Philip Dick does not lead his critics an easy life, since he does not so much play the part of a guide through his phantasmagoric worlds as give the impression of one lost in their labyrinth. He has stood all the more in need of critical assistance, but he has not received it. A characteristic of Dick ’s work, after its ambiguity as to genre, is its tawdriness, which is reminiscent of the goods offered at country fairs by primitive craftsmen who are at once clever and naive, possessed of more talent than self-knowledge. Dick has as a rule taken over a rubble of building materials from the run-of-the-mill American professionals of SF, frequently adding a true gleam of originality to worn-out concepts, and erecting with such materials constructions truly his own. The world gone mad, with a spasmodic flow of time and a network of causes and effects which wriggles as if nauseated, the world of frenzied physics, is unquestionably his invention. If Dick’s writings are neither of uniform quality nor fully realized, still it is only by brute force that they can be jammed into that pulp of materials, destitute of intellectual value and original structure, which makes up SF. Its fans are attracted by the worst in Dick—the typical dash of American SF, reaching to the stars, and the headlong pace of action moving from one surprise to the next—but they hold it against him that, instead of unraveling puzzles, he leaves the reader at the end on the battlefield, enveloped in an aura of mystery as grotesque as it is strange. Yet his bizarre blending of hallucinogenic and palingenetic techniques have not won him many admirers outside the ghetto walls, since outsiders are repelled by the shoddiness of the props he has adopted from the inventory of SF.
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by Stanisław Lem
Translated from the Polish by Robert Abernathy
No one in his right mind seeks the psychological truth about crime in detective stories. Whoever seeks such truth will turn rather to Crime and Punishment. In relation to Agatha Christie, Dostoevsky constitutes a higher court of appeal, yet no one in his right mind will condemn the English author’s stories on this account. They have a right to be treated as the entertaining thrillers they are, and the tasks Dostoevsky set himself are foreign to them.
If anyone is dissatisfied with SF in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal from this genre. There would be no harm in this, save that American SF, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought. One is annoyed by the pretentiousness of a genre which fends off accusations of primitivism by pleading its entertainment character and then, once such accusations have been silenced, renews its overweening claims. By being one thing and purporting to be another, SF promotes a mystification which, moreover, goes on with the tacit consent of readers and public. The development of interest in SF at American universities has, contrary to what might have been expected, altered nothing in this state of affairs. In all candor it must be said, though one risk perpetrating a crime laesae Almae Matris, that the critical methods of theoreticians of literature are inadequate in the face of the deceptive tactics of SF. But it is not hard to grasp the reason for this paradox: if the only fictional works treating of problems of crime were like those of Agatha Christie, then to just what kind of books could even the most scholarly critic appeal in order to demonstrate the intellectual poverty and artistic mediocrity of the detective thriller? Qualitative norms and upper limits are established in literature by concrete works and not by critics’ postulates. No mountain of theoretical lucubrations can compensate for the absence of an outstanding fictional work as a lofty model. The criticism of experts in historiography did not undermine the status of Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy, for there was no Polish Leo Tolstoy to devote a War and Peace to the period of the Cossack and Swedish wars. In short, inter caecos luscus rex-where there is nothing first-rate, its role will be taken over by mediocrity, which sets itself facile goals and achieves them by facile means.
What the absence of such model works leads to is shown, more plainly than by any abstract discussions, by the change of heart which Damon Knight, both author and respected critic, expressed in SFS #3. Knight declared himself to have been mistaken earlier in attacking books by van Vogt for their incoherence and irrationalism, on the grounds that, if van Vogt enjoys an enormous readership, he must by that very fact be on the right track as an author, and that it is wrong for criticism to discredit such writing in the name of arbitrary values, if the reading public does not want to recognize such values. The job of criticism is, rather, to discover those traits to which the work owes its popularity. Such words, from a man who struggled for years to stamp out tawdriness in SF, are more than the admission of a personal defeat—they are the diagnosis of a general condition. If even the perennial defender of artistic values has laid down his arms, what can lesser spirits hope to accomplish in this situation?
Indeed, the possibility cannot be ruled out that Joseph Conrad’s elevated description of literature as rendering “the highest kind of truth to the visible universe” may become an anachronism—that the independence of literature from fashion and demand may vanish outside SF as well, and then whatever reaps immediate applause as a best-seller will be identified with what is most worthwhile. That would be a gloomy prospect. The culture of any period is a mixture of that which docilely caters to passing whims and fancies and that which transcends these things—and may also pass judgment on them. Whatever defers to current tastes becomes an entertainment which achieves success immediately or not at all, for there is no such thing as a stage-magic exhibition or a football game which, unrecognized today, will become famous a hundred years from now. Literature is another matter: it is created by a process of natural selection of values, which takes place in society and which does not necessarily relegate works to obscurity if they are also entertainment, but which consigns them to oblivion if they are only entertainment. Why is this so? Much could be said about this. If the concept of the human being as an individual who desires of society and of the world something more than immediate satisfactions were abolished, then the difference between literature and entertainment would likewise disappear. But since we do not as yet identify the dexterity of a conjurer with the personal expression of a relationship to the world, we cannot measure literary values by numbers of books sold.
But how does it ever happen that something which is less popular can, in the historical long run, hold its own against that which scores prompt successes and even contrives to silence its opponents? This results from the aforementioned natural selection in culture, strikingly similar to such selection in biological evolution. The changes by virtue of which some species yield place to others on the evolutionary scene are seldom consequences of great cataclysms. Let the progeny of one species out-survive that of another by a margin of only one in a million, and by and by only the former species will remain alive—though the difference between the chances of the two is imperceptible at short range. So it is also in culture: books which in the eyes of their contemporaries are so alike as to be peers part company as the years go by; facile charm, being ephemeral, gives way at last to that which is more difficult to perceive. Thus regularities in the rise and decline of literary works come into being and give direction to the development of the spiritual culture of an age.
Nevertheless, there can be circumstances that frustrate this process of natural selection. In biological evolution the result will be retrogression, degeneration, or at the very least developmental stagnation, typical of populations isolated from the outside world and vitiated by inbreeding, since these are most lacking in the fruitful diversity that is guaranteed only by openness to all the world’s influences. In culture an analogous situation leads to the emergence of enclaves shut up in ghettos, where intellectual production likewise stagnates because of inbreeding in the form of incessant repetition of the selfsame creative patterns and techniques. The internal dynamics of the ghetto may appear to be intense, but with the passage of years it becomes evident that this is only a semblance of motion, since it leads nowhere, since it neither feeds into nor is fed by the open domain of culture, since it does not generate new patterns or trends, and since finally it nurses the falsest of notions about itself, for lack of any honest evaluation of its activities from outside. The books of the ghetto assimilate themselves to one another, becoming an anonymous mass, while such surroundings thrust whatever is better downward toward the worse, so that works of differing quality meet one another halfway, as it were, in the leveling process forced upon them. In such a situation publishing success not only may but must become the sole standard of evaluation, since a vacuum of standards is impossible. Hence, where there are no ratings on the merits, these are replaced by ratings on a commercial basis.
Just such a situation reigns in American SF, which is a domain of herd creativity. Its herd character manifests itself in the fact that books by different authors become as it were different sessions of playing at one and the same game or various figures of the selfsame dance. It should be emphasized that, in literary culture as in natural evolution, effects become causes by virtue of feedback loops: the artistic-intellectual passivity and mediocrity of works touted as brilliant repel the more exigent authors and readers, so that the loss of individuality in SF is at once a cause and an effect of ghetto seclusion. In SF there is little room left for creative work that would aspire to deal with problems of our time without mystification, oversimplification, or facile entertainment: e.g., for work which would reflect on the place that Reason can occupy in the Universe, on the outer limits of concepts formed on Earth as instruments of cognition, or on such consequences of contacts with extraterrestrial life as find no place in the desperately primitive repertoire of SF devices (bounded by the alternative “we win”/”they win”). These devices bear much the same relation to serious treatment of problems of the kind mentioned as does the detective story to the problems of evil inherent in mankind. Whoever brings up the heavy artillery of comparative ethnology, cultural anthropology and sociology against such devices is told that he is using cannon to shoot sparrows, since it is merely a matter of entertainment; once he falls silent, the voices of the apologists for the culture-shaping, anticipative, predictive and mythopoeic role of SF are raised anew. SF behaves rather like a conjurer pulling rabbits from a hat, who, threatened with a search of his belongings, pretends to think we are crazy to suggest this and indulgently explains that he is just performing tricks—after which we promptly hear that he is passing himself off in public for an authentic thaumaturge.
IS CREATIVE WORK WITHOUT MYSTIFICATION possible in such an environment? An answer to this question is given by the stories of Philip K. Dick. While these stand out from the background against which they have originated, it is not easy to capture the ways in which they do, since Dick employs the same materials and theatrical props as other American writers. From the warehouse which has long since become their common property, he takes the whole threadbare lot of telepaths, cosmic wars, parallel worlds, and time travel. In his stories terrible catastrophes happen, but this too is no exception to the rule, for lengthening the list of sophisticated ways in which the world can end is among the standard preoccupations of SF. But where other SF writers explicitly name and delimit the source of the disaster, whether social (terrestrial or cosmic war) or natural (elemental forces of nature), the world of Dick’s stories suffers dire changes for reasons which remain unascertainable to the end. People perish not because a nova or a war has erupted, not because of flood, famine, plague, drought, or sterility, nor because the Martians have landed on our doorstep; rather, there is some inscrutable factor at work which is visible in its manifestations but not at its source, and the world behaves as if it has fallen prey to a malignant cancer which through metastases attacks one area of life after another. This is, be it said forthwith, apposite as a castigation of historiographic diagnostics, since in fact humanity does not as a rule succeed in exhaustively or conclusively diagnosing the causes of the afflictions which befall it. It is sufficient to recall how many diverse and in part mutually exclusive factors are nowadays adduced by experts as sources of the crisis of civilization. And this, be it added, is also appropriate as an artistic presupposition, since literature which furnishes the reader with godlike omniscience about all narrated events is today an anachronism which neither the theory of art nor the theory of knowledge will undertake to defend.
The forces which bring about world debacle in Dick’s books are fantastic, but they are not merely invented ad hoc to shock the readers. We shall show this on the example of Ubik, a work which, by the way, can also be regarded as a fantastic grotesque, a “macabresque” with obscure allegorical subtexts, decked out in the guise of ordinary SF.
If, however, it is viewed as a work of SF proper the contents of Ubik can be most simply summarized as follows:
Telepathic phenomena, having been mastered in the context of capitalistic society, have undergone commercialization like every other technological innovation. So businessmen hire telepaths to steal trade secrets from their competitors, and the latter for their part defend themselves against this “extrasensory industrial espionage” with the aid of “inertials,” people whose psyches nullify the “psi field” that makes it possible to receive others’ thoughts. By way of specialization, firms have sprung up which rent out telepaths and “inertials” by the hour, and the “strong man” Glen Runciter is the proprietor of such a firm. The medical profession has learned how to arrest the agony of victims of mortal ailments, but still has no means of curing them. Such people are therefore kept in a state of “half-life” in special institutions, “moratoriums” (a kind of “places of postponement”—of death, obviously). If they merely rested there unconscious in their icy caskets, that would be small comfort for their surviving kin. So a technique has been developed for maintaining the mental life of such people in “cold-pac.” The world which they experience is not part of reality, but a fiction created by appropriate methods. None the less, normal people can make contact with the frozen ones, for the cold-sleep apparatus has means to this end built into it, something on the order of a telephone.
This idea is not altogether absurd in terms of scientific facts: the concept of freezing the incurably ill to await the time when remedies for their diseases will be found has already come in for serious discussion. It would also be possible in principle to maintain vital processes in a person’s brain when the body dies (to be sure, that brain would rapidly suffer psychological disintegration as a consequence of sensory deprivation). We know that stimulation of the brain by electrodes produces in the subject of such an operation experiences indistinguishable from ordinary perceptions. In Dick we find a perfected extension of such techniques, though he does not discuss this explicitly in the story. Numerous dilemmas arise here: should the “half-lifer” be informed of his condition? Is it right to keep him under the illusion that he is leading a normal life?
According to Ubik, people who, like Runciter’s wife, have spent years in cold sleep are well aware of the fact. It is another matter with those who, like Joe Chip, have come close to meeting with a violent end and have regained consciousness imagining that they have escaped death, whereas in fact they are resting in a moratorium. In the book, it must be admitted, this is an unclear point, which is however masked by another dilemma: for, if the world of the frozen person’s experiences is a purely subjective one, then any intervention in that world from outside must be for him a phenomenon which upsets the normal course of things. So if someone communicates with the frozen one, as Runciter does with Chip, this contact is accompanied in Chip’s experiences by uncanny and startling phenomena—for it is as if waking reality were breaking into the midst of a dream “only from one side,” without thereby causing extinction of the dream and wakening of the sleeper (who, after all, cannot wake up like a normal man because he is not a normal man). But, to go a step further, is not contact also possible between two frozen individuals? Might not one of these people dream that he is alive and well and that from his accustomed world he is communicating with the other one—that only the other person succumbed to the unfortunate mishap? This too is possible. And, finally, is it possible to imagine a wholly infallible technology? There can be no such thing. Hence certain perturbations may affect the subjective world of the frozen sleeper, to whom it will then seem that his environment is going mad—perhaps that in it even time is falling to pieces! Interpreting the events presented in this fashion, we come to the conclusion that all the principal characters of the story were killed by the bomb on the Moon, and consequently all of them had to be placed in the moratorium and from this point on the book recounts only their visions and illusions. In a realistic novel (but this is a contradictio in adiecto) this version would correspond to a narrative which, after coming to the demise of the hero, would go on to describe his life after death. The realistic novel cannot describe this life, since the principle of realism rules out such descriptions. If, however, we assume a technology which makes possible the “half-life” of the dead, nothing prevents the author from remaining faithful to his characters and following them with his narrative—into the depths of their icy dream, which is henceforward the only form of life open to them.
Thus it is possible to rationalize the story in the above manner—on which, however, I would not insist too seriously, and that for two reasons at once. The first reason is that to make the plot fully consistent along the lines sketched above is impossible. If all Runciter’s people perished on the Moon, then who transported them to the moratorium? Another thing which does not yield to any rationalization is the talent of the girl who by mental effort alone was able to alter the present by transposing causal nodes in a past already over and done with. (This takes place before the occurrence on the Moon, when there are no grounds for regarding the represented world as the purely subjective one of any “half-life” character.) Similar misgivings are inspired by Ubik itself, “the Absolute in a spray can,” to which we will devote attention a little later on. If we approach the fictional world pedantically, no case can be made for it, for it is full of contradictions. But if we shelve such objections and inquire rather after the overall meaning of the work, we will discover that it is close to the meanings of other books by Dick, for all that they seem to differ from one another. Essentially it is always one and the same world which figures in them—a world of elementally unleashed entropy, of decay which not only, as in our reality, attacks the harmonious arrangement of matter, but which even consumes the order of elapsing time. Dick has thus amplified, rendered monumental and at the same time monstrous certain fundamental properties of the actual world, giving them dramatic acceleration and impetus. All the technological innovations, the magnificent inventions and the newly mastered human capabilities (such as telepathy, which our author has provided with an uncommonly rich articulation into “specialties”) ultimately come to nothing in the struggle against the inexorably rising floodwaters of Chaos. Dick’s province is thus a “world of preestablished disharmony,” which is hidden at first and does not manifest itself in the opening scenes of the novel; these are presented unhurriedly and with calm matter-of-factness, just in order that the intrusion of the destructive factor should be all the more effective. Dick is a prolific author, but I speak only of those of his novels which constitute the “main sequence” of his works; each of these books (I would count among them: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, Now Wait for Last Year, and perhaps also Galactic Pot-Healer) is a somewhat different embodiment of the same dramatic principle—the conversion of the order of the universe to rack and ruin before our eyes. In a world smitten with insanity, in which even the chronology of events is subject to convulsions, it is only the people who preserve their normality. So Dick subjects them to the pressure of a terrible testing, and in his fantastic experiment only the psychology of the characters remains non-fantastic. They struggle bitterly and stoically to the end, like Joe Chip in the current instance, against the chaos pressing on them from all sides, the sources of which remain, actually, unfathomable, so that in this regard the reader is thrown back on his own conjectures.
The peculiarities of Dick’s worlds arise especially from the fact that in them it is waking reality which undergoes profound dissociation and duplication. Sometimes the dissociating agency consists in chemical substances (of the hallucinogenic type—thus in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch); sometimes in “cold-sleep technique” (as precisely in Ubik); sometimes (as in Now Wait for Last Year) in a combination of narcotics and “parallel worlds.” The end-effect is always the same: distinguishing between waking reality and visions proves to be impossible. The technical aspect of this phenomenon is fairly inessential—it does not matter whether the splitting of reality is brought about by a new technology of chemical manipulation of the mind or, as in Ubik, by one of surgical operations. The essential point is that a world equipped with the means of splitting perceived reality into indistinguishable likenesses of itself creates practical dilemmas that are known only to the theoretical speculations of philosophy. This is a world in which, so to speak, this philosophy goes out into the street and becomes for every ordinary mortal no less of a burning question than is for us the threatened destruction of the biosphere.
There is no question of using a meticulous factual bookkeeping to strike a rational balance for the novel, by virtue of which it would satisfy the demands of common sense. We are not only forced to but we ought to at a certain point leave off defending its “science-fictional nature” also for a second reason so far unmentioned. The first reason was dictated to us simply by necessity: given that the elements of the work lack a focal point, it cannot be rendered consistent. The second reason is more essential: the impossibility of imposing consistency on the text compels us to seek its global meanings not in the realm of events themselves, but in that of their constructive principle, the very thing that is responsible for lack of focus. If no such meaningful principle were discoverable, Dick’s novels would have to be called mystifications, since any work must justify itself either on the level of what it presents literally or on the level of deeper semantic content, not so much overtly present in as summoned up by the text. Indeed, Dick’s works teem with non sequiturs, and any sufficiently sensitive reader can without difficulty make up lists of incidents which flout logic and experience alike. But—to repeat what was already said in other ways—what is inconsistency in literature? It is a symptom either of incompetence or else of repudiation of some values (such as credibility of incidents or their logical coherence) for the sake of other values.
Here we come to a ticklish point in our discussion, since the values alluded to cannot be objectively compared. There is no universally valid answer to the question whether it is permissible to sacrifice order for the sake of vision in a creative work—everything depends on what kind of order and what kind of vision are involved. Dick’s novels have been variously interpreted. There are critics, such as Sam Lundwall, who say that Dick is cultivating an “offshoot of mysticism” in SF. It is not, though, a question of mysticism in the religious sense, but rather of occult phenomena. Ubik furnishes some grounds for such a conclusion—does not the person who ousts Ella Runciter’s soul from her body behave like a “possessing spirit”? Does not he metamorphose into various incarnations when fighting with Joe Chip? So such an approach is admissible.
Another critic (George Turner) has denied all value in Ubik, declaring that the novel is a pack of conflicting absurdities—which can be demonstrated with pencil and paper. I think, however, that the critic should not be the prosecutor of a book but its defender, though one not allowed to lie: he may only present the work in the most favorable light. And because a book full of meaningless contradictions is as worthless as one that holds forth about vampires and other monstrous revenants, since neither of them touches on problems worthy of serious consideration, I prefer my account of Ubik to all the rest. The theme of catastrophe had been so much worked over in SF that it seemed to be played out until Dick’s books became a proof that this had been a matter of frivolous mystification. For science-fictional endings of the world were brought about either by man himself, e.g. by unrestrained warfare, or by some cataclysm as extrinsic as it was accidental, which thus might equally well not have happened at all.
Dick, on the other hand, by introducing into the annihilation ploy—the tempo of which becomes more violent as the action progresses—also instruments of civilization such as hallucinogens, effects such a commingling of the convulsions of technology with those of human experience that it is no longer apparent just what works the terrible wonders—a Deus ex machina or a machina ex Deo, historical accident or historical necessity. It is difficult to elucidate Dick’s position in this regard, because in particular novels he has given mutually incongruent answers to this question. Appeal to transcendence appears now as a mere possibility for the reader’s conjectures, now as a diagnostic near-certainty. In Ubik, as we have said, a conjectural solution which refuses to explain events in terms of some verion of occultism or spiritualism finds support in the bizarre technology of “half-life” as the last chance offered by medicine to people on the point of death. But already in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch transcendental evil emanates from the titular hero—that is, by the way, rather lowgrade metaphysics, being akin to hack treatments of “supernatural visitations” and “ghost,” and all that saves the thing from turning into a fiasco is the author’s virtuosity as a storyteller. And in Galactic Pot-Healer we have to do with a fabulous parable about a sunken cathedral on some planet and about the struggle which takes place between Light and Darkness over raising it, so that the last semblance of literalness of events vanishes here. Dick is, so I instinctively judge, perfidious in that he does not give unambiguous answers to the questions provoked by reading him, in that he strikes no balances and explains nothing “scientifically,” but rather just confounds things, not only in the plot itself but with respect to a superordinated category: the literary convention within which the story unfolds. For all that Galactic Pot-Healer leans toward allegory, it does not adopt this position either unambiguously or definitively, and a like indeterminacy as to genre is also characteristic for other novels by Dick, perhaps to an even higher degree. We thus encounter here the same difficulty about genre placement of a work which we have met with in the writing of Kafka.
It should be emphasized that the genre affiliation of a creative work is not an abstract problem of interest only to theorists of literature, but is an indispensable prerequisite to the reading of a work; the difference between the theorist and the ordinary reader reduces itself to the fact that the latter places the book he has read in a specific genre automatically, under the influence of his internalized experiences—in the same way that we employ our native language automatically, even when we do not know its morphology or syntax from specialized studies. The convention proper to a concrete genre becomes fixed with the passage of time and is familiar to every qualified reader; consequently “everybody knows” that in a realistic novel the author cannot cause his hero to walk through closed doors, but can on the other hand reveal to the reader the content of a dream which the hero has and forgets before he wakes up (although the one thing is as impossible as the other from a common sense point of view). The convention of the detective story requires that the perpetrator of a crime be found out, while the convention of SF requires rational accounting for events that are quite improbable and even seemingly at odds with logic and experience. On the other hand, the evolution of literary genres is based precisely on violation of storytelling conventions which have already become static. So Dick’s novels in some measure violate the convention of SF, which can be accounted to him as merit, because they thereby acquire broadened meanings having allegorical import. This import cannot be exactly determined; the indefiniteness which originates in this way favors the emergence of an aura of enigmatic mystery about the work. What is involved is a modern authorial strategy which some people may find intolerable, but which cannot be assailed with factual arguments, since the demand for absolute purity of genres is becoming nowadays an anachronism in literature. The critics and readers who hold Dick’s “impurity” with respect to genre against him are fossilized traditionalists, and a counterpart to their attitude would be an insistence that prosaists should keep on writing in the manner of Zola and Balzac, and only thus. In the light of the foregoing observations one can understand better the peculiarity and uniqueness of the place occupied by Dick in SF. His novels throw many readers accustomed to standard SF into abiding confusion, and give rise to complaints, as naive as they are wrathful, that Dick, instead of providing “precise explanations” by way of conclusion, instead of solving puzzles, sweeps things under the rug. In relation to Kafka analogous objections would consist in demanding that The Metamorphosis should conclude with an explicit “entomological justification,” making plain when and under what circumstances a normal man can turn into a bug, and that The Trial should explain just what Mr. K. is accused of.
PHILIP DICK DOES NOT LEAD his critics an easy life, since he does not so much play the part of a guide through his phantasmagoric worlds as he gives the impression of one lost in their labyrinth. He has stood all the more in need of critical assistance, but has not received it, and has gone on writing labeled a “mystic” and thrown back entirely on his own resources. There is no telling whether or how his work would have changed if it had come under the scrutinies of genuine critics. Perhaps such change would not have been all that much to the good. A second characteristic trait of Dick’s work, after its ambiguity as to genre, is its tawdriness which is not without a certain charm, being reminiscent of the goods offered at county fairs by primitive craftsmen who are at once clever and naive, possessed of more talent than self-knowledge. Dick has as a rule taken over a rubble of building materials from the run-of-the-mill American professionals of SF, frequently adding a true gleam of originality to already worn-out concepts and, what is surely more important, erecting with such material constructions truly his own. The world gone mad, with a spasmodic flow of time and a network of causes and effects which wriggles as if nauseated, the world of frenzied physics, is unquestionably his invention, being an inversion of our familiar standard according to which only we, but never our environment, may fall victim to psychosis. Ordinarily, the heroes of SF are overtaken only by two kinds of calamities: the social, such as the “infernos of police state tyranny,” and the physical, such as catastrophes caused by Nature. Evil is thus inflicted on people either by other people (invaders from the stars are merely people in monstrous disguises), or by the blind forces of matter.
With Dick the very basis of such a clear-cut articulation of the proposed diagnosis comes to grief. We can convince ourselves of this by putting to Ubik questions of the order just noted: who was responsible for the strange and terrible things which happened to Runciter’s people? The bomb attack on the Moon was the doing of a competitor, but of course it was not in his power to bring about the collapse of time. An explanation appealing to the medical “cold-pac” technology is, as we have pointed out, likewise incapable of rationalizing everything. The gaps that separate the fragments of the plot cannot be eliminated, and they lead one to suspect the existence of some higher-order necessity which constitutes the destiny of Dick’s world. Whether this destiny resides in the temporal sphere or beyond it is impossible to say. When one considers to what an extent our faith in the infallible beneficence of technical progress has already waned, the fusion which Dick envisages between culture and nature, between the instrument and its basis, by virtue of which it acquires the aggressive character of a malignant neoplasm, no longer seems merely sheer fantasy. This is not to say that Dick is predicting any concrete future. The disintegrating worlds of his stories, as it were inversions of Genesis, order returning to Chaos—this is not so much the future foreseen as it is future shock, not straightforwardly expressed but embodied in fictional reality, it is an objectivized projection of the fears and fascinations proper to the human individual in our times.
It has been customary to identify the downfall of civilization falsely and narrowly with regression to some past stage of history—even to the caveman or downright animal stage. Such an evasion is often employed in SF, since inadequacy of imagination takes refuge in oversimplified pessimism. Then we are shown the remotest future as a lingering state of feudal, tribal or slave-holding society, inasmuch as atomic war or invasion from the stars is supposed to have hurled humanity backward, even into the depths of a prehistoric way of life. To say of such works that they advocate the concepts of some cyclic (e.g. Spenglerian) philosophy of history would amount to maintaining that a motif endlessly repeated by a phonograph record represents the concept of some sort of “cyclic music,” whereas it is merely a matter of a mechanical defect resulting from a blunt needle and worn grooves. So works of this sort do not pay homage to cyclic historiosophy, but merely reveal an insufficiency of sociological imagination, for which the atomic war or the interstellar invasion is only a convenient pretext for spinning out interminable sagas of primordial tribal life under the pretense of portraying the farthest future. Nor is it possible to hold that such books promulgate the “atomic credo” of belief in the inevitability of a catastrophe which will soon shatter our civilization, since the cataclysm in question amounts to nothing but an excuse for shirking more important creative obligations.
Such expedients are foreign to Dick. For him, the development of civilization continues, but is as it were crushed by itself, becoming monstrous at the heights of its achievement—which, as a prognostic viewpoint, is more original than the assuredly unilluminating thesis that, if technical civilization breaks down, people will be forced to get along by returning to primitive tools, even to bludgeons and flints.
Alarm at the impetus of civilization finds expression nowadays in the slogans of a “return to Nature” after smashing and discarding everything “artificial,” i.e. science and technology. These pipe dreams turn up also in SF. Happily, they are absent in Dick. The action of his novels takes place in a time when there can no longer be any talk of return to nature or of turning away from the “artificial,” since the fusion of the “natural” with the “artificial” has long since become an accomplished fact.
At this point it may be worthwhile to point out the dilemma encountered by futuristically oriented SF. According to an opinion quite generally held by readers, SF ought to depict the world of the fictional future no less explicitly and intelligibly than a writer such as Balzac depicted the world of his own time in The Human Comedy. Whoever asserts this fails to take into account the fact that there exists no world beyond or above history and common to all eras or all cultural formations of mankind. That which, as the world of The Human Comedy, strikes us an completely clear and intelligible, is not an altogether objective reality, but is only a particular interpretation (of nineteenth century vintage and hence close to us) of a world classified, understood and experienced in a concrete fashion. The familiarity of Balzac’s world thus signifies nothing more than the simple fact that we have grown perfectly accustomed to this account of reality and that consequently the language of Balzac’s characters, their culture, their habits and ways of satisfying spiritual and bodily needs, and also their attitude toward nature and transcendence seem to us transparent. However, the movement of historical changes may infuse new content into concepts thought of as fundamental and fixed, as for example the notion of “progress,” which according to nineteenth-century attitudes was equivalent to a confident optimism, convinced of the existence of an inviolable boundary separating what is harmful to man from what benefits him. Currently we begin to suspect that the concept thus established is losing its relevance, because the harmful ricochets of progress are not incidental, easily eliminated, adventitious components of it but are rather such a cost of gains achieved as, at some point along the way, liquidates all the gain. In short, absolutizing the drive toward “progress” could prove to be a drive toward ruin.
So the image of the future world cannot be limited to adding a certain number of technical innovations, and meaningful prediction does not lie in serving up the present larded with startling improvements or revelations in lieu of the future.
The difficulties encountered by the reader of a work placed in a remote historical period are not the result of any arbitrariness on the writer’s part, any predilection for “estrangements,” any wish to shock the reader or to lead him up the garden, but are an ineradicable part of such an artistic undertaking. Situations and concepts can be understood only through relating them to ones already known, but when too great a time interval separates people living in different eras there is a loss of the basis for understanding in common life experiences which we unreflectingly and automatically imagine to be invariant. It follows that an author who truly succeeded in delineating an image of the far future would not achieve literary success, since he would assuredly not be understood. Consequently, in Dick’s stories a truth-value can be ascribed only to their generalized basis, which can be summed up more or less as follows: when people become ants in the labyrinths of the technosphere which they themselves have built, the idea of a return to Nature not only becomes utopian but cannot even be meaningfully articulated, because no such thing as a Nature that has not been artificially transformed has existed for ages. We today can still talk of “return to Nature,” because we are relics of it, only slightly modified in biological respect within civilization, but try imagining the slogan “return to Nature” uttered by a robot—why, it would mean turning into deposits of iron ore!
The impossibility of civilization’s returning to Nature, which is simply equivalent to the irreversibility of history, leads Dick to the pessimistic conclusion that looking far into the future becomes such a fulfillment of dreams of power over matter as converts the ideal of progress into a monstrous caricature. This conclusion does not inevitably follow from the author’s assumptions, but it constitutes an eventuality which ought also to be taken into account. By the way, in putting things thus we are no longer summarizing Dick’s work, but are giving rein to reflections about it, for the author himself seems so caught up in his vision that he is unconcerned about either its literal plausibility or its non-literal message. It is the more unfortunate that criticism has not brought out the intellectual consequences of Dick’s work and has not indicated the prospects inherent in its possible continuation, prospects and consequences advantageous not only for the author but for the entire genre, since Dick has presented us not so much with finished accomplishments as with fascinating promises. It has, indeed, been just the other way round—criticism inside the field has instinctively striven somehow to domesticate Dick’s creations, to restrain their meanings, emphasizing what in them is similar to the rest of the genre, and saying nothing about what is different—insofar as it did not simply denounce them as worthless for that difference. In this behavior a pathological aberration of the natural selection of literary works is emphatically apparent, since this selection ought to separate workmanlike mediocrity from promising originality, not lump these together, for such a “democratic” proceeding in practice equates the dross to the good metal.
Let us admit, however, that the charms of Dick’s books are not unalloyed, so that it is with them somewhat as it is with the beauty of certain actresses, whom one had better not inspect too carefully at close range, on pain of being sadly disillusioned. There is no point in estimating the futurological likelihood of such details in this novel as those apartment and refrigerator doors which the tenant is forced to argue with—for these are fictional ingredients created for the purpose of doing two jobs at once: to introduce the reader into a world decidedly different from the present-day one, and to convey a certain message to him by means of this world.
Every literary work has two components in the above sense, since every one exhibits a given factual world and says something by means of that world. Yet in different genres and different works the ratio between the two components varies. A realistic work of fiction contains a great deal of the first component and very little of the second, as it portrays the real world, which in its own right, that is outside the book, does not constitute any sort of message, but merely exists and flourishes. Nevertheless, because the author, of course, makes particular choices when writing a literary work, these choices give it the character of a statement addressed to the reader. In an allegorical work there is a minimum of the first component and a maximum of the second, seeing that its world is in effect an apparatus signaling the actual content—the message—to the receiver. The tendentiousness of allegorical fiction is usually obvious, that of the realistic kind more or less well-concealed. There are no works whatsoever without tendentiousness; if anyone speaks of such, what he actually has in mind is works devoid of expressly emphasized tendentiousness, which cannot be “translated” into the concrete credo of a world view. The aim of the epic e.g., is precisely to construct a world which can be interpreted in a number of ways—as the reality outside of literature can be interpreted in a number of ways. If, however, the sharp tools of criticism (of the structural kind, for instance) are applied to the epic, it is possible to detect the tendentiousness hidden even in such works, because the author is a human being and by that token a litigant in the existential process, hence complete impartiality is unattainable for him.
Unfortunately, it is only from realistic prose that one can appeal directly to the real world. Therefore, the bane of SF is the desire—doomed from the start to failure—to depict worlds intended at one and the same time to be products of the imagination and to signify nothing, i.e. not to have the character of a message but to be as it were on a par with the things in our environment, from furniture to stars, as regards their objective self-sufficiency. This is a fatal error lodged at the roots of SF, for where deliberate tendentiousness is not allowed involuntary tendentiousness seeps in. By tendency we mean a partisan bias, or point of view which cannot be divinely objective. An epic may strike us as just that objective, because the how of its presentation (the viewpoint) is for us imperceptibly concealed under the what—the epic too is a partisan account of events, but we do not notice its tendentiousness because we share its bias and cannot get outside it. We discover the bias of the epic centuries later, when the passage of time has transformed the standards of “absolute objectivity” and we can perceive, in what passed for a truthful report, the manner in which “truthful reporting” was at one time understood. For there are no such things as truth or objectivity in the singular; both of these contain an irreducible coefficient of historical relativity. Now, SF can never be on a par with the epic, since what the SF work presents belongs to one time (most often the future), while how it tells its story belongs to another time, the present. Even if imagination succeeds in rendering plausible how it might be, it cannot break completely with the way of apprehending events which is peculiar to the here and now. This way is not only an artistic convention, it is considerably more—a type of classification, interpretation and rationalization of the visible world that is peculiar to an era. Consequently the problem content of an epic can be deeply hidden, but that of SF must be legible, otherwise the story, declining to deal with nonfictional problems and not achieving epic objectivity, slides fatally down and comes to rest on some such support as the stereotype of the fairy tale, the adventure thriller, the myth, the framework of the detective story, or some hybrid as eclectic as it is trashy. A way out of the dilemma may consist in works for which componential analysis, designed to separate what is “factual” from what forms the “message” (“seen” from a “viewpoint”), proves altogether impracticable. The reader of such a work does not know whether what he is shown is supposed to exist like a stone or a chair, or whether it is supposed also to signify something beyond itself. The indeterminacy of such a creation is not diminished by its author’s commentaries, since the author can be mistaken in these, like a man who tries to explain the real meaning of his own dreams. Hence I consider Dick’s own comments to be inessential to the analysis of his works.
At this point we might embark on an excursus about the origin of Dick’s science-fictional concepts, but let just one example from Ubik suffice: to wit, the name which figures as the title of the book. It comes from the Latin ubique ‘everywhere.’ This is a blend (contamination) of two heterogeneous concepts: the concept of the Absolute as eternal and unchanging order which goes back to systematizing philosophy, and the concept of the “gadget”—the handy little device for use on appropriate everyday occasions, a product of the conveyer-belt technology of the consumer society, whose watchword is making things easy for people at whatever they do, from washing clothes to getting a permanent wave. This “canned Absolute,” then, is the result of the collision and interpenetration of two styles of thought of different ages, and at the same time of the incarnation of abstraction in the guise of a concrete object. Such a proceeding is an exception to the rule in SF and is Dick’s own invention.
It is hardly possible to create, in the way just noted, objects which are empirically plausible or which have a likelihood of ever coming into existence. Accordingly in the case of Ubik it is a matter of a poetic, i.e. metaphorical device and not of any “futurological” one. Ubik plays an important part in the story, emphasized still more by the “advertisements” for it which figure as epigraphs to each chapter. Is it a symbol, and, if so, of just what? This is not easy to answer. An Absolute conjured out of sight by technology, supposed to save man from the ruinous consequences of Chaos or Entropy much as a deodorant shields our sense of smell from the stench of industrial effluents, is not only a demonstration of a tactic typical nowadays (combating, for example, the side effects of one technology by means of another technology), it is an expression of nostalgia for a lost ideal kingdom of untroubled order, but also an expression of irony, since this “invention” of course cannot be taken seriously. Ubik moreover plays in the novel the part of its “internal micromodel,” since it contains in nuce the whole range of problems specific to the book, those of the struggle of man against Chaos, at the end of which, after temporary successes, defeat inexorably awaits him. The Absolute canned as an aerosol, which saves Joe Chip at the point of death—though only for the time being: will this, then, be a parable and the handwriting on the wall for a civilization which has degraded the Sacred by stuffing it into the Profane? Pursuing such a train of associations, Ubik could finally be seen as a take-off on the Greek tragedy, with the role of the ancient heroes, who strive vainly against Moira, assigned to the staff telepaths under the command of a big business executive. If Ubik was not actually undertaken with this in mind, it in any case points in such a direction.
The writings of Philip Dick have deserved at least a better fate than that to which they were destined by their birthplace. If they are neither of uniform quality nor fully realized, still it is only by brute force that they can be jammed into that pulp of materials, destitute of intellectual value and original structure, which makes up SF. Its fans are attracted by the worst in Dick—the typical dash of American SF, reaching to the stars, and the headlong pace of action moving from one surprise to the next—but they hold it against him that, instead of unraveling puzzles, he leaves the reader at the end on the battlefield, enveloped in the aura of a mystery as grotesque as it is strange. Yet his bizarre blendings of hallucinogenic and palingenetic techniques have not won him many admirers outside the ghetto walls, since there readers are repelled by the shoddiness of the props he has adopted from the inventory of SF. Indeed, these writings sometimes fumble their attempts; but I remain after all under their spell, as it often happens at the sight of a lone imagination’s efforts to cope with a shattering superabundance of opportunities—efforts in which even a partial defeat can resemble a victory.
Science Fiction Studies, # 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975