Philip K Dick

My literary life, or I Blame Douglas Adams

It’s amazing what books influence your life. It might be nice to think some weighty literary tome (or some weighty non-fiction?) had the biggest impact, but if you’re anything like me (which may be a long shot) it’ll have been some light entertainment that you may even dismiss yourself. It just might take you a while to realise it.

Take the mug on my desk now (actually, don’t – I haven’t finished with it yet): it contains camomile and spearmint tea. A couple of years ago OneMonkey and I were both drinking it while reading novels by Philip K Dick, and we commented on how he loves to run words together, usually to make something sound modern and technologically advanced. We should call it camspear, we joked (yes, maybe we should get out more). And we did, and it stuck, and we still do.

Without intentionally ‘making a reference’, I have been known to attribute something unexplained to the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter – Robert Rankin novels have clearly permeated my being.

Mark the artist was talking to me recently about my writing, and I think he must have asked how long my novel Wasted Years is (81,000 words or thereabouts). There then followed a conversation about my early attempts at writing, aged about 16; So long and thanks for all the fish being the volume of the Hitch-hikers trilogy nearest my desk, and said trilogy being apparently my paragon of noveldom at the time, I did a rough wordcount of So long… and that was my target length (45-50,000 words if I remember correctly). Even for Wasted Years (started age 25, and not in the least bit ‘genre’) it was the point at which I hit that wordcount that I felt like I was writing a ‘proper’ novel, despite most fiction being much longer than that now.

For all my attempts at ‘serious’ writing and ‘mainstream’ (non-genre) writing, is it all down to Douglas Adams in the end? Maybe it’s about time I admitted that and started having more fun.

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N-Space, a Larry Niven collection

I couldn’t quite tell who this collection was aimed at. There’s a very long introduction with quotes and comments on Niven’s work by other writers, so much in fact that I wondered (knowing nothing about him) if this 1990 collection had been released as a retrospective on his death, but no – as far as I can ascertain he’s still out there writing. Then comes a long prologue from Niven himself which rambles entertainingly enough through anecdotes and background, but a lot of references are lost on the newcomer. These chatty introductions precede almost every story and excerpt in the book, giving background and insight for the fan. But if you’re already a fan, why would you want excerpts (several pages at a time) from 5 of his novels? And if you’re not a fan already why would you want to read 5 lengthy, out of context excerpts from the middle of his novels? I skipped those – I’d like to read more Larry Niven after this, and I didn’t want to stumble over any spoilers.

That still left 20-odd shorter pieces that are mostly well worth a read if you’ve often read Philip K Dick and longed for solid, nuanced characters and something closer to lyrical prose (not that that’s always lacking in PKD, but usually the plot comes first by a long way). I’ll mention a few of my favourites here:

All the Myriad Ways falls under the sub-genre that’s fast becoming my favourite: alternate history/alternative timeline crime. A series of inexplicable and apparently random crimes are giving Detective-Lieutenant Trimble a headache. He thinks solving them will make him feel better, but as the pieces slot into place he’s no longer so sure about that. Gripping, well-written, a neat idea and great style for the ending. This story had sparked off an idea of my own before I’d read more than a couple of pages (then I got worried that all I’d done was semi-predict how All the Myriad Ways would turn out, but it’s OK, it seems I’m not that smart).

For a Foggy Night is another multiple timeline story but with a completely different feel from All the Myriad Ways. Always thought fog was just water droplets in the air? Think again.

The Meddler apparently started life as a satire on the likes of Mickey Spillane. The result is a hard-boiled private eye trying to deal with a meddling alien who can’t quite bring himself to observe quietly from the sidelines. Interesting idea, fun to read but also thought-provoking.

The Fourth Profession was, in my opinion, one of the best examples of Niven’s well-drawn characters. A bartender, a travelling alien detached from his compatriots who are in diplomatic talks, pills that give knowledge or ‘train’ someone for a particular job, a potential international incident – those are the basic ingredients but of course there’s more to it than that. Well-judged detail and properly tense in the right places.

I’d just read Inconstant Moon when the recent solar flare was in the news, which added a slight thrill (and some shared graveyard humour with OneMonkey, who read this a while ago). What do you do when your scientific training lets you read all the signs that seem to point to the end of the world? What would you do if you thought this was it? And what difference might it make if you keep your head when all around you are losing theirs?

Night on Mispec Moor seems like a straight fantasy/horror story, but then comes the internal logic of the local science and all is rationally explained and dealt with.

Flare Time. The nuisance of travel writers, and the need for tourism in backwater planets. Wonderfully imagined and described flora and fauna; I was practically standing among it all.

Brenda was another story with some great character depth. I would say it’s about the passage of time, redemption, and how you shouldn’t condemn someone because of what they’re born into.

The Kiteman felt like a part of something bigger, and like many of Niven’s works it’s set in the same world as one (or more?) of his novels. The world felt solidly set-up and I want to revisit; the story itself focuses on a man (daring or mad, depending who you ask) who uses a system of kites to fly around outside the home-tree (and if necessary, between trees), and is teaching the skill to a few of the younger generation when their abilities are tested in a sudden emergency.

This book is a chronological, for the record, whole output catalogue, including essays, lists, outlines and a never-published prologue. If N-Space is in your local library or you see it going cheap, it’s worth picking up but other collections might give you more entertainment for your money if, like me, you don’t necessarily want to know where or when a story was written, who gave him the idea or how many false starts it took to complete it.

Dr Futurity by Philip K Dick

Much train travel in the last few days has meant a lot of reading time, and among other things I read PKD’s Dr Futurity (1960).

32-year-old doctor, Jim Parsons, sets off to work one morning in 2012 and finds himself and his car picked up and flung into the 25th century. Shaken but unhurt, he picks up his case of medical instruments and sets out to join whatever society he finds, confident that he will always be useful due to his training (glossing over the possibility that medical techniques and technology have changed beyond his ability). The society Jim finds takes survival of the fittest seriously, basing its selective breeding programme on something like the Olympic Games. With the average age as low as 15, Jim is not as welcome in mainstream society as he’d imagined. Linking up with some fringe groups, he becomes involved in a complicated pan-historical plot which makes him question his politics as well as his professional ethics.

The novel explores some heavy themes in its 152 pages: race and empire; attitudes to death, infirmity and age; beliefs and cultural norms; as well as fate, inevitability and free will in the context of time travel and its attendant paradoxes. The culture of the 25th century seems to have progressed in technology, regressed in at least some political spheres, and simply changed in terms of philosophies and beliefs; it seems that this culture is the same everywhere on earth, but the mechanism for this is never addressed (entirely overturning Judeo-Christian beliefs within 400 years?).

It’s implied that if Jim could be returned to his own time, and his wife, everything would be fine and he’d go on as before, but surely an experience like that would change a person? Tell anyone and you’d be branded a madman, keep it to yourself and it would eat away at you, you’d question your perspectives and attitudes, your priorities might change, and if you’d made friends or come to care for anyone you’d met in your travels, you’d miss them.

Dr Futurity was an enjoyable read and I think the time travel implications are mostly handled well but it does have its flaws (not least the unexplained readiness of a happily married and apparently quite moral man to cheat on his wife). Not a novel to be analysed too deeply, but a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours.

You may be interested in looking at what other people have said about the book, over at goodreads.

Eye in the Sky by Philip K Dick

Occasionally I wonder why I persist with Philip K Dick, then I read something of the standard of Eye in the Sky and I remember. Like many authors his quality’s not consistent, but when it’s good it leaves you feeling like you’ve experienced something, not just read the words on the pages. First published in 1957, Eye in the Sky does have some dated elements (the whole fear of Communism strand seems bizarre) but if you accept that it’s clearly from 50s America it’s an original and gripping novel that’s worth a read.

Electronic engineer Jack Hamilton and his wife Marsha are caught up in an accident at a new particle accelerator, together with a friend of theirs and five strangers including the tour guide who was showing them round (physics tourism!). When Jack wakes up in hospital something doesn’t feel right and he soon realises that the world no longer obeys the physical laws he’s used to, seemingly ruled by a capricious Old Testament style deity. He struggles to adjust to an incomprehensible world where all his skills and knowledge are of no use, but that’s just the beginning and together with the other seven victims Jack works his way through a series of trials and difficult situations.

One of my frequent PKD complaints is the hastily-sketched characters, passed over quickly so that the plot can happen. With Eye in the Sky the characters seem more substantial, and an interesting mix – though the boy who later is mentioned as about 11 comes across as much older throughout. The situations lead to shifting loyalties, suspicion and temporary alliances, and bring out different facets of the various characters. The pacing is good – it picks up speed as it progresses, and there are ambiguities and hints along the way.

Strictly speaking it’s probably more fantasy than science fiction (and even veers towards horror in places) but that hardly matters – it’s an entertaining read, and more importantly it makes you think (the mark of good sci-fi? Discuss…). If you’ve ever enjoyed anything by Philip K Dick I’d recommend this, and if you haven’t, you could do much worse than start here.

Beware of living in the moment

This weekend I’m reading a Doctor Who novel (why do I admit these things?), featuring the eighth doctor (my favourite one, sadly underappreciated) which is, as too many of the recent adventures are, set on Earth in the year it was released (in this case 2004). I would never expect a Doctor Who novel to be a literary classic, but the way the contemporary references are shoehorned in to this one is quite annoying. I was in Britain, in my mid-twenties, in 2004 and yet I still don’t get some of the references – TV programs I’ve heard of, but never seen (haven’t had a TV since March 2002, if I remember correctly), pop stars I know the name of but don’t know enough about to fill in the background.

In general I find this kind of writing lazy (that’s not to say I never do it myself); using a currently well-known person, song or film as a shorthand for some attitude you can’t be bothered to describe. Assume for a moment that the story in question isn’t a passing fad, and someone reads it in twenty years’ time – they might have heard of Damon Albarn or Jamie Oliver or David Beckham, but will they know there was anything more to them in the public perception than a pop singer, a chef or a footballer? I find this kind of thing crops up a lot in comic fantasy (or maybe I just read too much comic fantasy), and if it was written in 1985, well I remember 1985, but I remember it in terms of what I did at school, my burgundy corduroy jacket with the hood, and the terrified dog we adopted, not in terms of popular culture and world events, and a lot of the passing jokes pass me by.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s all about trying to look cool, sprinkling hints throughout the text that, despite the fact the author is a middle-aged man who writes lightly humorous fantasy novels for a living, he has an intimate knowledge of chart music, vacuous celebrities and late-night TV. How that counts for cool I’m not sure, but it would also partly explain the habit of sci-fi authors picking up on cutting-edge technology, destined to fade away within a few years, and extrapolating fifty years into the future with it. The first example that springs to mind is the Philip K Dick novel (sorry, can’t remember which one) written in the 50s and set around 2000, where owning a tape-recorder is the ultimate in cool; not only is it a tape-recorder, but it’s about as genuinely portable as the old 14-inch portable TVs that were anything but.

Which is one of the many reasons why I like Robert Rankin. Sort of comic fantasy, in the sense that it’s funny and not hugely realistic (or maybe it is, I’ve never been to Brentford to find out), but even when it’s set in 1997, the pub still closes for the afternoon, payments involve shillings more often than not, and his best loved characters are a pair of 1960s likely lads that could have had bit-parts in half a dozen classic British films. It’s so clearly not trying to stick to a particular time-frame that you forgive any anachronism he throws at you.

I’m hoping the non-specific setting might save a short story of mine which is doing the rounds at the moment. It’s what you might call (if you were into this sub-genre labelling lark) slipstream, but one of the actions that sets off the main chain of events is a character having a shower to cover up the fact that he’s been to the pub while his girlfriend was out at keep-fit. The only reason he needs a shower is the smoke, but I started writing the story a few weeks before the smoking ban for England was announced, and by the time I had a reasonable version ready to show anyone, the ban had been in force for a while. Without the shower, there is no story, and (I think) it flows naturally from the trip to the pub whereas any other situation would seem contrived. I don’t think there’s anything in it that ties the story down to any particular point between the mid-80s and 2007, but without anything definite to the contrary it makes sense to read it as though it’s happening now. With luck, an American magazine will pick it up, and unless they’re unusually immersed in British culture, the lack of smoke in pubs these days won’t be the first thing they’ll think of.

Stories Without Words

Yesterday I went to see a ballet of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities; I say this not as some kind of cultural oneupmanship, but because it set me thinking about the differences between stories and writing.

I don’t like Dickens, not that I’ve read much of his work, but every TV and radio adaptation I’ve encountered over the years has served to put me off even further – mawkish plots, stereotyped characters, unrealistic settings in an England that only ever existed in the author’s head. I went to the theatre having never read the book, with no idea of the plot, just a love of ballet, a fondness for heavily-brocaded eighteenth century coats and an interest in the French Revolution. It was an enjoyable couple of hours, and although various subtleties were lost on me (what was the significance of the scarf with the letter E embroidered on it, that several characters waved around with triumph or remorse?) I got the general gist. It didn’t make me want to read the book, however, partly because I now know how it ends, but partly because I’ve never taken to his style. And that’s what really got me thinking (don’t expect any conclusions, I’m just pondering in public).

Unlike my experience with Dickens, I took to Anthony Trollope’s style from the start, and have now happily worked my way through a good many of his novels, loving almost every page of them. However, most adaptations of the Barchester novels have left me cold – strip away the narrator’s asides, the satirical, topical references, and concentrate instead on the main plot which inevitably centres on a clergyman in a small town or country village, and his daughter/niece/ward who eventually marries a nice young chap after a hundred or so pages of complications, and it’s as bad as Dickens, and not something I’d want to spend time on. On the whole, I read Trollope for his writing style, the personality that shines through the prose, and not necessarily for the story itself (though He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now, and the Palliser novels for instance are light on clergy and strong on plot).

Philip K Dick on the other hand is pretty much the opposite: his plots are, on the whole, interesting and original, though often his characters are weak and his prose style uninspiring. Like Trollope, he’s another prolific writer whose canon I’m slowly working my way through, but in this case I’m definitely reading for the story; if the plot hasn’t gripped me in the first few pages, there’s nothing in the way it’s written that will keep me reading, and I give up.

There are authors whose novels I’ll read even if the story’s nothing special, and authors whose plots keep me hooked even though the prose is almost clunky in places, but these days I’m a lot less tolerant of badly written books with rubbish plots. A few years ago someone gave me The Da Vinci Code, and I persevered to the end, optimistically expecting it to pick up at some point, but I think if I came to it for the first time now, it’d be in the charity shop bag before the end of chapter 1.