The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962)

Reading a novel is like directing a film in your head. Each scene is visualized, and of course those images are influenced by previous things you’ve seen and read. The first time I’d read Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” was shortly after finishing Norman Spinrad’s "The Iron Dream." Spinrad’s book was another novel-within-a-novel, showing a leather-clad biker version of Hitler on the cover and a blurb of "Adolf Hitler's classic bestseller of future genetic warfare." This image, plus numerous black and white WWII documentaries on TV probably altered my impressions of the “The Man in the High Castle”, adding weight to the Nazi portion of the story. This time, however, I pictured TMITHC in the same sepia tones as Spielberg’s direction of “Empire of the Sun,” except updated slightly for the year 1963.

The novel asks the question: What if the Axis had won World War II? In that world Joe Zangara succeeded in his assassination attempt on FDR and the US stayed out of the conflict for too long.  The result is Europe falling to the Nazis, opening the door open to an Axis conquest of the world. Fifteen years later the US is divided with the Pacific Coast states under Japanese rule, and the East Coast under Germany, while border states like Colorado and Wyoming fall into a gray area.

As the novel begins, the Nazi Führer Bormann dies, initiating an internal power struggle between Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring and others who wish to succeed him as Reichskanzler. This event creates ripples across the world. The story weaves together several loosely connected characters who bounce around on those ripples. All but two of the fifteen chapters are broken into sections, usually so that the action can move from one character to another.

There are three main paths paths of characters, loosely intertwined but strongly interdependent. Frank Frink, an ironsmith in San Francisco, loses his temper and is fired, and subsequently tries to start a new business making modern-American jewelry. Frink, a Jew in hiding from the Nazis, has the skills -- he previously created fake antique pistols as a side-job for his employer -- but doesn’t know how to market this new jewelry to the Japanese, who are the only customers with money. His main market is through R. Childan’s antique store where his forged guns were also sold. Robert Childan is an antiques dealer who specializes in selling pre-war Americana to young upwardly mobile Japanese, and is especially distraught when he learns from a mysterious customer that much of his inventory may be fakes.

The second path is a tale of intrigue. Martin Baynes is a secret agent representing the more moderate arm of the Nazi party who has come to San Francisco with an urgent message for a representative of the Japanese government. He works through the office of Nobusuke Tagomi, a ranking minister of the San Francisco Japanese Trade office who often purchases antiques from Childan as gifts.

And the final path is that of Frink's ex-wife Juliana Frink who meets an Italian ex-military turned truck driver and decides to ride with him to visit Denver. On the way they discuss Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” a science-fiction novel portraying the alternate world if the Allies had won World War II, and they ultimately decide to pay him a visit at his house in Wyoming.

Many of the characters are pretending to be something else. While each appears as one thing: a Gentile, a Swedish businessman, a truck driver, an honest salesperson, or an elderly tourist, reality almost always brings treachery. Even Childan has pretended to be subservient to the Japanese for so long that he doesn't realize he has given up. He has been false for so long that he thinks it is true, just like the antiques in Childan's shop are replicas of authentic pieces, yet still have the authentic craftsmanship.

This is Dick’s ninth published novel, but he seems to pull out all the stops in this one to explore the multiple ways of false reality. The most literal take on this theme are the fake and forged antiques found in Childan’s shop. A couple years later, in “Now Wait For Last Year,” Dick creates a character that’s an expert in pre-WWII Americana who’s hired to purchase authentic antiques by a millionaire who wants to recreate his childhood. In MITHC there are two key passages discussing fakes and forgeries. The first is when the stranger visits Childan’s store.

Laying down a leather and felt box he said, "Here is exceptional Colt .44 of 1860." He opened the box. "Black powder and ball. This issued to U. S. Army Boys in blue carried these into for instance Second Bull Run."
For a considerable time the man examined the Colt .44. Then, lifting his eyes, he said calmly, "Sir, this is an imitation."

"Eh?" Childan said, not comprehending.

"This piece is no older than six months. Sir, your offering is a fake. I am cast into gloom. But see. The wood here. Artificially aged by an acid chemical. What a shame." He laid the gun down.

Childan picked the gun up and stood holding it between his hands. He could think of nothing to say. Turning the gun over and over, he at last said, "It can't be."

"An imitation of the authentic historic gun. Nothing more. I am afraid, sir, you have been deceived. Perhaps by some unscrupulous churl. You must report this to the San Francisco police." The man bowed. "It grieves me. You may have other imitations, too, in your shop. Is it possible, sir, that you, the owner, dealer, in such items, cannot distinguish the forgeries from the real?"
The second, however, calls into question whether it matters if the item is true or false.
"Well, I'll tell you," he said. "This whole damn historicity business is nonsense. Those Japs are bats. I'll prove it." Getting up, he hurried into his study, returned at once with two cigarette lighters which he set down on the coffee table. "Look at these. Look the same, don't they? Well, listen. One has historicity in it." He grinned at her. "Pick them up. Go ahead. One's worth, oh, maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collectors' market."

The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.

"Don't you feel it?" he kidded her. "The historicity?"

She said, "What is ‘historicity'?"

"When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?" He nudged her. "You can't. You can't tell which is which. There's no ‘mystical plasmic presence,' no ‘aura' around it."

"Gee," the girl said, awed. "Is that really true? That he had one of those on him that day?"

"Sure. And I know which it is.
Of course he only knows which is the one with “historicity” because it has a scratch on one side. Other than that, the two lighters are equal. Dick even seems to twist reality again when Tagomi uses a forged antique gun to fight off some attackers. In the end, does it matter if the gun is authentic as long as it can shoot?

Another way that Dick plays with reality is through false identities. The best example of this in Dick’s writing is in “A Scanner Darkly” where the lead character wears a scramble suit that hides his identity even to his employers. Through a strange twist of fate, he’s assigned to investigate himself because he has been acting suspiciously. In MITHC the scenario isn’t as extreme, but there’s a strong undercurrent of self-deception in many of the characters.

Robert Childan is living a lie by thinking he can sell pieces of America to the Japanese invaders and make a living. He discovers his pieces are fake, so what is he selling? Is it America, or the idea of America? As we see in the dinner scene the young Japanese couple don’t respect him when he acts subservient to them, and this is because they want the idea of America -- not someone who’s trying to imitate the Japanese manner. But, later, they don’t understand him either when he decides to be true to his American heritage and begins selling modern American jewelry. Among all the characters, I think the two who grow the most are Tagomi, who sees the world of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, and Childan, who decides to take a chance on an idea and an innovation. I guess that’s what Dick must have considered the best of the American Dream.

Martin Baynes is deceptive on purpose. He’s a spy, bringing an urgent message. But even then he’s not very covert. Nearly everyone he encounters, from the passenger on the rocket from Sweden, to Tagomi in the San Francisco office, to the local Nazi police, recognizes him as a spy. By the time he delivers his message no one considers him to be a Swedish businessman. Unfortunately, Baynes only has one level: his secret message. Once that has been delivered he loses most of his depth. He assists in a shootout, and then fades off.

Hawthorne Abendsen, the so-called “Man in the High Castle,” is an interesting character, but we don’t see much of him until the end. When we finally see his house we learn that he doesn’t live in a castle any more, so that’s a lie. Also, his story is a fiction in three ways: 1) It’s a novel in a novel, but 2) we, the readers, know there is no actual complete book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, and 3) Abensen believes his book is fiction, but when they consult the I Ching it says that it’s reality. So, Dick has set up a sort of ping pong game of realities.

Aside from the themes, TMITHC is science fiction, so Dick literally plays with reality in the scope of the book, but does it with tact. In the novel Joe Zangara succeeded in his attempt to assassinate FDR, but the premise of "Grasshopper" is that he failed, just like he did in our world. In the novel “Grasshopper” provides some sort of hope for the people of the US. This hope sparks Frink’s dream to create modern American art, which comes to infect Childan as well. They stop looking to the past, and look to the future, and at this point the Tagomi sees the break in the world.

TMITHC also showcases two of Dick’s recurring topics. He seems to be infatuated with re-fighting and reimagining World War II. Many of his books include the remnants of Nazi Germany and German characters such as Krupp und Sohne or Dr. Blutgeld. In this book the Nazis here are occasionally stereotyped, shown as being insane, racially interbred, obsessive compulsive, but I think he’s trying to understand how they came to power. He revisits this idea in “The Simulacra”, “The Unteleported Man”, “Dr. Bloodmoney” and other books. I see Dick’s infatuation with the Nazis, particularly Adolf Hitler, to be hand in hand with returning to the theme of a cult leader such as Jones, Der Alte, or Yancy in “The Penultimate Truth.”

And the I Ching plays a large part in this story. It used by many of the characters including Tagomi and Frank Frink, but in a foreword Dick says he consulted it many times when creating the story itself. I’ve wondered in other reviews whether Dick used the I Ching to create names, such as “Pretty Blue Fox” or “Green Peach Hat”.

So, would TMITHC would make a good movie? As it stands, I’d have to say, not really. The story doesn't easily translate to a studio blockbuster, but more like a Robert Altman film. But it makes an excellent novel. The plot and characters go hand in hand, like a tablecloth draped over a table, or a shroud over a face.

My opinion on Dick’s conclusion is that even if the Axis had won WWII, it would not have ended the war. It would have continued, on a smaller scale. The American urge to create and recreate itself would fight against any totalitarian or fascist state. The creativity put into the jewelry by Frink and McCarthy is described by Paul Kasouras as “wu.” It’s this wu which briefly transports Tagomi to the alternate San Francisco where the Allies defeated Germany and Japan. Through the piece of jewelry he is shown that possibility, a world which isn’t better for him, but impresses on him the power of the American Dream and of the American people.


Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K Dick (1974)

I used to think Gary Numan’s song “Listen To The Sirens” was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.” What I didn’t know, in those pre-internet days, was that both were based on an early English song from 1600 by a lutist named John Dowland. The song is called a lachrymae, literally translated as "tears," probably because of the falling melody, dropping down in tone like tears falling. Gary Numan’s song is less subtle but still full of angst with a hint of sadness. And Dick’s story is of course a sad, bewildering one: a man mourns the loss of his own life, even as he stays alive.

“Flow My Tears” is essentially “It’s a Wonderful Life” except that instead of the main character wishing he had never existed, someone else has wished it upon him. Jason Taverner is the man without a life. One day he’s a world-famous crooner with a Tuesday night TV talk show, a starlet girlfriend, and mansions in LA and Zurich. The next he wakes up in a flophouse in a sketchy area of town without anything, even fame or identity. No one seems to recognize his face, his music is absent from the jukebox, and even his girlfriend thinks he’s an obnoxious fanboy. When he checks the national police database his name is strangely missing. His only resources are the $5,000 he had sewn into the lining of his suit, and his genetic heritage: he is a six - the result of an experiment in genetic engineering which caused him to be born with good looks, charisma, and a body that ages more slowly. The government has been a police state since the student uprisings, so Taverner needs all of his skills and luck to travel even a few blocks without encountering a checkpoint, let alone staying free long enough to unravel the mystery of his disappearance.

Taverner succeeds for a while, meeting Kathy who is an identity forger and stool pigeon who psychotically believes that the police are forcing her to fink by holding her boyfriend in a gulag in Alaska (he actually died in a car accident). Kathy also has a mental problem where she imagines people to be celebrities and she often imagines these celebrities are stalking her. At first I read this as one of Dick’s normal blind alleys, but in this novel he manages to tie this idea back into the main plot.

Eventually, however, Taverner gets the attention of the police, and is hauled in to the station where he meets Felix Buckman, the Director of Police for most of the US. We learn that Buckman is married to his own sister Alys, a tall, wild woman dressed in leather pants and gold chains and addicted to drugs and sex, although it is not generally known that their relationship is other than husband and wife. Buckman investigates Taverner’s existence with suspicion, but decides to release Taverner after surreptitiously placing trackers and a small self-destruct device on him. Taverner is immediately picked up by Alys, and at this point he and the reader begin to uncover clues explaining his sudden anonymity.

Given that the two previously published novels by Dick, “We Can Build You” and “Our Friends From Frolix 8,” were such wrecks, it’s a surprising delight to read “Flow My Tears.” The tone and style of this novel is somewhat of a departure for Dick. In some ways it harkens back to “The Man in the High Castle” where Dick wrote a mature novel set in a science-fiction framework. But he also seems to have nearly mastered the habit of putting dreams and intuitive events into the novel without derailing the plot. I sawy "nearly" because there are still elements of this. For example, the part where Felix Buckman dreams that Jason Taverner has been killed was pulled from a vivid dream:

“In the writing of Flow My Tears, back in 1970, there was one unusual event which I realized at the time was not ordinary, was not a part of the regular writing process. I had a dream one night, an especially vivid dream. And when I awoke I found myself under the compulsion—the absolute necessity—of getting the dream into the text of the novel precisely as I had dreamed it. In getting the dream exactly right, I had to do eleven drafts of the final part of the manuscript, until I was satisfied. “

Additionally, the odd sequence at the end, where Buckman meets a man at a gas station and hugs him, has the feeling of more intuition than logic. In his essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later” Dick attempts to explain that this passage is part of his anamnesis, his “loss of forgetfulness” that means he’s channeling the truth into his novel. Fortunately, in “Flow My Tears” these passages don’t detract from the plot or the characters, and they even add slightly to the surreality of the story.

When the police are trying to determine Taverner’s true identity they give him a test. To me the test feels similar to the Voigt-Kampff tests in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”
After the recording of the footprint he spoke the sentence, "Down goes the right hut and ate a put object beside his horse." That took care of the voiceprint. After that, again seated, he allowed terminals to be placed here and there on his head; the machine cranked out three feet of scribbled-on paper, and that was that. That was the electrocardiogram. It ended the tests.
I wondered if the sentence was a from an actual psychological test, but I couldn’t find any references to it.

Dick has a running theme of crowded, oppressive apartment buildings. In “Flow My Tears,” however, Taverner is brought to Felix and Alys’s wonderful, spacious mansion. They have filled the house with collections of all sorts of interesting nick-knacks like rare stamps, coins, bondage cartoons and pornographic snuffboxes. Alys and Felix are like Virgil Ackerman in “Now Wait for Last Year,” collecting bits of esoteric ephemera in order to build a solid world around them. I have to wonder, does PKD scorn the empty, expansive mansion, seeing it like AM-WEB in “Martian Time-Slip” as a place of death? But, I also gather from his books that he seems to like collecting these bits of esoteric information, so he, too, is a collector. I wonder if he’d find it ironic that collectors are now paying more for first edition copies of books that he wrote, than he was paid to originally write them?

So far I’ve written reviews of nearly thirty PKD books without using the word solipsism. It’s a word from the blurb on the back of my DAW paperback. The definition is “the theory or view that the self is the only reality.” Other reviewers have called many of PKD’s books solipsistic. In “Flow My Tears” he uses science fiction once again to effectively ask these questions: What is life before you? After you? Without you? Everyone is the star of their own world, their own narrative, but Dick brings this idea to the forefront by creating a character who’s a major celebrity, and then bringing him to complete anonymity. The result is a fascinating novel, and an intriguing exploration of Dick’s personal philosophy of solipsism.

From the 1974 DAW paperback edition:
Jason Taverner woke up one morning to find himself completely unknown. The night before he had been the top-rated television star with millions of devoted watchers. The next day he was just an unidentified walking object, whose face nobody recognized, of whom no one had heard, and without the I.D. papers required in that near future.
When he finally found a man who would agree to counterfeiting such cards for him, that man turned out to be a police informer. And then Taverner found out not only what it was like to be a nobody but also to be hunted by the whole apparatus of society.
It was obvious that in some way Taverner had become the pea in some sort of cosmic shell game -- but how? And why?
Philip K Dick takes the reader on a walking tour of solipsism’s scariest margin in his latest novel about the age we are already half into.


Our Friends from Frolix 8 by Philip K Dick (1970)

In the year 2085 the human race began to mutate and some people developed advanced brains, while others gained psionic powers such as psychokinesis and telepathy. When the story begins, in approximately 2208, the New Men and the Unusuals are the ruling powers in government, while the regular Old Men make do as best they can in a world slanted against them.

Ten years ago the greatest of the Old Men, Thors Provoni, stole a prototype starship and left to find help for the Old Men. In his absence, a counter-culture based on the writings of Eric Cordon has existed as the only daily hope for the Old Men. The government has made possession of Cordonite literature illegal, but Old Men still print, distribute and read the books.

The situation is relatively stable, with a detente between the New Men and Unusuals ruling the world, to the detriment of the regulars. The civil service tests are rigged to keep this Apartheid state. Then, a message from Provoni is received, telling the old men that he's brought help from outside the solar system.

The first time I saw "Our Friends from Frolix 8" was when my sister brought it home from the library. Because of the cartoonish cover she thought it was a kid’s book, but I think she gave up reading it after a couple chapters. I was in high school, and thought I’d give it a go. I can’t remember for sure, but “Our Friends” may have been the first Philip K Dick novel that I had ever read. Unfortunately, it was a forgetful first meetings: it was neither a kids' book nor particularly memorable science fiction.

On re-reading it with a more experienced eye, I thought some parts were interesting, but "Our Friends" is probably one of the weakest of Dick's novels.

The story follows three main characters. Nick Appleton is a regular who works as a tire regroover, but hopes that his son Bobby will be tested and classified as a New Man. Then, there’s Willis Gram, the council chairman of Earth. He’s a telepath who has been the ruler of Earth for the past two decades or more. And the third viewpoint is from Thors Provoni as he travels back to Earth with one of the “Friends from Frolix 8.”

As usual, Dick provides dozens of ideas for the novel, but not all of them resolve. After drinking a beer (alcohol having been banned by the Gram government) the humble tire regroover Nick Appleton falls in with a crowd of Cordoni supporters known as Undermen. He meets a sixteen year-old girl named Charley, a feisty black marketer of revolutionary propaganda with whom he becomes infatuated. The government computers identify Nick Appleton as the bellwether citizen -- whichever way he goes is the way of the populace. So, the government is watching Nick when the news of Cordoni’s death spurs him to take action and leave his wife.

In a very clumsy way, Nick Appleton is the hero of many of PKD’s novels: an average guy who has been chosen by a higher power. Similarly, many of these guys are divorcing, or have just divorced their wives. But instead of a fully fleshed out character Nick Appleton feels like the outline from a Dick novel.

The ruler of Earth, Willis Gram, is a man that you love to hate, and probably the most interesting character in the book. He reads voraciously, spends most of his time in bed, and chooses political prisoners as his sex slaves, after which he has them dispatched. Because of his telepathic abilities he has been able to stay in power for decades. His right-hand man Lloyd Barnes is the Police Director of Earth, a New Man, and an effective hammer to keep citizens in their place. That description makes Gram sound dangerous, but not much danger is shown in the book. I feel if Gram had been a stronger villain, the story probably would have been better.

There are other evolving threads: Alice Noyes is a tough private eye hired to follow Gram’s wife, and Gram even discusses a plan with her to kill his wife, but she is a character that gets lost along the way. A New Man scientist called Amos Ild, of the McMally Corporation is working on a project to build a telepathic machine, which could upset the balance of power between the New Men and the Unusuals. He is barely mentioned at the beginning of the novel, but becomes a key character near the end.

In fact, even the aliens don’t play much of a role. We get some feeling of their power -- which is near godlike -- but Dick doesn’t attempt to explore much of their motivations or history. The aliens are like the Checkov’s gun -- they appear near the beginning of the novel and you know they will be used by the end. The main focus of “Our Friends from Frolix 8” is on the humans and how they react in this situation.

Dick has some fun with the government in this novel. It’s an odd, failed fascist state: drugs are OK, alcohol is illegal. Certain books are illegal, yet the government knows where they are published and by whom. The government pretends to equality, but everyone knows the tests are rigged. Yet, the economy must be entirely state run because the best jobs are as government employees. Again, though, it’s merely a sketch and doesn’t feel solid.

Overall, I’d have to say that this is one of the weakest Dick novels.


Ubik by Philip K Dick (1969)

In the year 1992 the abundance of precogs and telepaths has made it necessary for some who value their privacy to employ "prudence organizations" -- companies who provide anti-psis services to protect information.

Gene Runciter runs Runciter & Associates, one of the largest telepathic protection services in the world, but recently some of his anti-psi agents have gone missing, and he doesn't know whether they are defecting to his competitor, or being knocked off. He goes to the Beloved Brethren Moratorium where his wife Ella, who has been dead the past three years, is kept in a state of half-life where he can occasionally thaw her out and talk with her.

Meanwhile, Joe Chip meets Pat Conley, who is applying to work for Runciter and Associates. She has the ability to rewind and re-route time, effectively negating precogs. Joe, who is a technician and partner of Runciter, decides to hire her, but makes a note "watch this person. She is a hazard to the firm."

Runciter is approached by a representative for interplanetary speculator and financier Stanton Mick. He wants them to assemble a team of anti-psis to scrub his Luna base of any telepaths. The team of six women and five men, plus Joe Chip and Runciter arrive on Luna, only to discover that Mick is a decoy, a remote-controlled bomb, that explodes and kills Runciter. The team grabs Runciter's body and escapes back to Earth, leaving the dead man at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium.

At this point the story goes crazy. Cigarettes, fresh out of the box, crumble to dust. People, starting with Wendy Wright, one of the team of antis, start dying, leaving only bits of dust their collapsed bodies. Coins show antique dates, or Runciter’s face. Manifestations from Runciter invade the world. At one point Joe Chip picks up a phone to hear Runciter's voice coming over the line in a monologue, apropos the bombing, but not as a conversation. Al Hammond finds a message from Runciter in a random cigarette carton in a random store in a random city, and they ask “How are these messages coming through?” And it seems that the only way to solve the problem is to find a spray can of Ubik.

I last read "Ubik" over twenty years ago when I was in college. Reading it now the characters at times felt stilted, like much of Dick’s dialog. In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine Dick said that most of his books from before 1970 were written on speed with little or no revision, and I must conclude that many of the characters are speaking in his own voice -- the voice of the creator and the editor that occurs while writing. How else can you explain, in moments of high tension, little asides like the following:

Joe said, "But we're not dead. Except for Wendy."
"We're in half-life. Probably still on Pratfall II; we're probably on our way back to Earth from Luna, after the explosion that killed us - killed us, not Runciter. And he's trying to pick up the flow of protophasons from us. So far he's failed; we're not getting across from our world to his. But he's managed to reach us. We're picking him up everywhere, even places we choose at random. His presence is invading us on every side, him and only him because he's the sole person trying to-"
"He and only he," Joe interrupted. "Instead of 'him'; you said 'him.'"

Why does Dick write this ungrammatical sentence, then correct himself? Perhaps he’s making it up as he goes along without editing -- or, editing himself on paper?

The plot of "Ubik" feels like that: it starts, and doesn't stop until the end. For the first 100 pages, each chapter of the novel lurches in a new direction. There are some familiar science fiction tropes of mid-century: telepaths and precogs, but there's also there's also the paranoia and faltering reality themes that make this book different. In particular, I like the dreamlike way reality shifts during the story - he may have been making it up as he wrote, but it works in a compelling way.

Chapters 8 through 13 spend most of the time with Joe Chip trying to rationalize his situation - whether it’s the fact of his own death, or the death of his boss, or the demise of reality as he knows it. In this part of the story the characters also have to deal with retrograde time, but it’s dealt with in a much more interesting way than in “Counter-clock World.” Instead of trying to logically explain how a reversal of time’s arrow might work, Dick succumbs to sliding the characters through time much as an artist might paint with watercolors: pushing the paint but accepting the result as the colors soak into the page. Impressively, both the result and the story’s resolution are satisfying.

A reader innocent of PKD might find “Ubik” either opaque, or completely mind-blowing, but experienced Dickians know that it’s one of his common themes, first explored in “Eye in the Sky” and revisited often: a group of people travel together through a (false?) reality, trying to adapt to a changing situation. The book “In Pursuit of Valis” collects quite a few of Dick’s notes, and in the chapter “Interpretations of His Own Works” Dick acknowledges and discusses this.

The info conveyed chronologically in the sequence of books is interesting.
1). EYE plural and subjective worlds.
2). JOINT world as simulated deliberately
3). STIGMATA plural hallucinated worlds concocted by an evil magician-like deity
4). UBIK messages of assistance penetrating the simulated world(s) "from the other side" by/from a salvific true deity
5). MAZE simulated worlds fabricated by us, to escape an intolerable actuality
6). TEARS the nature specifically of that actuality (an intolerable one -- the BIP ACTS)
7). SCANNER buried memories connected with lost identity; & protospeech breaking through, not into world as in UBIK but inside a person's head. Two psychoi one in each brain hemisphere, each with its own name & characteristics.

...EYE, JOINT, 3 STIGMATA, UBIK & MAZE are the same novel written over and over again. The characters are all out cold and lying around together on the floor, mass hallucinating a world. Why have I written this up at least five times? Because -- as I discovered in 3-74 when I experienced anamnesis, remembered I'm really an apostoic xtian, & saw ancient Rome -- This is our condition: we're mass-halucinating this 1970s world... {1978}

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dick’s revisitation to this theme is that all the stories have a similar premise, yet they all reach different endings. Much like Joe Chip in “Ubik”, Philip Dick in his own life has gone to great extents to try to rationalize reality as he perceives it. Unfortunately, the date he mentions, March 1974, is when all explanations for reality broke, and he suddenly perceived a different reality. Whether this was madness, a stroke, after-effects of drug usage, or a true change in perceptions, it opened up a new world that he couldn’t explain.

From cover flap of the 1969 Doubleday Hardcover edition:

If he was alive why was he riding in a 1939 Willys-Knight on his way to his boss’ funeral in Des Moines, Iowa? If he was dead why wasn’t he beginning a chilly half-life in the year 1992?

What had begun as a crucial Luna mission for Joe Chip and ten of his colleagues from Runciter Associates had ended in a living or dying fiendish nightmare. Gene Runciter was dead -- murdered. But was he really dead? Joe was receiving ominous messages from the other side of the grave from Gene, and all were warning of a plot of the most hideous nature.

At every turn Joe was being confronted with treachery and terror. How could he find answers in a time and city where the Depression was still a way of life and telepathy wasn’t even a word with meaning? Was the traitor amongst his colleagues, who had been spiralled back in time? There was Pat Conley, the telepath with the unique power of reversing time - backwards. But she was living through the same ghastly adventure and as incapable as the rest of them to return them all either to a grave or the future world of 1992. And still Runciter’s ghostly messages kept appearing - in sky-writing, on traffic tickets, graffiti, matchbook covers -- anywhere, everywhere. And their key word was alway UBIK. But what was it? Joe had never heard of it, either in 1939 or 1992. He know, however, that if he could discover the secret of UBIK he would at long last be approaching the end of his surrealistic existence. But if it were to end in certain death, did he really want to know the answer?


Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K Dick (1960)

“Vulcan’s Hammer” is Philip Dick’s version of a murder mystery wrapped in a political thriller. Unfortunately, the who-done-it wears thin quickly, since the mystery revolves around who could possibly “kill” the world’s second-most-powerful computer.

Set in the year 2029, Earth’s people have formed a single Unity government and ceded all direction of the government Vulcan 3, the world’s most powerful computer. For the most part, people have been happy to live in peace, but at the cost of democracy, prosperity and upward mobility. More recently an insurrectionist movement called the Healers, led by a priest called Father Fields, has been inciting riots trying to shake the iron fist of Unity.

The story follows two leaders of the Unity government as they try to find out more about the Healers and how to stop them. Jason Dill is Managing Director of Unity, the top dog, and the only human who has contact with Vulcan 3. Recently, some of his orders have been erratic, and some of his subordinates are beginning to suspect Dill of irrational, possibly treasonous actions. One of these is William Barris, the Unity Regional Director in charge of the area formerly called Switzerland. Barris begins his investigations by interviewing Rachael Pitt, widow of Arthur Pitt, who was ostensibly killed by a Healer mob in Atlanta. Barris found non-Unity recording devices on Pitt’s car, and he wants to discover whether Pitt’s death was truly a mistake.

The investigations become even more important when someone destroys Vulcan 2, Vulcan 3’s predecessor. Meanwhile, given Dill’s increasingly unexplainable behavior, other Unity directors start to make power plays. And the situation goes ballistic when the Healers begin rioting in cities around the world, and Vulcan 3 orders missile attacks against them.

Although it was published in 1960, Dick wrote "Vulcan's Hammer" in 1953, and in many ways feels like a pulp science fiction story from the 50’s. It reminds me of A.E. Van Vogt and his “World of Null-A”, where the protagonist is an extreme example of ability and moral virtue, nearly a superman, and the antagonist pure evil.

I wondered if other people recognized this aspect in the book, so I did some reading and found an essay by Darko Suvin called “Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Suvin says that Dick was influenced by Van Vogt, but that even Dick’s earliest novels had characters that the reader could empathize with.

"...Dick as a rule uses a narration which is neither that of the old-fashioned all-knowing, neutral and superior, narrator, nor a narration in the first person by the central characters. The narration proceeds instead somewhere in between those two extreme possibilities, simultaneously in the third person and from the vantage point of the central or focal character in a given segment....This permits the empathizing into -- usually sympathizing with but always at least understanding -- all the focal characters, be they villains or heroes in the underlying plot conflict; which is equivalent to saying that Dick has no black or white villains and heroes in the sense of Van Vogt (from whom the abstracted plot conflicts are often borrowed). In the collective, non-individualist world of Dick, everybody, high and low, destroyer and sufferer, is in an existential situation which largely determines his/her actions; even the arch-destroyer Palmer Eldritch is a sufferer."

He goes on to say that the novels before 1962, including "Vulcan's Hammer," have a limited multi-focal narrative: "Vulcan's Hammer is focused around the two bureaucrats Barris and Dill, with Marion coming a poor third; the important character of Father Fields does not become a narrative focus, as he logically should have, nor does the intelligent computer though he is similar, say, to the equally destructive and destroyed Arnie in MTS."

While I agree with the argument, the result is extremely limited. While not necessarily Van Vogt supermen, both Dill and Barris have considerable skills and wiles, setting them apart from most of PKD’s protagonists. Similarly, their opponents are nearly flawless, giving the whole story a two-dimensional aspect.

Considering Dick’s would soon write some wonderful novels dealing with fascist states, “The Man Who Japed,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “The Simulacra,” for example, the totalitarian society in “Vulcan’s Hammer” also falls a little flat. The best scene showing the impact of a such a state occurs in a grade school. The teachers reinforce Unity virtues throughout the school day, quashing or expelling any child who questions the validity of the government, and when Father Fields’ daughter questions Director Dill’s actions, the teacher nearly has a fit for fear that it will look bad on her record. Other parts of “Vulcan’s Hammer” seem to have borrowed totalitarianism from George Orwell’s “1984.”

I had remembered reading “Vulcan’s Hammer” in college, but I didn’t recall that it resonated with me. I discovered I’m not alone. Jonathan Lethem's essay "You Don't Know Dick" talks about his his infatuation with Dick, buying multiple copies of his paperbacks, and eventually making a pilgrimage to California in 1984 to volunteer for the Philip K. Dick Society. His insights are interesting, balancing between what Dick's work meant, and what Dick's work meant to Lethem, but he comes down hard on "Vulcan's Hammer." He writes:

14. Nevertheless, even the very worst of those realist novels would better reward your time than "Vulcan's Hammer." Not to be a bully.

In summary, if you want to read a 1950’s pulp novel, this is kind of fun, in a campy way. It’s hard to view it from this point in time when we have multiple computers in every room that are probably more powerful than Vulcan 3, so that also detracts. But if you want to explore an iconic novel by Philip K. Dick, I’d suggest pushing on to the next one.

From the inside page of the 1960, Ace Double edition:

Vulcan 3 was the supreme head of Unity, the perfect world government that had evolved out of chaos and war. Vulcan 3 was rational, objective and unbiased... as only a machine could be!
Theoretically there should have been nothing but peace under such a rule -- and for a century or so there was. Until the crackpots, the superstitious, the religious fanatics found themselves a new leader to follow.
Then the discontent began to explode again. But this time there was a third side involved, a machine that could not accept any emotional viewpoints. The people of the world began to realize that they had created a vicious paradox: they had to make peace between themselves or be stamped out by the ever-growing claws of Vulcan’s Hammer.