In 1964 Philip K. Dick published the novel Martian Time-Slip. It’s the first of PKD’s works I’ve ever read, and I’m convinced that it’s my favorite thing I’ve read this year. I’m not sure how I avoided an author of the stature of PKD for so long- especially given how prolific he is. Most of you probably know him as the guy that wrote the novels The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?– both of which are ingrained into the public consciousness through successful adaptations to film and TV respectively. I was always aware of Philip K. Dick- you can’t really claim to be a voracious reader, particularly of science fiction, if you aren’t- but I had simply never been tempted to check him out before. This year I’ve made a return to science fiction and thoroughly enjoyed my reading of Robert A. Heinlein and Gene Wolfe. PKD is as big as it gets when it comes to science fiction, and despite passing away in 1982 his works are adored to this day by a large number of fans. He is one of those authors, like Franz Kafka or Flannery O’Connor, whose body of work is known for its distinctive style and atmosphere. His legacy is such that certain stories can be characterized Dick-esque. What an unfortunate term. But you get what I mean; the popular movie franchise The Matrix was famous for evoking the atmosphere of PKD stories. PKD was concerned with the themes of authoritarianism, the nature of reality, drugs, mental illness, transcendental experiences, and altered states of consciousness. These were the ideas he was obsessed with and continually explored throughout his vast bibliography, and all are present in The Martian Time-Slip.
I want you to read this book if you haven’t, so I will offer you a short premise of the plot with which to tease you. It’s the near-future (which, when this book was written, was the early 1990s) and an overpopulated Earth has started colonizing the solar system. Our story takes place on Mars- a cold, dry and arid world where isolated homesteaders live in various, independent colonies that each represents a vested interest back on Earth. The UN keeps the peace between them, but the de facto power on Mars is the powerful Water Works Union, headed up by the tyrannical Arnie Kott. The novel follows several characters that are each affected by Arnie’s lust for power: Jack- a schizophrenic repairman, Silvia- his lonely wife, Doreen- Arnie’s mistress, and Manfred- an autistic boy who is tortured with the memories of his future self in a potential timeline. The crux of the novel is about Arnie trying to use Manfred to see into the future and thereby further his own interests and maintain his corporate monopoly, and how this affects not just them, but everyone around him. The book presents a fascinating and memorable depiction of schizophrenia, and there are several passages where the nature of reality gets twisted. We are left wondering how much of it is strictly in the mind of the characters. I would argue that a central theme of this novel is communication. Silvia is lonely, addicted to drugs, and struggles to communicate and understand her husband. Jack’s passages are perhaps the most interesting as we see how difficult it is for him to communicate with others; there’s a haunting, nightmarish quality to the book’s portrayal of schizophrenia that is at once chilling and sensual. And much of the book’s action sees the various characters attempt to communicate and understand Manfred, who is non-verbal. I have two cousins who are autistic, and I myself was suspected of having ASD when I was a child, so I found the novel’s focus on autism as being a communicative impasse to be very interesting. Obviously, the book was written in the early 60’s, so I wouldn’t come to this book with the hope of truly learning anything about autism, but it’s just interesting to see someone write about it from that time.
But why did I love this book so much? The first post I ever made on this blog was a review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus and like this one, it was a book of philosophical complexity that explored interesting ideas. However that book was not really a page-turner; I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy William Faulkner- it was fulfilling, enriching and it left me with the feeling of having completed a mental workout. What was so special about Martian Time-Slip was how much of a page-turner it was for me. Sometimes the more complex science fiction novels fall in to the trap of excising the human element of the story. The Fifth Head of Cerberus was great but it was also bleak and unsentimental. What I love about Martian Time-Slip is that not only is it highly nuanced and thought-provoking, but it’s a book with a lot of heart. I found myself deeply invested in the characters and their situation, and I read this book very quickly. It was the kind of book where you stay up another half-hour in bed and squeeze out one more chapter, because you have to know what will happen next and whether your favorite character will be ok. And that’s why, so far, this book is probably my favorite that I have read this year. I will definitely pursue more of Philip K. Dick’s work.
Any other PKD fans out there? Let me know in the comments what your favorite novel of his is! If you enjoyed this post and want to see more content like this, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe. Thanks for reading!