Monday, July 8, 2013


One of the many, many things I love about Philip K. Dick is how he can make fantastic science fictional scenarios into studies of utter human banality (and yes, despair) but still make me want to live in them. Martian Time-Slip, for instance, also feels like it could, and likely would, be marketed nowadays under a title like Real Housewives of Mars. Except they're mid 20th century type housewives, so they actually, you know, fix lunch for their children and whatnot.* So maybe it's really more like Mad Men on Mars.

At any rate, these housewives and their husbands live in United Nations-controlled human colonies clustered around the canal systems of a Mars that is not too terraformed (I'm still not sure if an atmosphere has been induced, or if neighborhoods are domed or what, but they're not walking around in pressure suits anyway), but is habitable enough to where everybody has a vegetable garden and even attempts a flower bed here and there, with varying success. No lawns, though. That would be a suicidal waste of water, a lawn would. Just like it is somewhere else, although so far our climate has been forgiving enough to tolerate a certain amount of waste. Sort of. For now.

But water isn't really the issue in Martian Time-Slip. It's preciousness is perhaps a symptom of the larger issue, namely that it's really, really tough to live on Mars -- especially if you insist on trying to replicate the suburban California lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century. It allows certain types of people to seize and wield an almost despotic power, and that type of person is the repairman. Hence all-powerful on this world is the Water Workers' Union and its leader, one Arnie Kott, who lives like the ruler of an ancient Wittfogelian hydraulic empire, or at least like the Dean of the Air Conditioner Repair School on Community. When life utterly depends on gadgets, you utterly depend on the guy who can keep the gadgets working. Or the water flowing. Kott is, kind of, both.

But this is not enough. When is it ever? For Kott's path has crossed with Jack Bohlen's, and Jack is the nexus of a whole lot of intrigue, for all that he's kind of a nebbish himself. Jack's father, see, is at the spearhead of the next big wave of land speculation on Mars, and stands to make a killing if his inside information is correct. And Jack himself is a talented repairman and also, importantly, a recovering schizophrenic, and Kott has become convinced that exploiting certain fanciful traits of schizophrenics is the key to his next move: outmaneuvering speculators like Jack's father.

But it's not Jack himself with the talent required; Jack is just to be the builder of the machine that can connect an autistic child, Manfred Steiner, with Kott, and let Kott see what he believes Manfred sees. For in this novel, everyone is pretty sure that the autistic are the way they are because they experience time profoundly differently from the rest of us. To the autistic, in this novel, the rest of us are sped up like a life-long time-lapse film. And, as we learn from Manfred's point of view interludes, to him the rest of us are sped up towards decrepitude, decay, gubbish, like in all of those little films Oliver and Oswald are making in Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts:

Thus Manfred sees into the Tomb World familiar from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and other Phildickiana, which, interestingly, one of the minor characters immediately recognizes. We're all living in it; we've just deluded ourselves that we look and feel alive and whole and undecayed. But deep inside us are the bacteria that will rot us from the inside out once our bodies can no longer fight off that action.

I really, really hope that this is not the world that actual autistic spectrum sufferers experience, because it sounds like a never-ending horror. As explained by one of the Bleekmen, an aboriginal Martian race so closely related to humans it's been decided that the two races come from the same colonizing stock from millions of years ago:
"This boy experiences his own old age... decades from now in an old persons' home which is yet to be built...a place of decay which he loathes beyond expression. In this future place he passes empty, weary years, bedridden -- an object, not a person, kept alive through stupid legalities."
That's pretty much everyone's nightmare, isn't it? And Manfred lives it all day long, if the Bleekmen are to be believed.

How all of this comes together to blow up in the lives of Arnie Kott and Jack Bohlen is ponderous and depressing and terrifying and awe-inspiring and, as is usually the case with PKD, a complete joy to read. Martian Time-Slip as a novel title seems toward the beginning to refer to a account of man-hours worked on Mars, a slip of paper on which an employee records his time, which is pretty nifty for a little science fiction story right there, but then the other meaning of slip, as one does on a banana peel, comes into play and what SJ refers to as the "Dick Click" happens and it all turns into a marvel.

I spent a little chunk of time just now trying to imagine how someone might go about presenting this story on film, and all I could think of was we'd need Richard Linklater and his roto-scoping again, because we would need a visual ghost of Manfred's awful reality sort of steroscopically overlapping the rest of the visual and auditory presentation. And now, even though it would be ugly and frightening and soul-destroying and brain-punishing, I want to see that film very badly indeed. Although I just did, in my head while I read the book. So why do I feel this way?

Ah, PKD.

*Note, I have never actually watched an episode of any of those shows, so I'm just guessing that their stars don't really do any traditionally "housewifey" things based on the promos I occasionally see for them. If I'm wrong, well, mea culpa. I guess. I'm a misanthropic hater of the glass teat and I don't really care.


  1. Yeah, Linklater is definitely the person I'd want for a whole raft of Dick novels and stories.

    Heck, his Waking Life is practically a Dick story (and even talks about one)

    1. Yes! That bit in WL when he himself talks about Flow My Tears the Policeman said sold me on him forevermore as the one film director who gets PKD.

      Though I'm quite eager to see what these people have done with Radio Free Albemuth. I did back the Kickstarter! Very hopeful.

  2. Hi Kate- I saw RFA in San Francisco last year at the PKD Festival and it was great! I also did the Kickstarter and it did go very well. I'm hoping for a pink beam to hit movie theaters soon :) I enjoyed your comments on MTS. In Phildickian love, Laura


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