Science Fiction Studies

# 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975

Carlo Pagetti

Dick and Meta-SF

Translated by Angela Minchella and D. Suvin

Some years ago I wrote that "in an obsessive crescendo, Dick's fiction is increasingly becoming a reflection on the subjective nature of reality, culminating in The Man in the High Castle (the disintegration of history) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (the disintegration of planetary reality)."1 The first of these dates back to 1962; the second, together with The Simulacra and Martian Time-Slip, is from 1964; indeed, the period 1962-64 can perhaps be considered the highest moment in Dick's fiction both in the quality of the works and the richness of their motifs. At this time Dick reached a maturity—as did, incidentally, Anglo-American SF in general: Robert Sheckley's Journey Beyond Tomorrow and J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World appeared in 1962, Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle in 1963, etc. From the very beginning, Dick's extraordinary narrative skill is manifested in his ability to adapt the principal themes and conventions of the American SF tradition to his own basically tragic and pessimistic conception of reality and of American society. All the motifs that can be traced from Dick's first short stories and novels, dating back to the early 1950s—the perfect mechanisms that prevail over man and take over his functions, the presence of mutants or of men endowed with extrasensory qualities, the ruthless struggle for power in which the dictatorial leaders of the future are engaged—are undoubtedly drawn from the works of Asimov, Van Vogt, Heinlein. Nonetheless, there is a subtle deviation in respect to their conception, a difference in the use of these motifs, which is both critical interpretations and personal probing. The anthropomorphic robots of Asimov become in Dick images of an incubus unbounded by any simplistic "robotic laws"; the prodigious mutants of Van Vogt are transformed into human beings tortured by the awareness of a useless struggle against fate; and Heinlein's supermen, no longer at the center of the representation, are reduced to supporting roles and presented from the point of view of the humblest of characters. Reality being no longer one, "objective," it is extremely difficult to find in Dick one protagonist acting as privileged mediator between author and reader. Points of view are different, fragmentary, often contradictory to each other. In Martian Time-Slip, for example, the survivors of the ancient Martian civilization are seen through the compassionate eyes of Jack Bohlen as well as through the pitiless eyes of Arnie Kott; the harsh, desperate love scene between Jack and his mistress at the home of Kott is experienced not only by these two but also by Manfred, the autistic child who lives in another dimension of reality. For Dick, reality has the configuration of a magic mirror that reflects marvellous images at the moment when, being struck by something which we define as "chance" or "destiny" (or science?), it crumbles into a thousand fragments.

Undoubtedly, at the beginning of Dick's career one could find a greater optimism. In what is probably his first significant attempt, the short novel "The Variable Man" (1953), that "democratic" vision of SF of which Asimov and Simak had become bearers is apparent. The protagonist of "The Variable Man" is a humble artisan, dragged in spite of himself into a fantastic future to act as arbiter in a conflict of colossal proportions, involving the whole universe (a similar situation occurs in Asimov's Pebble in the Sky, 1950). Already in "The Variable Man" we note the unconstrained use of scientific data. The description of the machines of the future, e.g., remains always vague, impressionistic—exactly as in H.G. Wells; it always concentrates on the effects of the scientific discoveries and not on the discoveries themselves. Here is Dick's description of the lethal bomb that should give victory to the Earth in the intergalactic war:

Rising up in the center of the chamber was a squat small cylinder, a great ugly cone of dark gray. Technicians circled around it, wiring up the exposed relay banks. Reinhart caught a glimpse of endless tubes and filaments, a maze of wires and terminals and parts criss-crossing each other, layer on layer. (§1).

The mechanical structure is transformed into an impressionistic and subjective "vision" through the eyes of an outsider. To his question "What is it?" someone very aptly replies, "An idea of Jamison Hedge."

Another characteristic of Dick's narrative, already evident in "The Variable Man," is the use of the sensationalistic element, in part drawn from traditional "space opera." The Centaurian starships engage the Terrestrial fleet in a colossal battle (which is, however, only reported rather than directly shown). The villain Reinhart, once exposed, does not hesitate to point the gun, in accordance with the best "thrilling" tradition, at the political assembly that rules the New World Order, threatening a massacre which, naturally, will be averted by the stratagem of the hero. This hero, the scientist Sherikov, does not disdain a sentimental idyllic love affair, fortunately just hinted at, with the lady President of the Assembly. But all these elements have scarcely any weight in the train of events, which has at its center a theme dear to Asimov—the struggle between a fanatic and Machiavellian political power and a scientific power dedicated exclusively to the improvement of the human race. In this context it is significant that the political warmonger has a German name (Reinhart), while his scientist-antagonist is given the name Sherikov and operates in the Urals. The time is 1953, when anticommunist frenzy—fed by ambitious young political adventurers, among whom the future president Nixon—had overwhelmed the United States. Dick will react to this neo-Puritan climate, displaying the same civil commitment as the best "social science fiction," in The Man Who Japed and especially in that gem of SF stories, Eye in the Sky—a pretext to ridicule the neurosis of American society in the 50's, but at the same time a reaffirmation of that relativistic vision of reality which was becoming ever more central to Dick's fiction. In so doing, Dick was partly abandoning the objectives of "social science fiction." In Dick, in fact, criticism of American society does not presuppose the faith that after all evil can be exorcised. His pessimism is not only social, but concerns itself with all of man's existence. Though always based on an analysis of American reality, it is metaphysical and existential.

Dick's fiction in the 50's moves along the double track of civil commitment and metaphysical representation of the struggle for power and of a destiny that transcends the will even of the most powerful of men. In Solar Lottery, the mysticism of the humble is opposed to the violence of the arrogant. However, both are subject to the implacable wheel of fate, which here has assumed social dimensions because a principle of chance has become the law in the improbable world state postulated by Dick. At times, behind the forces of "chance" strong organizations are hidden, that manipulate reality; but in their turn these organizations are shattered when faced with the imponderable events that they have not foreseen. Thus, the image of the future that Dick transmits is of an extraordinary complexity. The scientific miracle is an integral part of it; but when the novel begins it has already occurred, it is a discounted and unquestionable event that merits no description whatsoever. But as scientific progress opens new prospects to man (immortality, voyages in time and space, control over the psyche), man finds himself more and more at the mercy of uncontrollable and colossal forces that mould his life, give him an illusionary vision of reality, and falsify his memories. Science modifies society and therefore the reality of man. Dick is among the few writers of SF who think of the future in terms of total change. Even the psychic, religious, sentimental sphere of man is modified, and the more man is insecure, dazzled, confused, the more he is in need of faith, of a trust in something absolute and transcendental. But the great forces that dominate his life will by the logic of domination procure false religious images, false myths, false illusions of salvation...and so the process of the disintegration of reality begins again, and on the ashes of a futuristic society—which is yet always set in the U.S.A., always unmistakably American—man's tragedy, often investing even his sentimental sphere, is played out. This is another characteristic that distinguishes Dick inside Anglo-American SF: the presence of couples in a perpetual crisis, unable to live together, condemned to sterile relationships in a universe without mercy and morality, dominated by chance.

This process of dissolution of the technological in the apocalyptic, of futuristic convention in existential anguish, took shape in Dick's novels of the 50's (among which it is necessary to mention at least Time Out Of Joint). It finds full expression in The Man in the High Castle where the expedient of imagining the United States dominated by the forces of the Axis is not a pretext for a "false" reconstruction of history, but the sign of an arbitrariness that has contaminated history—as in the more recent Counter-Clock World, where it overthrows even biological laws. In The Man in the High Castle we witness, in fact, the disintegration of American society when faced with other dominant cultural forces, and the emergence of violence and chance as principal factors in the destiny of every individual. The victory of the Axis during the Second World War is symbolical of a historical reality in which American society no longer possesses values to oppose to an apparently defeated adversary. One of the main characters in the novel publishes a book dealing with an inverted historical dimension in which the Axis troops have been actually defeated: even a great act of justice—the Nuremberg trial—has been accomplished. The mirror of fiction reveals an image of truth: the artist is the only one who knows the answer. Hawthorne Abendsen, the author, is right, but his creator is also right. Nazi violence, the historical equivalent of the spiritual futility and chaos of modern America, rules the world, and the Nuremberg trial is only a dream.

In The Man in the High Castle, Mr. Tagomi, the main Japanese character, is treated by Dick with peculiar kindness. To him Dick attributes a deep awareness of the elusive quality of reality, a sharp sense of displacement ("We're blind moles. Creeping through the soil, feeling with our snoots. We know nothing. I perceived I don't know where to go. Screech with fear, only. Run away." [§6]), which allows Tagomi to belong to both dimensions of reality and experience the repulsive ugliness of the "other" San Francisco in a terrifying nightmare.

IT IS AT THIS POINT THAT DICK WROTE the "Martian" novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a vision of planetary reality fallen prey to drug hallucination, and Martian Time-Slip. The very beginning of this novel, with the laborious reawakening of Silvia Bohlen from the artificial sleep of barbiturates, is almost identical to the opening of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: "His head unnaturally aching, Barney Mayerson woke to find himself in an unfamiliar bedroom, in an unfamiliar conapt building...." In Martian Time-Slip Dick's narrative method has reached a peculiar perfection of its own, which consists of using different techniques and semantic levels. Even here, Dick does not reject commercial SF, but develops his novel following seemingly conventional schemes. Thus, the representation of Mars with the canals of classic SF, studded with UN colonies leading a difficult life and traversed by the last representatives of the dying native civilization, echoes the famous Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury. If we look closely, however, Dick's dry language, functional to the limits of triviality, his rejections of any lyricism and decorative description, is at the antipode of Bradbury. Dick does not hesitate to refer even to the "Western" models, applied shallowly to the "space opera" of the 30's on. In the crucial scene of the novel we find, strangely enough, a gun duel, in which the rocky desert of Mars in 1994 AD could easily be replaced by that of Arizona one century earlier.

But even the (apparent) chaos in the plot should, as always when Dick is concerned, put the reader on his guard. To an intentionally traditional basis he applies a Ballardian concern for "inner space" and discontinuous conception of time and, at the same time, his own, fundamentally tragic vision of life.

At a closer look, in fact, the planet of Martian Time-Slip is revealed as a replica of budding American society not only with its generous pioneers, but also with phenomena from the formation of a capitalist society dominated by the inexorable law of profit and speculation. Will the "melting pot of races" (White, of course, in spite of the presence of a Chinese entrepreneur) colonizing Mars make the same fatal errors as the U.S. pioneers? The incubus that torments Manfred—the monstrous ruined buildings swarming on the barren expanse of the planet—seems to indicate that it will. But, it would be much too simple to interpret the novel exclusively in terms of an anti-utopia.

The values that dominate Martian reality are again the ruthless struggle for power: violence, deceit, and, finally, the spiritual aridity of man. All the characters of the novel are implacably impelled toward neurosis, madness, homicide, suicide, adultery. In terms of traditional narrative, outside SF, the reality described by Dick is devastating. We pass from suicide toward which is driven a despairing character unable to endure the pain of life (like Manfred's father) to adultery committed almost simultaneously by Silvia Bohlen and her husband, both prisoners of their universe of sterile and psychopathic anguish, and we arrive finally to the real protagonist of the novel, Manfred, an autistic child inexorably cut off from any communication with the outside world and tormented by terrifying visions.

Mars is, therefore, another of the many images of the Waste Land that 20th Century culture proposes to us with obsessive repetitiousness. If for T.S. Eliot (and for the Dick of The Man in the High Castle) history is a labyrinth without an exit, for the author of Martian Time-Slip the future is an incubus evoked by the mind of an autistic child, who projects into already nightmarish reality his terror of life and his inability to communicate with others. In this context perhaps only death preserves a tragic concreteness. Arnie Kott, the ambiguous syndicalist-capitalist in search of absolute power, mortally wounded by an enemy, can deceive himself in believing that he is prisoner of a malignant but relative illusion: "You can't fool me, Arnie thought. I know I'm still in Manfred's mind; pretty soon I'll wake up and I won't be shot, I'll be O.K. again, and I'll find my way back to my own world, where things like this don't happen..."; but instead: "During his flight back to Lewistown, Arnie Kott died" (§16).

Thus, the disintegrated vision of Martian reality determines the breakdown of the myth of space pioneering, on which Martian Time-Slip may appear to be constructed. It is precisely this internal tension of meanings that makes Dick's narrative so complex and difficult, and explains the limited popularity of this author until the success of The Man in the High Castle, a novel based on a sensational plot able to attract even the most unsophisticated American reader.

Moreover, if a last proof of the revolutionary quality of the SF of Martian Time-Slip was required, it would be enough to compare the character of Manfred to other figures endowed with extrasensory powers, created by more conventional authors—like Van Vogt's in Slan and Sturgeon's in More Than Human—who conduct their narration by means of sensationalistic psychology. In Martian Time-Slip Manfred is beyond any psychological description, being the living emblem of a cosmic loneliness and a total incommunicability expressed only through a vision of metaphysical horror: "He saw a hole as large as a world; the earth disappeared and became black, empty, and nothing.... Into the hole the men jumped one by one, until none of them were left. He was alone, with the silent world-hole." (§12).

DICK RETURNS TO A "TERRESTRIAL" THEME in The Simulacra (1964) and to a more direct, although no less fantastic, representation of American society. In Dick, in fact, unlike the other authors that emerged in the 60's, the triumph of hallucination does not imply escapism, flight from reality and refuge in myth, but is rather an attempt to stretch to the extreme limit of SF a narration that remains substantially anchored to American society. It is not by chance that the classic figure of the Alien is almost totally absent in Dick's fiction; instead, his humans are often endowed with paranormal qualities or they are poor madmen lost in a cruel and incomprehensible world or again, mechanisms, androids that reproduce not only the physical but also the psychological structure of man.

The dissolution of the scientific datum which becomes increasingly stronger in the last works, coincides on the collective level with the breakdown of society and on the individual level with the crisis of emotional values associated with the family. As the scientific factor becomes more and more problematic, Dick takes increasingly as his model a society which is essentially that of 20th Century U.S.A. In The Simulacra the central plot is the manipulation of the mass information centers controlled by the authorities; In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) society must defend itself against the overwhelming power of an industry of mechanical devices that introduces to the market automata so perfect as to be confused with men and take their place; in Counter-Clock World (1967) the social structure is still, grotesquely, the capitalist one; other U.S. problems of the 60's (control over culture, Black revolts, etc.) also appear punctually. In these last novels the believability of premised scientific data has become nil. In The Simulacra we had immortal characters and the possibility to go back in time, fantastically enough, to make a deal in favor of the Jews with Nazi Germany. In Counter-Clock World science (the "Hobart phase") is introduced simply to classify—certainly not to explain—a miraculous event, i.e. the inversion of the biological rhythm that causes the dead to resurrect and the living to retreat in time towards the womb. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the androids are so perfect that, apparently, only a complex psychological test can reveal their mechanical nature. Dick annihilates the traditional relationship between natural science and SF, that is, the positivistic assumption that science, for better or worse, is the conditioning element of contemporary society. With his relativistic and pessimistic vision of reality Dick calls in question the gnoseological foundations of science, of our mental categories and of scientific methods.

We may ask what is left to man in this disintegrated universe, seeing that Dick is certainly not so naive as to believe that a bucolic return to nature is possible, but postulates rather, precisely because he does not believe in science, an eternal technological hell in which humanity has been condemned. In social terms, the great capitalist forces and the authoritarianism innate in state apparatus tend to extend their power in an ineluctable process that leaves less and less liberty to the individual. At the end of the road the authoritarian super-state, master of an immeasurably sophisticated technology, will defy any opponent, not actually suppressing him, but enveloping him in a net of subtle hallucinations, from which he will never emerge (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), through which his mental power will be ruthlessly exploited (Time Out Of Joint).

In Dick's last novels there emerges the presence of a supernatural mysticism which seems to preach a kind of cosmic resignation as the last alternative to spiritual chaos and social dissolution. The message of Wilbur Mercer in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—naturally a pre-fabricated deity—springs, nonetheless, from intense and desolate truth: "Any place that you go you will be asked to err. This is the condition of life: to be forced to violate one's own identity. Sooner or later every living creature must do it. It is the final shadow, the defeat of creation: it is the curse at work, the curse fed by life. All over the Universe." (§15). Wilbur Mercer (note the pun on "mercy") is represented, in this religious iconography of the future, in the act of ascending a hill while unknown assassins hurl rocks at him and drive him inexorably back to the bottom. Mercer is, therefore, an analogue to Christ climbing Golgotha. Do Androids Dreom of Electric Sheep?, probably the most important, and perhaps overall the most intense among the recent Dick novels, presents a U.S.A. disintegrated psychologically more than materially by the Third World War, where the possession of one of the few animals that escaped nuclear extermination is a symbol of social prestige, a cure for the neurosis of mechanized life and the terror of the implacable atomic "fall-out." This novel suggests a partial alternative to the chaos. What differentiates, after all, the androids from men and justifies their elimination, is the lack of religious spirit, their cold cruelty and determination. The most human of the human beings is perhaps the semi-deficient Isidore, who first offers to help a group of androids without bothering about the consequences, and then assists horrified at the torture they inflict on a spider.

At the end of the novel, the main character, in order to understand life better in all its negative totality (just like Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India), climbs up a radioactive hill and is stoned: "Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else's degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves" (§21). But he survives, after all, not to fulfill an impossible redemption, but to accept the true essence of life. Life is a sequence of illusions, just as the holy toad on the hill is not a divine gift, but an artificial toy. To realize that, to refuse the desperate attitude of the characters in The Simulacra, blindly lost behind the everlasting puppet of Nicole Thibodeaux ("What's unreal and what's real? To me she's more real than anything else; than you, even. Even than myself, my own life." [§9]) is perhaps the beginning of a new consciousness, the search for the truest self: the death of Wilbur Mercer is emphatically not the death of man.

The spiritual element is even more evident in Counter-Clock World, a rather confused and perhaps not quite successful novel, in which Dick represents a universe not only symbolically but actually apocalyptic, in which the dead, according to the prophecy, resurrect from their tombs. In this disturbed universe emerges the figure of Anarch Peak, a Black preacher resurrected and then again killed without having been allowed to communicate his religious message, who nonetheless, in the few days in which he remains alive, preaches the forgiveness for one's own enemies and salvation for the humble and helpless. In Counter-Clock World we assist at the successive violent deaths of all the principal characters—Anarch Peak and two men and a woman tied by a strong bond of love. Thus at the end another landscape of total and terrifying desolation emerges. Yet from the bottom of this abyss of death can perhaps be seen a possibility of building new values.

Again the final episode is highly significant and possibly one of the best scenes written by Dick. Sebastian, the hero of the novel, is bleeding to death. After the death of Lotte, his lover, and of Anarch Peak no hope is left. But hearing the "deaders" (dead reverting to life) calling from the soil under his feet, Sebastian refuses to be taken to hospital. He feels his individual life is not important any longer, he wants to help all the buried humanity struggling for a physical, but also spiritual resurrection. After all the false gods, we have perhaps here a genuine Christ-like figure:

"The deaders?" Lindy gripped him around his waist, lifted him to his feet. "Later," he said. "Can you walk at all? You must have been walking, your shoes are covered with mud. And your clothes are torn."...

"They need help," Sebastian said.... "It wasn't just one I heard this time; I heard them all." He had never heard anything like it before. Ever. So many at once—all of them together. (§21)

According to Brian Aldiss "throughout Dick's books and titles blows the horn of freedom,"2 but this is possibly true only in the early fiction (The Man Who Japed, Eye in the Sky). Later Dick discovers that freedom too can be manipulated easily. Mercy, pity, love have a stronger substance: They can exist even in a world without freedom.

On the narrative level, in the last novels Dick proceeds on the road of aggravating the sensationalistic motifs. We have already mentioned the resurrection of the dead in Counter-Clock World; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? includes an erotic scene between one of the protagonists and an android girl, a hunting of the android accomplished by a police "bounty killer," and a kind of magic box through which the inhabitants of the future U.S.A. put themselves in direct contact with Wilbur Mercer. Dick's narrative line is always within the conventions of SF, and for this reason he will always be less popular in the eyes of orthodox literary criticism than writers like Bradbury and Vonnegut, who use SF within a wider narrative tradition, or indeed than Asimov, who is always substantially faithful to the Wellsian paradigm which corresponds to the image of SF that the public still clings to. Dick is by the same token also different from J.G. Ballard who devotes more attention to the use of experimental literary devices, such as the "stream of consciousness," and makes large use of elements drawn from psychology and psychoanalysis. In Dick we find "only" a coarse SF plot, pushed to the extreme limits of sensationalism. Yet the unique quality of his narrative has been fully appreciated by the same British "new wave" SF writers3 who have tried, not always successfully, to give a new literary and avant-garde dignity to SF. In fact, while J.G. Ballard seems too often interested in the disturbed activity of a decadent individual mind in an empty world, the great strength of Dick's fiction lies in the solid relationship between the individual world of the psyche and the grotesque concreteness of the society, however bizarre and mystified, that engulfs his heroes.

Acting within SF, accepting the popular element which has always constituted one of its foundations, Dick is, nonetheless, placing into jeopardy the conception of reality on which all of SF was based. He is challenging the narrative and cultural values of SF not by denying them flatly, but by exploiting them to their extreme formal and ideological consequences.4 Dick is actually writing SF about SF. In other words, he is conducting a critical inquiry on the meanings of SF through the narrative devices that SF puts at his disposal, distorting and modifying them in a search which pushes him always closer towards a meta-SF that does not exhaust itself in an intellectual game, but is simultaneously a coherent interpretation of the crisis that troubles the technological man and the American society of the 20th century.


1Carlo Pagetti, Il Senso del Futuro: La Fantascienza nella Letteratura Americana (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1970), p. 255.


2Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (1973), p. 313.

3Perhaps the first really good critical survey of Dick's fiction was John Brunner's "The Work of Philip K. Dick" in New Worlds, Sept 1966, pp. 142-49.

4In short, Dick seems to have critically realized that "just like technocracy SF dispossesses the human subject from his human reality and reifies him. We get thus a progress whose movement depends on individuals, on its subjects, yet which is at the same time independent of them because of a superior principle. This is a pre-established cyclical movement which results from an activity outside and in spite of men—a superior power known variously as Fortune, Destiny, Chance, Providence, God" (from the excellent and too little known study by Franco Ferrini, Che Cosa E' La Fantascienza [Roma: Ubaldini, 1970], p. 55).



Acting within SF, accepting the popular element which has always constituted one of its foundations, Dick is nonetheless placing into jeopardy the conception of reality on which all SF was based. He is challenging the narrative and cultural values of SF not by denying them flatly, but by exploiting them to their extreme formal and ideological consequences. Dick is actually writing SF about SF. In other works, he is conducting a critical inquiry on the meanings of SF through the narrative devices that SF puts at its disposal, distorting and modifying them in a search which pushes him always closer to a meta-SF that does not exhaust itself in an intellectual game but is simultaneously a coherent interpretation of the crisis that troubles technological man and American society in the 20th century.

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