Science Fiction Studies

#116 = Volume 39, Part 1 = March 2012


Christopher Palmer

I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon: Tracing and Complicating the Dickian Networks

Umberto Rossi. The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. 308 pp. $45 pbk.

Laurence A. Rickels. I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. 440 pp. $25 pbk.

Criticism of the work of Philip K. Dick is now so extensive as to have reached its mature or possibly even its decadent stage. Umberto Rossi’s capacious and forceful book sets out to bring a certain order to the field, while Laurence Rickels’s discursive and ebullient discussion is happy to extend it almost to the horizon, if not beyond. Books do tend to select their readers, and the reader who could profit both from Rossi and from Rickels would be a very interesting person, of wide learning and considerable flexibility. Your reviewer cannot claim to be that person; he found reading and arguing with Rossi a productive experience, and was by turns dazzled and annoyed by Rickels.

Rossi combines an authoritative survey of existing criticism of Dick, including analytic readings and biographical aspects, with a “unifying interpretive hypothesis” (4), which is that we can best understand Dick’s fiction by mapping the ways it produces and deploys “ontological uncertainty.” His position is that we are now beyond the stage of fitting Dick into “sociological sf,” and beyond the phase of relating his fiction to postmodernity or (so he implies) drawing upon the terms of postmodernism for our interpretation. What is needed is a kind of reining in: introduce detailed narratological analysis and this will clarify puzzles or put them in the right context for assessment, and it will also enable us to strike the right balance between (broadly speaking) political and religious interpretations of the fiction; further, do this in the firm conviction that Dick is a novelist first and always, and thereby the allegories, fables, and religious or metaphysical implications and fascinations will be kept in proportion. It is an ambitious program, but Rossi is surely right in his implication that it is about time for the attempt to be made.

How well does it work? This clearly depends on the productivity of the interpretive hypothesis; the rest of this response to Rossi concentrates on that, but first it needs to be said that there is a certain tension between the working out of the interpretive hypothesis—the mapping of ontological uncertainty—and the book’s ambitions as a magisterial survey. The latter embraces the state of Dick criticism and its errors;1 the variety of texts that influenced or probably influenced his fiction; parallels and analogies with eminent writers such as Kafka, Proust, or Pynchon; a vivid sense of the day-by-day political urgencies and crises of the 1960s and 1970s and their pressure on the fiction; and a concern for the way the progress (or more often the lack of progress) of Dick’s career as a novelist with ambitions to succeed outside the genre can be seen as influencing his sf. All this gives a sense of the density of involvement and attention in and behind the fictions, the density of being Philip K. Dick as a writer in his times and involvements, and I do not think any other critical or biographical work on Dick has conveyed this. Particularly interesting (and quite closely connected to the mapping of ontological uncertainty) is the suggestion that a variety of sinisterly controlling and game-playing figures in the fictions might be images, often “anamorphic images,” of Dick’s uneasy feelings about himself as a writer, a game-player in fiction.2 (These figures include Peter in The Cosmic Puppets [1957], Jory in Ubik [1969], Palmer Eldritch, the main character in “Small Town” [1954], and unseen vugs in Game-Players of Titan [1963].) But this side of Rossi’s discussion can also be hampering or unconvincing, as for instance in his treatment of the influence of the film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and thence of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) on The Cosmic Puppets (32-33), or the analogy between Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks and the Cardinal and the Procurator in Dick’s 1981 novel The Divine Invasion (240), or the details linking Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) and Stendahl’s The Red and the Black (1830) in an aside on how The Man in the High Castle (1962) treats war (80; and perhaps the Stendhal novel should be The Charterhouse of Parma [1839]?).

Rossi concentrates on “the architecture of the narrative” (7), the structuring of the plot, so as to examine how it brings about and intensifies “ontological uncertainty.” That is the interpretive hypothesis: not so much that the novels are about or investigate ontological uncertainty, as that they work it, causing it to become central to the reader’s experience. “Each chapter discusses a different narrative device” (22), including “shunts” between genres; “multiple internal focalization”; shifts between alternating worlds that are defined (and tabled) as primary, secondary, and zero worlds; and so on. Chapters on the last three novels, VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), considered as a trilogy, trace the exacerbated genre shifts—shifts between kinds of fiction really, since categories such as theological sf and realistic fiction are so broad—in the context of a hypothesis that the three novels amount to a broad exploration of present, future, and past, respectively. “Mapping Dick’s novels can always help us to grasp his textual strategies” (180): the shifts, shunts, reversals, revelations, and coups de théâtre are traced, point to point. The outcome is often a table of changes and reversals—of experiences caused by JJ-180 in Dick’s 1966 novel Now Wait for Last Year (129-30); of the drug-mediated confrontations of Louis and Pris in his 1969 novel We Can Build You (155); of virtual realities, mostly the work of the enigmatic Eldritch, in his 1964 work The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (178); of alternating worlds, probably never coming to rest in our world as solid ground, in Time Out of Joint (1959), The Man in the High Castle, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974). Rossi does this work of mapping with care and persistence; his intervention into Dick criticism recalls a version of traditional philology, as in the reconstructing of text variants by editors.

The result is a clear demonstration of the effect of intensity that Dick’s novels can produce, and thence of the reader’s experience of this intensity. Never mind (for the moment, anyway), what is being worked to produce the successive jolts and reversals, and hence the feeling of uncertainty (whether it be pulp-fiction maneuvers, point-of-view alternations producing “Finite Subjective Realities,” vertiginous metaphysical leaps, laminated theological fables), the effect of a succession of these is an accumulating intensity and an experience of ontological uncertainty. Rossi follows this effect pertinaciously as it unfolds, then maps and tables and classifies it. Notably, much-discussed conundrums and interpretive cruxes such as the Soft Drink Stand that dissolves into its own label in Time Out of Joint, or the appearance of Joe Chip’s features on the coins at the end of Ubik, or Tagomi’s probable glimpse of our racist world in The Man in the High Castle, fall into place as features of a very crowded landscape. Certain recurrences become evident: for instance, novels that seem to return to something like our reality from their nerve-wracking wanderings in alternative or superseding realities, but possibly do not, or that seem to come to resolution but possibly do not: examples include Time Out of Joint, Ubik, Flow My Tears, VALIS, and A Maze of Death (1970).

Rossi’s approach does accrete—indeed, it helps to define—certain problems; and it also provokes thought of what it tends to overlook. Certainly he is aware that uncertainty cannot usefully be total; a text that simply leaves us in a swamp of undifferentiated uncertainty would hardly be worth reading. Uncertainty compels because of its relations to the demand, or quest, if not for certainty, then at least for definition and an advance towards more interesting and fundamental uncertainties. So uncertainty for its own sake, as an effect interesting in itself, whatever produces it, cannot be satisfying. It must have relevant meaning, and here I think the implication of Rossi’s argument is that by tracing ontological uncertainty as a product of Dick’s technique, we put ourselves in the best position to understand the religious implications of many of his fictions—in the best position in that we are still to see him as making meanings the way a novelist does, not the way a prophet or a weirdo does. Rossi is convincing on the ways in which The Man in the High Castle and Ubik, for instance, can be read as theodicies, fictional investigations of the place of evil in the scheme of things.

Uncertainty is so varied and pervasive in Dick’s fictions, as Rossi shows, that it can in some ways be seen not merely as the constant intended effect, but as a kind of value in itself. Death, degeneration to degraded unlife (as with Jory’s victims in Ubik), the life-in-death or moral emptiness sensed in psychotic humans or androids, all this chills partly because it is a threat to uncertainty, as if uncertainty were a principle of the fallible, messy lives that Dick usually imagines for his characters. Uncertainty makes us ask questions, even if frantic or despairing ones; meaninglessness is a worse threat than uncertainty. On the other hand, uncertainty can narrow into puzzle, and I think Rossi’s close examination of details and shifts illuminates this aspect of the fictions and sets him a problem in turn. Take, for example, the discussion of Flow My Tears. It appears that in both the worlds in which most of the novel occurs, African-Americans are not allowed more than one child; yet Montgomery L. Hopkins, whom General Buckman meets in a crucial scene, turns out to have several children. How could this be? Does it mean that the meeting takes place in yet another universe from the two we have encountered in the story? Rossi investigates, revising his tables that trace the primary, secondary, and zero texts to accommodate this puzzle and a couple of other anomalies he has identified (204-205). If this kind of puzzling over details, premised always on setting to one side the possibility of continuity error or absent-mindedness on the author’s part, is to yield any broader sense of significance, then we arguably need a broader sense of the new possibilities than will be provided by the anomaly. The anomaly by itself remains a puzzle and does not deepen into mystery. What actually happens when Buckman meets Hopkins, which is one of Dick’s great scenes of empathy, perhaps provides that broader sense: we are—probably— back to our own world or something very like it, and empathy has unexpectedly blossomed. Rossi does not discuss what happens between Buckman and Hopkins, but the move that concludes his discussion of Flow My Tears implies a similar point, as he invokes the substantial beauty of Mary Anne’s blue vase: “to all the dismal universes falling apart conjured up by evil or insane archons, we may oppose this small and beautiful (and fragile) creation” (208).

Rossi proceeds to mention Frank Frink’s pin in Man in the High Castle. How do objects such as the vase and the pin, and how do personages such as Mary Anne and Frank and Montgomery L. Hopkins, figure in the shunting and game-playing that produces ontological uncertainty? We could add Bill Lundborg, who reasons about oil under a car in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer or, indeed, the robot taxi that advises Eric Sweetscent in Now Wait for Last Year, or the Martian jackal that recoils from Barney Mayerson in Palmer Eldritch. There is plenty of evidence, of course, that these characters and incidents are ungrounded, rendered ontologically uncertain, given the shifts and twists that shape the novels in which they figure. Rossi provides, for instance, a concise list of the variations of fake, disguise, and deceit among the characters in The Man in the High Castle (89). And it might also be suggested that the dazzling shifts that produce the uncertainty often depend on a stereotyped cast list, as if by analogy with, for instance, chess where the permutations of the game are unlimited but the pieces are set and few. In discussing A Maze of Death, Rossi refers to Seth Morley as “the umpteenth Little Man à la Frank Frink, Joe Chip or Barney Mayerson” (196). Readers of Dick know what Rossi is expressing with that word “umpteenth”; nonetheless, it seems to be in the invention of some scene of revelation to the Little Man, or some emotionally transforming encounter (often a scene or encounter that arrives as suddenly as do the precipitations of further ontological uncertainty), that Dick counterpoints his production of interminable uncertainty.

I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick takes almost all of Dick’s writings (novels, stories, essays, interviews) and sets them working with a “relay” of other texts by, notably, Ludwig Binswanger (the Swiss practitioner of existential psychoanalysis whom Dick read), Benjamin, Freud, Jung, Heidegger, and Gotthard Günther, who published a series of theoretical articles in Startling Stories in the early 1950s. Many of these texts are case histories, narratives that are set alongside Dick’s own narratives. All Dick’s texts are seen as roughly equal: some get more attention than others, but all get the same kind of attention, and, beyond one or two notes of exasperation at the complexity of Dick’s plots, there is no interest in highlighting the literary successes that may be seen as rewarding intensive contemplation and dismissing the incoherent potboilers as not worth the effort. In this sense, The Zap Gun (1967) and The Ganymede Takeover (1967, with Ray Nelson) are equal to Martian Time-Slip (1964) and Man in the High Castle. Nor is there much attention to the order in which the texts were published or to discussion of the shape of Dick’s literary career. A given text enters I Think I Am when analogies with the case studies and other relay texts prompt its admission, and Rickels’s position seems to be that Dick played with the same deck of types and figures from beginning to end of his career, even if he shuffled the cards in startlingly different ways. Since most critical studies of Dick at least imply varying evaluations due to the different attentions (or lack of attention) they give to specific texts, as well as make a modal distinction between fictions on the one hand and essays or interviews on the other (all in the process of trying  to map the author’s changing and possibly developing literary career), we can simply note the entry into the crowded field of Dick criticism of a stranger from a different place, and see what he has to offer.

A similar positive concession needs to be extended to the book’s prose style, though this reader found it a bit more difficult to do so. I Think I Am is not so much read as overheard, as if one were in the next room listening to an unstoppable flood of discourse to a captive but presumably receptive audience, but unable to intervene oneself. It is loaded with puns, associations, rhyme words; some are memorable and illuminating, but they had better be, given how many there are: pun as magic, as charm (the kind loaded on a bracelet), as flash of insight, as tic.3 The sentences are inclusive rather than discriminative; they reach for maximum content, as if each might be a global summary, not so much of the argument thus far as of the argument stretching into the future—as in one of Dick’s alternative times where present, past, and future exist in uncertain relation.

Of course, the style relates to and expresses the content, which now needs to be given a more sober look. I Think I Am cycles, recycles, and interlaces a series of overlapping preoccupations. These include the acts of mourning and “unmourning”; the status and work of sf (sometimes punned as “psy-fi”) as endopsychic allegory; and the way in which sf, similar in this respect to the activity of a patient as recorded in a case history, especially when the history is of a cure, encapsulates—that is, embeds in a picture of reality—various questions and tensions, many of them previously or also the work of religion (so that sf is an activity of secularization). Rickels focuses on how this process of encapsulation and secularization may involve—even or especially in the most seemingly bizarre work of sf or deluded patient—a kind of reality testing. The outcome can be the achievement of mourning by way of an acceptance by the characters (or patient), or a specification in the text, of finitude. There is a good deal of relevance to the task of coming to terms with Dick’s fiction in the preoccupations summarized here, and they do overlap and at times reinforce each other as the text proceeds. Each of the book’s five parts begins with a discussion of a case history or of an essay in the general field where philosophy and psychoanalysis overlap, and then proceeds to a discussion of a series of novels by Dick.

Dick’s novels are full of deaths, death-in-life, persons or things who may be dead in their unlivingness or coldness, death as prospect, life in the aftermath of death, hauntings, gestures that withdraw from something or someone the right to life, or alternatively assert that someone or something has the right to life. Rickels’s emphasis on mourning and unmourning reminds us how important coping with death or varieties of death-in-life is to the predicaments of the characters and to the shape of the universe in a given novel. He begins from and often returns to Dick’s loss of his twin sister, but not as origin or explanation (that is, as some form of diagnosis of the fiction), but as something that evidently prompted Dick to explore coming to terms with loss, death, and absence (varieties of nothingness) by shaping whole plots and universes around it. To do this is, in Rickels’s terms, to make an endopsychic allegory, though when he comes to discuss the novels, Rickels does not in fact interpret, in the sense of labeling parts of the fiction in terms of parts of the allegory, but summarizes the plots—paraphrase being itself an act of interpretation in the case of Dick, as most critics come to recognize. The result of this restraint is at times a puzzlement, as a given Dick novel is set alongside a psychoanalytic text with which it is supposed to be in relay, and the relation is not much detailed; the runner in the relay is way out of sight of the person from whom he received the baton, and they do not get together later to discuss how the race has gone. That is, Rickels does not force the fictions into the mold of his mostly psychoanalytic concepts, but rather bounces the concepts off the texts and leaves the reader to work out what they have dislodged.

The emphasis is less on the histories of particular characters who are in a condition of mourning, and thence perhaps on assessment of how they have coped, than on how the structure of the novel as a whole has progressed the work of mourning. This leads us to Rickels’s description of the work of sf in relation not only to the work of the psyche but also to myth and religion. Science fiction is part of the general cultural work of secularization, so general that it is also at times ascribed by Rickels to Christianity. So he is less interested in the dozens of creeds, cosmologies, and (to use Rossi’s term) theodicies that we find in Dick’s fiction that pull his sf close to religion, than in how his fiction pulls religion into the secular. How so? Partly I think Rickels has in mind what other critics would see as Dick’s literalization of cosmologies and creeds, along with everything else that enters his fictions, partly what other critics such as Rossi would see as Dick’s restless game-playing (though Rickels does not see the author in this way). I think his answer is clarified by two more of his constantly recirculating terms: “finitude” and testing—in particular, reality testing. For Rickels, the constant reshuffling, questioning, subverting, or throwing into doubt of some ingenious or bizarre situation or cosmology (what Rossi sees as the making of ontological uncertainty) is a process of reality testing; it happens even in apparently bizarre or recklessly improvised fictions—such as those that Rickels evenhandedly discusses, Vulcan’s Hammer (1960) or Deus Irae (1976, with Roger Zelazny)—as well as in those fictions usually considered more coherent. The analogy is with the way a disturbed person may be considered to help her cure by the production of bizarre world pictures that she then (sometimes) works through. A successful recovery will be “stabilized or encapsulated around maintenance of diplomatic relations with the outside world that traverses one’s own” (294; Rickels’s interpretation of the outcome for Schreber in the case history discussed by Freud). The bizarre world picture is not the symptom but the creative accommodation with the symptom, and in Dick’s fiction the symptom is our involvement with death-in-life, in past, present, and future. Not that what is gained is reality; Rickels agrees with Rossi and many other critics on this, the more easily as he has less interest in Dick’s novels as reflections on politics or American or postmodern social life. What is gained is acceptance of finitude, life in a here and now with its limits and fallibilities. Rickels’s comment on the flight of Deckard and Rachel at the end of Blade Runner (1982) illustrates his position: “not the escape of fantasy, but an escape into affirmed finite life” (315).

At this point, with his emphasis on finitude, Rickels joins Rossi in the latter’s valuation of Mary Anne’s blue vase, or his reading of the pragmatic wisdom of Edgar Barefoot in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer: do not talk, eat—eat the offered sandwich (264-66; one of Rossi’s most insightful passages). But this conclusion no doubt emphasizes the arrival of each critic as well as putting too simple a humanist spin on it, whereas these books are interesting in very different ways for their journeys through networks of intertextuality and interpretive openness.


1. Points regarding the errors of other critics are not always gracefully made; see, for instance, the remarks about Kim Stanley Robinson (245-46). I figure in the text a couple of times as “the Australian critic,” but then Darko Suvin is “the Croatian critic” (175), so I am happy to accept the title.

2. “Anamorphic” is very commonly used by Rossi to suggest the nature of reference or satire in Dick. Variants (often “anamorphic image”) occur nine times in chapter 7, for instance. The term is asked to do a lot of work and would have benefited from more discussion. Moreover, given Rossi’s precision and at times eloquence as a writer, it is a pity that there are many slips of idiom. Here is a sample: “neither it ensures” (148); “do not mention of Childan” (165); “a blaspheme parody” (177); “the man who will slain the arch-villain” (184). In addition, there is the usage “sfnal” and “sfnally,” which I admit to finding grating.

3. Some examples: “Underlying it all, including the ‘printer’ introjection of Galactic Pot-Healer [1969], is the inoculation or encapsulation that goes down with transference or mourning deadicated [sic] to the one they love” (126); “That computers who don’t need people should be the most horrific conveyers of our psychotic breaks is a convenience story where we rarely find Dick one-stop hoping” (185); “This last stand or understanding of her world belongs to time that, standing still ever since the primal scene, folds out of its ecstasies and back upon itself as ‘naked Dasein,’ as ‘naked horror’” (212).

Back to Home