1/20/13

The Crack in Space by Philip K Dick (1966)

“The Crack in Space” is set in the year 2080, where Jim Briskin is campaigning to become the nation's first black president. Overpopulation is so bad that many elect to become bibs, people who are put into suspended animation and stored in government warehouses because they have no future in the current economic and political climate. For the most part these people are Cols: the poor Mexicans, Negroes and Puerto Ricans of the US.

In other news, Dr. Lurton Sands, a famous organ transplant surgeon, is involved in a sensational divorce suit with his equally famous wife Myra, an abortion consultant. As part of the scandal it is discovered that Dr. Sands has a mistress and he has hidden her somewhere that no one can discover. The bigger mystery is why did he hide her?

Coincidentally, the Pethel Jifi-scuttler Repair Company has been tasked with repairing Dr. Sands’ Jifi-scuttler, but the repairman discovers a flaw in it that leads, not to somewhere else on the Earth, but through a crack in space to an undiscovered planet, a veritable Eden.

This novel is a combination detective story, political thriller, and straight science fiction, overlaid on a framework of social commentary and humor. The story poses questions of civil rights, moral legislation, and even challenges Manifest Destiny. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is contrasting Dick’s vision of the future with what has actually transpired.

For example, the references to abortions as legal birth control are speculation for Dick, but less than ten years later Roe v Wade (1973) protected the rights of women to abortions. Also, in 1960 the world population was approximately 3 billion people. We are over twice that number now at 7 billion, and the estimate for 2080 is 14 billion. The novel says that there are 70 million "bibs" in hibernation, but that would only work out to a half a percent of the total world’s population, not nearly enough to cause an economic collapse. And in terms of the first black president of the US? Well, today Barack Obama took the presidential oath for his second term, using the same Lincoln Bible as in 2009 when he made history as the first African-American president.

We have to recognize, however, that when Dick wrote “The Crack in Space,” the civil rights movement of the 60’s had gathered steam, but had not yet come to its peak. So, it’s admirable to see in many of Dick’s works his attempts to raise awareness of civil rights. For example, in Dr. Bloodmoney, Dick made one of the main characters, Stuart McConchie, a black man.
“In 1964, when I wrote Dr. Bloodmoney, it was daring to have a major character be a black man. My God, how much change has taken place in these recent years! But what an excellent change, one we can be proud of. In my first novel, Solar Lottery, I had a black man as captain of a spaceship -- daring indeed for a novel published in 1955. Stuart is in my opinion the focus of the novel, and he appears first...I am, so to speak, Stuart McConchie, and at one time I was a TV salesman at a store on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.”

Yet, for all his awareness, Dick’s efforts at portraying black characters in his novels were often clumsy and even embarrassing. For example, consider the character of Bill Laws in “Eye in the Sky.” He’s described as a Negro tour guide with a Physics PhD, but it’s explained that he can’t get a good job, ostensibly because he’s black. Then, as they fall into the solipsistic world of Arthur Silvester, Laws is forced to shuffle and say things like “sho’ ‘nuff!” Later, in Edith Pritchett’s world he is placed in charge of a perfumed soap company which he defends, but doesn’t seem believe in. Although these odd changes are due to the worlds they inhabit, Bill Laws’ character seems more affected by this immersion than does his counterpart Jack Hamilton, the white hero.

Other works by Dick also deal unevenly with race. In “The Penultimate Truth,” David Lantano is first portrayed as burned black by radiation, then as an actual black man, until he’s finally revealed to be a native Cherokee who has survived since the pre-Columbian past. His native tribes in “Dr. Futurity” are superficial, providing a rough backdrop for the story. Less clumsy is his handling of civil rights in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” where androids are the blacks of the future.

Making Jim Briskin black in “The Crack in Space” is an interesting way for Dick to contrast two themes in the story. The first is a way to discuss the underclass, the poor minorities who literally have no future, suspended in government warehouses until the world changes without them. Then, when the portal is found to the other planet and when it’s found to be populated with Neanderthals, this is a chance for us to recognize that race is not so much an issue when compared with another species.

Reading the book, I can see that race relations have moved forward a lot since the ‘60s. Early in the novel a character scans the ‘paper and sees a major headline on the front page: “Effects on the Nation’s Business Community of a Negro President.” Just the use of the word “Negro” seems old-fashioned. But in some ways this was the covert message against Obama in 2008, that a black man would be bad for business.  Despite these veiled threats, it's evident that the country was ready to accept a black president.

This is also something that Dick considers, that the population growth of minorities is enough to sway the voting populace so that a black man can campaign to be president. A character considers the headline and thinks “it was inevitable. Sooner or later, there would be a Negro president; after all, since the Event of 1993 there had been more Cols than Caucs.” This was meant to shock us, but as the elections of 2008 and 2012 have shown, minority voters were important to Obama’s win.

Unfortunately, race relations aren’t a solid line that can be moved forward or backward. This weekend is also Martin Luther King, Jr. day. In 1968, two years after “Crack in Space” was published, Dr. King was assassinated by James Earl Ray. This event galvanized the US, and caused Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which prevents discrimination when selling or renting a house. Parts of the line had been moved forward, but at a great loss.

Bottom line, “The Crack in Space” is a jumbled mass of ideas, assembled from several short stories and novellas, creating an interesting novel that doesn’t always hold together, but Dick’s style and themes propel the story forward enough to keep it interesting.

From the blurb on back of the 2008 First Vintage Books edition:
In “The Crack in Space,” a repairman discovers that a hole in a faulty Jifi-scuttler leads to a parallel world. Jim Briskin, campaigning to be the first black president of the United States, thinks alter-Earth is the solution to the chronic overpopulation that has seventy million people cryogenically frozen; Tito Cravelli, a shadowy private detective, wants to know why Dr. Lurton Sands is hiding his mistress there; billionaire mutant George Walt wants to make the empty world all his own. But when the other earth turns out to be inhabited, everything changes.
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