The Cosmic Puppets – Philip K Dick (1957)
‘Millgate Virginia – It should have been the sort of town where nothing changes…
As Ted Barton is driving through Baltimore, on vacation with his wife, he is seized with an irresistible urge to head into the Appalachian Mountains and visit the town where he was born – Millgate, Virginia.
But when Barton finds his way into the little valley he grew up in, he is in for a deep shock. The town called Millgate is there all right: but it is a town he has never seen before.
It is a town where Ted Barton had died of scarlet fever at the age of nine years old…’
Blurb from the 1985 Panther paperback edition
Ted Barton returns to his home town of Millgate, Virginia only to find it unrecognisably transformed, and holding records to show that he died in childhood.
Although a minor Dick novel this early work exhibits many of the signature themes and characters which Dick was later to exploit to extraordinary effect.
Barton’s wife, her implied alcoholism and her seemingly hostile attitude to Barton himself is indicative of other female characters which Dick created in later works such as Mary Rittersdorf from ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon’.
One cannot ignore the fact that Dick had difficulty in maintaining lasting relationships with women. He was married five times after all, but it is also clear that his depiction of women is not one which leads the reader to believe that he does not understand them. These are no mere stereotypes. One begins to suspect that Dick understood women far better than many people imagine.
We also see signs of Dick’s fascination with philosophical and theological issues since the entire fabrication of the town which overlays the reality of Millgate is all part of a billion year war waged by Ormazd and Ahriman, the Zoroastrian Gods of Light and Darkness.
It’s also an interesting (almost wistful and Simakian) portrait of Nineteen Fifties Middle America, the effect of which is enhanced by Barton’s nostalgic longing for the return of town he grew up in. It’s a clever device which strikes a chord with many readers who have experienced returning to their home town after an extended period expecting it to find it unchanged, but finding it instead, unsettlingly altered.
Then there are Dick’s Lynch-esque oddities too; the surreal flourishes which he later perfected to great effect. Here we have the peculiar children; Peter’s ‘golems’, walking creatures of clay which act as his spies, and Dr Meade’s sanatorium, full of so-called ‘lunatics’ but who are actually people who remember the ‘real’ Millgate before its transformation.
Again, this concept of madness and reality recurs again and again in Dick’s work, challenging our concepts of what is ‘mad’ or ‘true’ in many and various ways, such as in ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon’ where a society of dysfunctionals functions perfectly well, albeit seeing the Universe from a different perspective to our own,
Madness, in Dick’s world, is just a different way of seeing things.