Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 3 of 3, Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler, 7 June 2010

This is the sixtieth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After resting over the weekend, I took my final PhD exam on Philip K. Dick. My dissertation director Donald “Mack” Hassler administered this test for me. We had spent time discussing Dick’s novels and stories during an independent study. However, this minor exam required me to read the entire Dick oeuvre and a good amount of scholarship on the writer’s work. We agreed on this reading list. During the year of preparation, I would walk down to Mack’s house–a few blocks from the house my wife and I rented in Kent–and we would sit and discuss my progress.

In this exam, I discussed in broad strokes Dick’s career in the first question, I explored the major theme of authenticity in the second question, and I examined his personal ontological insights in his VALIS trilogy in the third question. Like the postmodern theory minor exam, I had four hours to write the following response.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald Hassler

PhD Minor Exam: Philip K. Dick

7 June 2010

Question 1

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, whose most recognized works were in science fiction, but he also wrote a significant number of realistic fictions, only one of which was published during his lifetime. The majority of stories are closely related to California, where he spent most of his life. Also, the loss of his twin sister Jane and his life with his mother following his parents’ divorce severely affected his personal life and colored his fictions. In his stories, there are a number of recurring character archetypes and themes. His primary recurring characters include the serviceman or blue collar worker who works for someone else and is trapped at home and work, the castrating harpy or bitch is usually the serviceman’s wife, the dark-haired girl is a younger woman who serves as a distraction or seductress to the serviceman, and the patriarch who is the father figure or boss of the serviceman and he is sometimes helpful, sometimes not, and may compete for the attention of the dark-haired girl. The themes that Dick explores in his fictions include the relationships between men and women, humans and machines, the plight of the everyman, psychological rupture, authenticity versus inauthentic, philosophy, ontological uncertainty, and theological questioning.

Using Brian McHale’s theory of postmodernism, I have divided Dick’s oeuvre into three phases based on the epistemological or ontological dominant evident in the fictions. As he argues, epistemologically dominant issues or questions (i.e., how do we know particular things, what can we know, how do we know ourselves, etc.), when pushed far enough, transform or lead to ontologically dominant issues (i.e., creation of a world or worlds, making sense of one’s place in a world, etc.). Even though he is arguing for a division between the modern (epistemological) and the postmodern (ontological), his idea that these dominants coexist on different levels within texts provides a way of engaging Dick’s writing.

The first phase includes his writing to the end of the 1950s during which time Dick was performing two kinds of writing: an overwhelming number of science fiction short stories and a handful of novels including a number of mostly unpublished realistic novels. These fictions promote a epistemological dominant. The second phase with its emphasis on ontologically dominant issues includes the 1960s and the early 1970s. The third phase, which overlaps with the second phase (Dick mentions gnosis in The Penultimate Truth (I will capitalize book titles and not italicize to save time typing), for example, in 1964, and theology in some of his earlier works), includes primarily his fictions of the late-1970s to the early-1980s in which he returns to epistemological questions through his exploration of theology and Gnostic beliefs as he attempts to interpret his own subjective experiences beginning in February and March of 1974.

Dick’s first writing phase begins with his first published story: “Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952), in which an intelligent and telepathic Martian pet takes over the mind of a ship’s captain after it is killed and eaten. Uncertain borders between inside and outside, such as in this story, define the paranoiac tensions in his fiction that turn up again and again. This theme is most fully developed in his mid-1960s novel, Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) when Bill exchanges minds with Hoppy Harrington. Other notable stories from this period include “Imposter” (1953), which is about a man who discovers that he is actually an android, “Second Variety” (1953), which is about a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by men and killer androids that are indistinguishable from humans, “Autofac” (1955), which is about automatic factories that cannot be turned off when they are no longer needed, and “The Minority Report” (1956), which is about stopping crime before it happens and questioning determinism. Minds, paranoia, human-machine relationships, and knowability are issues in his early fiction that he continues to develop throughout his career.

While writing an extensive amount of short fiction in the 1950s, Dick also began writing realistic fiction and science fiction novels, with greater publication success with the latter. His first novel published was Solar Lottery (1955), which depicts a future in which chance defines life and the ultimate lottery is the one that determines the world leader or Quizmaster. Other early novels include The Cosmic Puppets (1957), which features a remote town torn between two competing Zoroastrian gods. This novel combines the issues of a simulated reality with the paranoia of something lying beyond our immediate perception of reality controlling the lives of what Patricia Warrick terms the “little men.” Another early novel is Dr. Futurity (1959—interestingly, published the same year as Heinlein’s “All You Zombies”), which revisits the question of free will through the tribulations of a time travelling surgeon, snatched 400 years into the future to help and inadvertently kill an Iroquois chief. Other notable novels from this period include The World Jones Made (1956), Eye in the Sky (1957), and The Man Who Japed (1956).

During this time, Dick wrote a significant amount of realistic fiction, because he wanted mainstream success. Science fiction, as a result of his agent and publisher, never paid well for Dick. He desired mainstream success and recognition. His first written novel was in fact a realistic novel, Gather Yourselves Together. Written in 1950, it is about three American business people preparing to leave post-WWII China as the Communists begin to control the mainland. The principle characters, two men and one woman, deal more with their interpersonal sexual relationships than with the impending social revolution just outside the gates. In 1952, he wrote Voices from the Street, which is an early appearance of his trademark Modern TV Sales and Service, and it is about its owner and his breakdown from the effects of the mundane. Mary and the Giant, written in 1954, is an interracial love and love-lost story that Dick described as a retelling of Don Giovanni. The Broken Bubble, written in 1956, is about two couples who essentially swap wives, and learn life lessons from the economy of sexual relationships. In 1957, Dick wrote Puttering About in a Small Land which shares elements with Voices from the Street. It is about Roger Lindahl, who runs a TV shop, and who develops marital problems after having an affair with a dark-haired girl/woman. It ends with him not going insane, but instead, skipping out on his wife and lover with a car full of his own TV sets. In 1958, he wrote In Milton Lumky Territory, which is about a warehouse manager turned typewriter sales shop manager. Confessions of a Crap Artist, written in 1959, was the only realistic novel published in Dick’s lifetime. It is a story about the death of a man seen from his and three other character perspectives, and how each constructs a particular view of reality. As in Dick’s most important science fiction, this novel demonstrates Dick’s belief that reality is a subjective experience. The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1960) is about real estate troubles fueled by racism and a poisoned water supply. In fact, racism is viewed as more problematic than the effects of contaminated ground water. And Dick’s last realistic novel from the early period is Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which was written in 1960. It is a story about two cooperative business owners split apart by an outside entrepreneur. All of the remaining mainstream novels have since been published after Dick’s death in 1982.

The second phase of Dick’s writing career begins with his 1959 science fiction novel Time Out of Joint. It combines the epistemological issues of knowledge and self and the ontological world building that defines Dick’s central works. In the novel, Ragle Gumm is maintained by the world government in a 1950s simulacral enclave in what is really 1997 (note also the exchange of time by place—a postmodern development that figures large in Dick’s middle period). Gumm discovers that he has been placed in the enclave to assist with his psychotic regression from the pressure he was under in the real 1997 predicting where Lunar missiles will strike the Earth. In the simulacral 1950s, he plays a daily contest, “Where are the Little Green Men?” in order to supply the Earth forces with the data they need to prepare for the next attack.

The novel for which Dick won the Hugo Award for Best Novel was his 1962 The Man in the High Castle. The novel takes place in an alternate history where Japan and German won WWII and divided the United States between them. This represents one ontology, or world. Within the story there is another novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel, developed with the help of the I-Ching or Book of Changes, tells our story, or what we know as reality. This represents another ontology. It is only at the end of the novel that one character, Juliana Frink, questions the I-Ching and learns that Grasshopper is “Inner Truth” or the true reality. This novel provides a denouement that Dick’s later ontological mysteries dismiss favored a deferred meaning.

Martian Time-Slip (1964) takes time and ontology into another direction. In this story about Martian immigrants and the displaced peoples of Mars, the bleekmen, Arnie Kott tries to capitalize on the precognitive abilities of an autistic boy, Manfred. Manfred’s reality is shaped by a different perception of time, seeing slices of time extending into the future, people appearing and disappearing as they move about. With the mystical help of the bleekmen, Kott’s manservant Heliogabalus guides Kott and Manfred to Dirty Knobby, a place that will help focus Manfred’s ability. Instead of helping Kott, it allows Manfred’s already powerful ability to control the reality of those around him by sending Kott back in time to try to interfere in the original course of events that took the claim of the FDR Mountains from him. The original time line is maintained and upon his return Kott is killed by Zitte, a smuggler whose warehouse was destroyed by Kott’s men. Kott dies believing that he is still in the world controlled by Manfred.

Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) is a post-apocalyptic story about a group of survivors living in the California countryside. Instead of a straight ontological Dick story, this novel is about the control of reality by technoscientific means. First, Dr. Bluthgeld/Jack Tree/Dr. Bloodmoney, representing the military-industrial complex and the man held responsible for the devastation of the war, and seemingly innocent and eccentric member of the neighborhood family, once marshaled his abilities to ruin the world and society as it then existed. Now, threatened, he attempts to use his force of will to rein terror down on humanity once again. He is stopped by Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus, a human mutant reliant on his mental powers and technological apparatus to move about and do his work. Hoppy destroys Bluthgeld, and in turn, becomes like Bluthgeld. Mad with power, Hoppy and his stunted child-like mind demand favors and attention. Hoppy is in turn defeated by Bill, Edie’s unborn brother who lives inside her body. Hoppy uses his power to remove Bill, but Bill uses his own mental powers to switch bodies with Hoppy—leaving Hoppy to die and Bill to take over his new, yet deformed, body. This world is dependent on the interconnections between the characters and the unifying voice of Walt Dangerfield, endlessly orbiting Earth in his manmade satellite. Disruptions to the web of connections lead to ontological instability and the threat of more bombs. The elimination of Hoppy and Bluthgeld restores stability to the world and breaks the cycle of mad power hunger represented by these two characters.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) is a demonstration of drug-induced ontologies. Can-D is a drug for Martian colonists to interact with their Perky Pat layouts—the ultimate commodity fetishism through virtual immersion. However, the Perky Pat layout is limited to only Pat and her boyfriend Walt, which means several persons may inhabit these virtual selves at a given time. Palmer Eldritch, or something purporting to be Eldritch, returns from a mission to the Prox System with a new and improved drug that he calls Chew-Z. Unlike Can-D, Chew-Z creates a world just for the person who uses it. What Eldritch doesn’t say is that every world, all of those separate ontologies, are inhabited and controlled by him. His three stigmata—mechanical arm, stainless steel eye, and metal teeth—become ubiquitous. The ending gestures towards the uncertainty of reality or the certainty of a subjective reality that Dick will explore more in this period culminating with Ubik and A Maze of Death.

The transition from his second to third phase of writing begins with the richly complex Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). I will speak more on this novel in the second question, but for now, it suffices to say that this novel returns to Dick’s earlier dominant theme of epistemological questions through an ontological subplot. The primary issue in the novel is the human builds machine, and then the human becomes the machine. The main character, Rick Deckard, struggles with his own identity as he retires or kills escaped androids for money that would allow him to own a real live animal sheep. In this future Earth populated by those who cannot or choose not to immigrate to the outer planets, Fredric Jameson’s waning of affect is clearly evident when the other characters are surfaces to be painted by emotion delivered by the Mood Organ and the Empathy Box. The Empathy box is far more important to the story, because it allows an individual to interface with every other person using an Empathy Box. In that other realm, the individuals merge with Wilber Mercer, an apparently old man who struggles up a steep and barren hill against the killers—those who would take from Mercer his ability to return the dead to life. Interestingly, Mercer is revealed to be a fake and a fraud, and yet, he transcends his realm of the Empathy Box into Deckard’s world to warn him of the androids waiting for him at the end. Mercer tells him that he will do the thin that conflicts with his identity—the thing he wants to refuse to do—and that thing is the taint on all creation. By Dick’s own description of an android and how humans can become androids, Mercer is telling Deckard that there is no escape—that in some way we are all androids when we experience this identity crisis.

Ubik (1969) is arguably the finest example of Dick’s ontological experiments in fiction of the 1960s. The story is structured around a series of ontological puzzles, one cliffhanger explanation after another, where the characters are caught in a deadly entropic world trying to figure out where they are and how they can survive a world in constant flux beyond rational analysis. The characters may be in half-life, or they could be in a world created by a telepath with a unique time-altering ability undetectable by precogs. This dark-haired girl is particularly dangerous to men and women who stand in her way to the men she desires. Their boss may be alive, or he may be dead. They may be in a real world and their boss trapped in half-life. All the while, one by one they die off by an accelerated entropy, the gubble or kipple in Martian Time-Slip or Do Androids, that ages their bodies in a matter of moments. An anti-entropic force is at work in this changing world that provides the main character Joe Chip with Ubik, a commodified chemical substance that keeps his body safe and immune to the effects of entropy. However, it is difficult to come by Ubik, and its effects are only temporary. Jory, a boy in half-life who apparently is feeding off the life force of those caught in half-life will ultimately return for another chance at Joe. This novel interweaves ontological dilemmas with a heavily commodified culture that has become ubiquitous to the point that there is no outside advertising fueled capitalism (cf. The Space Merchants). It can be argued that this capitalism, which Jameson and others point to as giving rise to postmodernism, is what causes the ontological crisis for the characters in the novel. This idea complements McHale’s formulation of epistemological/modernism and ontological/postmodernism.

Further bridging Dick’s earlier work with his increasing integration of religion and in particular gnosticism into his fiction is his novella “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967). In this story, the world is ruled by the Chinese Communist government and its one supreme ruler. Everyone on Earth is given prescribed hallucinogenic drugs. The protagonist, Tung, obtains an illegal anti-hallucinogen, which causes him to see the supreme ruler as he actually is—a multiply and shifting appearance from the machine to the monstrous to the natural. Tung discovers that the leader is actually an alien or demiurge with fantastic powers, but who rationalizes his actions as not being as bad as other beings in the universe. At the end, Tung dies wishing to regain his hallucination, because it was a much more acceptable reality than the one he now finds himself in.

In A Maze of Death (1970), Dick begins to combine theology with ontological instability. A group of specialists converge on a mysterious planet, Delmak-O, and begin dying off one by one. In this world, people can contact their religious deities through a network of transmitters and amplifiers. Interestingly, each person sees a mysterious building on the planet in different ways and in different places prior to the planet’s complete dissolution. Also, the tenches, large techno-organic beings, serve a role providing I-Ching-like advice and duplicates of artifacts that the colonists need. It is believed by some of the colonists that the tenches play a significant role in the world that they are on, but it is later revealed that Delmak-O is merely a simulation of reality, slightly distorted for each participant. The inhabitants of this virtual world are trapped aboard a spacecraft orbiting a distant star. The final destabilizing moment of the novel comes when Morley is visited by his deity from within the simulation in the real world. The deity offers him an escape from the ship, which Morley gladly accepts.

Largely based on Dick’s troubles as a result of increasing involvement in the California drug scene, A Scanner Darkly (1977) develops a more elegant depiction of drug-induced ontologies and the resulting epistemological troubles that arise from an uncertain reality. Bob Arctor is a NARC who is assigned to infiltrate the Substance-D(eath) scene. As a NARC, he wears a scramble suit in the police building and at official functions, so no one really knows what Bob looks like. On assignment, Bob makes friends, each with their own personality quirks and psychoses that develop from their use of drugs including Substance-D. The thing about this drug is that it severs the cross talk between the two brain hemispheres and effectively divides the self into two. For Bob, this is particularly troubling, because he loses grasp on the division between his undercover and professional selves. The drug makes the division real, which precipitates the crisis leading to his girlfriend (a dark-haired NARC) taking him to the New-Path Facility, a special detox and rehabilitation center that the authorities believe are behind the production of Substance-D. Bob didn’t realize that his mission lead to this point where he would, hopefully be able to alert the authorities of his findings. The important thing to take away from this novel is that what we know is determined by the biology of our brains, which can be influenced or destroyed by chemical dependence. Furthermore, subjective experience of our ontology is determined by the physicality of our brain.

Dick’s last three novels VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) are loosely collected as the VALIS Trilogy (I will talk about these more in the third question). Dick refocuses his writing on epistemologically dominant questions as he processes the meaning of his 2-3-74 experience. Beginning in February 1974, Dick experienced what he described as a bright pink laser beam, which filled his vision and imparted information about his life, those around him, and the universal structure of things. Described as 2-3-74, due to the most impressive visions having happened in February and March of that year, Dick began attempting to make sense of the experience. He began writing what he called his Exegesis. It was a remembering of knowledge that he believed he had lost, or anamnesis, and a rational explanation of what these new memories meant for himself and his understanding of the universe. Part of Dick’s revelatory experience is that it was grounded in Gnosticism—an early Christian belief that the world was created and ruled by a lesser being, the demiurge, and that Christ was the emissary of the distant supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge or gnosis of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit. Some critics have written on Gnosticism in Dick’s earlier works, but these ideas unequivocally play a defining part in these, his last three novels. VALIS is a metafictional account of the author as a divided character in a novel who watches a movie about his personal spiritual experience and seeks to understand it with the help of his close friends. The Divine Invasion is a fictional story that relates the author’s Gnostic vision in a far future story of personal salvation. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is a theologically based realistic fiction that is told in flashback by his most realized and sympathetic female character, Angel Archer. It is about loss, the human and the android, and redemption through giving and empathy. I will address these novels more in the third question.

Throughout his fiction, Dick’s characters are usually little men or the everyman. They may get tangled up on something much larger than themselves (e.g., politics or the battle between good and evil). Populating their worlds are numerous simulacra or androids—mechanical beings but lacking affect or emotion. In Dick’s worls, however, the humans often become or are already androids themselves—beings who lack empathy. Late capitalism and commodity fetishism turn men into machines—unfeeling, disconnected from humanity, acting on programming or instructions. In Dick’s fictions, it seems like he began with epistemological questions, which led him to push them into the realm of the ontological. I believe this is what caused his career to circle back to the beginning so to speak. He was almost always concerned about the interiority and psychology of his characters even while exploring how people figure out the world in which they find themselves. Dick’s turn to theology was only another turn in this questioning of subjective reality. He believed that his 2-3-74 experience was the next path to explore and that it might lead him to explore and that it might lead him to some explanations, however problematic they may be, and those explanations seem to have made sense to his subjective experience, which for Dick, was all that really mattered.

An important element of Dick’s writing has to do with his development of female characters. Until Angel Archer, the majority of Dick’s women characters were spiteful, controlling, and emasculating to the men around them. Without knowing the full context of Judith Merril’s “domestic patriots,” which I suspect is related to Lisa Yaszek’s work in Galactic Suburbia and Elaine Taylor May’s Homeward Bound, these women protected the home and community in the face of nuclear Armageddon. However, they do this in confrontation with men’s power and authority. Dick’s relationships with women including his mother is troubled to say the least, and it could be that his women characters are by-and-large representations of the way he saw women who tried to take authority away from men, including himself. However, I do not get a sense that his women character’s gradually change over time. Angel Archer is a specific shift in writing for Dick, and I am suspect to how much Angel was an authentic attempt at a female narrative voice or merely Dick’s assuming a new tact at controlling women through his fiction. In effect, he have crafted Angel so well to control her (in opposition to the controlling female characters in the past stories), and to assert his command as a writer who can also write in a feminine voice (a topic particularly exacerbated by the Robert Silverberg introduction to the James Tiptree, Jr. collection, but I do not know if Dick weighed-in on this or not).

Dick doesn’t seem to give up on his fears of fascism. Even in The Transmigration, Tim Archer is besieged by the invisible church authorities and in The Divine Invasion the world is controlled by Belial. Dick is always looking for the ‘penultimate truth’ and the next layer underneath what we perceive as reality and the social. Even in his last fictions, Dick still perceived something underneath everything that maintained control. Most famously, at the convention in Metz, France in 1977, Dick asserted his beliefs that we now think of as an invention of the Wachowski Brothers in The Matrix (1999).

 

Question 2

Dick’s underlying concern in most (if not all) of his works is authenticity. He is concerned about the authenticity of experiences, things, and phenomena. What is authentic reality? What is my authentic experience compared to someone else’s? Are these goods authentic or ersatz duplications? These questions recur in Dick’s fiction and essays and concern his fictional creations as well as his subjective experience of the supposed real world. Dick is particularly concerned about authentic human beings and their inauthentic simulacra. However, Dick did not formulate a simple dichotomy between real humans and androids. Much more interestingly, he observed that humanity is embroiled in its simulacral creations, and one may transform into the other. It is the contemporary challenge of humanity to not become the android as the world changes in various ways with the forces of technoscientific advancement and the effects of late capitalism. Coming before the work of Fredric Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect and Bruno Latour’s demonstration that the moderns artificially purified subjects and objects while hybrids continued to proliferate underneath the surface, each qualified for engaging Dick’s ideas about humans and androids. Patricia Warrick began to theorize the meanings of Dick’s ideas about human authenticity and inauthenticity through the work of Bruce Mazlish.

Warrick’s analysis of Dick’s fiction in regard to humans and androids relies on the work of anthropologist Bruce Mazlish. He perceived a discontinuity between man and his machines that could be breached in the future. Mazlish’s argument goes that this is another artificial division to be deconstructed by modernity. Copernicus taught man that he was not the center of the Universe. Darwin taught man that he was not separate from nature, but instead part of and evolved from the animal world. Freud taught man that he was not a wholly rational creature with a centered self. Mazlish believes that man should recognize his nature as being continuous with the tools and machines that he constructs. Warrick shows that after the 1950s, science fiction literature that should support Mazlish’s claims exacerbates the discontinuity between man and intelligent machines. However, there are some writers who show the creative potential in man and machine symbiosis.

Warrick compares Dick to Isaac Asimov in her analysis. Dick and Asimov are wildly different writers who both present futures where the distinction between man and machine is erased. Dick, unlike Asimov, is more concerned with androids than robots. Importantly, Dick believes that machines can be androids and humans in certain circumstances, largely from what we think of as late capitalism, can become androids. The central theme in Dick is to define the authentically human and to distinguish those who are non-human with alien elements from the authentically human. Dick and Asimov share a humanistic outlook and believe in the idea of progress, but they are also divergent in a number of significant ways. Asimov is identified with world, objective reality, discursive logic, scientist, sanguine, pre-WWII, no post-holocaust stories, psychohistory, man does not change, static environments, and future is a fictional model of present reality. Dick, on the other hand, is identified with mind, subjective reality, terminal metaphor, humanist (in regard to culture and oriental philosophy), pessimism, post-WWII, post-holocaust stories, future is radical and unexpected, transformation of technology leads to transformation of man, new forms appear as a result of science and technology, and the future is a fictional alternative to current fiction (subjective view point), hence a metafiction.

In Dick’s fiction, there is an evolving reciprocal relationship between man and machine. Man fights automated machines, becomes more un-alive and machine-like, withdraws into schizophrenia as they reject exploitation by economic and political machinery, and schizoid humans turn into androids with mechanical/programmed personalities. In contrast, machines transition and evolve: electronic constructs/automated machines, alien and enemy robots masquerading as human, robots becoming human, will to survive, and robots becoming superior to humans.

Warrick develops her own tripartite classification to Dick’s writing based on the relationship between the human and the android. In the first period, primarily the 1950s, Dick wrote mostly dystopian short fiction that explores the horror of paranoiac militarism, totalitarianism, and manipulation of the little man through mass media persuasion. A few representative works from this period include: “Imposter,” robot/bomb replaces scientist and the scientist tries to prove his innocence/humanity. “Second Variety” is about robots who masquerade as humans in post-apocalyptic landscape. “The Defenders” is about the leady, artificial soldiers who stay above ground while the humans go under while the robots fight on. Unbeknownst to the underground dwellers, the robots make peace and rebuild the world above. And in the novel Vulcan’s Hammer, the Vulcan III computer rules over all humans (not as kindly as the robot controllers in Asimov’s “The Evitable Conflict”). Things become alive and people become things, mere pawns at the control of the computer. This story is emblematic of machines as destructive humans. This illustrates the importance of metaphor in Dick. He sees the computer as a metaphor that runs in two directions: machines/computers can be like humans who kill, but humans, driving by unrecognized impulses (going back to Freud), become machines that kill. This latter metaphor is demonstrated in The Man in the High Castle by the totalitarian state becoming a machine of domination and destruction. In this way, Vulcan’s Hammer and The Man in the High Castle form the opposite poles of a dichotomy that Dick would later more fully explore in a single work.

Dick’s middle period shifts from a focus on militarism and a third person point of view to economic and political structures and multiple narrative foci. He also more fully develops these two main ideas in his fiction: 1) the outcome of the war, be it military or economic, is not victory or defeat, but transformation to the opposite (e.g., human/machine, ally/enemy, us/other), and 2) media images replace the actual (i.e., the image becomes reality). Technologies transform man into new, unexpected, and possibly ironic forms, and technologies through communication media create fictional realities that are more powerful than the real. Just as machines are programmed to perform, people are made subjects who are programmed with a certain view of reality. Some examples include: In Martian Time-Slip, Jack Bolen sees other people as machines. For him, schizophrenia is a way to deal with an inhuman environment. Insanity is represented as absolute reality, because the schizoid sees beneath the surface of things. Manfred, the precognitive autistic child, is the more authentic character. His ‘madness’ allows him to see what no one else wants to or can see. And possibly the most human character in the novel is the Martian aborigine, Heliogabalus, who is able to connect with Manfred with empathy. Dick relies on empathy as the basis for his humanistic value system—something we see repeated to better effect in Do Androids. Also, it is important to note that Manfred does not commune with the teaching androids in the school. His mental disconnection from the rest of humanity does not necessarily make him a machine. It only makes him different and in some ways more human. Palmer Eldritch is like Arnie Kott in Martian Time-Slip: both characters use a form of economic domination to oppress or control others. Kott fails when Jack tries to escape this, but Eldritch’s ubiquity seems inescapable. Eldritch’s stigamata—the mechanical arm, stainless steel teeth, and artificial electronic eye signify his otherness from humanity. The being that returned from the Prox System is more than likely not human. He has returned to devour the little men. His stigmata infiltrates all humanity, and it is through his drug Chew-Z that he gains power of manipulation over reality. His created reality/hallucination replaces the real. The Simulacra has double inauthentic leaders: Nichole Thibodeaux, the supreme leader who is forever young thanks to an endless supply of actresses, and der Alte, her husband, elected every four years, and served by an android. The media and robotic electric technologies allow for this level of manipulation. In The Penultimate Truth, Stanton Brose is the hidden economic-oriented dictator, and the representative of the honest government to the masses is President Talbot Yancy, a programmed simulacra. However, in Dr. Bloodmoney, transformations save the day. Hoppy Harrington transforms into Dr. Bluthgeld as a power-hungry techno-scientist, but the caring Bill subverts their power when he changes bodies with Hoppy.

In the third period, not taking into account Dick’s theologically oriented works, Dick shifts to the inner workings of the mind. Robots haunt the human from within, and the human is seen as a machine and android. Dick outlines these thoughts in his speech “The Machine and the Android.” He argues that the android mind has a paucity of feeling, predictability, obedience, inability to make exceptions, and inability to alter with circumstances to become something new. The finest example of this is Dick’s Do Androids. Unlike most of his middle period works that feature multiple narrative foci, Do Androids focuses on Rick Deckard and J. R. Isidore. Rick Deckard, the android hunter, is left brained, rational, and unfeeling. Isidore is right brained, intuitive, and empathizes with all things, including androids. The novel has further proliferating pairings: people/things, subject/object, animate/inanimate, loving/killing, intuition/logic, human/machine, Deckard/Resch, and Rachael/Pris. Wilber Mercer seems to take a pragmatic, transcendent middle way—the one who could resurrect the dead, but conceding the reality of the universe: you will be required to do the thing that you don’t want to do, the thing that will violate your own identity. Deckard, as in the earlier stories, represents man who created machines that kill/man becomes the machine that kills. However, Deckard is unlike Resch. Deckard is troubled by what he has become. He wants a real live animal so badly that he is willing to kill androids for $1000/each, even while acknowledging that they can give something back to the world (e.g., Luba’s gift as an opera singer). To survive in this world, you have to let go of the inauthentic division between man and machine, living and nonliving. This is what Deckard and Iron do at the end with the mechanical frog. Isidore, considered a chickenhead by many, points the way to the power of the right hemisphere of the brain and its creative power to transform us from machines into authentic humans. In the film version of Do Androids titled Blade Runner (1982), Deckard is figured as an android with his own implanted memories and alone in the world. He falls for Rachel Rosen, a Nexus 6 android, and at the end, he runs away with her. She has come to love him, and he her. If they are both androids, they have demonstrated what Batty and the other escaped androids were trying to tell the humans all along—they can see and feel just like humans. Our constructs are just like us, and it is our responsibility to acknowledge that. Perhaps it is this realization that drives Deckard to run away with Rachel—that through living, however short a time they may have, they will achieve the thing humanity denies androids. For humanity to acknowledge the lives and emotions of its constructs, it would ultimately destabilize and undermine the importance of the human in a universe otherwise devoid of intelligent beings (at least those we have personally encountered). Humanity in this sense is a fascist regime—it denies agency and emotional depth to other creatures. Humanity is the oppressor, and it is unfortunate that Deckard must retire so many androids before he comes to realize his part in the fascism of humanity—something that is hinted at through Mercer’s words to him in the novel.

It is through the film Blade Runner that Dick’s work most colorfully contrasts with that of Asimov. Asimov’s robots, especially R. Daneel Olivaw in the robot and later Foundation novels, contend with the self-imposed superiority of humans over robots. However, the robots have the last laugh through the Zeroth Law—assuming a position of ethnical authority over humanity and its development. Dick’s androids take no stand against or for all of humanity (except perhaps the Machiavellian Vulcan computers in Vulcan’s Hammer). Dick’s androids are, like his humans, individuals trying to find their way in a very unfriendly ontological creation. In Do Androids, they want to hide out and live their lives away from the deadly bounty hunters. In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott shows us how the androids act and behave toward one another as mutually caring individuals.

“The Electric Ant” is another emblematic story of this period of Dick’s writing. Like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Garson Poole wakes in a hospital bed and discovers that he is actually a robot. Learning this fact forever changes the way he sees himself and the world around him. He realizes that he is programmed to act and behave in a particular way according to the instructions on his tape, but he also realizes that he can reprogram himself, change his tape, and experience the world differently. Thus, his reality tape is a subjective reality, just as our own acculturation and education creates in us a subjective reality for seeing and interacting with the world. We are programmed in various ways, and Dick understood how this can be a very bad thing if left unacknowledged—leading to fascism and blindly following internalized rules or behavior.

Ultimately for Dick, he sees the irony in our situation. He observed that seeing everything as alive or everything as dead means the same thing. He seeks a middle path: namely that everything is lived through. Life and living are processes, not an end unto themselves. Recognizing this in ourselves and in our simulacra can lead to a more creative and accepting worldview that will eventually come—Dick was there and came back to tell us about it.

 

Question 3

            Dick’s fiction represents the author’s continuing emergence and development as a writer, but unlike his earlier fiction, Dick’s last three books take a decidedly different turn in relation to the author. Dick acknowledges his autobiographical elements in all of his fiction, but it is in the VALIS trology that the author breaks the fourth wall and creates his most postmodern works, particularly with the novel VALIS. The author’s earlier works may have been about his own life in various ways, but it is in these last novels that Dick explores his own subjective experiences and psychosocial traumas. The author’s voice in these works is more developed in these three novels than in his earlier work, because he assumes the role of the mighty Oz and pulls back his own curtains to reveal to the reader what lies beneath the surface of his writing. This curtain hides the underlying beliefs of the author and the author’s own subjective experience known as 2-3-74. Dick’s Gnostic beliefs, already present in his fiction prior to the 1970s, comes to full fruition in the VALIS trilogy as a return of the apostolic age—the juxtaposition of the time of Gnosticism in ancient Rome with Dick’s modern day California—a juxtaposition of returning belief structures united through time transformed into space.

It is through the VALIS trilogy that Dick explores the apostolic age reinvention through the author’s belief in VALIS, the satellite connecting him to the Supreme Being through its Gnostic transmissions. In his last three novels, Dick creatively uses voice in ways much different than in his earlier works to bring his subjective experience to his reading audience. I believe that Dick’s VALIS trilogy represents a strong example of Bakhtin’s monologism. VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer are monologic novels, because the characters are subordinate to the authoritative discourse found in the trilogy. Following Dick’s 2-3-74 experience in which he believed to have been contacted by a super intelligent being who passed along information and awakened Dick’s anamnesis, or a remembrance of things past outside of Dick’s existence in the here-and-now, he sought an explanation for his visions. Through his textually heavy Exegesis, Dick employed his extensive book knowledge and reasoning to come up with possibilities and counter possibilities. Like a Derridean trace, Dick’s ultimate understanding was in the end forever deferred and inconclusive. However, Dick repeatedly circled back to Gnosticism: the early Christian belief in the demiurge, a lesser divinity who controlled and created the universe, and the personal salvation of the individual through esoteric knowledge delivered by Christ, emissary of the greater supreme being. Dick believed that the bright pink laser beam that struck him in 1974 was just such a message, which supplied the possibility of salvation by uncovering the artificiality of reality created by the demiurge. Dick recorded his thoughts and personal conversations regarding his experience in his extensive Exigesis. It is from this collection of notes that Dick began development of VALIS.

The many character voices in VALIS are subservient to Dick’s professed desire to make sense of his experience in a fictional format that could be shared with his readers. He employs a particular rhetoric to do this through the use of character voice—representations of himself in various guises. It is important to note that Dick described VALIS as a picaresque novel populated by picaroons, or rogues. In much of his earlier work, Dick created characters identified by what they did for a living. There were salesmen, repair men, managers, pot healers, etc. Then after he fell into the California drug scene in the 1970s after his then-wife left him and he populated his house with various people from that scene, Dick noted that they were all rogues of various kinds. These were not workers, but users of people, things, and drugs. They would do whatever they needed to do to score a hit. Observing these new friends and acquaintances, Dick, in several late interviews, begins to see everyone as rogues of one sort or another. This realization on Dick’s part informs the central characters of VALIS.

In VALIS, Phil Dick is a science fiction author, much like the real author, Philip K. Dick. Phil creates a persona named Horselover Fat (Philip is Greek for horselover, and Dick in German is Fat) who is a character unto himself, but connected to Phil. Phil explains that he created Fat for some much needed objectivity. Phil and Fat’s friends are David, a catholic, and Kevin, a skeptic who wants to ask the creator why his cat was run over by a car. These four characters banter back and forth about the meaning of Fat’s experience with the pink laser beam transmission from what he calls VALIS, or Vast Active Life Intelligence System. Phil could be said to be rational, left brained persona of the author, Philip K. Dick, and Fat could be the intuitive, right brained persona. Some critics argue that David and Kevin are further psychic splits of the author represented as characters within the novel. However, the underlying point about which they all orbit is Fat’s experience and VALIS. They may provide alternative explanations, but they are each a manifestation of the various ideas that the author explored in his Exegesis. They are straw men for the central idea that the author imagines was his 2-3-74 experience.

To complicated matters, it can also be argued that VALIS is a dialogic or polyphonic novel. The characters do provide a unique voice or point of view to the events that Fat experiences. After VALIS’ contact with Fat’s mind, Fat comes to realize that he lives in two time-space continua—the present day California and ancient Rome. However, in ancient Rome, he is Thomas, who Fat considers the dominant personality. So, Dick has created another schism, another split, another voice. Thomas notwithstanding, the California group, who call themselves the Rhipidon Society, are also an example of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Order is inverted—the serious is made silly and the silly is made serious. These picaroons debate the reasonable and the not-so-reasonable in ernest. Dick, the author, is challenging the accepted dogma of a good deal of the Christian world through these rogue characters. Thus, the novel is not completely monologic, but the playful irony and parody within the novel still presents a singular view about 2-3-74 that Dick himself asserted. It is this fact that makes me agree with Christopher Palmer who believes that the most postmodern and fascinating thing about the VALIS trilogy is that Dick was being serious. He points out that Dick pushes the boundaries of belief in all of his works, but in VALIS, Dick’s real belief that he uses to literary effect while denying textuality. VALIS is a view into Dick’s own beliefs that came about as a result of his 2-3-74 experience. Dick pushes the truth of VALIS onto Fat, and the possibility the reader is confronted with through this maneuver is that Dick really believes in VALIS. Dick demonstrates the postmodern turn from new as entertainment to entertainment as news: his novel denies its own fictionality. The other novels in the trilogy do not take this exact turn, but they do continue to carry the author’s voice in different ways.

The Divine Invasion’s Herb Asher is the little man who would like to be left alone, doing his job in the outer reaches of the solar system, rebroadcasting entertainment for his similarly trapped space colonists. Herb is like Dick—isolated and desiring aloneness with his music. The irony of course is that for Dick’s agoraphobia, he liked to surround himself with friends. Then there is Rybys’ immaculately conceived child Emmanuel who Herb only meets much later after surviving in emergency cryofreeze after the fateful wreck. Emmauel, one half of the godhead, the creator, returned to Earth to carry his message to the people and save them from the demiurge, meets Zina, the other half of the godhead, signifying wisdom. Zina guides Emmanuel to remember, to recover through anamnesis, like the VALIS laser beam supposedly helped Dick. Emmanuel and Zina signify Dick and his twin sister Jane. Two halves separated and then reunited. Dick imagines the twin to be wiser and more in control than he himself is. This biographical element of Dick’s life seems to play itself out here in these two characters. The important aspect of Dick’s new belief system that he developed as a result of his embrace of Gnosticism following 2-3-74 is that salvation is a personal thing—salvation is a choice that each person must make and it is on that microscale that salvation is accomplished. In VALIS, Phil chooses to listen to Sophia and regain control over Fat—essentially banishing him from his psyche. In The Divine Invasion, Emmanuel and Zina bring salvation to Herb through the beside-helper Linda Fox. When Belial is about to kill Herb, the singer Linda Fox saves him, because Herb has accepted her not as a pop idol but as a human being who he would like to be with. Much like VALIS, The Divine Invasion borders the difference between monologic and dialogic forms. The central Gnostic message is the point around which the different character voices orbit, but they do take on particularly unique voices in comparison to some of Dick’s earlier work. I cannot say that these voices are better than those in VALIS in terms of their development and representation of a rounded character, but they do represent a trend in Dick’s development as a writer. He was a writer exploring personal salvation and the meaning of 2-3-74 while also thinking about his craft as a writer. He wanted to share his epiphany, but he does so through the development of his writing and the crafting of narrative voices.

In The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Dick achieves a fully dialogic novel that subtly engages the carnivalesque. The protagonist is Angel Archer, the counter character to Bishop Timothy Archer (styled on Dick’s friend James Pike). Dick said of Angel that she was created out of Zeus’ head—out of nowhere. This is in opposition to earlier remarks by Dick in which he asserted that no character can come from nothing. All characterrs for Dick up to Angel were based on people he actually knew. We cannot completely rely on what Dick said about Angel, but I do believe that there is the desire on Dick’s part that Angel was a new kind of character for the author that surpassed his earlier work on voice and characterization. Dick says of Angel that she is smarter, more rational, and more knowledgeable than himself. Angel was a character that Dick says he fell in love with and that he enjoyed her company. Angel could represent his dead sister Jane, but she could also represent himself and a love for the part of himself that he believed was missing via his lost dead sister. On the other hand, Bishop Archer, Angel’s father-in-law, could represent Dick’s voice in the novel. Bishop Archer was based on Dick’s friend Bishop Pike who died in the Middle Ease under similar circumstances to Archer, but Archer is directed by his textuality, his love of knowledge contained in books, and the authority invested in books. Archer is disconnected from the here-and-now, because he circles back to textual authority time and again. Angel is guilty of this, too, something she blames on her extensive college education and personal reading. It is this connection that allows Angel her ability to reflect on herself and the things that she realizes give her wisdom and the capacity to love others, particularly Archer, despite his own inability to reflect on his own without reliance on books. Dick, particularly in some of his realistic fiction from the 1950s, reveals his own indebtedness to books and intertextuality that was probably ahead of his agent’s ability or desire to promote for sale. Angel and Tim Archer could be two voices for Dick, each representing two ideals or two sides of his own psyche. Angel is the rational, adaptable, and wise, and Tim Archer is the imaginative yet restricted book-thinker. Further evidence for follows Tim Archer’s death when Angel decides that she cannot go any further. She has lost her husband, her best friend, and now Tim Archer. She becomes the android, a machine—recording and playback only without any feeling for the things that pass her play/record assembly. The one half of Dick’s voice is destroyed, which causes Angle, the other half, the devolve into the dreaded machine, incapable of being a fully realized human being any longer. She becomes like Kristin’s hebephrenic son Bill. However, Edgar Barefoot, the boat guru, gives her back her humanity as part of a deal. He gives her a rare LP, music, Romanticism, the soul, all of those things that revive Angel, and in return, she need only give back to another person—Bill. She regains her empathy and love, the kind of love for others that she lost when Tim Archer died. Furthermore, Angel’s development as a character and voice for Dick reveals not only a realized character, but one that changes over time in response to real life events. Dick’s earlier characters reacted to the ontological changes around them, but the characters generally did not change as a result of the process. They may go mad on one extreme, or carry on with their lives as best they can on the other. Angel’s progression as a character takes on more than a positive or negative change in relation to where she began. There are positive and negative changes that do not add up to the same point at which she began. The experiences of loss and the supposed transmigration of Tim Archer’s soul into Bill’s body have left an indelible mark on her. And it may be through Angel that we can see Dick, the author, finding his own true voice, discovering himself finally through a character that represents his most successful and believable female character in all of his novels.

In each of the VALIS trilogy novels, apocalypse is encountered by individuals on a small scale. Gone are the convenient out of frame wars in Dick’s earlier fictions that creates an inhospitable ontology for his characters to explore. Instead, the characters in the VALIS trilogy have smaller apocalypses in their own lives that mirror their personal salvations. In almost every story, Dick is concerned about individuals and how they deal with the ontology in which they find themselves. In these last novels, the same is true, but the individual is given a way out through the author’s Gnostic beliefs gained supposedly from his 2-3-74 experiences. Dick certainly has his fun in the personal apocalypses, especially in VALIS where the primary concern seems to be Kevin’s cat and not Phil’s dead friends. However, there is earnestness in the way Dick proposes and promotes Gnosticism that brings his stories back to a monologism that cannot be ignored. The author is very much alive in these stories, and perhaps he found some solace in that before the end.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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