My life in outer space

Gollancz SF Masterworks

This Is the Way the World Ends – James Morrow (1986)

This Is the Way the World Ends

George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.

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Behold The Man – Michael Moorcock (1969)

Behold the Man

Popular music went through its punk phase in the mid Nineteen Seventies. It was almost an extinction event for some of the pop and rock establishment of the time and heralded a brief new era of musical diversity and experimentation.
SF had experienced its own punk revolution in the late Sixties, The New Wave movement, at the forefront of which, along with Judith Merrill, JG Ballard, MJ Harrison and others, was Michael Moorcock. The New Wave was an attempt to invigorate the SF genre and produce a more literary product with an emphasis on character, ‘inner space’ rather than outer space, and experimentation.
Their flagship magazine was ‘New Worlds,’ an already extant magazine which Moorcock took over as editor in the mid-Sixties. It was a groundbreaking publication which has since reappeared in various formats up to 1997.
‘Behold The Man’ was expanded from a novella which appeared in New Worlds in 1967.
Some New Wave writers set out to shock, and one would imagine that as controversial subjects go, Jesus Christ has to be fairly near the top of the list.
In a weird parallel with ‘The Life of Brian’ however, the subject of this novel is not the real Jesus of Nazareth, but one Karl Glogauer, of London.
Glogauer is one of Moorcock’s more fascinating creations, born presumably at the beginning of World War II and growing up in Nineteen Forties and Fifties England, much like Moorcock himself.
Glogauer is one of life’s victims; a target for bullies and a sadistic couple who run a children’s summer camp. He is in search of sexual and spiritual fulfillment, and finds neither although he does become fascinated by the work of Jung and hosts a regular meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss his work.
Glogauer is invited to the country by a member of the group, Sir James Headington, a scientist who claims to have discovered the secret of time travel. Even he, it seems has ulterior motives since he attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce Glogauer. It does appear, however that the time travel equipment does work. Animals have apparently been sent to the past although the equipment has not as yet been tested with human subjects.
Subsequently, Glogauer becomes fixated on the life of Christ as his relationship with his girlfriend Monica begins to break down. Monica is an atheist who has her own views about where ‘Christian’ ideals originated.
When he finally breaks up with Monica, Glogauer immediately rings Sir James and volunteers to travel back in time, as long as he can choose the time and place of arrival.
And this is where this extraordinary novel begins, with Glogauer arriving in the Palestine area in around 28 AD. His experiences from herein on are interspersed with extracts from his life in the twentieth century, and passages from the Bible.
Initially, Glogauer’s desire is to meet Christ – who is destined to be crucified within a year – and to determine for himself the truth of the gospels. Glogauer is however injured when the time capsule arrives and the vehicle itself essentially destroyed since no technology exists in his current timeline to repair it.
He is taken on by the Essenes who believe that he is a prophet from Egypt. John the Baptist, who appears to be the leader of the Essenes, hopes to foster this belief and employ Glogauer in his resistance to Herod and Roman rule. He baptises Karl who then, seized with confusion, runs off and is lost in the wilderness.
Eventually, Glogauer finds his way to Nazareth and the home of Joseph the carpenter and his wife Mary.
Their son, Jesus, the result of an assignation on Mary’s part before she married Joseph, turns out to be a physically and mentally disabled man who can do nothing more than giggle and repeat his own name.
This is then the pivotal point. Glogauer now realises that he is on a predestinate path and must take on the role for which, it seems, he was born.
Having been trained in the basics of psychiatry and hypnotism Glogauer is able to easily cure some people of hysterical or psychosomatic conditions and, followed by a growing number of followers begins his inevitable journey toward Jerusalem and his death by crucifixion.
For a short novel it manages to pack a great deal in and says an awful lot about religion and the phenomenon of belief.
The author makes a telling point about the priests of the time which is just as relevant to today’s priesthood (of whatever religion) as it was two thousand years ago.

‘They would ask questions of the rabbis but the wise men would tell them nothing, save that they should go about their business, that there were things they were not yer meant to know. In this way, as priests had always done, they avoided questions they could not answer while at the same time appearing to have much more knowledge than they actually possessed.’

Chapter Thirteen

There are some shock factors in that, in line with the style of the New Wave, Moorcock introduces subjects one would not normally expect to find in a Science Fiction novel such as child abuse, sexual fetishism and homosexuality. Added to which, to hammer the final nail (an unfortunate metaphor I know) into the Christ myth Moorcock has Glogauer return to Joseph’s house once Joseph has gone to sell his wares, where he has sex with ‘the Virgin Mary’ until they are interrupted by the giggling drooling form of the real Jesus.
It’s a shame Mary Whitehouse never discovered this book as it would no doubt now be far more widely read than it is, which can only be a good thing.
For me, it’s one of Moorcock’s most original and underrated novels, possibly his best.


The Drowned World – JG Ballard (1962)

The Drowned World

One of a quartet of books which seem to reflect the Alchemical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, this being the Water section.
In a near future Earth, solar flares have set a process of extreme climate change in motion which has resulted in the sea level rising and displaced silt forming new and unpredictable land masses. Lagoons are formed where the upper parts of hotels and office buildings rise from the waters.
Kerans is part of a scientific team studying the ecological effects, since animal and plant life appear to have been forced into a rapid phase of devolution, reverting to forms common in the Triassic. Reptiles such as iguanas, alligators and monitor lizards are particularly prevalent, and seem to have displaced humanity to become, like their dinosaur ancestors, masters of the world.
Kerans has set up camp in one of the upper floors of the Ritz hotel, as has the enigmatic Beatrice who spends her days devolving into the persona of a former guest.
Indeed, devolution is the major theme here, since Humanity is also being affected, psyches accessing the race memory of an ancient age and drawn inexplicably to the South and the murderous heat.
This is Ballard at the start of his writing career, finding his feet and already displaying many of the hallmarks of his later work.
Already Ballard’s characters are intriguing and complex with motives that are difficult to determine. Kerans from the outset is affected by the devolutionary malaise that has changed many people and progresses through the narrative, his ancient race memory taking him back to the conscious state of the Triassic era.
Kerans colleague, Dr Bodkin, has been charged with investigating and monitoring this condition, although he himself seems more fascinated with the nature of the phenomenon than in seeking a means to cure it.
Conflict arrives in the form of Strangman, a peculiar almost vaudevillian character, who brings with him a team of black followers, and who appears to have the power to control the monstrous alligators who have thrived in this new world of steaming heat, jungles and lagoons.
Apart from Kerans and Strangman vying for the attention of Beatrice Dahl, a contest which appears to have motives other than a sexual one, Strangman hosts an evening on his ship, exhibiting paintings and other memorabilia which he has rescued from the flood and promising a surprise.
At the conclusion of the evening Strangman smugly reveals that pumping machines have been draining the local lagoon, slowly revealing the silt-covered buildings and streets which had been previously submerged. This has a marked effect on Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin who are horrified by the intrusion of the human world they had abandoned.
It is a flashpoint which appears to polarise the affected and the non-affected, forcing them into a fight for the survival of their states of mind.
Ballard’s work often examines the nature or the effects of time, and here it is a central theme. In other work and short stories we find him referring to time either directly or obliquely near the start of the story or chapter.

Chapter One – ‘Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperm…’
Chapter Nine – ‘ During the next two weeks, as the southern horizon became increasingly darkened…
Chapter Eleven – ‘ Half an hour later, Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin were able to walk out into the streets.’
Chapter Thirteen – ‘By eight o’clock the next morning Riggs had stabilised the situation and was able to see Kerans informally.’

These are random samples but the pattern is there. It’s not clear if this is merely a feature of Ballard’s writing style or whether the constant references to time hold a deeper meaning for him, as this is apparent in other works.


The Long Tomorrow – Leigh Brackett (1955)

The Long Tomorrow

Cousins Len and Esau Coulter are two young boys living in a family community in a post-nuclear war US. The States has sunk to the point where a theocracy has taken over, opposed to the scientific excesses of the past and with a strict ruling that communities can not hold more than a thousand people.
Len and Esau however, fueled by their semi-senile grandmother’s tales of prewar cities and glamour, yearn to learn more. They have also been infected with tales of a forbidden town, Bartorstown, where people still live as they did before the bombs fell.
Comparisons can be drawn between this and John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ where, in a post-nuclear Canada, a group of telepaths have to hide their true nature from their Christian fundamentalist community. Both novels feature a Christianity adapted for circumstances, and both feature young people desperate to escape the straitjacket of their lives.
Perhaps wisely, Brackett chose to avoid the SF clichés of mutations and consequent psychic powers and focus on the question that Len has to ask himself which is, put bluntly ‘Is it better to live in ignorance and be happy, or be knowledgeable and depressed?’
Ultimately, what is learned can not be unlearned, as is reiterated to Len in various ways by his father, by the mysterious Mr Hostetter, and by a pastor with whom Len was lodging.
Brackett has, quite elegantly, taken the national paranoia of the time with its fear of communists-among-us and nuclear destruction and converted it to a fear of knowledge itself. The ‘aliens-among-us’ who, in other works of the time such as The Puppet Masters, are a metaphor for un-American outside influences are replaced here by the people of Bartorstown; ordinary humans who have a deal more knowledge than the rest of the country and no doubt practise forbidden science.
In one of the early sections, the boys sneak away from their Amish-esque village to visit a fair. It is a turning point in their lives as they witness a preacher rousing a congregation against the ideals of Bartorstown. A man is pointed out, denounced and duly stoned to death.
Because Brackett avoids proselytising from either viewpoint and concentrates on letting her characters express themselves within this strange world it becomes a work far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about people, society, happiness and the perennial battle between technology and religion. It’s also one of the finest novels about the best and the worst of America that one is likely to read.


Tau Zero – Poul Anderson (1970)

Tau Zero

Based upon Anderson’s short story “To Outlive Eternity” (Galaxy 1967), this is a marvellous exercise in exploring the concepts of Einsteinian physics, and one which surprisingly is for the most part character based. The interstellar ship ‘Leonora Christine’ is carrying a cargo of colonists and scientists to Beta Virginis. Anderson does a marvellous job of describing the ship which uses the Bussard Ramjet principle of capturing loose hydrogen atoms in flights and converting them to energy, gradually increasing acceleration toward the speed of light.
Not long into the flight, however, the crew discover that a cloud of interstellar gas has drifted between the ship and its destination. The ship is moving too fast to change course and must therefore risk damaging or destroying itself by flying through.
The ship survives but the crew soon discover that the deceleration unit has been crippled, which means that the ship and its passengers will continue to accelerate toward the speed of light.
Anderson manages to balance the mind-numbing complexities of the science with the human dramas being played out inside the ship. There the effects of time dilation mean that time is passing increasingly faster in the outside Universe than for the humans in the tin can.
Some of the characters such as Lindgren, are Scandinavian, since Poul – although born in the US – was of Scandinavian parentage. He also spent some time in Denmark it seems and employs his background to good effect here. Refreshingly, the crew are multinational, including Japanese, Russians, Canadians and one particularly obnoxious American, although it’s not known if this reflected Anderson’s personal views on the country of his birth.
There is an interesting situation on Earth at the outset, where Sweden, who were in charge of a worldwide nuclear disarmament programme, have become effectively rulers of a worldwide Swedish Empire.
It is interesting to note that current American SF, particularly the mainstream novels, tend to be somewhat insular, what I have elsewhere described as Americocentric. Jack McDevitt, Geoffrey A Landis and to a certain extent Greg Bear (coincidentally Poul Anderson’s son-in-law) to name but three, tend to write SF which postulates a future seemingly dominated by American culture or a near future in which everything happens in the US and the rest of the world is not really considered. Anderson was never that lazy.
For its time it’s an amazing piece of Hard SF in which the backdrop – measured by time and space – expands exponentially throughout the novel as the small dramas of the crew are acted out.
The denouement – which probably wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny today, if indeed it was able to in Nineteen-Seventy – is an uplifting joyful moment and brings the book to a satisfying if somewhat improbable conclusion.


Time Out of Joint – Philip K Dick (1959)

Time Out of Joint

‘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.


Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)

Ringworld (Ringworld #1)

‘With RINGWORLD, Larry Niven reaches full maturity as a writer of some of the most vivid and inventive science fiction the past decade has seen.

Niven has steadily constructed a logical and coherent piece of space all his own in a series of short stories of which Neutron Star, a Hugo Award Winner, was one.

Now, in RINGWORLD, he carries out the promise of the earlier structure and takes his familiar characters, the puppeteers, to a fantastically conceived scientifically logical world – the Ringworld of his title – a towering and beautiful concept. ‘

Blurb to the 1970 Ballantine Paperback Edition

Ringworld is undoubtedly a Landmark Science Fiction novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and possibly the definitive Big Dumb Object novel.
It’s a work which manages to succeed both as an ideas novel and as one of action adventure.
Niven is one of those SF authors who chooses to set the majority of his novels in the same fictional universe, in his case in a spherical region of space approximately seventy light years in diameter which is known to his readers as ‘Known Space’.
This one-author milieu is a common practice and works for both authors and readers since although the novels do not have to be directly linked, and may be set hundreds or thousands of years apart, the background is a familiar one for readers and allows authors to explore and develop aspects of already established elements.
‘Known Space’ for Niven had already been explored in short story format, anthology collections of which are available, and in the novels ‘A Gift From Earth’ and ‘The World of Ptaavs’, and so the background was already set for the ambitious ‘Ringworld’.
Louis Wu, a two-hundred year old pilot, kept young by the effects of a longevity drug, is recruited by the alien Nessus, a Pearson’s Puppeteer, thought to be insane by the standards of his ‘cowardly’ race (a species of two-headed, three legged highly intelligent creatures, driven by a racial urge of self-protection and avoidance of danger) to investigate an artefact surrounding a star far outside Known Space.
Along with a Kzin – a ferocious feline species – and Teela Brown – a human woman genetically predisposed to being lucky – Louis and Nessus set off to investigate the anomaly.
The synopsis, put so coldly, does not do justice to what turns out to be a far more complex tale of ingenious scientific extrapolation, alien psychology, hidden motives and sheer sense of wonder.
The artefact itself is a massive ring some ninety million miles in diameter surrounding a star (Niven uses the analogy of a strip of ribbon, fifty feet long, arranged on its edge in a hoop facing a candle at the centre of the circle created). The inner surface of the ring has walls a thousand feet high and contains what is essentially an Earth environment with enough room for three million times the surface of the Earth.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between the various alien races which is very much driven by the psychology of the races involved.
By the time this novel was written we had thankfully moved away from the prevalent idea that humans (usually American humans) were natural candidates if not to rule the galaxy then at least to guide its direction or dictate policy. In EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series for instance, Humanity is the chosen race, and certainly selectively-bred members of it are destined to take over as Custodians of The Galaxy. Niven has no such pretensions here. Humans, although having come out on top in a war with the rather Klingon-esque Kzin, are technologically inferior to other races with whom they have come into contact.
The Puppeteers seem at first to be somewhat comical creatures; small, white-furred, swan-necked, two headed beasts. They are pathologically cautious and seem harmless, but as the novel progresses, Louis and the rest of the crew discover not only their overwhelming technological strength, but their rather disturbing involvement in Earth and Kzin history.
Although altruistic, the Puppeteers will go to any lengths to protect their individual or racial safety, and describing them as ‘cowards’ is, as becomes clear, imposing a human value on an alien psychology. There is a parallel again here with Doc Smith’s Lensman series and Nadrek of Palain VII whose racial psychology was almost exactly that of the Puppeteers in that individual safety was the prime motivation of the Palainian psyche. Nadrek too, was also considered ‘‘mad’’ by members of his own race since he chose to expose himself to unwarranted danger by interaction with alien races.
Again, ‘Ringworld’ is also one of those novels that should have been left as a standalone piece. The sequels, although explaining the origins of the Ringworld, decline in quality as the series progresses. This, taken in isolation however, is a masterwork by a writer at the height of his powers.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K Dick (1968)

.Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

‘War had left the Earth devastated. Through its ruins, bounty hunter Rick Deckard stalked, in search of the renegade replicants who were his prey. When he wasn’t ‘retiring’ them, he dreamed of owning the ultimate status symbol – a live animal. Then Rick got his big assignment: to kill six Nexus-6 targets for a huge reward. But things were never that simple, and Rick’s life quickly turned into a nightmare kaleidoscope of subterfuge and deceit.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition

From the first page when Dick introduces us to Rick Deckard and his wife, debating what moods to set for themselves on their Penfield mood organs, we are thrown into a world where what is real and what is fake is clearly a matter of one’s own perception. Perhaps of all Dick’s novels, this is the one where his examination of the concept of ‘the fake’ works on so many levels that the meaning of the phrase itself becomes hazy.
This is a depopulated and poisoned Earth, most of Humanity having emigrated to other planets, leaving a world of empty apartment-blocks and radiation damaged humans. Animals, having suffered the brunt of the radiation which has blighted the ecosphere, are a rarity, which makes a live animal of any sort a highly desired status symbol. Consequently, businesses have sprung up which manufacture life-like electric animals such as Deckard’s sheep, the electric sheep of the title.
Deckard is a bounty hunter, part of a team which hunt down androids, originally created as ‘slaves’ to work on pioneer planets, some of which escape and, for reasons which are not entirely clear, return to Earth to live freely, posing as humans.
The androids are the product of the Rosen association, whose work has developed to such a degree that their latest development, the Nexus-6 model, although synthetic, is virtually indistinguishable from humans, and can only be detected by psychological testing of their empathic reactions.
When Deckard’s boss is injured by one of a group of six Nexus-6 androids who have killed their owners and escaped to Earth, Deckard is giving the job of hunting down and ‘retiring’ them.
This is not a novel, however, which is as simplistic as the synopsis would suggest. Dick is using the medium to explore – as is often the case – the themes and concepts which fascinate him.
Many of the characters, for instance, are concerned with their own states of mind and their place in society. Rick’s wife, one of Dick’s trademark harpies, is seen at the start of the novel setting her Penfield Mood organ, a device which allows one to dial states of mind at will. Although used as a comic device initially, the point being made is a serious one. The Mood Organ is a metaphor for drugs, a device which allows one to experience whatever mood one chooses, and if one doesn’t have the desire to choose a mood, there is an option to dial 3 which produces a compulsive desire to dial a mood at random.
There is also a spooky foreshadowing of consumer gullibility of TV via the Buster Friendly show. Buster Friendly is a TV host who somehow manages to be live on air twenty four hours a day and also simultaneously produce a separate and quite different radio show. Most of the viewing public don’t question this, although it is obvious to the reader that Buster must be an android himself, something that is pointed out to JR Isidore later in the novel. This is something that comes as a shock to JR and – even given his chickenhead status within the novel – has disturbing parallels with contemporary society’s slightly hallowed view of TV celebrities and the media.
In terms of the novel, it is merely another fake which forces the reader – if not the characters involved – to question the reality of the world in which they have become immersed.
The novel has of course been overshadowed by its cinematic adaptation, ‘Bladerunner’. Although an excellent movie in its own right it employs the shell of the ‘DADOES’ narrative, abandoning some of the weirder aspects of the novel in favour of a Gibsonesque cyberpunk superficiality. Its success has to a certain extent served to turn ‘DADOES’ into the book of the film, which it most certainly is not.
Certainly it is in the top ranking of Dick novels, but those who come to it as a new read need to divorce themselves from comparisons with the movie and see Dick’s vision fresh and weird in a world in some way very like ours, but at the same time unsettlingly strange and filled with doubts with regard to various perceptions of reality.
Highly recommended.


A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C Clarke (1961)

A Fall of Moondust

Clarke includes a foreword in which he explains that this was written before the Moon landings when some feared that the first ship, if not the astronauts, might sink into deep dust which in a vacuum may exhibit the same properties as water.
Thus Clarke envisions The Sea of Thirst, composed entirely of moondust across which a ship might conceivably ‘sail’. The vessel is The Selene which ferries rich thrillseekers across these strange oceans of dust.
No one, however, had reckoned on a vast bubble of gas which had been making its way to the surface for aeons. The release of such pressure causes a momentary whirlpool which sucks the hapless craft below the surface as the dust settles perfectly flat once again.
Now the lunar authorities must not only locate the ship and her trapped occupants but find a way to raise her to the surface.
One can tell that this is an early work from Clarke and one which has dated somewhat. The problem here is that Clarke has not given any consideration to social development or evolution. The social mores are very much rooted in the early Sixties. From today’s perspective it’s difficult to seriously consider the concept of passengers smoking in a trans-moon vehicle as well as which the ethnic mix of the passengers seems to be disappointingly anglo-saxon. The large number of characters which is comprised of the passengers and crew, the rescue team and the media, also causes problems since there is no effective exploration or development of any of the characters. This leaves the majority of the protagonists as a little one-dimensional.
Having said that, the scientific aspects are unsurprisingly well thought out and Clarke subjects his trapped human cargo to all the pitfalls that he has envisioned given the scenario.


The Man in The High Castle – Philip K Dick (1962)

The Man in the High Castle

This is possibly the most fascinating and interesting alternate history novel of the Twentieth Century, set as it is in a world where World War II was won by the Nazis and Japan. It works in the main because Dick has avoided the cliche of going into extreme detail about the differences and concentrates on the lives of his creations in this odd alternate USA.
The plot revolves around a handful of loosely connected characters, most of which are not what they seem, but this fits nicely in with Dick’s perennial theme of the fake.
Frank Frink, for instance, at the outset of the novel works in a company where he produces fake antiques for sale due to the lucrative demand from the occupying Japanese for original antique American handicrafts (such as .44 revolvers and Mickey Mouse watches). Added to this, Frink’s name is really Fink, and he has had surgery to hide the fact that he is a Jew.
Having left his employment, Frank sets up a business with his co-worker, Ed McCarthy, making contemporary American Folk Art, based on Ed’s designs. (i.e. ‘real’ artifacts)
Robert Childan is not pretending to be anything he is not, although he runs a business dealing in ‘genuine’ US artifacts, many of them supplied to him by Frink’s employers.
One of Childan’s customers is Mr Tagomi, a Japanese businessman, who is seeking a gift for a new client.
This client is a Mr Baynes, ostensibly a Swedish businessman on a trip to discuss mould-injection processes, although in reality he is a German Counter-Intelligence agent on a mission to warn the Japanese of German plans to bomb their home islands.
Frink’s ex-wife Juliana, is a judo instructor who meets up with an Italian truck driver, Joe, who moves into her apartment and her life and persuades her to take a trip to meet Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a banned book called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’.
Both ‘Grasshopper’, which is set in a universe where the Axis powers lost, and the I-Ching run through the MITHC like a thread. It should be noted that ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ does not depict our reality since one aspect of it talks of Hitler’s trial, something which obviously did not transpire in our timeline.
The Italian, Joe, himself is a fake since in reality he is an agent on a mission to assassinate Hawthorne Abendsen.
At the time of writing, Dick, it appears, was heavily into Oriental philosophy and employed The I-Ching to determine the plot of The Man in the High Castle, and explained
“I started with nothing but the name, Mister Tagomi, written on a scrap of paper, no other notes. I had been reading a lot of Oriental philosophy, reading a lot of Zen Buddhism, reading the I Ching. That was the Marin County zeitgeist, at that point; Zen Buddhism and the I Ching. I just started right out and kept on trucking.” In the event, he blamed the I Ching for plot incidents he disliked: “When it came to close down the novel, the I Ching had no more to say. So, there’s no real ending on it. I like to regard it as an open ending”.

“Hour 25: A Talk With Philip K. Dick”. philipKdick.com. Formerly posted at http://www.philipkdickfans.com/frank/hour25.htm.

There are strange connections between these characters, such as those between Mr Tagomi and Frank Frink, who never meet. Mr Tagomi buys a piece of Frank’s jewellery from Robert Childan (who was initially planning to swindle Frink and McCarthy) who has discovered from a Japanese client that the jewellery contains ‘wu’ or inner truth.
This leads Mr Tagomi, meditating on the jewellery, to shift temporarily to either the ‘grasshopper’ world or our world, a world where the San Franciscans are not deferential to the Japanese.
Later, Frank Frink is arrested when the authorities find out he is a Jew, but he is unexpectedly freed by Mr Tagomi, who orders his release merely to make a point to the local German authorities.

Highly recommended.