# 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975
Brian W. Aldiss
Dick's Maledictory Web: About and Around Martian Time-Slip
Arnie Kott is on his way back into a schizoid variant of the recent past:
The trail levelled out and became wider. And all was in shadow; cold and
damp hung over everything, as if they were treading within a great tomb. The
vegetation that grew thin and noxious along the surface of the rocks had a
dead quality to it, as if something had poisoned it in its act of growing.
Ahead lay a dead bird on the path, a rotten corpse that might have been
there for weeks; he could not tell. (§14)
The setting is Mars, which is now partly colonized. Colonists live along the
water system, where conditions of near-fertility exist.
This web of civilization is stretched thin over utter desolation. There is no
guaranteeing that it can be maintained. Its stability is threatened by the Great
Powers back on Earth. For years they have neglected Mars, concentrating dollars
and man-hours on further exploration elsewhere in the system; now they may
interfere actively with the balance of the colony.
Behind this web exists another, even more tenuous: the web of human
relationships. Men and women, children, old men, bleekmen (the autochthonous but
non-indigenous natives of Mars) all depend, however reluctantly, on one another.
When poor Norbert Steiner commits suicide, the effects of the event are felt by
Behind these two webs lies a third, revealed only indirectly. This is the web
connecting all the good and bad things in the universe. The despised Bleekmen,
who tremble on the edge of greater knowledge than humanity, are acutely aware of
this web and occasionally succeed in twitching a strand here and there, to their
advantage; but they are as much in its toils as anyone else.
These three webs integrate at various coordinate points, the most remarkable
point being AM-WEB, a complex structure which the UN may build some time in the
future in the F.D.R. Mountains. The structure is visible to Steiner's autistic
son, Manfred, who sees in it an advanced stage of decay. Its function in the
novel is to provide a symbol for the aspirations and failures of mankind. The
structure will be a considerable achievement when completed; which is not to say
that it is not ultimately doomed; and part of that doom may be decreed by the
miserable political and financial maneuverings which form one of the minor
themes of this intricately designed novel.
MARTIAN TIME-SLIP COMES FROM THE MIDDLE of one of Dick's most creative
periods. The Man in the High Castle was published in 1962. In 1963 came The
Game-Players of Titan and then, in 1964, The Simulacra, The
Penultimate Truth, Clans of the Alphane Moon, and the present volume.
Although Dick is a prolific author, with some thirty novels appearing in fifteen
years, his production rate is modest when compared with many other writers in
the prodigal field of SF.
One of the attractions of Dick's novels is that they all have points at which
they inter-relate, although Dick never introduces characters from previous
books. The relationship is more subtle-more web-like-than that. There is a web
in Clans of the Alphane Moon, made by the "world-spider as it spins
its web of determination for all life." The way in which Mars in the
present novel is parceled up between various nationalities is reminiscent of
the parceling up of Earth into great estates in The Penultimate Truth,
and The Game-Players of Titan. The horrifying corrupt world of Manfred's
schizophrenia, the realm of Gubble, reminds of the tomb world into which John
Isidore falls in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or of one of the
ghastly fake universes of Palmer Eldritch in The Three Stigmata of Palmer
Eldritch. When Jack Bohlen, in the first few pages of the novel, awaits the
arrival of his father from Earth, change is about to creep in; and change is
often paradoxically embodied in someone or something old, like the Edward M.
Stanton lying wrapped up in newspaper in the back of Maury Rock's Jaguar, in the
opening pages of We Can Build You.
Such building blocks are by no means interchangeable from book to book;
Dick's kaleidoscope is always being shaken, new sinister colours and patterns
continually emerge. The power in the Dickian universe resides in these blocks,
rather than in his characters, even when one of the characters has a special
power (like Jones's ability to foresee the future in The World Jones Made),
it rarely does him any good.
If we look at two of the most important of these building blocks and observe
how they depend on each other for greatest effect, we come close to
understanding one aspect of Dickian thought. These blocks are the Concern With-Reality
and the Involvement-with-the-Past.
Most of the characteristic themes of SF are materialist ones; only the
concern-with-reality theme involves a quasi-metaphysical speculation, and this
theme Dick has made peculiarly his own. Among his earliest published stories is
"Imposter" (1953), in which a robot believes himself to be a man; the
faking is so good that even he cannot detect the truth until the bomb within him
is triggered by a phrase he himself speaks. Later, Dickian characters are
frequently to find themselves trapped in hallucinations or fake worlds of
various kinds, often without knowing it or, if knowing it, without being able to
do anything about it. In The Man in the High Castle, the world we know—in
which the Allies won World War II and the Axis Powers lost—is itself reduced
to a hypothetical world existing only in a novel called The Grasshopper Lies
Heavy, which the victorious Japanese and Germans have banned.
And it is not only worlds that are fake. Objects, animals, People, may also
be unreal in various ways. Dick's novels are littered with fakes, from the
reproduction guns buried in rock in The Penultimate Truth which later are
used, and so become "genuine fakes," to the toad which can hardly be
told from real in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the androids
masquerading as human in the same novel. Things are always talking back to
humans. Doors argue, medicine bags patronize, the cab at the end of Now Wait
for Last Year advises Dr. Eric Sweetscent to stay with his ailing wife. All
sorts of drugs are available which lead to entirely imaginary universes, like
the evil Can-D and Chew-Z used by the colonists on Mars in Palmer Eldritch,
or the JJ-180 which is banned on Earth in Now Wait for Last Year.
The colonists in Martian Time-Slip use only the drugs available to us,
though these are generally at hand-in the very opening scene we come across
Silvia Bohlen doped up on phenobarbitone. Here the concern-with-reality theme is
worked out through the time-slip of the title, and through the autistic boy,
Manfred falls into the power of Arnie Kott, boss of the plumbing union which,
because water is so scarce, has something of a stranglehold on Mars (a typical
piece of wild Dickian ingenuity). Arnie worries a lot. He asks his Bleekman
servant, Helio, if he has ever been psychoanalyzed.
"No, Mister. Entire psychoanalysis is a vainglorious
"Question they never deal with is, what to remold sick person like. There is no what, Mister."
"I don't get you, Helio."
"Purpose of life is unknown, and hence way to be is hidden from the
eyes of living critters. Who can say if perhaps the skizophrenics are not
correct? Mister, they take a brave journey. They turn away from mere things,
which one may handle and turn into practical use; they turn inward to
meaning. There, the black night-without-bottom lies, the pit." (§6)
Of course, there are many ways of falling into the pit, one of which is to
have too much involvement-with-the-past. In a published interview with Philip
Purser, Dick admits to a fascination with the past, quoting lines of Henry
Vaughan, "Some men a forward motion love / But I by backward steps would
move..." Whilst saying how much he enjoys the junk of the past, Dick adds,
"But I'm equally aware of the ominous possibilities. Ray Bradbury goes for
the Thirties, too, and I think he falsifies and glamourises them" (Daily
Telegraph Magazine, 19th July 1974).
Arnie Kott has an innocent fascination with objects of the past—he
possesses the only spinet on Mars. In the same way, Robert Childan's trading
Mickey-Mouse watches and scarce copies of Tip Top Comics to the victorious
Japanese (in The Man in the High Castle) is represented as entirely
innocuous. Trouble comes when the interest with the past and all its artifacts
builds into an obsession, like Virgil Ackerman's Wash-55, a vast regressive
babyland which features in Now Wait for Last Year.
And this is indeed where Dick parts company with Ray Bradbury, and with many
another writer, in or out of SF. If he sees little safety in the future, the
past is even more insidiously corrupting. So dreadful is Manfred's past that you
can die in it. The past is seen as regressive; one of the most striking Dickian
concepts is the "regression of forms" which takes place in Ubik, that
magnificent but flawed novel in which the characters try to make headway through
a world becoming ever more primitive, so that the airliner devolves into a Ford
trimotor into a Curtis biplane, while Joe's multiplex FM tuner will regress into
a cylinder phonograph playing a shouted recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
In Martian Time-Slip, the involvement-with-the-past is general, as
well as being particularised in Manfred's illness. Mars itself is regarded by
Earth as a has-been, and is patterned with has-been communities based on earlier
versions of terrestrial history. Here it is especially difficult to escape
With the past so corrupting, the present so uncertain, and the future so
threatening, we might wonder if there can be any escape. The secret of survival
in Dick's universe is not to attempt escape into any alternate version of
reality but to see things through as best you can; in that way, you may succeed
if not actually triumphing. The favoured character in Martian Time Slip is
Jack Bohlen, whom we last see reunited with his wife, out in the dark garden,
flashing a torch and looking for someone. His voice is business-like, competent,
and patient; these are high-ranking virtues in the Dickian anthropology. It is
significant that Jack is a repairman ("an idiot who can fix things,"
says Kott)-a survival-rich job, since it helps maintain the status quo. Similar
survivors in other novels are pot-healers, traders, doctors, musical instrument
makers, and android-shooters (since androids threaten the status quo).
The characters who survive are generally aided by some system of knowledge
involving faith. The system is rarely a scientific one; it is more likely to be
ancient. In Martian Time-Slip; it is the never-formulated paranormal
understanding of the Bleekmen; Bohlen respects this vague eschatological faith
without comprehending it, just as Kott despises it. The I Ching, or Book
of Changes, the four-thousand-year-old Chinese work of divination, performs
a similar function in The Man in the High Castle, whilst in
Counter-Clock World, Latta Hermes randomly consults the Bible, which predicts
the future with an alarming accuracy. In both Dick's two early masterpieces, Time-Slip
and High Castle, this religious element-presented as something crumbling,
unreliable, to be figured out with pain-is well-integrated into the texture of
Dick's next great book, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, was
written very soon after Martian Time-Slip, and the two are closely
related, not only because Mars is in both cases used as a setting. To my view, Eldritch
is a flawed work, over-complicated, and finally disappearing into a cloud of
quasi-theology; whereas Martian Time-Slip has a calm and lucidity about
it. But in Eldritch we also find an ancient and unreliable meta-structure
of faith, in this case embodied in the ferocious alien entity which fuses with
Our opponent, something admittedly ugly and foreign that entered one of
our race like an ailment during the long voyage between Terra and Prox ...
and yet it knew much more than I did about the meaning of our finite lives,
here; it saw in perspective. From its centuries of vacant drifting as it
waited for some kind of life form to pass by which it could grab and become
... maybe that's the source of its knowledge: not experience but unending
solitary brooding. (§12)
So muses Barney Mayerson. Jack Bohlen desperately needs a transcendental act
of fusion; he is estranged from his wife, sold by his first employer, threatened
by his second, invaded by the schizophrenia of the boy he befriends. He sees in
this mental illness, so frightenly depicted in the book, the ultimate enemy.
From this ultimate enemy come the time-slip of the title and that startling
paragraph which seems to condense much of the feeling of the bookand, indeed,
of Dick's work in general, when Bohlen works out what Manfred's mental illness
It is the stopping of time. The end of experience, of anything new. Once
the person becomes psychotic, nothing ever happens to him again. (§11)
This is the maledictory circle within which Dick's beings move and from which
they have to escape: although almost any change is for the worse, stasis means
death, spiritual if not actual.
ANY DISCUSSION OF DICK'S WORK makes it sound a grim and appalling world. So,
on the surface, it may be; yet it must also be said that Dick is amazingly
funny. The terror and the humor are fused. It is this rare quality which marks
Dick out. This is why critics, in seeking to convey his essential flavour, bring
forth the names of Dickens and Kafka, earlier masters of ghastly comedy.
Martian Time-Slip is full of delightful comic effects, not least in
the way in which Steiner and the lecherous Otto Zitte ship illegal gourmet-food
items from Earth in unmanned Swiss rockets. Dick's fondness for oddball entities
and titles is much in evidence, notably in the surrealist public school, where
the Emperor Tiberius, Sir Francis Drake, Mark Twain, and various other
dignitaries talk to the boys. Below this easy-going humour lies a darker stream
of wit. Arnie Kott's terrible and fatal mistake of believing that reality is
merely another version of the schizoid past is also part of the comedy of
mistakes to which Dick's characters always dance.
There is a deeper resemblance to the works of Dickens and Kafka. Dick, like
Dickens, enjoys a multi-plotted novel. As the legal metaphor is to Bleak
House, the world-as-prison to Little Dorrit, the dust heap to Our
Mutual Friend, the tainted wealth to Great Expectations, so is Mars
to Martian Time-Slip. It is exactly and vividly drawn; it is neither the
Mars as adventure playground of Edgar Rice Burroughs nor the Mars as parallel of
Pristine America of Ray Bradbury; this is Mars used in elegant and expert
fashion as metaphor of spiritual poverty. In functioning as a drearnscape, it
has much in common with the semi-allegorical, semi-surrealist locations used by
Kafka to heighten his Ghastly Comedy of bafflement. Staring at his house in the meagre Martian desert, Bohlen smiles and says, "This is the dream of a
million years, to stand here and see this" [§91].
Dick's alliance, if one may call it that, with writers such as Dickens and
Kafka makes him immediately congenial to English and European readers. It may be
this quality which has brought him reputation and respect on this side of the
Atlantic before his virtues are fully recognized in his own country.
Martian Time-Slip comes from the middle of one of
Dicks most creative periods. The Man in the High Castle was published in
1962. In 1963 came The Game-Players of Titan and then, in 1964, The Simulacra,
The Penultimate Truth, Clans of the Alphane Moon, and Martian Time-Slip.
(Although Dick wrote some thirty novels within fifteen years, his production rate is
modest when compared with many other writers in the prodigal field of SF.) One of the
attractions of Dicks novels is that they all have points at which they inter-relate,
although Dick never introduces characters from previous books. The relationship is more
subtle—more web-like—than that. There is a web in Clans of the Alphane Moon,
made by the "world-spider as it spins its web of determination for all life."
The way in which Mars is parceled up between various nationalists in Martian Time-Slip
is reminiscent of the parceling up of Earth into great estates in The Penultimate Truth
and The Game Players of Titan. Such building blocks are by no means interchangeable
from book to book; Dicks kaleidoscope is always being shaken, and new sinister
colors and patterns continuously emerge. The power in the Dickian universe resides in
these blocks, rather than in his characters; even when one of the characters has a special
power (like Joness ability to see the future in The World Jones Made), it
rarely does him any good. Martian Time-Slip is full of delightful comic effects,
but below this easy-going humor lies a darker stream of wit. Arnie Kotts terrible
and fatal mistake of believing that reality is merely another version of the schizoid past
is part of the comedy of mistakes to which Dicks characters always dance.