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Sunday 30 January 2011

Precogging Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick has a reputation, both among academics and general readers, that places him far above the other science fiction writers of his time. It's true that much of his work belongs solidly in the mainstream of literature -- the scathing social satires of the early period, the character-rich novels of the middle period (often closer to soap opera than traditional space opera), and above all the inimitable "religion, drugs and rock & roll" ethos of the late works. But by focusing on Dick in isolation from his SF contemporaries, it's possible that some of his zanier plots and ideas are seen as original or unique when in fact they aren't.

Quite a lot of "Dickian" SF was produced in the 1940s, before Dick himself began to write, by then-popular (but now-obscure) authors such as A.E. Van Vogt, Eric Frank Russell, Fredric Brown and Henry Kuttner. The hero of Van Vogt's magnum opus The World of Null-A (1945) discovers that all his memories are false, and that he is a pawn in a huge power struggle between the politicians and shadowy background players. The government in Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary (1948) sabotages its own space missions, while the power behind the government is a secret society run by paranoid schizophrenics. But -- although obscure -- books such as these are not yet completely forgotten by academics. For a pre-Dick Dickian novel that is totally unknown to them we need to turn to Richard Shaver (1907 - 75).

Shaver is remembered today as the originator of the pseudo-factual Shaver Mystery, but during the 1940s and early 50s he was also a fairly prolific science fiction author. His novel The Mind Rovers was published in the January 1947 issue of Amazing Stories, and has never been reprinted. I have no idea if Philip K. Dick ever read it, but it's about as Dickian a tale as you could ever find. The story is narrated in the first person by a character who may be sane or insane... if the latter, then the situations and events in the story may have no objective reality at all. The narrator is an inmate in prison -- as are all good, healthy young Americans in this particular world. The government is run by the mob, and the mob is run by Klug -- an ex-Nazi who escaped from Germany at the end of the War (less than two years ago: the story is set in the "present"). The hero and some of the other convicts learn how to dream themselves into other people's brains, which are like miniature worlds... modeled after the dreams of the person in question, and populated by tiny people some of whom are real (like themselves, who have mastered the technique of mind-roving) while others are imaginary constructs of the subject's brain. By hopping between brains, they eventually find their way into Klug's brain for a final showdown with the Nazi tyrant...


Ross said...

Van Vogt's THE WORLD OF NULL-A was one of Dick's favorite SF novels (source: DIVINE INVASIONS: A LIFE OF PHILIP K. DICK by Lawrence Sutin), and Dick used that book's concept of implanted, false memories to great effect in his classic story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," on which the popular TOTAL RECALL movie was based. (I haven't seen the newer TOTAL RECALL movie, but I've always enjoyed the "Arnold" original.)
There has been an abundance of scholarly work on Dick (some of it quite excellent), but van Vogt has received very little academic attention. I hope this will change; van Vogt's works, often startlingly original and thought-provoking, deserve deeper analysis. Dick scholars, especially, should be interested in exploring the connections between the works of van Vogt and Dick.

Andrew May said...

Authors' reputations (both with fans and academics) are a strange thing. When I started reading SF in the early 70s, both Dick and Van Vogt featured prominently on the SF shelves -- even mainstream bookstores often had a dozen different titles by each of them. Although they were prolific and popular writers, neither of them was considered to be at the top of the SF profession (this was 1972-74). For reasons I can't remember, I latched onto PKD very quickly, but never had much interest in VV. By 1990 I had read almost everything by Dick, and it was only then that I started to read Van Vogt. By this time, Dick was one of the biggest names in SF, and VV had fallen into obscurity! Like you I was struck by the similarities of style and theme, but I can see why academics don't have much time for Van Vogt. For one thing, the level of characterization in VV is typical of hack fiction (stereotypical and/or non-existent) while in PKD it is comparable to the best literary fiction. And PKD reflects the popular zeitgeist of his times, whereas VV is often just wacky escapism. So sadly I can't see him ever really attracting academic interest.

Having just searched my own blog for Van Vogt, I see I've mentioned him 4 or 5 times. I will have to add him to my tag cloud!