Science Fiction Studies

#45 = Volume 15, Part 2 = July 1988

Gary K. Wolfe

Not Quite Coming to Terms

Patricia S. Warrick. Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. xxiii + 223pp. $18.95.

Patricia Warrick is probably as well qualified as anyone to undertake an extended study of Dick's fiction, having corresponded with him and having interviewed him extensively before his death in 1982. Obviously deeply moved by Dick's real torment and tragedy, she has produced a work that in many ways is as much eulogy as criticism. Dick's passion and paranoia haunt the book, as quotations from these letters and interviews repeatedly draw us back from literary questions and into his unhappy world. As with Paul Williams's earlier Only Apparently Real (NY: Arbor House, 1986), which was little more than an extended conversation with Dick (originally published as a Rolling Stone interview), Dick himself dominates this book in ways that constantly subvert Warrick's attempts to locate him in some sort of critical context. Almost no one but Dick is ever cited as a reference, and the considerable body of commentary on his work--from Hazel Pierce's 1982 Starmont House volume to Daniel Levack's 1981 bibliography for Underwood-Miller to essays by Ursula Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Ian Watson, Darko Suvin, and many others--is mentioned neither in the text proper nor even in the bibliography.

What Warrick does provide is a generally informed and straightforward discussion of Dick's major fiction, intelligently organized around eight major works which illustrate key recurring themes in his fiction. The works she chooses for extended treatment constitute no great surprise: The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, and the VALIS novels. She discusses the secondary novels and short stories as they relate to these major works, and pretty much ignores his mainstream fiction. I found particularly helpful her argument that Martian Time-Slip is "his most successful work artistically" (p. 66) and her energetic attempt to unravel the complexities of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. She also persuasively argues that The Penultimate Truth is among Dick's most underrated novels. On the other hand, I find Ubik a much richer novel than she does. Apart from such matters of taste, Warrick's work as an explicator is admirably detailed and readable, and free of theoretical ax-grinding.

What is her theoretical approach, though? What exactly is she hoping to achieve in this study? Even though she considers none of his non-fantastic work (except for brief mentions of Confessions of a Crap Artist and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), she has subtitled the book "The Fiction" rather than "The Science Fiction" of Philip K. Dick. This suggests she wants to achieve for Dick what he could never achieve for himself--namely, to liberate him from the stigma of SF. She describes him as "a man who had to hide his love of the classics under the tattered cover of science fiction" (p. 1) and who tried "yoking the loftiest metaphysical speculation with the most mundane fictional form" (p. 21). She in fact argues that he invented a new kind of writing, which she calls "quantum-reality fiction," a term not likely to catch on with anyone, least of all bookstores. In brief, she does not want to deal with Dick as an SF writer--his relations with other SF and fantasy writers and editors are studiously omitted from mention, and we are given no indication that he ever read anything but the classics, even though we know from other sources that he had been an energetic SF reader since 1941.

This leads to a few problems. For one thing, the tone of the book is uncertain. At times it reads like an argument made to a recalcitrant department chairman that this stuff is really OK, since it has more in common with Camus and Freud than with Budrys and van Vogt. (I mention those names deliberately, because among the many questions I had hoped to find clues for in this book were whether Budrys' Who might have influenced Palmer Eldritch and whether van Vogt's pulp-paranoid universes had helped Dick develop his sense of pacing and setting.) At other times, it lapses into simplistic explanations of everything from Taoism to quantum mechanics to what happened during Dick's life ("In 1950 the United States engaged in a war in Korea that lasted three years. Soon after its conclusion, we became involved in the Vietnam conflict....In 1959 a Communist government was established in Cuba. Kennedy's assassination occurred in 1963" [p. 41]). There are pages of this sort of thing. I am heartily in favor of avoiding obtuse critical jargon, but seeing a writer as complex as Dick described in the language of Mister Rogers is at best unsettling. "As we read," says Warrick, we "recreate for ourselves the metaphors Dick paints as he dips the brush of his imagination into the rich pallette [sic] of language" (p. 31).

A "pallette," by the way, is the armpit of a suit of armor. Such an error might be typographical, but there are enough of them in the book to give at least some pause. Dick's 1964 novel Clans of the Alphane Moon consistently becomes Clanes of the Alphane Moon, and the character Ragle Gumm in Time out of Joint becomes "Raggle Gumm." Alfred Jarry is "Alfred Jary," and Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception is New Doors of Perception. More important is "Fomalhaut," which Warrick uses to name Dick's overall cosmos in an attempt to link it somehow to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Quite apart from the fact that this doesn't work (Warrick never demonstrates that the various novels in Dick have a shared history or shared characters as did Faulkner's), Warrick makes much out of Fomalhaut's meaning of "whale's belly," and how this is appropriate because it suggests Jonah's metaphorical inner journey in the belly of the whale (pp. 16-17). But "Fomalhaut" doesn't mean "whale's belly." It means "fish's mouth," because that's where that star appears in the constellation of the fish.

If there is a certain laxness in such matters of detail, it is more than made up for in colorful critical arguments. Dick's work is neatly divided into five chronological periods, each with its own label. They are: the Apprenticeship Period, the Mature Period, the Entropic Period (he was ill and didn't write much), the Regenerative Period (he got better), and the Metaphysical Period. Ever though she invents these labels, Warrick later comments of Dick's best work "that critics...would hail it as his Mature Period" (p. 61). Is she paying herself a compliment? Dick's characteristic symbolic device, wae are told, is a "dynamic four-chambered metaphor," of which Warrick is so enamored with that she turns it into a verb. ("Rick metaphors law," she says of Androids [p. 124].) His plots have both an outer level and an inner level (p. 41; her italics). In fact, much of what literature has been doing for centuries has been invented by Dick.

At the 1981 Eaton Conference, Leslie Fiedler argued that any valid approach to SF would have to have some means of describing the appeal of A.E. van Vogt as well as that of Olaf Stapleton. There can be little doubt that Dick is one of the richest of modern SF writers, and that his work far transcends that of van Vogt or most of the authors whose names appeared on the same garish Ace paperbacks as his own. Yet Warrick's book as useful as it ism provides a kind of case study of what can happen when one tries arbitrarily and posthumously to yank an author away from the context in which he was published and read during his lifetime. On  the one hand, she finds herself writing a kind of freshman introduction to literature, overexplaining familiar concepts in order to demonstrate how marvelous it is that a fantastic writer can yield to conventions of mainstream literary analysis. On the other hand--and this is really her greatest strength in Mind in Motion--she must at the same time demonstrate what is unique in Dick, and what defies those conventions. The unarticulated argument of her book--perhaps of any serious study of Dick--is that he was able to use SF in a way few writers before had been able to , that his bizarre imagination was in many ways more attuned to this genre than any other, and that he did after all owe much to SF. Had she explained why his mainstream novels failed, this might have become clearer. As it is, she gives us powerful evidence of Dick's greatness. It may have been tragic for Dick that he felt constrained to write in the SF mode, but it is far from the rest of us.

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