Friday, August 04, 2006


It was Fred Jameson, the Stephen Colbert of literary theory, who first called Robert Duncan’s onetime housemate, Philip K. Dick, the “Shakespeare of Science Fiction,” a superlative that caught on, but ultimately does nobody all that much good. Still, reading even a secondary work of his, such as The Simulacra, you realize pretty much why Jameson, whose usual mode of characterization is dour & cynical, was provoked into making such a grandiose claim.

Like many of Dick’s books, The Simulacra succeeds in spite of itself. The work is less of a complete thought in & of itself & more of a series of terrific beginnings. There are, tucked in its 214 pages, the embryonic form of at least a dozen wonderful, well-formed, science fiction novels. Some of these include:

What happens when a post-apocalyptic version of the U.S. (now merged with Germany) outlaws psychoanalysis in favor of shorter term therapies that center on the prescription of psychoactive pharmaceuticals. As told from the perspective of the last psychoanalyst.

What would happen if a group of human beings mutated and began to take on the dynamics of evolving into a new species? How would the old species of homo sapiens react & relate to them?

The U.S. government is run by a secret cabal who use a figurehead – a simulacra (what we would now call an android) – as president.

Government has become an extension of celebrity – indeed the First Lady is so popular that the president is whoever happens to be married to her at the moment, which is determined by election. The First Lady is young & beautiful & never appears to age, which nobody seems to notice, not even after many, many decades.

The leading psychokinetic concert pianist – he plays without touching the keys – goes insane. In the process, he begins to understand that this skill can be put to other uses.

Time travel enables those who control to not only see into the future, but to control the past, going back, say, to persuade the Nazis not to bring on the holocaust. Different groups with different agendas compete in going back to alter events so that the future develops in ways more favorable to their causes. This gradually develops into a constantly under revision game of chess. Whoever can alter the future in ways that the other side has not anticipated (and already prepared for) wins.

The politics of government contracts, as seen from the vantage of two brothers, one of whom works for a large Haliburton-like conglomerate used to no-bid contracts & inside information, the other of whom works for a small start-up, not unlike a Silicon Valley dot com group. The wife of one brother abandons him for the other.

Everything in this administered dystopia is regulated through your housing. For you to maintain your residence, you must pass tests and be retested on a regular basis. The politics of such testing and how they play out in the lives of a single, 10,000 unit building.

The frontiers on Earth have all been urbanized, if not exactly civilized. People who crave space & land are doing what they’ve always done, emigrating, only this time its to the dustbowl called Mars.

I’m sure I’m leaving out some obvious ones, but I think the point is clear. Rather than telling “a story,” Dick offers his readers here so many different and incomplete angles into the narrative at hand, not one of them developed fully or really to completion, that the result is dizzying – one moves so often from tale to tale that one is left breathless, pining almost to see one or more of these waded into as fully as a Neal Stephenson or Lucius Shepherd might be able to accomplish. It’s that breathless darting from tale to tale that is the signature Dick effect, a consequence no doubt of his methamphetamine habit (as, at least partly, is the deep paranoia that underlies so many of these tales). If his characters seem flat, how does that make them different from those of William Gibson or Isaac Asimov? If he seems insensitive to the sensual possibilities of sentence & paragraph, how does that make him different from (long list here, starting with Rudy Rucker, the aforementioned Asimov & maybe including many of the crime novelists as well, starting with Robert B. “I’m so literary” Parker)? Or, for that matter, Dan Brown?

The incompleteness of Dick’s narrative threads is essential to their power. It is, in fact, directly related to Shakespeare’s most important literary device, leaving out key elements from his source materials so that his characters appear to act without sufficient external cause. That’s what gives Macbeth & Othello & Hamlet their opacity, their materiality, their depth – it’s what makes them ”real.” Dick isn’t after the same effect here –he’s not character-centric n the same way, it’s not people he’s after but worlds. Dick wants to show us a realm so rich in potentiality that its Otherness, its absolute Oddness is unmistakable, and that’s what makes his vision credible (a better word here than believable). It’s also why (and how) Hollywood can get a nearly infinite number of film plots from his writing – you don’t need an entire book: any one of the threads above could be fleshed out into a 120-page film script pretty directly. But it may also be why the most faithful renditions of his work into cinema don’t necessarily translate that well to film.

So, yeah, maybe Jameson’s claim is an instance – it’s not like he’s done this before – of theory gone slumming. Maybe Dick wasn’t Shakespeare on crystal. But the idea isn’t as off the mark as it might seem either.

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