Unless it really is emotion which makes a human human–

In 1909, the skeleton of a Neandertal man (known as the “Shanidar” skeleton) was found buried on its side, in the fetal position.  Analysis of soil samples determined that the man was buried with flowers, most of which were types with medicinal properties (yarrow, hyacinth, and hollyhock, for example).  In the surrounding area, less than 10% of the thousand of flowering plant species would have had medicinal qualities, making it likely the flowers were not there naturally, but placed in the grave as a part of Neandertal burial practices.

Sympathy?

Maybe, one of these days, an android will somehow pass the Voight-Kampff test.  I’m not too worried.  After all, I’m fairly certain a Neandertal would­– and they weren’t human either.

 

For more information on the Shanidar skeletons: http://anthropology.si.edu/humanorigins/ha/shanidar.html