Sunday, November 09, 2014

Martian Time-Slip (1962)

Martian Time-Slip is the first novel by Philip K. Dick that well and truly blew my mind. On subsequent revisits I isolated the effect essentially to one chapter, featuring an example of the title concept, which is only explained tangentially, indirectly, by recourse to various important words that are not exactly as we understand them, today or then, the most important of which is "schizophrenia." One important character here, Jack Bohlen, is described as "ex-schizophrenic." The paranormal abilities of another important character, the autistic boy Manfred Steiner—"autism" also gets a Dickian treatment—are equally grounded in terms of "faux" mental illness. Then there are the native Martians—yes, the book is set on Mars, in the 1990s—called "Bleekmen," who are similarly able to unplug from the perceived time stream. As a plot element, the Bleekmen remind me a good deal of aborigines in movies by Nicholas Roeg and Peter Weir. Finally, there is a can-do American spirit of the '50s, crystallized most in the person of Arnie Kott, a corrupt union official and small-time despot. In the background are the harsh conditions of Mars and the bored empty lives of the humans living there. Arnie—he insists everyone call him "Arnie," coldly correcting anyone who calls him "Mr. Kott"—wants a schizophrenic who can predict the future—more accurately, project into the future—in order to get a leg up on his business competition. He drafts first Jack and then Manfred to his cause. The results for Arnie play much like a situation comedy. He just can't catch a break, can't win for losing, what does he gotta do, etc. Through the welter of random and often unmotivated betrayals, snafus, and setbacks, Arnie finally settles on a single point in time to go back to in order to attempt to change the course of events. The book is chronological, so that means we can see the moment of time and Arnie's attempted interference with it before we really understand what is going on. Dick pitches his action and tone at unbelievably bland levels—his language is rarely heightened but almost dead, which provides a rich loam for his bizarre and troubling ideas. Thus the particular chapter I'm talking about (10) plays like a malfunctioning machine, continually resetting itself. It is subtle, and quite terrifying, and no level of rational explanation later (which is neat enough but ultimately not enough, in terms of credibility) even comes close to a weird new sense of reality, which never goes away. Or maybe probably that should be with the scare quotes: "reality." This is a great one.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Been reading your latest posts, but too busy to comment. But whenever I see PKD, I have to raise my hand in delight. And here, you've chosen one of my favorites. The last few sentences do a great job of explaining (or maybe probably that should be "explaining") how Dick's novels seem to work.