July 2007

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

The Influence of Anxiety

Philip K. Dick is probably most widely known today as the source of a seemingly inexhaustible fund of ideas for Hollywood. His work has been plundered by the cinema more than just about any other contemporary author, with results ranging from the good to the frankly appalling. What is perhaps less widely known is that, before he embarked on the novels that would make us question the nature of reality and doubt what our senses told us, he tried without any success to be a realist novelist.

Since his death in 1982 all of these mainstream novels (at least all those whose manuscripts survived) have crept out into print in one form or another. Now the last of them, and one of the earliest written, has appeared from Tor, Voices from the Street.

I confess I am one of those strange people who likes Dick’s mainstream fiction; indeed, there’s some I prefer to a lot of his science fiction. I would recommend Mary and the Giant, for instance, or The Broken Bubble -- not the most highly rated by some critics, but they work for me. Voices from the Street is not quite in that class. From internal evidence I would guess it was written around 1952, which makes it the second oldest of all his novels. Only Gather Yourselves Together, which crept out from a small press a few years ago, was written earlier, probably in the late '40s. Gather Yourselves Together is pretty bad, the work of someone who still had an awful lot to learn about the basics of writing. But Voices from the Street at least shows some of the traits that would become recognizable as typical of Dick’s work.

It is set in a small town outside San Francisco in 1952, the sort of district that would later be instantly identifiable as Dick terrain. If you don’t believe me, try reading one of his SF novels, Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970), and see if you can pretend it is not really set in 1950s California. Voices from the Street opens with a description of Jim Fergesson arriving for work at the TV shop he owns, a description full of the precise observation, the small details, that make all his work so vivid. We see the black street sweeper, the secretaries outside the loan company (“Coffee cups, high heels, perfume and earrings and pink sweaters, coats tossed over sharp shoulders”), the debris that has blown into the doorway of his shop, and the Health Food store where he buys his own coffee. This is the milieu Dick would always inhabit. Fergesson owns a TV shop. This is the beginning of the 1950s in America: if anything symbolizes the future it is television. Yet right from the beginning the shop and everything in it is presented as old and dying: “Here no life existed. He squinted and spat away the first stale breath that hung inside the shop. In the rear the ghostly blue of the night-light rose like marsh gas over a decaying bog.” There is, in other words, life all around but no future.

Because this is a novel beset with anxiety. Looking back it is strange to imagine -- this was the height of the American Century. Consumerism was bursting out all over and American culture, disseminated through that box that Fergesson and his staff sell in so desultory a fashion, was about to take over the world. But at the time America, at least according to its chronicler Philip K. Dick, was a very frightened place. There is barely a conversation in the entire novel that does not, at some point, come around to the Korean War. Awareness of the bomb is everywhere, and if this novel is any guide it was more frightening to the possessors of the bomb than it was to anyone else. There is fear also of Negroes, Nazis, trades unions, and Communists (though McCarthyism, curiously enough, does not get a mention).

When you see the sea of dread through which Dick’s characters move at this time, you begin to understand the fear of reality manifested throughout his later science fiction. There is no safe place because everyone and everything is a potential threat. His protagonist in this novel, Stuart Hadley, feels increasingly trapped. What hope is there for him, or for the baby his wife is expecting? In the end, as so many of Dick’s protagonists do, he cuts himself loose from reality, in this instance through drink rather than through drugs. The almighty bender, impressionistically described -- blurry, shifting in and out of focus -- is the high point of the novel. When he comes out of this fugue, damaged and out of work, it proves to have been redemptive. In strictly critical terms it’s not very good; the bravura drunk scenes come after far too much of nothing really happening, and the happy-ever-after ending feels tacked on and unconvincing. But you know what he means, and you can see the pattern that would develop through so much else he would write.

And there is one small scene I want to draw attention to. In his restless wanderings in search of some salvation from the anxiety of his times, Stuart Hadley goes to a black fundamentalist preacher. In time the preacher will prove as unsatisfying as anyone else; in private we see him as a tired old man hungry for money and associated with a fascist organization. But the first time, when Hadley sees him preach, he is fire and life and everything else we have come to expect from America’s tradition of showmanship and fundamentalism. Yet, for all his hellfire and damnation, Theodore Beckheim is carefully and rigorously rational in everything he says. His talk about creation, about the role of God, is filled with reference to contemporary scientific knowledge. Indeed he could almost be said to take his text from cosmologists rather than from the Bible.

Two things struck me very forcefully when I was reading this scene. I cannot imagine anyone now would seriously present a fundamentalist preacher denying the literal truth of the Bible: “Among the other nonsense, they believed that when a natural law was suspended, God was revealed. Now we know that suspension of a natural law would be a denial of God.” Probably even in the 1950s it would have seemed odd. But this was not an author presenting a genuine revivalist meeting. It is a science fiction writer of the old school -- one, if you will, who believes in the literal truth of science, presenting something that makes sense to him. Out of the anxiety of the world around him, here was someone seeking a comforting certainty in the laws of science rather than the laws of God.

The second thing that struck me was that even a science fiction writer today would be unlikely to seek such certainty. We no longer believe in the literal truth of science, or rather, we find it as irrational as the demagoguery of a fundamentalist preacher. Even science fiction, that most rationalist of literatures, is now more about belief than knowledge. It is the science fiction that Philip K. Dick went on to create, a science fiction in which any reality may be equally true and false. Writers like Greg Egan and Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross are the natural children of Dick, with their transhuman futures, their computer simulations of life and the universe where our environment and our very natures can be whatever we imagine them to be and can change at the speed of thought. It is an irrationalist literature because when even death can be transformed back into life nothing needs to be coherent and consistent; there is no such thing as a rational comprehension of the world.

It is the science fiction that Philip K. Dick created, but one cannot help but wonder where he would turn to now to escape the anxieties that assailed him.