Time Out of Joint – Philip K Dick (1959)
‘Time Out of Joint’ begins by leading the reader into a sense of false security, since we appear to be looking at the lives of characters from a somewhat idyllic US of the Nineteen Fifty Nine. Vic Nielson, for instance, is the manager of a local store and lives with his wife, Margo, her brother Ragle Gumm and their son, Sammy. Their neighbours and friends, Junie and Bill Black, often come round to play cards, more often than Margo is comfortable with.
One begins to suspect that all is not what it seems when it is discovered that there are no radios in this world, not since World War II, and Ragle Gumm makes a living by consistently winning a local newspaper competition ‘Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next’, the result of which he guesses via a complex analysis of past results and arcane measurements.
It is on an evening when Junie and BIll are visiting that Vic Nielson, trying to turn on a light in the bathroom, is hunting for a cord to pull when he realises that the bathroom light is powered by a switch, and always has been.
Later, Ragle, having persuaded Junie Black to go swimming with him (Ragle is attracted to Junie, Bill’s wife) goes to a drinks stand to buy drinks at which the stand disappears, leaving only a printed slip of paper saying ‘SOFT DRINK STAND’. Ragle is shocked, but keeps the slip of paper as this is not the first time this has happened and it turns out he has several of the slips with the names of various objects which he keeps in a tin.
As in most Dick novels, all is not what it seems. Vic’s son Sammy, although having been warned not to play in the ruins at the edge of town, comes back with a telephone directory, several slips of the mysterious typed paper and a magazine featuring an article on a beguilingly beautiful actress named Marilyn Monroe, an actress no one has heard of.
The reader is then made aware that Bill Black and Mr Lowery (an employee of the newspaper which runs Ragle’s competition) are fully aware of the greater reality. The year is in fact 1998, and Earth is at war with Moon Colonists (the lunatics) who have been bombarding Earth with missiles. Ragle, it appears, has an innate facility to predict where the missiles will land, which is what he is actually doing in his complex calculations to determine where the little green man will be next.
The great genius of this novel is that Dick has been careful to blur the edges of where the subjective realities of the Nineteen Fifties residents begin and end. Vic Neilson, Margo, Sammy and Junie have all been living with false memories, since Vic and Margo are not married and Sammy is not their son. This opens a whole other moral and ethical can of worms, since it raises the question of how far a government would go to safeguard a project which is helping to save thousands of people who would otherwise be killed in bomb strikes.
What, in real terms, is the nature of the Soft Drink Stand hallucination and the printed slips of paper? Why ‘Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?’? It is these odd flourishes, however, that pushes this novel head and shoulders above most other SF novels of the late fifties.