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"Time Out of Joint" by Philip K Dick (1959)

In the movie The Truman Show there's a scene where Truman, the unsuspecting subject of a living TV show, witnesses a Klieg light falling from the "sky", smashing onto the street. It's a surprising scene, even for someone who has seen the movie. That scene, however, also has to pay its respects to Philip Dick's "Time Out of Joint," a book that was written nearly forty years earlier with a scene even more chilling and amusing.

It's a beautiful day in 1957. Ragle Gumm is having a picnic beside the public swimming pool at the park with his neighbor's wife, a "trollopy, giggly ex-highschool girl who's married to an eager-beaver type." They hang out at the pool and talk, then Ragle decides to trudge up the hill to the soft drink stand to get a Coke. He waits in line while some kids get their ice cream, and then steps up to order.

Ragle laid down his fifty-cent piece on the counter.
"Got any beer? He said. His voice sounded funny. Thin and remote. The counter man in white apron and cap stared at him, stared and did not move..The fifty-cent piece fell away, down through the wood, sinking. It vanished...The soft-drink stand fell into bits...In its place was a slip of paper. He reached out his hand and took hold of the slip of paper. On it was printing, block letters. "Soft-Drink Stand."

It turns out that this isn't Ragle's first experience with this problem. He has a collection of other scraps of paper, "Factory Building", "Bowl of Flowers." These slips of reality are so valuable to Ragle that when his nephew finds a couple more in a hole in a vacant lot, he offers to buy them from the boy. He has also been hearing the engines of distant jet planes when there aren't any, and the little crystal radio in the fort in the back yard picks up people talking about him, Ragle Gumm.

One possible reason people might be talking about his is his modest level of fame. On a daily basis Ragle submits his entry for the game in the newspaper called Where-Will-The-Little-Green-Man-Be-Next? He's succesful enough that he's the Grand All-Time Winner, national champion for two straight years.
"For each day's contest the newspaper presented a series of clues, and these always got read by him as a preliminary to the task of solving the problem itself. The problem, of course, was to select the proper square from the 1,208 in the form. The clues did not give any help, but he assumed that in some peripheral fashion they contained data, and he memorized them as a matter of habit, hoping that their message would reach him subliminally -- since it never did literally."

But the episodes with physical objects suddenly dissolving into words can't be explained by his celebrity.

Instead, slowly, Ragle Gumm learns that many people around him in the world know something that he doesn't. Like in the Truman Show, it's the opposite of secret knowledge - - a vast conspiracy to keep him uninformed. Instead of living in 1957, he finds artifacts, strange magazines from 1997. Once Ragle is convinced that there's something wrong with the world, he and his brother-in-law attempt to leave town, but just like in "The Cosmic Puppets," a series of everyday, but strangely sinister events conspire to keep the two men from escaping.

"Time Out of Joint" is one of my favorite PKD novels. Written within the first decade of Dick's career, it has all the elements you'll find revisited in later novels: paranoia, apocalyptic worlds, shifting realities, false leaders and even time travel. The time travel is more metaphoric than actual, but the novel does an excellent job easing you into a comfortable suburb of the 1950s and then slowly tearing away the wallpaper to discover a disturbing reality. The characters seem more natural than in some of Dick's other books (where they tend to lecture or jump to odd conclusions).

At this point, I'll disclose a major plot point, so this is a logical place to stop if you haven't yet read the book.

Ragle eventually escapes, only to learn that the year is 1998 and he has been living in a manufactured environment called "One Happy World." He is a world-famous weapons tycoon, but he has become psychotic under the strain of a solar civil war. Colonists on the Moon want to become independent from Earth, and although Earth has all the resources, the colonists have the advantage when sending down the bombs. Ragle was helping to defend the Earth, but in his insanity he retreated to the safer world of his childhood. The other townspeople were either hypnotized into believing the delusion, or were willing agents of the government. The fictional newspaper game was really a construct provided by the Terran government to engage Ragle in defending against the bombs. The book ends with Ragle Gumm resolving to support the separatists, while his fictional brother-in-law sides with the Terrans.

The paranoia in the game "Find the Little Green Man" still translates to today. I could easily see someone thinking that "Angry Birds" is a secret attempt to crowdsource prediction of the next terrorist attack.

In later books Dick often mentions the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, a sort of oracle for answers and introspection.  In this case, I have to wonder if some of the names and phrases for the newspaper game were chosen by Dick using the I Ching. For example, one clue is "A swallow is as great as a mile." Also the names, "Lucky Penny Grocery," "One Happy World."

If you've never read PKD, then start with "Time Out of Joint"

From the back cover of the Dell 1979 edition:
The Bum. Ragle Gumm had it easy, living with relatives and making enough to get by on just by doing newspaper puzzles -- and winning all the time. He had to admit he was essentially a bum...but a happy one.
But then...a refreshment stand disappeared in front of his eyes and a slip of paper inscribed SOFT DRINK STAND fluttered down...messages about him came in on his nephew’s crystal set...and a tattered old magazine he found featured things he knew had never existed -- such as a supposedly famous actress named Marilyn Monroe...
Ragle Gumm knew that either he was going mad... or the universe was.
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