Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: the Simulacra, by Philip K. Dick


I've been trying to read Dick for years, and I could never get through it. Granted, Ubik was probably not best 'read' via audiobook. And Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep? is ill-approached by lovers of Ridley Scott's film adaptation, Bladerunner. Scott's film is sleek and dark and built on aesthetic: there are long, quiet shots of Harrison Ford musing in the rain or flying quietly above a futuristic metropolis.

Dick's writing, by contrast, is stumbling, clever, poorly paced, confusingly plotted, slightly frightening. Paranoid. Bizarre. Dick's plots run like stories told at bar: one gets the sense that he wrote each chapter without much idea of what would happen next, and got progressively more inebriated as he went on.

That said, he's funny.
Boy, is he funny. At least in The Simulacra. Take for instance the man who yearns to meet the First Lady, and convinces his old classical jug-whistling partner to audition with him for the White House's talent show. Or the top-secret negotiations with Nazi-boss Hermann Goering, courtesy of time-travel. Or the controversy over whether an apartment building should allow its children to be exposed to children from other apartment buildings. Or, here's my favorite, the contrivance that commercials, via biotechnology, have become physical creatures which harass people, infiltrating their homes and cars:

The commercial squeaked, "At any moment one may offend others, any hour of the day!" And in his mind appeared the full-color image of a scene unfolding: a good-looking black-haired man leaning toward a blond, full-breasted girl in a bathing suit in order to kiss her. On the girl's face the expression of rapture and submission all at once vanished, was replaced by repugnance. And the commercial shrilled, "He was not fully safe from offensive body odor! You see?"

Writing in the sixties, Dick extrapolated (like y'do, in sci-fi) the trends in his own day to their absurd extremity, one century hence. It's remarkable how on-target he was: the world he created in this 1964 novel is still ridiculous, but it reads like a sci-fi social parody written in 80s or 90s. More than any proselytizer for capitalism, Dick and social critics like him seem to understand that people respond to incentives--including incentives which lead to social collapse and war. Soak the wood in cheese-sauce and you can get rats to eat through the floor of the boat that holds them; make short-term, relative, individual gain the goal of human life, and you can get people to erode the very institutions which allow for civilization in the first place. Dick was writing during the first post-WWII generation, when American ascendancy was in full-steam. His writing is largely an exaggerated guess about where that ascendancy would lead.

More than any other writer I've encountered, Dick reminds me of a poor-man's David Foster Wallace. Both use the same kind of absurd, situational humor for purposes of social criticism. And both are rather difficult to follow. But whereas Wallace's work (or at least his magnum opus, Infinite Jest) rises to the peaks of Great Literature, Dick remains on the foothills of Weirdly Funny.

He kept his attention on the newspaper...meditating on an article dealing with a further discovery of uni-cellular fossils on Ganymede.

...Old-time civilization, Chic thought. The next layer down...will be comic books, contraceptives, empty Coke bottles. But they--the authorities--won't tell us. Who wants to find out that the entire solar system has been exposed to Coca-Cola over a period of two-million years? It was, for him, impossible to imagine a civilization--of any kind of life form--that had not contrived Coke. Otherwise, how could it authentically be called a "civilization"?

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