Archive for pkd

Time-Slips and Tesla Coils and Opal, oh my!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2011 by theclockworm

After doing a little research on opal (prompted by that last little single-cell), I came across something interesting:

The Halley’s Comet Opal is “an example of a nobby, which is a natural lump-shaped opal found only at Lightning Ridge [Australia].”

If you’ll recall, the Martians in Martian Time-Slip worship a rock formation called “Dirty Knobby.” The parallels between the Bleekmen and the Australian Aborigines have never been hard to see, but this seems to be a potential bit of insight into Dick’s research. Mars in MTS could very well serve as a representation of Australia in many ways, with the working poor taking the place of the “criminals” who populated Australia in the early days of colonization. More likely, Dick simply saw the colonization of Australia as one example of a much larger trend in human history, one he assumed would likely follow us to other worlds.

I have also wondered if perhaps Dirty Knobby is related in some way to Knob Hill, where Tesla did some of his major experiments and had some of his more out-there ideas about the earth as a resonant body and FTL travel. I could see Manfred Steiner as the brilliant but much-abused Tesla, a man “not of his time,” Arnie Kott as the government that used him, ruined him and left him penniless, and Dirty Knobby as the source of the strange earth-borne power that, when harnessed, can be quite powerful, but is seldom believed to be real. Not that I’m siding with the free-energy theorists on this whole thing; I don’t know enough to make a statement, and I am fairly skeptical to say the least.

I must say, I’m getting a little weirded out by all the Australia references that seem to keep popping up lately. I’ve been re-reading Sam Kieth’s wonderful series The Maxx , and it is still just as wonderful as it used to be. After following The Maxx and Julie through their literalized subconscious plain, “the Outback,” I am starting to wonder if Valis is trying to tell me something…

In other news, I didn’t end up making it to the Sci-Fi Saturday event I mentioned last week. Alas, I missed all the fun. Again. But I want to take a moment again to recognize the people who made it happen. Real community is hard to come by these days.

Tomorrow I send off my first story for consideration at Clarkesworld. Wish me luck.

Lastly, I just thought you might want to know that this exists.

*Update:  So I wondered if anyone else had made the Tesla connection. It turns out someone has, though I’m not sure what it says about me that I share ideas with this guy. I’m not even really sure what this page is all about (the internet is so diffused in purpose and affiliation these days – something I plan to talk about sometime), but close to the bottom is a comment by “DracOverLordHaton” that demands…well, I don’t know what. But I’m fairly certain it’s demanding something.

What I really like about it is how, after stating the connection between Knob Hill and Dirty Knobby as fact, with no further information,  it immediately transforms into a tirade about how the Total Recall movie doesn’t credit the other PKD works it takes ideas from (he’s right, by the way, especially about Dr. Bloodmoney), but he never mentions Dick by name. Not even those ubiquitous initials.

Also, apparently Oliver Sacks has theorized that Tesla had Asperger’s Syndrome. For what it’s worth.

In Defense of a “Crap Artist”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 7, 2011 by theclockworm

I’ve been struggling to find the right way to start writing about Philip K. Dick. I think this is a good point of departure; it sums up my feelings on what makes him important. My thoughts can come later.

I’m going to riff on a comment I left on David Gill’s inestimable TotalDickHead blog, which is where you should go if you want to read insightful stuff about the man and his work.

Gill talks a lot about what he calls the Philip K. Dick Article Machine, characterized mainly by a few repeated (and usually, to Dickheads, excruciatingly annoying and limited) motifs. In my approximation, these are the primary themes:

1. PKD was mentally ill
2. PKD was a drug addict
3. PKD was really into hallucinogenic drugs, in particular LSD
4. PKD was an untalented pulp-writer
5. PKD wrote crazy, paranoid stories that scarcely make sense.
6. Only his ideas are relevant – not his writing or his books

I’m sure I’m leaving some points out. But essentially, this is what almost all articles on Dick put forth, and it serves to reinforce his identity in popular culture.

Let’s be frank: some of the things on the list are true, at least conditionally, or at certain times in his life. Some of those things might have been true, but are difficult to prove and have many detractors, even within the pool of people who knew him well. Some are half-true in a way that is worse than a lie.

Certainly he did use and abuse amphetamines for many years. But some of his most relevant works were written during a time when he was ostensibly off drugs entirely. Whether or not he used psychedelic drugs at all (subject to much debate and not interesting in my opinion), it was infrequent at most, and certainly did not define his work or world-view.

Most people would agree that on some level he was mentally ill. That’s a broad term though, and without qualification, it doesn’t say much of anything. But that’s all beside the point. The real reason it’s offensive is that Dick’s “mental illness” isn’t called up for the sake of accurately describing his life, or in an attempt to gain insight into how he worked; it’s used to explain things away instead of shedding light on a complex individual. It’s injected to cordon off his work, to determine its limitations – the extreme boundaries of his ideas on one side and his “bad writing” on the other.

It’s a lot like how the drug-use thing is employed – as a way of reassuring the reader that these are the notions of an unclear mind, thoughts only a crazy person or a drug-addict could conjure up. It utterly devalues them. And it strips them of their true power: that they’re oftentimes frighteningly plausible.

This whole phenomenon is an extension of the sort of low-level prejudice we still hold against mental illness, and it rubs me the wrong way. A person can be brilliant and mentally ill, or just unstable; maybe they’re connected, maybe not. But the question isn’t whether they’re connected, or how, or in what ways. The question, when discussing literature, should only be whether there’s brilliance there, or talent, or value. Understanding a man’s work by attempting to understand him is very different from bounding him in by his perceived limitations. And, as Gill pointed out recently, there’s also the way these explanations lack empathy. All the facts about a person’s life won’t give you any insight if you can’t imagine how it felt to be him.

While all those things bother me, the item I take the most issue with is this totally ubiquitous “bad writer” moniker. Yes, sometimes he was a bad writer. But sometimes he was a beautiful writer, with a singular, fully realized voice. Take Valis, or Timothy Archer, or parts of Martian Time-Slip. Take Radio Free Albemuth or Flow My Tears or (for fuck’s sake), Confessions of a Crap Artist.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely agree that Dick was an “idea” writer. And yes, in the end, some of his less eloquent novels can seem to be, at most, vessels for those ideas – ideas stunning and challenging enough that, were he nothing more than the mind which conjured them into being, he would still be of immense value.

But that simply isn’t the case. That’s not where he ends. In fact, he “ends” with three novels (actually, four – Radio Free Albemuth is a central fourth book in the Valis “trilogy”) that are, with minor exceptions, masterpieces: of concept and of style, of the intellectual and of the personal, of idea and of voice. Valis, for all its mind-bending theological speculation, for all its enchanting introductions to esoteric Gnostic sects and three-eyed rock stars, is most important to me because of the way it treats its characters – namely, with a somber, sober, loving honesty, a capacity to question offset by an insistence on empathy.

For an idea writer, Dick could certainly write about people. And for all the flat characters in some earlier material, for all the diabolical women that taint some otherwise competent works, his hits, when it comes to grasping the human condition, overwhelm his misses, in mass if not in number.

I offer for the defense: The interplay between Phil Dick and Horselover Fat in Valis. The theological implications of a dead cat. Manfred Steiner’s inner hell. Angel Archer’s wandering sense of loss. Mourning the satellite in RFA. Jack Bohlen’s slow disappearance into himself. Jack Isidore in his entirety.

As for writing style, what began as a tin-can pulp writer’s voice, stumbling with varying degrees of efficacy through the run-walk-run pacing of amphetamine abuse, tripping over a clunky wordiness grown from a desire to be both academic and expedient, ended up, in these later books, worldly, eloquent, one-of-a-kind . Fans know this voice well: it’s a big baritone, rough around the edges, with a sort of salvific remorse; its sadness comes from having loved imperfectly.

So much of what makes Phil Dick special is that very arc of change: that he rose above his weaknesses to accomplish a few masterpieces and a handful of near-masterpieces. Leaving out the second half of this story is more than a small omission. It drastically de-contextualizes the man’s life and his work.

A redemption story is a tragedy until the last scene. To miss his successes is to misunderstand him completely.