BOOK REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

In this counterfactual novel, the Axis powers won the Second World War, and America has been divided between Germany and Japan. I recently re-read this book, having watched the Amazon Prime series that is loosely based upon it. [FYI – the plotting and details are considerably different between the book and the series, and — while many major characters and a few key events are shared between them — they are not recognizable as the same story. Though I believe both are good, each in its own way – and the world is quite similar between them.]

There are a couple subplots that play out to form the larger story. One of these involves Robert Childan, a dealer in Americana who [while he specializes in antiques] ends up dealing in jewelry made by Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy after unwittingly being used as a pawn in their plan to manipulate the two artists’ former employer. This line intersects with that of Mr. Tagomi, a high-ranking Trade Ministry official who is involved in grand strategy level issues, but who is a customer of Childan’s.

The other major line involves Juliana Frink, ex-wife to the aforementioned artist Frank Frink, who meets up with Joe Cinnadella, and travels with him to Denver. Along the way, Joe introduces Juliana to a novel called, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is a counterfactual novel in the world of the book that is substantially the same as the world as we know it (i.e. the Allies won the war and America becomes a hegemonic power.) Joe suggests that Juliana and he go to meet the author, who also lives not far within the Rocky Mountain states. “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” plays an important role throughout the book, and it is introduced to Childan by one of his customers as well. The controversial fictional book is allowed in the Japanese controlled territory, but the Nazi’s have banned it and are rankled about its existence. It’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the same-named “man in the high castle.”

As in the series, the Chinese “Book of Changes” (i.e. the I-Ching) plays a role. However, in PKD’s novel it is a much more substantial role. In the series, it is mostly Mr. Tagomi who relies on the I-Ching. In the book, Frank and Juliana Frink use it heavily — as do other characters. The use of an oracle in conjunction with the alternate history premise of the book puts questions of fate and free will at the fore, providing deep food for thought.

In the interest of full-disclosure, Dick’s portrayal of Juliana Frink comes off a bit misogynistically in places, though she is also shown as a character of great strength and intelligence. [In fact, when we meet her, she is a judo instructor, and her cleverness is put on display as well.] It can also be said that the rendered dialogue of both the Japanese characters and those who strive to emulate them [i.e. the Japanophile / sycophant Childan] is a little “inscrutable Asian / Charlie Chan.” That said, Mr. Tagomi is one of the most mature and self-aware characters in the book. It could be argued that making Juliana shallow and self-obsessed gives her depth of character. The book also came out in 1962, so the approach to presenting characters has changed.

I enjoyed reading this book the second time more than the first, and I got a lot more out of the process. I’d recommend the book for anyone interested in questions of destiny and freedom, or who just wants an entertaining story.

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5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

BOOK REVIEW: Human Is? by Philip K. Dick

Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader (Gollancz S.F.)Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20 of Philip K. Dick’s short stories written between 1952 and 1973 that explore what it means to be human. Dick waxed philosophical on the question enough that a large collection could be assembled that examines humanity from many fascinating angles. While the age of these stories (and their Cold War taint) might make them seem obsolete, there is more than one way in which this collection is extremely relevant today.

First, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be on everybody’s mind of late, and several of these stories feature machine intelligence as a means to understand what makes a human in a world in which there are other intelligent entities (in a similar vein, alien intelligence is also considered.) Second, Dick also asks us to consider the reality of a fictitious character who is alive in the minds of many and who might have more impact on the world than any living being. In our current phase of the information age, in which merchants of [dis-]information are becoming adroit at manipulating information and misinformation for their own desired effect, this seems a more crucial question than ever. Finally, there remains the age-old unresolved question of whether there is some x-factor beyond biology (i.e. a soul) that separates humanity from other forms of intelligence. While this is an old question, the fact that most people still believe there is a “soul” (by whatever name it’s called), even if most scientifically-minded people don’t see any reason to think so, means that it will continue to be a question with potential societal ramifications.

A sub-theme across these stories is the Cold War undercurrent of anxiety that the world could be turned into a dystopian wasteland at any moment. (In most of the stories, it already has been.) Again, if one can look past the references to the Soviet Union being cast as foe in many of the stories, one will find that the stories and the emotional zeitgeist aren’t as faded as they might at first seem.

The stories include some that movie-goers unfamiliar with Dick’s writing will know from Hollywood cinema (e.g. “Second Variety” (movie title: “Screamers,”) “Paycheck” (an eponymous film with Ben Affleck,) “Adjustment Team” (movie: “The Adjustment Bureau,”) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (i.e. both “Total Recall” movies.) But it also includes some deep cuts and lesser known stories.

1.) Beyond Lies The Wub: The crew of a ship is divided over whether to make an intelligent alien a prisoner or dinner.

2.) The Defenders: Owing to high radiation in the wake of nuclear war, humans are living underground, leaving the war-fighting to AI machines. A group of military men make an expedition to the surface only to get a big surprise.

3.) Roog: A dog is more than the family pet they think him to be, it’s secretly a guardian against the Roog.

4.) Second Variety: The Cold War went hot and the US built AI metallic creatures to fight the Soviets. The problem arises when these intelligent machines developed their own ideas, building androids because a robot that looked human could get into the midst of humans for better killing. The Soviets – after taking heavy losses – discover from serial number placards on androids that variety 1 is a wounded soldier and variety 3 is an orphan boy, begging the question of what is the Second Variety? When Americans end up among the last survivors, the question becomes essential for them as well.

5.) Impostor: Police take a man into custody who they believe to be an android with a dead human’s consciousness loaded into it, along with a bomb that could do tremendous damage. Of course, the man thinks they’ve got it all wrong.

6.) The Preserving Machine: A scientist builds a machine to preserve music, which he believes is at risk of being lost to future generations, but ultimately he learns that life always adapts and changes in unanticipated ways.

7.) The Variable Man: In a world in which decisions are made based on statistical models, the decision to go to war is in gridlock because the odds of winning stay close to 50/50. When a man from the future with a gift for repairing devices shows up, he upsets the apple cart by making the models unstable.

8.) Paycheck: A gifted engineer gets his memory wiped as part of a deal with a huge firm so that he cannot disclose any secrets about the top-secret high-tech project he was working on. He’s irked to find out that before his memory was wiped he asked for an envelope full of odds and ends in lieu of his lucrative paycheck. However, after being picked up by police, he soon realizes that the junk in the envelope was actually a well-thought out collection of useful items – if he can figure out how to use them.

9.) Adjustment Team: In a world in which a heavy hand has to periodically make major societal adjustments without people knowing, one man unwittingly becomes witness to these secret machinations. (Like “Paycheck,” the movie uses Dick’s concept without sharing the same character details and story details. However, I’d say “Paycheck” is closer to the story than is this one. However, it’s worth reading both because neither is exactly like the movie.)

10.) The Father-Thing: What if aliens could take over the consciousness of a loved one? How soon would one recognize the difference, if your father looked just like your father, but his behavior became a bit… off?

11.) Foster, You’re Dead: The “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality is a central theme in this story. A son wants one of the latest high-tech bomb shelters both because of Cold War anxiety, because it would be cool for a boy to have a subterranean lair, and because would be a prestige signal. The dad, however, is reluctant to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses.

12.) Human Is: A scientist, who happens to be married to a woman who finds him cold and distant, is body-snatched while he’s away on assignment on a different world. His wife is the first to recognize her husband has been replaced, but does she want the original back?

13.) The Mold of Yancy: This story is about a soft dystopia, but instead of Huxley’s vision of people being plied with drugs and free and easy sex, these subjects are kept docile by the folksy wisdom of a beloved character who’s a complete fiction (unbeknownst to everyone.) Everybody wants their kids to grow up in the mold of the great war hero, Yancy. [Note: Even with all the AI stories, this may be the most apropos for today’s world, information used to manipulate people’s behavior without any threat of force.]

14.) If There Were No Benny Cemoli: Like “The Mold of Yancy” this story explores the question of what it means to be human by considering the fictitious person as a societal touchstone. If you can make people believe in a person who isn’t, and to change their behavior accordingly, what have you created?

15.) The Days of Perky Pat: In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are passionately into playing a game which revolves around a character named “Perky Pat.” In a way, she is a surrogate for who they were before war transformed the world. What will happen when they expand out to play members of a neighboring enclave who have a similar “Connie Companion” game?

16.) Oh, to be a Blobel: In a war against an alien race, a former spy was genetically altered to appear like the enemy species. After the war is over, he discovers that he can’t be stably turned back to human form. He will revert to the amorphous form of a Blobel for several hours per day, and stressors risk causing spontaneous transformation. As he will never be able to be married and have children with a human woman – who would have him – a solution is suggested whereby he will marry a former Blobel spy who turns into a human form for several hours per day.

17.) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: A white-collar worker, Douglas Quail, who wants to go to Mars, decides to go to a memory-implant clinic that can provide him with a vivid detailed memory of a vacation to Mars. But when they try to implant said memory, it’s discovered that he isn’t who he – or the company — thought.

18.) The Electric Ant: A man who thought he was human finds out that he’s actually an android. The identity crisis that follows causes him to contemplate suicide.

19.) A Little Something for Us Tempunauts: There’s an accident with the first American crew of time-travelers, putting them into a closed time loop (i.e. like the movie “Groundhog Day.”) The question of the meaning of life in this story revolves around the unclear question of whether the tempunauts are alive or dead.

20.) Pre-Persons: In a future dystopia, abortion isn’t only legal; the age until which it can be carried out has been extended to 12. There are forces in society who rail against the government doctrine that a soul is attained precisely on one’s twelfth birthday, but that minority is considered to be the lunatic fringe.

This is an exceptional collection of stories, offering plenty to consider about the meaning of being human. Dick takes on the questions from several angles with a level of creativity only he could. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of science fiction or those who enjoy philosophical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: VALIS by Philip K. Dick

VALIS (VALIS Trilogy, #1)VALIS by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

VALIS is the first book in a final—unfinished–trilogy of Philip K. Dick. The other two books of the trilogy were to be The Divine Invasion (finished) and an unfinished book that would have been entitled The Owl in Daylight. Some (notably people who want to sell books at any cost) will claim that The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is the last novel of this trilogy. It’s true that “Transmigration” was Dick’s last complete book and that it shares a domain at the nexus of religion and science fiction with the VALIS trilogy, but it wasn’t intended to be part of the trilogy.

“Trippy” might be the best word to describe VALIS. The narrator is a writer named Phil, who we know from details like the mention of past titles is really the book’s author, Philip K. Dick. The lead character is a man named Horselover Fat. If one is reading carefully, one learns early that Horselover Fat and Phil are one in the same—although we don’t learn until late in the novel that Philip means “fond of horses” in Greek and Dick means “fat” in German. For most of the novel Phil speaks of Horselover Fat as though he was an entirely separate person, and even describes times when the two were said to be in two different places (Horselover goes on a global search for the new messiah, while Phil seemingly stays home.) There’s a point late in the novel in which Phil is “cured,” and his multi-personality delusion disappears.

It’s hard to concisely describe what the book is about because it’s so strange and ranging. One can easily vacillate between thinking it’s brilliant and that it’s gobbledygook. Horselover Fat is in search of a messiah, and he thinks he can simultaneously see the world as it is and as it was in Roman times. He has visions that he comes to believe were laser transmitted into his brain. He is writing a rambling exegesis that features throughout the book in random order as seems “relevant.”

Horselover has friends that are in their own ways both less and more crazy than he—not including Phil who is actually one in the same and, therefore, is equally insane. His big break comes when one of these friends, Kevin, introduces him to a surrealist film that seems completely incomprehensible, but—given their laser beamed “inside knowledge”—they’re able to discern clues in what seems like nonsense. This leads them to rock star and actress, respectively, Eric and Linda Lampton. (While I was under the impression that this was a thinly veiled pseudonym for Eric Clapton, it was apparently a more sophisticated pseudonym for David Bowie.) It turns out that the Lamptons are even crazier than Horselover / Phil, but—nonetheless–they do have the messiah with them in the form of an immaculately conceived two-year old girl named Sophia. I won’t get into what happens next as I don’t want to give away too much.

The ending is not strong, but that’s the nature of writing in trilogies (or multi-book sequences more generally.)

If you are wondering about the title, VALIS is the name of the surrealist film that leads Horselover and his folks to the Lamptons (who were involved with the film along with an electronic musician who is supposedly supposed to represent Brian Eno.) In said fictional film the acronym stands for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System” and it’s an artificial intelligence and / or god.

If you like Philip K. Dick for his clever and clear science fiction story arcs, you may like this work but you probably won’t find it to be Dick at his best. If you like Philip K. Dick for taking you on a walk inside the mind of a drug-addled and bat-shit crazy genius, you’ll find this to be one of his best works.

I found it to be an intriguing read and would recommend it for lovers of the strange.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

UbikUbik by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Philip K. Dick was one of the most imaginative writers and skilled storytellers of the 20th century. There’s a reason that so many of his stories and novels have been made into movies (e.g. Minority Report, Total Recall, Scanner Darkly, and–most famously–Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [which was adapted into a less quirky and darker film called Blade Runner.])Dick’s works lend themselves to the screen because they lay out novel plots in engaging stories.

Ubik isn’t among the Dick works that have been made into movies, but it’s not for lack of trying. Dick wrote his own screenplay for a film adaptation of the novel, but the project fell through. Over the years, a few directors have talked of Ubik: the Movie, so don’t be surprised if you see it someday.

Ubik deals with the afterlife. It’s set in 1992 (Dick’s future–our past.) (You can’t blame a man who lived from 1928 to 1982 for over anticipating the futuristicness of the 90’s. In the year of his birth Amelia Earhart was making the first solo transatlantic flight by a woman–only a year after Lindbergh became the first ever to do it. The year Ubik was published (1969) the Concorde was making its first supersonic transatlantic flight.)

In the world of Ubik, the moon is being developed for human use, and there are many people with psychic abilities. The protagonist, Glen Runciter, runs a business offering services blocking psychic activity to prevent industrial espionage. He is working for a company that’s building a moon base.

Runciter’s wife is deceased; however, he often consults with her as the dividing line between life and death isn’t so clear in Runciter’s world as our own. There exists a state of “half-life” between life and being fully dead.

The inciting incident is a nefarious explosion on the moon base of which Runciter and his team are victims. At first it appears that Runciter is dead and that his team is alive and trying to rush him back to Earth to get him into a state of half-life (just like his wife.)However, as the novel goes on it becomes less clear who is alive and who is dead. All that is clear is that Runciter exists in a different world from his team members. As the story proceeds there are clues–most notably coins with faces on them that aren’t dead Presidents. Joe Chip (a team member) sees coins with Runciter’s face on them, and later Runciter sees coins with Chip’s face on them.

Ubik is a product that Chip and the others begin to see advertised in their world–which they have come to believe is the afterlife. (Some versions of the book have a spray can on the cover that represents this mysterious product that comes in many forms.) They begin to believe that Ubik is their only hope. There has been a great deal of discussion about the symbolism of Ubik. Its name comes from the word for “everywhere”– as in “ubiquitous”– but what (or who)it’s supposed to be is never clearly revealed. Some have said that Ubik is meant to be God. If so, Dick made an interesting statement because the product is always marketed like some cheesy consumer good.

One test for whether you’ll like this book is whether you enjoy ambiguity in endings. Some readers really enjoy the thought-provocation of an ambiguous ending and the process of thinking out their own conclusions. (I am among this type of reader.) However, there are other readers who feel ripped off if the writer doesn’t tie all the answers up with a neat little ribbon at the end of the book. If you are this type of reader, you will likely hate this book. In other words, if you felt good leaving the theater when you saw Inception you’ll like this book, but if you left shaking your head and saying, “WTF, Chris Nolan?” then don’t bother.

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