Science Fiction Studies

#111 = Volume 37, Part 2 = July 2010


Paweł Frelik

Close Encounters

Jason P. Vest. The Postmodern Humanism of Philip K. Dick. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. 227 pp. $50.00 pbk.

PKD criticism has become something of an industry. A search on the SFS site alone returns over 300 hits. These include two special issues devoted to the writer (so far, the only other author distinguished in this way has been Stanislaw Lem), the first of which, edited in 1975 by Darko Suvin, can probably be pointed out as ground zero of Dick’s systematic canonization, culminating in 2007 with the publication of a selection of four novels as part of the Library of America. In fact, hardly an issue of this journal is without a piece of Dickiana—issue #110, for instance, includes a review of another book on the author and a lengthy entry in “Notes and Correspondence.” Moreover, SFS’s work in the field constitutes only a portion, however sizable, of over 1600 entries on Dick in Hal Hall’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database. As for Vest, The Postmodern Humanism of Philip K. Dick is his second book after Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick at the Movies (2007), reviewed in SFS #106 along with several other PKD-related studies. While the focus on the writer’s opus still remains uneven and scattered, with some texts invoked repeatedly and others rarely discussed, such a steady stream of scholarship invites particular attention to quality and relevance. Naturally, I am far from suggesting a moratorium on Dick studies per se—after all, controlling the critical production in any field is conceptually impossible and undesirable—but over-concentration on a writer whose work has already been extensively studied in principle warrants caution.

The Postmodern Humanism of Philip K. Dick is an interesting and well-researched project with a good deal of deft close reading and thoughtful comparison. At the same time, however, the author’s methodology and initial premises raise some questions. They do not invalidate the study but make the individual chapters more effective than the book as a whole. I would like to address the two major problems first and then proceed to the positives.

The first of the problematic issues is the way Vest constructs his argument, which is most succinctly summarized in the title. Its first part is entirely expected—while some critics, such as Carl Freedman, read Dick in the context of late modernity, the prominent majority of analyses point in the direction of postmodernism, and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. even considers Dick a catalyst responsible for “shifting sf theorists from earlier critical categories derived from traditional modernism to the categories of postmodernism” (Pilgrims vi). The humanism angle is not entirely new, either—Darren Jorgensen points out that the first attempts to read the author as a humanist date back to 1975 and Jameson’s analysis of Dr Bloodmoney (200), while Christopher Palmer mentions Dick as “customarily establish[ing] the humanity of his ‘ordinary guy’ main character by establishing his or her incompetence” (331). It is, however, the combination of these two denominators that supposedly constitutes the core of the present study.

For Vest, Dick’s great contribution not only to science fiction but to American literature in general is that “he dares to rehearse the values of individual autonomy, personal liberty, and political freedom” against the background of “the fractured pessimism of the postmodern era” (xi). Humanism is understood here not as “a naive faith in the individual’s ability to create his or her future,” but “a profound compassion for the individual’s difficult struggle to overcome these obstacles” (xi). He then ventures that Dick “never overlooks the doubt, anxiety and uncertainty that afflicted people” (xi) in the twentieth century, and “never loses sight of his flawed characters’ fundamental decency, transforming his fiction into a unique genre: postmodern humanism” (xii).

This formulation appears to be seriously overstated—and not only because humanism is not a genre of any kind and can hardly be used to define any literary grouping. The thesis also hinges on a very particular definition of postmodernism, whose definitional instability Vest acknowledges in later pages. In order to suggest this presumably unique blending of aesthetics, the author seems to assume a fairly narrow definition of postmodern fiction as a literature wholly devoted to cold intellectual play, barren landscapes in which disembodied voices make oblique statements, clinically alienating fragmentations, or extreme formal experiments. Such a definition may apply to John Barth’s middle period, but fails to acknowledge the complexity of such postmodern writers as Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Raymond Federman, Robert Coover, William Burroughs, or Kathy Acker. Even cursory inspection of their works makes it clear that compassion and decency are not necessarily antithetical to their various brands of postmodernity. Consequently, stating that “determining why and how Philip K. Dick is a worthwhile contributor to postmodern fiction,” which, in the author’s words, can be shown “only after significant effort” (xviii), is of little consequence. Both postmodernity and the humanist dimension of Dick’s writing have been discussed frequently enough not to require a forceful argument.

Assuming a fairly narrow definition of postmodernism would be understandable if the author adhered to it throughout the study, which brings me to the other problematic premise of the volume—the positioning of Dick in comparison to three major writers. As the main part of the argument, Vest charts the affinities between Dick’s work and fictions by Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino. Although possibly odd at first, the juxtaposition is not  new—in “The Fictions of the Present” in The Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), Larry McCaffery mentions Dick’s novels among “various unrecognizable fictions” (1167) by Borges, Lem, Burroughs, and Calvino. According to Vest, all four authors “yoke postmodern transgression to humanist principles” (xiv)—an assertion that is certainly hard to dismiss, although its formulation again suggests that these qualities do not normally appear together in fiction. At this point, the question arises whether the real comparison is between Dick and this particular trinity, or between Dick and writers who represent a larger phenomenon of literary postmodernism. Given the statement of intent quoted at the end of the previous paragraph, it would seem that the latter is the case, but this inevitably leads to another question: how well do Kafka, Borges, and Calvino represent postmodernity? The Austrian author’s inclusion is the most debatable, and even acknowledging that Kafka was “a significant precursor to postmodern literature” (xiv) does not fully justify counting him as representative of postmodernism. Borges and Calvino are much more likely candidates, naturally, but both equally typify and escape narrow definitions of postmodernism. Consequently, more than an analysis of the humanist dimension of postmodernity, the study appears to be devoted to the links between the sf iconoclast and three major writers, which in itself clearly becomes a legitimizing project—laudable, but of a different order from Vest’s statement of intent.

These two reservations, largely theoretical, do not detract from the virtues of the basic argument. In the first of the four central chapters, Vest draws lines of influence between Dick and Kafka. Despite obvious differences, both in the public reputation and the character of their oeuvres, the two similarities between Kafka and Dick that the author perceives are their use of animal allegory and of a “bureaucratic bestiary” (2). The latter term appears to be Vest’s invention, as Google returns only one result for the term, but the discussion itself flows very competently. Building on Csicsery Ronay, Jr.’s “Kafka and Science Fiction” (1983), Vest conducts a meticulous comparison of the Austrian’s “Investigations of a Dog” (1922) and The Metamorphosis (1915), and the American’s “Roog” (1953) and “Oh, to Be a Blobel” (1964), with each pair serving as an example of the two narrative conventions mentioned above.

Opening with Le Guin’s praise of Dick from her article “Science Fiction as Prophecy” (1976), the second chapter discusses affinities with Jorge Luis Borges. The area of comparison this time is the alternate-world tale, which in both writers’ work becomes “a potent fictional rendezvous with political oppression” (54). The texts under scrutiny here include “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) on the Argentinian side, and “The Defenders” (1953), Eye in the Sky (1957), and Time Out of Joint (1959) on the American one. In these works, Vest perceives four fundamental themes that bridge the two writers: the presence of politically powerless characters, the shadowy presence of political cabals running reality, the dismantling of consensual reality, which in fact links the writers most closely, and linguistic mediation of political and humanist concerns. Drawing on Žižek’s work, Vest constructs these four themes as “ideology on inscription” (59), by which he means language’s power to create, to revise, and to destroy narrative worlds. The reasoning here is somewhat muddied, as Vest never makes clear how the presence of certain characters or cabals in the stories is connected with the transmission of ideologies, but once he starts to discuss the fictions in detail, the arguments are very cogent and relevant.

Chapter Three is devoted to religious or spiritual themes in Dick’s fiction, an angle fully understandable given the writer’s biography and the majority of his late writing, including, first and foremost, The Exegesis (written between 1974-82). For this discussion, Vest recruits Italo Calvino, juxtaposing The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) with “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967), as well as VALIS (1981), with Cosmicomics (1965) and t zero (1967). While the detailed comparison is generally disciplined, at the more general level the argument suffers from certain inconsistencies, which, as I suggested earlier, may be connected with Vest’s attempt to find as many affinities between Dick and the three writers as possible. For example, quoting Kathryn Hume’s assessment that “Calvino accepts the Godless universe,” Vest suggests that the “Qwfwq stories, therefore, do not document cosmological theory, but rather employ scientific principles” (118). Yet ten pages later, he concludes that Calvino, like Dick, “projects personal inner experiences into socially shared fiction” (128). Given common knowledge of Dick’s spiritual straits and the lack of any evidence from Calvino’s biography, such conclusions suggest that Vest strives to find more similarities between the writers than actually exist. Stating that “Calvino and Dick had little, if any, direct influence upon one another” (144) seems to confirm this.

The last chapter breaks the convention of cross-readings, and concentrates solely on Now Wait for Last Year, published in 1966 but written during Dick’s manic burst of creativity in 1963 and 1964, during which he wrote no fewer than eleven novels. Although the novel does not generally feature in the Dickian canon, Vest perceives in it “philosophical, political, and emotional complexity” and goes so far as to call it “one of Dick’s best books” (154). The chapter’s close reading of the text focuses—predictably—on the dynamics of the novel’s postmodernity and humanism.

All in all, The Postmodern Humanism of Philip K. Dick is a solid, although slightly problematic, study of the writer’s connections with broader literary fields. While it needs to be stressed again that the detailed analyses themselves clearly demonstrate some serious thinking and reading, these are harnessed to drive a larger argument that appears to be strained. This strain is rooted not in the falsity of the thesis itself, but rather in the terms in which it is formulated and argued. Philip K. Dick has long been considered postmodern, and his humanist dimension has been long recognized: presenting the amalgamation of these two tendencies does not require as forceful an argument as the author suggests in the introduction. Second, the cross-readings with non-American mainstream writers (the word “mainstream” denoting their reception and recognition rather than their literary aesthetics) are, most of the time, valuable and enlightening, but do not always clearly conclude in a way that would confirm the thesis they set out to demonstrate. This is particularly evident in Chapter Three: much more effective analysis could be made by correlating Dick with, for instance, Thomas Pynchon. On the other hand, perhaps the fact that it is Calvino who is discussed, even if sometimes not entirely convincingly, makes the study more original.

Consequently, I think that the volume’s real value lies not in the overall premise, but precisely in the extended analyses of Dick’s resonances with extra-sf territories and aesthetics, where, as Vest also rightly notes, the writer slowly gains acceptance and recognition. From this perspective, the study may realistically appeal not only to sf scholars, but also to researchers of postmodernism as well as Kafkans, Borgesians, and Calvinoists. As such, The Postmodern Humanism of Philip K. Dick is a much-needed bridge-builder not between two worlds so much as two territories, one of which has had a particular tendency to treat the other with condescension.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. “Kafka and Science Fiction.” Newsletter of the Kafka Society of America 7.1 (June 1983): 5-13.
_______ . “Pilgrims in Pandemonium: Philip K. Dick and the Critics.” On Philip K. Dick: 40 Articles from Science Fiction Studies. Ed. R.D. Mullen et al. Terre Haute, IN: SF-TH, Inc. 1992. v-xviii.
Hume, Kathryn. Calvino’s Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.
Jorgensen, Darren. “Towards a Revolutionary Science Fiction: Althusser’s Critique of Historicity.” Red Planets. Marxism and Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould and China Miéville. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 196-212.
Le Guin, Ursula. “Science Fiction as Prophecy: Philip K. Dick.” The New Republic (30 Oct. 1976): 34.
McCaffery, Larry. “The Fictions of the Present.” The Columbia Literary History of the United States. Ed. Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. 1161-77.
Palmer, Christopher. “Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in Philip K. Dick’s VALIS.” SFS 18.3 (Nov. 1991): 330-42.

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