Sunday, March 17, 2019

"Adjustment Team" (1954)

This story by Philip K. Dick works from a premise that is essentially chaos theory, though it didn't have the name yet in 1954. The famous example is the butterfly in Brazil that causes a hurricane in Texas through a chain of random cause-and-effect events. In Dick's story there are figures behind the scenes, pulling the strings to keep things on track according to some master plan—basically, making sure the butterfly is where it's supposed to be and that it's flapping its wings. Obviously these folks have extraordinary powers, as supernatural or divine or at least superior beings. In the way that things happen in stories by Philip Dick, a random person named Ed Fletcher is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Somebody on the "adjustment team" botched their assignment. And Fletcher sees things he shouldn't have seen. What he sees is the great strength of this story, an inspired vision of gray dust. The rest of it is little more than pro forma plotting for the sake of a beginning and end. More than 50 years later, in 2011, it was made into a thriller style movie starring Matt Damon, The Adjustment Bureau. Damon plays David Norris, the renamed Ed Fletcher character, and more new glitzy details have been heaped on—Norris is a high-flying New York politician, he falls in love with a woman played by Emily Blunt he is "not supposed to be with," and the "adjustment bureau" hunting him includes John Slattery and Terence Stamp, looking like auditions for The Matrix. The movie does a pretty good job of maintaining a Dickian air, but it also should be mentioned that in some ways "Adjustment Team" is an early sign of Dick's religious bent, as what else are these technocrats of reality but some kind of angel or perhaps demon working for higher powers? Also, note again Dick's ability to suss things out of the air when they're about to break big, in this case chaos theory. But the best part of either story or movie is Dick's stark vision of the gray "real" reality behind the one we live in. The movie does attempt one scene like it, briefly, in a conference room, but can't match or even come close to Dick's vision and was wise to stop there. In more general terms the story feels a little too long and padded out, as if Dick needed to hit a certain word count. It's not one of his best, but serves notice that even not his best can have really strong things to recommend.

In case it's not at the library.

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