Wednesday, October 24, 2007

By way of introduction: ah, sweet nostalgia...

Due to a series of events (not important here) I came into the possession of a number of my old books that I'd stored many years ago and had forgotten about. Upon opening the dusty boxes many memories came flooding back, mostly good, all vivid. This instant personal library situated my thoughts in a particular stage in my life. It yielded a warm and chilly feeling at the same time. Warm, because I flashed back to that idealistic era of university and that first job (as a bookseller). Chilly, because I was immediately afraid of what I'd find upon closer scrutiny. I'm sure I'm not alone in discovering that my taste in movies, TV, music and, yes, books from that time in my life has not, shall we say, always "stood the test of time". And that was my predicament: do I keep all these biographical documents (my biography) or do I dispense with them en masse sight unseen? Afterall, it had been decades since I'd had any contact with these items. I could continue my life and never give them a second thought.

I did no dispensing. I began opening the boxes and taking out every volume.

Among the collection was a number of titles by the late SF novelist, Philip K. Dick. There were, maybe, twenty-five or thirty books made up of various editions (several titles from three or four different publishers with different covers). I began to smile and knew that I was about to begin a journey through the past. But what if those tomes that I'd deemed to be so brilliant all those many years ago are, in reality, so painfully, embarrassingly sophomoric? Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

OK, so let's cut to the chase...

I've begun my ongoing reacquaintance with Dick's We Can Build You.

Here's a bit of context: I was never a big fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy because I always found that technology (in the case of SciFi) or archaic customs (in the case of Fantasy) overpowered the human being (read: character). But Philip K. Dick was different. Technology is always incidental to the story, not the end all, be all. For Philip K. Dick, how the "little guy" confronted the establishment (often represented by technology) and refused to be subjugated or destroyed by it made a much more compelling story than a bunch of robots fighting. And, to me, that's why his books still work so brilliantly today. Sure, some of the science Dick envisioned in his novels seems quaintly naive now but the science plays such a small roll that it does not often intrude on all of his fascinating stories.

In We Can Build You, the main character, Louis Rosen, recounts the story of how his company's (MASA ASSOCIATES - Multiplex Acoustical Systems of America) intention to move out of the making of home electronic organs and spinets into the making of simulacra (robots that look like and pass for human beings) of actual historical figures goes horribly wrong because of greed and the inability of the characters to fully divine the scope and significance of their decisions. The story is populated with many compelling characters, including a manic depressive, anorexic young woman (this book was written in the late 1960's/early 1970's!) who is the creative source of these simulacra and a scarey, amoral real estate mogul who sees a way to get even wealthier by getting a hold of these "fake" people. The story begins (as all Dick novels do) in a typical day-to-day environment but slowly descends into a nightmarish world (not unlike Kafka) of fear, helplessness, mystery, paranoia and doom. But our "little" hero doesn't accept it and fights back. If it sounds like the product of a mind nurtured by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy/King Assassinations, Watergate, Vietnam, Kent State, the My Lai Massacre, the Cold War (and possibly some mind altering substances) you'd be right but the ride is lots of fun and, in the end, thought-provoking. There are definitely several strong connections with the world today (though the story is set in 1982) and will leave the reader impressed by just how "spot on" Dick was despite the drugs.

I'll be popping in from time to time, adding more reviews of Philip K. Dick novels as I make way through all those boxes. If you're curious about his work you could try just about any novel on the shelf and enjoy his unbridled imagination. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was made into the movie Bladerunner (a fine movie but missing an important plot line that adds much more depth to the novel), his short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale was made into the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall, and most recently his novel, A Scanner Darkly was adapted into the Richard Linklater rotoscoped (the process that transforms conventional film footage into cartoon/animation to create an other-worldly effect) movie of the same name.

In conclusion, let me say my "chilly" fears were unfounded. I am enjoying every moment I'm spending with my old friend. But I'm sure you figured that out already.

Oh, and may I suggest you listen to some Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Chambers Brothers, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service or Jimi Hendrix while you're reading him. That's what he was listening to when he wrote these books all those decades ago.


Anonymous said...

There's a fun essay in Jonathan Letham's Disappointment Artist about the author's attempt to read every single Philip K Dick novel.

kittent said...

I come to you by way of the Slow Reading blog, but I am staying because you are delightful (and PK Dick is fun)