Sunday, July 9, 2017

Almost....

My assault on the novels of science-fiction writer and cult hero Philip K. Dick continues. For its first 220 pages, Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968) is a standout sf novel. Though it starts slowly, once rolling it builds steadily in character and incident, it complicates entertainingly, and the story becomes gripping all the way up to a high point of drama near the end.
All through the book, as I was hooked and got more involved and the reality of Dick's imagined world got more complex, I started saying "THIS is more like it! NOW I see what people were talking about with this guy!"
I got so involved that I read almost the whole book in just a couple of days, staying interested and enjoying it all the way. It wasn't work. SHEEP is much easier to read and get caught up in than PKD's VALIS (reviewed last post). It seems to have a lot more depth.
But as I closed in on the end, I had to take a break and go to work.
I should never have gone to work.
Because when I came back home and picked the story back up, PKD had somehow let the last 25 pages of his novel go pffff....
In the future, a massive nuclear war has virtually finished off Earth. A dark radioactive dust coats most of the planet. Fallout is an ongoing problem. The remaining cities are mostly abandoned, like ghost towns. Though San Francisco has somehow survived, western Oregon has become a desert. Most folks have left Earth for Mars. A few people crawl through life here -- those whose jobs won't let them leave, and those who aren't smart enough to pass the IQ tests to emigrate. Rumor has it the colony planets are in worse shape.
The remaining humans are plagued with guilt over the millions of animal species that have died due to man's stupid wars. Companies manufacture mechanical animals to placate this guilt. A few REAL animals survive, but they are only available at astronomical prices -- the bigger the animal, the higher the price. Real animals have become status symbols like cars or houses.
A sinister talk-show host named Buster Friendly has a 24/7 program on the only TV channel, where his guests are celebrities who are "famous for being famous." A religion called Mercerism seems to unite believers in a sacred shared ordeal similar to Sisyphus rolling his giant boulder up a mountain. And people use various mood-inhancing devices so they won't have to face too much reality.
Against this background, a police bounty-hunter named Rick Deckard tracks down a group of (supposedly evil) androids who've immigrated to Earth from Mars illegally. Deckard is told these androids are smarter and more brutal than humans ... but the androids are mainly just less empathic. Maybe conditions on Mars are even worse than on the dusty, depopulated Earth? We never find out.
Helping Deckard track down the androids is a mysterious woman named Rachel Rosen -- herself apparently an android, or at least a human with little empathy. It turns out one of the androids Deckard must locate and "retire" (kill) is a duplicate of Rachel.
The plot works from here. Much is promised. Much ominous darkness and threat surround Deckard as he proceeds in his mission -- he'll be paid $1,000 for each android he "retires." Then maybe he'll be able to afford a REAL sheep instead of the mechanical one currently pretending to munch grass on the roof of his decrepit old apartment building. Then won't his neighbor be jealous! Then maybe his wife will love him again and not consider him a failure anymore.
Much of the rest becomes a game of who's-real-and-who-isn't, as Deckard tries to take out the androids before they can get him. Which actually becomes fairly exciting. Until Deckard closes in on the last three androids hiding in an abandoned apartment building -- including the Rachel-duplicate and a supposedly evil and powerful android-leader named Roy Baty.
It may sound here like I didn't enjoy the book. Wrong. I liked it a lot. But PKD took the heavily dramatic ending that was staring him in the face and threw it out the window in the last 25 pages. The big expected fight with Roy Baty turns out to be nothing much, and Deckard's confrontation with the Rachel-duplicate is a wasted opportunity for much more ... because by then Deckard has fallen in love with the "real" Rachel.
I was also expecting more to be done with J.R. Isadore, the low-IQ pet-repair messenger who in many ways is the nicest and most genuine person in the whole book. But PKD just lets him slip away.
The last 25 pages are digressions and avoidances of drama. Rachel does sort of get her "revenge" after Deckard murders all of her friends, but even in the context of the book it comes across as a very small thing. After her function in the plot is made clear, she is also dropped.
How could PKD do this? Maybe because to round out this story in a way that seems dramatically obvious, he might have needed 50 more pages -- and maybe that room wasn't available in a Doubleday mid-'60s mid-list sf novel. Just a guess.
I've never seen the movie BLADE RUNNER made from this book, though I will say that the giant Japanese-style (or Times Square-style) neon advertising signs that allegedly made such a big visual impact in that film are NOT from this future. I've read that the movie does at least make the point this book doesn't -- that at the finale Deckard does recognize Roy Baty's humanity in a way that never comes close to happening in this book. About the only real humans here are J.R. Isadore and Deckard's wife, Iran. And we recognize Iran because she's as depressed as any normal person would be in a future world like this. Deckard comes across as just tired.
This is all too bad, because for the first 220 pages this is an excellent novel with action and vivid characters and some philosophical depth, and it deserved the Nebula Award it was nominated for. But PKD never answers any of the questions he brings up. If he had finished the job, this book could maybe have WON that award....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Another round for The Vague Blur!

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is a phenomenon. Though he's been dead since 1982, his books keep selling, his cult keeps growing, Hollywood keeps making movies of his short stories and novels.
And I'm still trying to figure out why this is so.
True, Dick's novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) is absolutely one of a kind and will turn your mind into a pretzel. A MAZE OF DEATH (1970) has a twisted grimness that is all its own.
PKD has a really good feel for the gritty down-to-earth realities of life. He's also good on those little moments that suddenly become overpoweringly Significant.
But the people he writes about are so average, so dull, that they can be boring to read a whole book about.
Even when Dick's writing about himself.
I've bogged down in half a dozen of his other novels, and there's a couple I've forgotten completely.
VALIS (1981) is one of those where I bogged down after a couple chapters and then forgot about it. I got through it this time in a few days, with no problem. It's definitely different and often interesting, but not exactly stunning. Except maybe in the amount of work PKD had to do to get it written.
It was Dick's attempt to explain the vision (or breakdown) he had in early 1974, when he thought he was contacted by God. Or at least by a Vast Active Living Intelligence System.
Over the next five years, Dick reportedly wrote some 5,000 pages trying to explain what happened to him, what it meant, what he thought it revealed. Among other things, this supposedly alien intelligence identified a life-threatening health problem with PKD's son.
More than 1,100 pages of these writings were published a few years back as PKD's EXEGESIS. It's an amazing pile of work. But awfully tough to get through.
VALIS tries to novelize some of PKD's experience. One problem is, he doesn't show what happened to him until he's 50 pages into the book. And even when he gets to it, he just barely describes it. He finds other, more human ways to lay out his story. But this central experience is underneath everything else. If you don't know about it before starting the book, the story's kind of a mess.
First PKD comes to a personal crisis: His wife leaves him and takes their young son, then two close women friends die even though he tried to help them. First PKD tries to commit suicide. Then the blinding pink light of VALIS touches him and starts pouring vast amounts of information into his brain.
The rest of the book is a search for God, or at least for what VALIS is or means.
PKD, his alter-ego, and a small group of friends eventually find A New Savior living in northern California. She turns out to be a stunningly intelligent, frightfully verbal 2-year-old girl.
The first thing she does is immediately cure PKD's schizophrenia. His alter-ego -- who has been the star of the book and whom PKD has had long conversations with alone and when surrounded by his friends -- immediately disappears.
Then the girl tells them in absolutely Biblical cadences some of what they want to know. She is by far the sharpest person in the book.
Naturally, this divine creature can not be permitted to live -- and she dies in a stupid off-stage accident.
The rest of the book is a search for another Savior. PKD's alter-ego reappears and starts traveling the world searching for the next Messiah -- first in Europe, then Russia, Asia, finally into the Pacific islands. The new Messiah who will heal the world is out there somewhere -- VALIS has told them so.
Twenty pages of PKD's EXEGESIS is tacked onto the end of the book, to lay out the basic thought structure beneath the novel's heavy religious theory.
Most of the people in the novel are nuts. They even discuss this. PKD himself can barely handle the stress of walking out of his own yard. He blacks out during plane flights. Too stressful.
The book will hold your attention, parts of it are kind of drily funny, and it's unlike any other novel you've ever read. It's as direct and basic as PKD could make a complex subject. It's better than staring at the TV for a few hours, I guess, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a pleasant experience. I'll be reading more by PKD, but I'm hoping for a little more entertainment along with his message.
Just make sure you don't pay too much for it.