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Review: “Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (4 1/2 Stars)

Review: “Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (4 1/2 Stars)

A story of subtle nuances containing picturesque fables that compound reality in philosophic deep strokes.

This story is told from seven different points of view which include the unlikely characters of: a judo instructor; an antique dealer; a publisher; and a craftsman. Not what you would expect from a story about an alternate history where the axis powers (Japan and Germany) win World War II and divide up pieces of the world.

Most refreshing, was PKD’s choice of setting the story in a timeline after World War II. He establishes a plot just far enough along that the main historical players are still walking around in the background, which roots the story into the reader’s subconscious. Yet, the world has moved on from active conflict. The tale centers around a society that is getting on with things. A drawback for this is that he’s not giving you much action like you might normally get in an alternate history centered around World War II.

That said, there is always some violence lurking in the background (on the other side of reality or the other side of a door). The story is full of gamesmanship, surreptitious politics and cultural conflicts. However, as noted by other reviewers, this is mostly in the inner monologues of the Point-of-View, characters, which proves fascinating as the characters continually strategize and second guess their ways through the surrounding clash of cultures.

This book felt very different when compared to some of the other works by PKD I have read (not many). The prose felt the tightest and most polished I’ve seen from him. That said, PKD seemed to make a purposeful, stylistic choice when building out the voice for the individual characters and he wrote many of them in a staccato, broken-type of prose when monologuing their internal thoughts. This gave the sentences an “alien-like” feel and threw off the reading a bit, but was not too distracting. The distinction between thoughts and dialog also served as a continual reminder to the reader that the current reality is not the same reality that they themselves inhabit.

In typical PKD fashion there is a never-ending stripping away of reality’s onion skin layers. Behind everything going on, someone or some thing is driving the currents of life in different directions. The characters, at times, all feel lost and flailing among the forces around them—but then again—don’t we all have these moments?

To find order and meaning, many of the characters turn to an ancient Chinese divination book that acts as an oracle. The randomizing patterns in this tome make reference to philosophical expositions which can put a certain “lens” on current events or things to come. Yet, as with most fortunetelling, interpretation is everything. PKD does manage to find a way to use this device in a masterful and unconventional way and tie many of the plot points together. The denouement is simply bursting with all the existential genius which this author is famous for. Just a great picture of how much, seemingly unrelated things can affect other things.

So much of this story is focused on the individual. So readers looking for Nazi showdowns against Imperial Japan might be a bit disappointed. There is action in this book and it is powerful and pointed when it happens, but as I said previously, it is used sparingly. Instead, PKD uses the historical and cultural ques of the Axis powers to build his world in a framework that echoes the existential struggles facing his characters.

As each of the individuals struggles to find their place in the world, so too do the new nations ebb and flow in living reality (or unreality), finding their new place on the changed landscape.

This is well worth a read and probably a re-read. PKD’s prose is not intimidating, though it may put off some at first, it always compliments the heavier philosophies running beneath the surfaces of his works. The Man in the High Castle is no different. However, it feels much tighter. The ending though, is probably typical of a PKD work. A great read for a clear mind, but not necessarily a casual get away.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website.

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/review-the-man-in-the-high-castle-philip-k-dick

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Posted by on November 15, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review “The Preserving Machine & Other Stories” by Philip K. Dick (3 Stars)

An early collection of short stories touching on cold-war era fears, and other weird pseudo-realities. 

Philip K. Dick is known fairly well for toying with reality in his fiction and meta-fictional stories. His ideas negotiate the fuzzy edges of existential questions. He pushes boundaries in his writing and yet his straight-ahead prose (sometimes criticized) makes his more “out-there” concepts easier to digest. 

This book is a collection of early stories by the writer with a few from the middle of his career. The quality of the stories varies a bit from one to the other, however, even those that felt less satisfying to me may have deeper questions embedded behind their veneer that I haven’t quite appreciated during my first reading. Perhaps a later revisit will stir up more of the murky depths that I associate with PKD. 

That’s how this author is. Sometimes you read his stuff and the whacky scenarios he sets up, and feel that it’s all a bit silly. The inner thoughts of a dog… a machine turning music into animals…an alien species that is basically just a giant amorphous blob…a multiplicity of alien grubs… and then there’s the “Wub” character which felt like something that came out of the mind of Dr. Seuss in a Simpsons parody. 

Yet, throughout most of the words there is usually something more sinister going on. Some kind of undercurrent of malevolence that calls into question the human condition and what it means to be alive. The characters might fall victim to their own selfishness until they become a parody of themselves, or they may find themselves in some kind of odd alternate perception of reality or time and space that makes you reflect about the very concept of perception.

Despite PKD’s real-life personal issues, I found these stories easy to follow no matter how far-out they got. They are all intriguing in many ways and the author manages to hit enough deep notes to make this collection worthy of a reading. Especially so for fans. 

My main issue would be that some of the stories ended in ways that seemed a little too contrived. They felt like “short stories” and while reading them I could almost sense the author circling back to tie up loose ends and bring closure. Not that the endings were bad or inappropriate. I just felt that some of the finales fell a bit short of what they could have been. 

“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is among the tales in this collection. This story was made famous by the “Total Recall” movies. The author’s version differs from the movies—which is no surprise. Yet, all the pseudo-reality, questioning motives are present and offer a good insight into why Hollywood has continually mined the PKD library for movie fodder. The ending for this story is also wrapped up fairly neatly—but upon later reflection it does pose some lingering questions in the way a good short story should.
All in all, a solid read!

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Book Review “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (Philip K. Dick) (4 Stars)

A mind-bending dystopian hero’s quest through the looking glass?

Summary: An impending sense of desperation pervades this gloomy romp of Dick’s arguably most famous work. The author’s prose, sometimes criticized, is a swift reading. In trying to keep up with the schizophrenic twists and turns of the story—I think that the digestible writing is well balanced. Though the dialog can be stiff in parts there is so much depth in what is going on, the work as a whole would suffer if weighed down by verbose diction.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website: www.nodeodorant.com.

*** * *** SPOILER WARNING **** * ***

Review: Rick Deckard is chasing after six renegade androids in a post-apocalyptic earth. He’s a government agent/bounty hunter, whose main task is retiring escaped androids who are trying to blend in among humans. Sounds dangerous and exciting? Maybe. However, Dick gives the character a sort of “everyman” approach. Deckard is good at what he does, but it’s just a means to an end. And what is that? Well, that’s life baby. Deckard is just trying to get through the day like everyone else, and bring home a decent paycheck so he can afford the latest, coveted creature-comforts.

In this world, that means real-life “animals.” Deckard needs to make money so he can buy a live “animal,” now a luxury in a world where nearly everything seems to be rock, plastic, metal or kipple (more on that later). World War Terminus has already rocked the planet sending a vast majority of human emigrants into the skies to establish new colonies on mars. The earth has emptied out a good number of people, and for good reason as the planet’s covered in radioactive dust. So many animals have since died off, that now it’s considered “chic” to own one. So much so that a whole cottage industry has rose up around creating fake robot animals complemented with fake veterinarians. In keeping up with appearances, Deckard replaced his recently died sheep with a robotic one. And yet he can’t quite get over it. He want’s a real one damn it, and he’ll destroy as many androids as he has to so he can make enough money to do so.

He needs to. His marriage with wife Iran is strained. Everyday they dial-in their appropriate feeling for the day through the help of a bedside console known as a Mood Organ. One of my favorite lines of the book is when Deckard is trying to get his wife to dial in a happier mood from the console and she resists claiming: “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression.” (!) And yet, even though Deckard also tries to enhance his mood with the console he remains gloomy. He’s out their searching, looking for some kind of connection. His job is starting to weigh heavy on him and all he can do is hold out a little longer until he can find that next “thing” to set matters right.

Iran (and Deckard to a different extent), finds some solace in the world religion known as Mercerism. The faith is a sort of communal virtual-reality experience where people of the world connect with one and another by watching a repetitive video of an old messiah-like figure plodding through a barren landscape of rocks. Mercer (the mysterious figure) toils along while getting occasionally stoned (and I don’t mean with drugs) by unseen forces, until he goes over this giant hill into the mysterious Tomb World. For some inexplicable reason, the worshipers, who engage this religion (also through a handheld console), experience the stoning. They even come away from the engagement with real-life injuries (though not severely). Iran seems to get something from this religion, a sense of belonging, a sense of community, which may be important in a world where mankind is slowly being siphoned away to distant planets.

Whether or not this religion is genuine is up for debate – but then, that’s faith. There is an interesting subplot woven through the story where a 24-hour vapid TV personality host attempts to debunk this would-be messiah as a fake. Dick manages to blend the lines between the virtual, spiritual, and physical world in a way that makes the reader question what is real (in a good way). Can we ever really know? Deckard finds that Mercerism, or his faith, or is it his humanity, cannot be so easily dismissed by a television expose.

As the messiah character toils uphill amid flying rocks, the reader can’t help but feel Deckard’s plight. Retire some androids. Make a little money. Buy something fancy. Then do it all again. Why? What’s the point? Mercerism seems to indicate that that is the point of everything. That’s what we all do. We slowly climb our hills, get a few rocks flung at us, and keep going. To where? The Tomb World? Who knows. The point is, we all have to do it. Nobody is exempt. It’s just a little easier to take when we can commiserate our woes with everyone else. To know we are not alone.

That’s what makes us human. Separates us from the androids. Good old-fashioned “empathy”. In fact, that’s virtually the only way (besides bone marrow testing which will require a warrant) Deckard can determine if someone is really a some thing. Deckard must administer a verbal psychological test and monitor the reaction of the suspect with the help of yet another special device. But as technology increases, the androids are becoming harder and harder to detect—some of the androids don’t even know themselves that they are androids due to false memory implants (in classic Dick fashion even robots have to question what’s real and what’s not). In a great plot point, the author let’s us know that the tried and true “Voight-Kampf” android test has flaws. Apparently, people with mental issues or “flat affects” might elicit a false positive which puts Deckard in a conundrum because he doesn’t want to be blowing away real-life humans.

The fear of finding a false-positive is not fully realized though. Much like the fear that the androids are going to “retire” Deckard before he can retire them. Dick shies away from action-packed cliff-hangers. We don’t completely fear the danger that Deckard will be killed off by an android, even though his predecessor was severely hospitalized by one and unable to speak to him about it. As other reviewers have pointed out, many of the android confrontations are over as quickly as they start. To his credit, I think this keeps the focus on the more important esoteric questions being raised rather than the adventure story used to illuminate the issues. We are there, with Deckard, wondering just as he is, why he’s doing it all? If he’s killed off, we’ll that’s not the main stake here—his sanity, sense of self, sense of morality—those are the things at stake.

Even though the androids are definitely not human, they act and feel much like humans. Deckard sees this and he struggles with it, sympathizing for the androids he is seeking to destroy. One of the female androids, Rachel, seduces Deckard, putting him in a very precarious position as she tries to influence his actions. Things get really weird (is that even possible) when Deckard is picked up by the police, who seem to know nothing about him. This is Dick in his complete mastery. Deckard is held at a “second” separate police station and questioned in such a manner that we really begin to doubt who the androids really are. Is Deckard an android? Are these “other” policemen androids? Deckard even gives himself the “Voight-Kampf” psychological test at some point.

Near the end, Deckard is really questioning himself and Rachel’s influence weighs heavily. Still, he plods along, determined to finish what he’s started. The messiah-like figure Wilbur Mercer (hence “Mercerism”) suddenly appears in the real world (as opposed to the one on the tv screens which may or may not be real) to help him through.

For me, the most jolting scene in the whole book is when Deckard comes home after having completed his mission. After knowing he’s earned his bounties he decided to finance the purchase of a real-life goat. It’s a capitalistic bid for happiness, but Deckard seems sincere in his effort. After all his hard work and toil he comes home only to be told by Iran that Rachel (the android he’s spared), pushed the goat off their building to its death. Deckard seems to have done all for naught.

This would have been a real poignant place to end. However, we continue on with the character for a few more chapters when he lumps it, and heads out into the vast desolate wilds of the world. Again, things go from strange to stranger when Deckard begins toiling up a real life rocky hillside that too closely resembles the one Wilbur Mercer is always climbing. When at last he comes down again, he happens upon a little toad. Amazed, he looks up the animal in his trusty catalog and finds out they are supposed to be extinct. Suddenly, everything looks hopeful again. To have a found a real life animal—an extinct one! He’ll be able to sell the thing for untold riches. Deckard races back home to share the news with his wife. Tenderly she flips the animal over and points to the electrical panel beneath. Another fake. Defeat again.

Yet, Deckard returns home, not to plug in to the mood organ and zone out of life. Instead, he falls asleep. Unaided and disconnected from the artificial technologies of his world. He seems to get some comfort from being near to his wife instead of all the contraptions of the world. And, the android Rachel, by killing his goat, has shown him the foolishness of letting his happiness rely solely on materialistic things. Perhaps Deckard’s relentless pursuit of the androids was rote and mechanical. Was Deckard acting the part of the android in his role as bounty hunter? Did the androids act more like living things in their urge to resist “retirement” (or death)? Maybe Dick was trying to say that it is our actions that define us, rather than what we may claim to be?

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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