The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick by R. Crumb from Weirdo #17
Sunday, 27 May 2012
Posted by emmetocuana at 11:00
We have a betrayal state, he realized. When I was a celebrity I was exempt. Now I'm like everyone else: I now have to face what they've always faced. And - what I faced in the old days, faced and then later on repressed from my memory. Because it was too distressing to believe...once I had a choice, and could choose not to believe.
This evening I watched the Philip K. Dick episode of Prophets of Science Fiction, a documentary series for television produced by Ridley Scott who appears in each episode as our guide to the lives of a selection of sf writers, signing off with a pithy line. During the episode there is an interview with David Hanson, the poor chap who lost the robot head of Philip K. Dick. No mention is made of this, but we do get to see the recreated head of Dick.
I remember when the robot head was lost in 2006. Warren Ellis did an entertaining series of columns mentioning that he had the robotic PKD, re-purposed to resemble the head of Jack Kirby! Here is my dilemma though. Just as Ellis joked that he could reprogram the missing head to become that of an entirely different dead visionary - Hanson was in turn able to rebuild the head. It is a neat tribute to Dick, given his repeated questioning of the uniqueness of human individuality. From his notions of androids, artificial memories and alternate worlds - the recurring idea is that we are not beautiful snowflakes. We can be rebuilt. We are the result of formulae.
And that is my problem with Dick's writing. I have long ago recognized his formula and it means I am having trouble enjoying his fiction. The recurring tropes of his writing, not only the themes of individuality, but the seesawing relationships with women and the rampant paranoia of authority figures, appears over and over again. The imagination displayed in his novels is breathtaking, but the stuff of his narrative, the building blocks, his techniques, are far too familiar to me - and I have only scratched the surface of his full canon, having only read a third of his published fiction!
The ideas surrounding Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said are brilliant. A near future society - relative to the time of writing given its 1988 setting - featuring an astonishingly restrictive police state that has near wiped out African American citizens due to a policy of sterilization and retains records on every citizen. As a celebrity
Jack Jason Taverner is not subject to these oppressive laws and, along with his colleague Heather Hart, feels nothing but contempt for these lesser folks. However, an encounter with a spurned lover results in him somehow being transported to another world courtesy of a parasitic lifeform (cf Alan Moore's What To Get The Man Who Has Everything).
This alternate Earth is in effect the same world he 'came from' in almost every aspect, aside from the fact that Taverner is an unknown person. For a former celebrity this is the worst possible fate already - but in a society that obsessively records and stalks its own citizens he is a hunted man.
We then meet the typical Dickian nymphet Kathy Nelson, a document forger who becomes obsessed with Taverner, until we learn from a police officer that she is mentally ill. Once again, this is a recurring theme of Dick's and perhaps a reflection his own dysfunctional relationships with the women in his life. I resent how the young women drawn to his protagonists inevitably are revealed to be disturbed and pathetic. The inevitable authority figure Felix Buckman who pursues Taverner has a sister Alys, once again mysteriously drawn to the man from another Earth whom she claims to know. The presence of twins or unusually close siblings is also a trope of Dick's, inspired by the death of his own twin Jane. In fact PKD was buried beside his sister in 1982 and his questioning of why she died and he lived informed a lot of his speculation about possible worlds.
Philip K. Dick the man is continuously fascinating to me. But his literary output has begun to lose its appeal. I think in part this is because one of the first books I read by the man was informed by the mystical experience which inspired his Exegesis. The book was VALIS, a brilliant dialogue on gnosticism, but also a possible account of a mind shattered by mental illness. It was original and imaginative - and most importantly, the transformative event Dick had undergone had done away with the formula.
So I guess the question becomes for me that if I want to continue to read Philip K. Dick, maybe I should stick to the post-Exegesis version. It is the man I am interested in, not the same story over and over.
Labels: Books, Flow My Tears, Philip K. Dick, Prophets of Science Fiction, Ridley Scott, Robot Head of Philip K. Dick, sf, The Exegesis, The Policeman Said, VALIS, Warren Ellis |