Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Back to the soft-drink stand

Time Out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick, 1959.  I have read this novel several times before, but I enjoyed it more than ever. It may be Dick's best work of the early phase (1950s), with only Eye in the Sky coming close. Time Out of Joint reflects both the realist and science-fiction novels he was writing at the time. It starts out in a very humdrum contemporary small town in California, but gradually we become aware that things are not what they seem, and that in fact the whole world of the main character, a newspaper puzzle whiz called Ragle Gumm, may be a complete hallucination. We discover that the year is actually 1998 and that the real puzzle that Gumm is to solve is that of the ontological status of his own perceptual reality.

The famous scene where a soft-drink stand simply vanishes to be replaced by a slip of paper that says "soft-drink stand" is a great metaphor for the insubstantiality of the false time layer. People are basically hypnotized to believe they are living in the simple, peaceful, mindless small-town world of the 50s when actually they are living in a war zone forty years later. It's a metaphor for how people superimpose a reductive shrunken timeline on their realtime circumstances.

There is a dreamlike quality to Dick's 1950s and a certain slow, unreal texture to time itself. We see this in most of Dick's 50s mainstream novels. It may be that we can start reading them as sf, recognizing them as alternate reality stories about a world that only seemed to be--much like the illusory reality of Time Out of Joint or the alternate history of The Man in the High Castle.
Time Out of Joint begins very, very slowly but once Ragle Gumm wakes up to the full extent of the fake reality that has been constructed to keep his mind on the business of solving the newspaper puzzle, "Where is the little green man?", which holds the key to where the lunar colonists' missiles will land, the story quickly races to what some feel is a preemptory conclusion. I don't see this shift as an artistic flaw at all. What better way in fact to show that time has really changed and the nature of reality itself has shifted?
On one level it's a relativistic time shift, in the Einsteinian sense. The perspective of the protagonist Ragle Gumm changes, detaching itself from the collective, and in so doing assumes its own inertial frame with its own altered spatiotemporal coordinates.
Incidents like the disappearance of the soft-drink stand represent a kind of temporal breakdown, in which the character exits the consensual temporal matrix and falls through it orthogonally into an uncharted zone rife with new possibilities and new modes of perception.
But the new frame of reference is not just equivocal or different, it is of a higher order ontologically speaking. When Ragle goes off by himself, alone, at the end, out of the sphere of earth's collective consciousness, Dick is showing us someone who is waking up, experiencing an anamnesis, as he puts it in his Exegesis, or recollection of an original condition that is of a higher order reality. As Dick puts it:
Anamnesis is nothing less than realizing what and where you really are: you perceive the brain and its traffic, you hear the voice of its noös, and you understand the irreality of psyche, world, causality and time.
Understanding the irreality of time becomes the preface for understanding the reality of time: how to reveal its truth, not simply transcend it. For there is something in the nature of time--orthogonal, multidimensional time, not false, linear time--that holds the key to higher knowledge, to gnosis.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

To boldly go where?

Transition, by Iain M. Banks, 2009. The main character of this novel, the "Transitioner," is an assassin who is able to jump between parallel worlds through use of a drug called septus. Two beautiful women contend for power over the linked labyrinth of universes, competing for the Transitioner's loyalties through sensuous luxuries, sexual delicacies, and torture. This is a book where characters jump into different bodies, have violent sex with strangers, fling themselves into other dimensions, and dispatch their enemies grotesquely in such picturesque locales as Tibet or Venice.

By the way, this is a science fiction novel. You can tell by the "M" in the author's name. (No M, it's mainstream.)

I enjoyed this as much as any of the dozen or so of Banks' books I have read. It is conceptually thought-provoking as well as being massively good entertainment. Banks is so keenly intelligent, if we can keep up with him it makes us feel very clever. But there is another factor that makes this book worthwhile: it breaks all sorts of boundaries of imagination. You cannot see what is coming or how it is coming or who is who or what is what. It's a wild ride.

Happy traveling. Hang on to your septus.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

With opened mind

Eye in the Sky, by Philip K. Dick. Ace Books, 1957.
The provisional tile of this novel was "With Opened Mind." I have read the book many times and confess to preferring the published title. The subject is the varieties of paranoia 1950s-style; there are no opened minds here really, just subsets of a bastardized collective reality that the characters inhabit--that we all inhabited back then, if we were around in 1957.
The plot concerns a group of people who together are acting out a kind of waking dream while lying unconscious following an accident. This image of the eye, as so memorably shown here, might represent an individual ego run amok. But it's actually more like an id, a destructive force that dominates others just because it can.
What intrigued me about the book when I first read it at age 12 is the scene where two men clutching an umbrella are pulled up into the heavens. There they behold a giant, disembodied, cyclopean spying eye, which at that point in the story represents the lord of the universe of a fanatical war veteran. His petty god is one of wrath, and downright dangerous.
Control of the group consciousness passes from person to person, each displaying a different form of insanity, until finally normalcy is restored...or is it? For the world into which the characters finally awake, familiar as it is, looks like just another version of the craziness. Which of course it is.
Despite appearances, this novel is not a fantasy; it is pure science fiction. It takes place in the "real" world (I use the term advisedly) and the fantastic events are generated from explicable circumstances, not magic. It requires a bit of understanding of the mechanics of consciousness, however.
Eye in the Sky is a little less complex than some of Dick's subsequent works on the same theme--The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) and Ubik (1968) for example--but this is the one where I first learned to love PKD, with opened mind.