Science Fiction Studies

#32 = Volume 11, Part 1 = March 1984



  • John Fekete. The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick (Hazel Pierce. Philip K Dick; Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, eds. Philip K Dick)
  • David Y. Hughes. Recent Wells Studies (Roslyn D. Haynes. H.G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future. The Influence of Science on His Thought; John Huntington. The Logic of Fantasy. H.G. Wells and Science Fiction; Peter Kemp. H. G. Wells and the Culminating Ape; John R. Reed. The Natural History of H.G. Wells)
  • Robert M. Philmus. Undertaking Stapledon (Leslie A. Fiedler. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided; John Kinnaird. Olaf Stapledon; Patrick A. McCarthy. Olaf Stapledon)
  • F.E.L. Priestley. Understanding the "Analytico-Referential" Lion (Timothy J. Reiss. The Discourse of Modernism)



John Fekete

The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick

Hazel Pierce. Philip K Dick. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1982. 64pp. $4.95 paper.

Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, eds. Philip K Dick. NY: Taplinger, 1983. 256pp. $12.95 cloth.

These two books, the 12th in the Starmont Reader's Guide series and the seventh in the Taplinger Writers of the 21st Century series on SF writers, provide timely and, in some respects, impressive appraisals of Philip K. Dick's opus. Published shortly after Dick's untimely death in March 1982, the two volumes make available the most comprehensive treatment of Dick's work since the SFS special issue on Dick's SF (1975). The analyses are intelligent, thought-provoking, well-argued, and knowledgeable. All the more disappointing then is the déjà vu that haunts the Taplinger volume. Of its ten essays, only three (N.B. Hayles', Hazel Pierce's, and Eugene Warren's) appear to have been previously unpublished. Three of the essays (by Brian Aldiss, Peter Fitting, and Darko Suvin) are slightly altered reprints from SFS No. 5, one of which (Aldiss's) has been published in two additional places. Two are reprints of introductions, to Solar Lottery (Thomas Disch) and Ubik (Michael Bishop); and the two essays by Patricia Warrick (the only critic represented twice) are familiar from recent issues of Extrapolation (1979) and SFS (1980), in much of their substance are similar to what she has to say in The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction (1980), and will likely be included again in her forthcoming book on Philip Dick.

To note this is perhaps only to lament again that Dick, who over three decades had produced a substantial oeuvre (more than 30 books and 100 stories), who has been so widely read internationally, and who has been acknowledged by critics (including the critics in these volumes) as a major figure of SF and the author of a significant literature, has only very slowly been attracting energetic and serious scholarly attention. The critical work in these two celebratory volumes is competent and should serve the valuable function of disseminating more broadly than has up to now been the case a basic apprehension of Dick's global concerns and procedures. At the same time, these texts offer little in the way of new insights into matters of substance or method to scholars or general readers who are not altogether Dick novices. Moreover, with a few exceptions, they share the shortcomings of a conventional literary criticism that is unilluminated by the deeper controversies of contemporary debates in literary theory. In general terms, these two guides to Dick offer a sound preliminary map of Dick's imaginative universe. But it appears that only at the most rudimentary level do we yet have even the beginnings of an adequate exploration of the evolution and topography of this universe which could situate it aesthetically, intellectually, and sociologically within the discourses of its time, delineate its relationship to major literature and its impact on the SF genre, take account of its creativity in the light of the transformations in modern society and culture, and appraise its potential contribution with reference to available and possible contexts of reception.

Both volumes provide useful bibliographies of the primary work and of the available secondary discussions. The Starmont Guide offers a brief, comprehensive, analytical treatment consisting of a chronology, an overview, and separate chapters on High Castle, Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, Flow My Tears, the short fiction, Dick's critical statements, and the publications of the 1980s: Golden Man (1980; a collection of short stories), Valis (1981), and The Divine Invasion (1981), stopping short of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982). The Taplinger volume comprises an introduction by Barry Malzberg, a reprint of Dick's introduction to The Golden Man, an essay on Solar Lottery (Disch), two on High Castle (Warrick, Hayles), two on Ubik (Bishop, Fitting), one on Martian Time-Slip (Aldiss), and four multi-text surveys organized around Dick's "narrative foci" (Suvin), "political dreams" (Pierce), "search for absolutes" (Warren), and "artificial constructs" (Warrick). If the Starmont book, in its compressed format, can offer only three brief paragraphs on Valis, another three on The Divine Invasion, and none on Timothy Archer, the Taplinger book does not touch the 1980s' works at all. This may be particularly unfortunate with respect to two of the essays: Suvin's, whose periodization of Dick's work (up to 1974) might have been readily updated (although his valuations in favor of the 1960s' political novels, where ontological speculation is firmly grounded in sociology, are something that Suvin would not likely have altered), and Warren's, which occupies itself with theological themes and would have benefited from a review of the late trilogy.

What both texts do admirably provide is a thematic review of Dick's writing within a broad scope that takes in much of his production over three decades. Many of the stories and some two dozen of the books receive mention. All the prominent features of what Malzberg calls Dick's "off-center visions which probed at the borders of reality" are noted, in varying arrangements and with varying emphases: the metaphysical, ontological, anthropological, epistemological, and ethical preoccupations with the nature of reality, appearances, knowledge and perception, the "authentically" human and the artificial, the everyday and the political, the existential and the transcendent, the subjective and the objective, good and evil, the hopeful and the dystopian, The affirmative and the entropic. There are occasional disagreements about interpretation or evaluation: e.g., Suvin considers Palmer Eldritch false and demonic, while Pierce sees him not as evil but as "good imperfect" (Starmont, p. 25); elsewhere, the gender differences about whether Ubik is a heroic failure or a flawed masterpiece erupt into Bishop's surprisingly strong assertion that his approach to Ubik, supported by Spinrad's indeterminacy argument, "totally invalidates" Suvin's critical reservations about Dick's narrative control (Taplinger, pp. 139-40). There are occasionally some curiously vague yet comprehensive propositions that might be the grounds for raised eyebrows: e.g., Disch's comment that most of Dick's works "may be read as self-consistent social allegories of a more-or-less Marxist bent" (Taplinger, p. 23). But on the whole, these two books give evidence of a very broad critical consensus to date regarding the suitable approaches to the interpretation and the evaluation of Dick's work.

Three interrelated dimensions of the critical consensus achieved so far are worthy of brief further notice: canon formation, content fetishism, and ahistoricism.

First, the Dick canon. Although many of Dick's writings receive comment in the context of various types of thematic survey, it seems generally agreed that Dick's reputation properly rests on the middle decade of his work, 1962-72, from The Man in the High Castle to We Can Build You. There is universal agreement on including among his major work (and thus among SF classics) High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Ubik and Dr. Bloodmoney are candidates, with some current controversy about the nature and extent of Ubik's shortcomings. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is contested: it is celebrated by Disch and Warrick, but dismissed by Suvin as an "outright failure" (Taplinger, p. 93). Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, is fully honored only by Hazel Pierce. By contrast, Suvin hypothesizes that it may represent Dick's exit from SF in favor of "realistic" prose (Taplinger, p. 93). This hypothesis from 1975 still awaits study in the light of Dick's subsequent work, which includes A Scanner Darkly, the late publication of Confessions of a Crap Artist, and especially the remarkable gnostic trilogy (Valis, The Divine Invasion, Timothy Archer). That final trilogy, with its dramatization of the spiritual crisis which attends onto-epistemological ambiguity, raises particularly intriguing questions because it gives evidence of an intellectual/aesthetic continuity that is sustained across shifts in genre. The critical problem then will be centrally posed--of whether the Dick canon is a canon of writing or of particularly SF writing--and will of course entail all the generic and aesthetic questions which are still only embryonically before the critical community. It is to be added that the far-ranging allusive comparisons of Dick with Blake (Pierce, Disch); Kafka (Aldiss, Hayles); Marcuse, Laing, Pirandello (Suvin); Dickens (Aldiss); Whitman, Spillane (Disch); Barth, Cortazar (Hayles); and Mozart, Fitzgerald, Nijinsky (Malzberg) only highlight rather than resolve the problem ahead: of establishing the relevant aesthetic standards in relation to which it will be possible to debate, evaluate, and confirm a Dick canon, or, at least, a canon relative to defined communities of readers.

Next, what I am calling "content fetishism." The problems of how to come to terms with a polyvocal, multi-formed writer such as Dick are, of course, aggravated by the still relatively undeveloped critical gestures of conventional SF commentary. In the books under review, only the Hayles essay (with its interest in fictionality) and the Fitting essay (with its reading of Ubik as a challenge to "representation"*) build some sort of bridge to the prominent concerns of contemporary literary theory and criticism, and only Suvin's essay integrates thoroughly into its discussion some of the germane narratological inquiries. To say this is not to make a capricious point.  It is rather to note that juxtaposed thematic discussions, in the absence of control by the procedures and aims of aesthetic inquiry, cumulatively come to numb the reader through the sheer empirical weight of repetition and difference, as they do in these books, notwithstanding flashes of insight here and there (as in Hayles' commentary on the polar tension in High Castle over the problem of evil, between the relativizing I Ching model, which fails to account for the "actuality" of evil, and the dogmatizing Original Sin model, which fails to make the world morally palatable).

It is, moreover, very difficult to appraise Dick's work through this kind of symbolic empiricism because the aesthetic power of the work is inaccessible through a listing of its ideational contents. What attempts there are in these books from Taplinger and Starmont House to confront the aesthetic questions tend to be unsustained. Patricia Warrick points to Dick's multiple narrative, his ability to dramatize a concept, and his fusion of the metaphoric and the literal, but she does little more than point, and her criterion for artistic success (the conversion of idea into metaphor) not only will not readily distinguish Dick's work from other SF but in addition will also run into Delany's counter-claim that SF literalizes metaphor. Indeed, this favored convention of New Critical anti-Platonist poetics would need a great deal more articulation to be persuasive and substantial in light of the view increasingly accepted in literary theory at least since I.A. Richards' neo-Kantian Philosophy of Rhetoric, that all language use is metaphoric (i.e., a juxtaposition of contexts), a point confirmed, mutatis mutandis, in structural and post-structural semiotics. Similarly, Tom Disch's reflection on Dick's aesthetics of process (rather than finely crafted product), in setting up an opposition between Scheherezade's wager (that she can be authentic and interesting all the time) and the Flaubertian idea of the novel (as prose-poem) offers a gem that should be (but is not) polished for reflection. At one point, in her essay in the Taplinger volume, Hazel Pierce begins to take the bull by the horns. She notes that Dick is subject to sharp criticism about weakness of plotting, carelessness, hasty or poor writing, inconsistencies and logical holes, and so forth, and then sets out to inquire into the "but" of his aesthetic power. Yet her rhetorical description of Dick as a "verbal magician" (pi 135) immediately and unremittingly yields priority in her essay to a thematic preoccupation with Dick as political visionary.

In the end, what these volumes teach us most forcefully (by omission) is that we shall not be able to get at the felt power, beauty, and significance of Dick's work unless we surpass the Longinian model of excusing what appear to be technical lapses by a reference to authorial great soul--that is, unless we arrive at the aesthetic specificity of Dick's mode of artistic objectivation. Among other things, this critical task will turn out to be inextricably related to generic questions about Dick's impact on the parameters of the SF genre, about the resistances of the genre, about the shifting boundaries between SF and non-SF imaginative writing.

Finally, on the subject of ahistoricism, it can be added that critical discussions at this juncture could only benefit from cutting or at least loosening the umbilical links with Dick's biography and pronouncements. Indeed, the intellectual endeavor of examining Dick's work can in the future perhaps be relieved of the pathos of concern for his troubled person. In gaining some distance from psychogenetic explanations, literary critics may come to shake off some of the vitiating ahistoricism which hurts many of these essays and which ultimately trivializes and domesticates even the most admiring of repetitions of Dick's favored themes. The critical capacity to recover the danger and power in Dick's objective world creations will likely be much enhanced by the articulation of a methodological gesture of bringing Dick's writings, as aesthetically apprehended, into contact with the contemporary character of our social formation as apprehended through other discourses. To say this is to ask for much more than a casually assumed equivalence between some indistinctly and allusively grasped alienation effects in everyday life and Dick's writings understood as representations--and also for much more than a formalized display of structural homologies. It is, I believe, to insist on bringing all our discursive and imaginative powers self-consciously to bear on the historical problem-complex of simulation as it permeates our actions, experiences, structural models, and objectivations, and in that context of critical dialogue to learn from, respond to, and appraise the major and enduring contributions of this attractive, great, and wonderful opus to our disoriented era.

[*Fitting persuasively elaborates on the theme of challenge to "representation" in his "Reality as Ideological Construct" (SFS No. 30). There, notwithstanding a vitiating Althusserian apparatus, he successfully explores a broad range of Dick's writing to support an anti-empiricist reading of Dick's work as a "mise en scène of the constructed nature of reality" (p. 220).

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