Showing posts with label Philip K. Dick. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip K. Dick. Show all posts

04 January 2019

Stop Meddling in My Genre - Part 1

by Lawrence Maddox


Dean Martin, actor, singer,
Post Modernist?
From the 1950s through the 70s, Variety shows were TV's shining jewels. Seen as quaint, corny, and conspicuously dopey by today's standards, elaborately produced offerings like The Ed Sullivan ShowPerry Como's Kraft Music Hall, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour were hugely popular. The majority of Americans would tune in to see not just cultural shifts, like the Beatles' American debut or Nat King Cole breaking racial barriers, but also to catch the icons of the day step out of the roles they were associated with.  You could watch Orson Welles and Jimmy Stewart sing "Personality" with Dean Martin; marvel at the ultimate cross generational Christmas mash-up of Bing Crosby and David Bowie dueting on "The Little Drummer Boy"; gasp at eternally square Richard Nixon trying his hand at comedy on the televised height of Hippy-dom, Laugh-In.

Though now viewed as old-fashioned, by allowing the famous to escape their prescribed boxes and take part in the equivalent of modern-day mash-ups, these shows could also be seen as doing something new and inventive, all in the name of fun.  In Smoke and Mirrors, John Leonard wrote that "We've a more pretentious word today for such radical juxtapositions of the silly and sublime, random conjectures of blank incredulity and dreadful apprehension (nostalgia laced with contempt) an absurd snippet (Rise Stevens singing "Cement Mixer, Putty Putty"). Instead of novelty, we have post-modernism."

When the same approach is taken with literary genres like crime fiction, feathers can get ruffled. As John Leonard implies, mixing genres can be seen as a post-modernistic reshuffling of the deck.   I'd like to make the case that crossing genres was right there at the beginning, when 20th century American crime fiction was taking shape in the widely read and cheaply made pages of pulp magazines. After cajoling you with my cross-genre calculations, we'll talk with genre bending daredevil Earl Javorsky, author of the multi-faceted and endlessly riveting PI Charlie Miner series.

Fans of Quentin Tarantino's game-changing crime drama Pulp Fiction might be mislead into thinking that pulp fiction itself is synonymous with crime fiction.  Pulp magazines, and the novels they spawned,  weren't actually genre specific at all.  Pulp magazines were named for wood pulp, the inexpensive main component of their pages, and they were cheaper to buy than their highbrowed antecedents, the pricier "slicks." Popular from roughly 1900 until TV began rotting America's mind in earnest in the early '50s, the pulps dabbled in fantasy, sci-fi, horror, westerns, crime, and adventure. Populism ran rampant in the pulps, and literary merit took a backseat to entertainment, no matter how tawdry or fantastic. Want tales of a flying ace that fights zombies? Here's G-8 and His Battle Aces. How about a Los Angeles socialite who wears a backless dress and a domino mask to rob from criminals a la Robin Hood? Look no farther than Saucy Romantic Adventures for tales of the Domino Lady. There were few sacred cows, and popular elements would be plucked from different genres and scattered about, all in the name of commerce.

Using cheaper paper wasn't the only way pulps kept the cost down; they also paid writers less than what other markets offered. This allowed the pulps to catch some luminaries-to-be at the start of their literary trajectories.  Perhaps the first pulp superstar was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose "Tarzan of the Apes," published in All Story in 1912, was a national phenomenon. It not only helped kick off Burroughs' influential career but was a fillip to all the pulps in general.  Many other notable fantasy authors took the pulp plunge, including Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and the brilliant sci-fi subversive Philip K. Dick.

Pulp also provided the means for many burgeoning crime authors to gate crash the zeitgeist. Though Dashiell Hammett first published in the much tonier Smart Set magazine, his Continental Op tales became an early staple of the uber pulp Black Mask starting in 1923.  The Continental Op was a detective for a Pinkerton-esque agency (Hammett himself had been a Pinkerton) , and he was the proverbial joker in the deck.   The Op was a master manipulator who cast a cold, calculating eye on his fellow man. The Big Sleep author Raymond Chandler, one of many hard-boiled authors who followed Hammett into the pulps, famously said that Hammett "wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." David Goodis, whose Shoot the Piano Player became a New Wave masterpiece under Truffaut, prolifically contributed Western stories to the pulps as well as crime stories.

The pulps were like a cheap hotel, and with that many different genres checking in, there were bound to be some illicit hook-ups. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the so-called pulp adventure stories, and there were none more popular or cross-pollinated than The Shadow.  The Shadow character began life in 1930 as the eerie omnipotent narrator for the radio show Detective Story Hour,  which in turn was a product of Detective Story Magazine. Like Tarzan eighteen years earlier, The Shadow character grabbed America by the imagination and wouldn't let go. The Shadow Magazine began less than a year later. Popular novels, a radio show, and movies followed. Orson Welles, thirty years prior to joining Dean Martin's wobbly orbit, voiced an early version of The Shadow on the radio.

Author Walter B. Gibson was tasked with turning the sinister Shadow into a fleshed out character who could lead his own adventures. Since Gibson was writing for a detective pulp, The Shadow was placed in the world of crime, gangs, and murder. The Shadow operated like a detective, but also a vigilante. Many of his characteristics, like taking justice into his own hands and manipulating others like pawns, came directly from pulp characters like Hammett's Continental Op. Yet The Shadow was also a figure of horror who had the supernatural ability to cloud men's minds, though actual invisibility happened  only on the radio show.  Gibson said Bram Stoker's Dracula was an influence.  Sci-fi elements were also included when The Shadow would occasionally battle mad scientists and their inventions.  The influence of The Shadow can't be overstatedThe Shadow may also be unfortunately responsible for what I'll call "The Scooby-Doo Effect"; stories where the bad guys dress up as something spooky in order to scare away intruders, and would've gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids. The Shadow was a smorgasbord of genre elements, and so were the "hero pulps," such as Doc Savage, that it paved the way for.

Really, so much of what entertains us today began with pulp.  Bill Finger, who along with Bob Kane developed Batman, said "my first Batman story was a take-off of a Shadow story." Superman was inspired by Doc Savage. Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner) is sci-fi at its finest, but it's also a hard-boiled detective novel. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, the basest of Private Dicks. He's got a gun, a list, and police bureaucracy up the wazoo.  It's as if the other Burroughs (Beatnik William) used  his cutup technique, clipping at one story from Analog and another from Black Mask and pasting together this dystopic hybrid

Charlie Huston carries on the fine tradition of genre mixing in his thrilling Joe Pitt series. Starting with Already Dead in 2005, Huston's Pitt is a private detective working the mean streets of New York. Pitt is also a vampire who must negotiate his way among cops and dangerous vampire clans while solving cases. Huston has said he prefers to be called a pulp writer.

I'm fortunate to have author Earl Javorsky's take on mixing genres, among other topics, in my next installment.  His Charlie Miner books, Down Solo (2014) and Down to No Good (2017), are my latest hobby. Miner is an insurance fraud investigator who keeps getting killed, but that doesn't stop him from playing detective in his own deaths, or from helping Homicide Detective Dave Putnam with his cases.  Join Earl Javorsky and myself outside the box for part two.

Note: A technical issue isn't letting me respond to comments to my blog. This is a real bummer. Please continue to comment. I'll be reading what you have to say and yelling my appreciative responses at my computer screen until this glitch is resolved. Thank you and Happy New Year!

12 February 2016

A Second Wind from Television

In The Man in the High Castle, the Axis won WWII,
partitioning the U.S. between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
A certain "banned" media is circulating, however.  This provides a mystery
around which the book is centered. (This pic is used in intro to TV series.)
By Dixon Hill

On a recent trip to my local bookstore, I looked for a copy of Philip K. Dick's alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, only to discover something that should have been obvious to me.

I couldn't find the book among his others, in the fiction section. Disappointed, I asked if they might be able to order a copy.  The answer surprised me. You see, they had the book in stock, but it wasn't located with the other P.K. Dicks.

It was on the bestsellers shelf!

When the bookstore employee handed me the book, I asked, "Isn't this a pretty old book to be on the bestsellers list?"

"Well, yes," she responded.  "But, then the TV series came out, and now everybody wants to read the book."

I nodded and eked out a chagrined smile.  You see, I like Philip K. Dick and I have for a long time. I've read a lot of his work, both novels and short stories.  While some of it may be a bit too metaphysical for my taste, I really do enjoy his science fiction elements -- particularly those that pose the question: Is this world we perceive around us really the world we inhabit?

Yet, here I was: a man who had schlepped down to my local bookstore to look for a book because I'd seen a television show that told me it existed -- just like the rest of the herd.

And, that herd was sizable.  This book, which won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel, achieved the No. 4 spot among paperback fiction, on the December 13th, 2015 Los Angeles Times Best Sellers List.  And it stayed within the top ten for four weeks.  I'd say that's pretty good for a book more than 50 years old, which most readers probably hadn't heard of before the television show came out.



Which is what set me to thinking about the way TV shows can lend a second wind to author's sales, much in the same way movies do.


A friend of mine recently loaned me Wild Cards 1, a book of linked short stories by several different writers, edited by George R.R. Martin.

For those unaware: Martin is the author of the fantasy book series Game of Thrones, which HBO turned into a hit show.  Some readers may decry the fact that the series doesn't quite mirror the book series, but I don't think that's hurt Martin's bank account.

Though Wild Cards 1 has nothing to do with Game of Thrones, I think it has a lot to do with the manner in which the book came into my friend's (and then my own) hands -- even though Martin didn't write this book.  He edited it, and wrote one of the stories.

Originally released in 1987, however, the book is back on store shelves -- along with other installments in the series.  And, if you think the editors aren't trying to capitalize on Martin's HBO-associated fame, just take a look at the print size and fonts on the book cover in the pic to the right.

Not that I think this is a bad thing.

Which is actually my point.

I wanted to read The Man in the High Castle for several reasons:

  1. It's a Philip K. Dick novel, and I've learned that many consider it his best.  I wanted to read it, because I like much of his writing.
  2. The plotline intrigued me.
  3. In the TV series, the banned media is a collection of 16mm movies, which show the Allies winning WWII.  I had a feeling that this had been changed, because the medium had been changed: from print media (a book) to visual media (TV).  And, sure enough, in the book: the banned media is a book that describes how the Allies won the war.
  4. I get the idea that Philip K. Dick would have understood the idea and accompanying actions of paranoia.  And, paranoia is pretty close to what an underground organization has to practice, in order to stay alive.  I get a kick out of the lax security practiced by members of the Underground Unit in the television show, however, and suspected Dick would have handled it a bit better.  I wanted to find out. 
BUT:  If I hadn't seen that TV show, when would I have realized this book existed?  I'm not sure it was even in print, because I tend to haunt several specific parts of the fiction shelves when I visit the bookstore, and the PK Dick section is one of these.  I don't recall having seen the book in the past.  (On the other hand, it wasn't there this time either.)

I really enjoyed the book.  Yes, it was quite different from the television series, but in a good way I felt.  I'm not sure where the TV series is heading, but the book had a definite conclusion -- posing a question I particularly liked.  I've enjoyed mentally strolling among the juxtaposed possibilities suggested by that conclusion, ever since I finished the story.  If you've read The Man in the High Castle, I invite you to contact me (by email or comment) to discuss the ending's potential ramifications: for both/either the characters or for us "real" people.  If you haven't read it, you might think of doing so.

Meanwhile, here's to hoping some TV producer notices your book or short story and turns it into a hit.  Soon, avid fans might descend like locusts, buying up anything and everything you've ever produced.

It would be nice, wouldn't it?

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon


04 June 2015

Science Fiction Fantasy Mysteries

by Eve Fisher

I just got my copy of the July/August Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and (no surprise, folks!) SleuthSayers is well represented:
  • Robert Lopresti's "Shooting at Firemen" just knocked me out. I already knew to look out for it from Rob's blog here (http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/05/telling-fiction-from-fact.html) and it's a wonderful story about riots, politics, and race.
  • David Edgerly Gates gave us "In For a Penny", and what the cover says is true: The graft is greener at the border.
  • Janice Law's "A Domestic Incident" - besides being a harrowing account of betrayal on almost every level - raises the question, "what would/should I have done?"

Congratulations to all!

Another great story is Donald Moffitt's "A Handful of Clay". Sadly, Mr. Moffitt died just before publication. He was a multiple science fiction/fantasy/ and mystery writer. I love this story, both as an historian (setting a story in ancient Sumeria - 4500 years ago - and getting the details right without bogging down in them while keeping the universal humanity of the past, now that's an achievement) and as a mystery buff (love the plot). And it also got me thinking about the way so many people have shifted between sci-fi / fantasy/ mystery / horror without missing a beat.

First, some BSP:


Yes, that's me on the left, and later on the right, at the reception and panel discussion for the Startling Sci-Fi anthology that was held on May 16th in Greenwich Village, NYC, NY. Yes, I got my 15 minutes of fame. We answered questions, posed for photos, and signed books. We signed a lot of books. (Huzzah!)

It's a darned good anthology, if I do say so myself: My story, "Embraced" is a black comedy of lust, obsession, war, prophecy, and resistance during the apocalypse, as told by Yuri Dzhankov, who is, unfortunately, having the time of his life. Jhon Sanchez' "The Japanese Rice Cooker" may be all things to all men (and women), but is it the right thing? And Daniel Gooding's "Cro-Magnum Xix" is one of the best takes I've ever read on poor planning in the search for eternal life. And many, many more.

Copies can be purchased here.

This isn't the first of my sci-fi/fantasy work. "Dark Hollow" appeared in the Fall, 2000 issue of Space and Time, and its semi-sequel, "At the End of the Path", in the July/August 2002 issue of AHMM. And I've written a few others that have showed up in various places.

But here's the thing, innumerable authors, far better than I, have done the same thing. To wit:

DoAndroidsDream.png
a/k/a Bladerunner
  • First off, I would argue that every ghost story is also a mystery story - why are they there? Why won't they leave? Why won't they leave us alone? What do they want? Etc.
  • "Dracula", in case you've never noticed, is a mystery as well as a horror/fantasy story. It's not my fault that Jonathan Harker is a lousy detective, at least compared with Van Helsing.
  • Isaac Asimov - who wrote about freaking everything (says the owner of his "Annotated Gulliver's Travels", which I highly recommend) wrote 66 stories about the "Black Widowers", mostly published in EQMM. There's also The Caves of Steel, introducing policeman Elijah Baley and robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw.
  • Ray Bradbury's work switches regularly between fantasy (he himself claimed he never wrote science fiction) and mystery/horror (Something Wicked This Way Comes).
  • Len Deighton's alternate history novel SS-GB, about a British homicide detective in Nazi-occupied London.
  • J. K. Rowling's Cormoran Strike mysteries (which, to be honest, I have not yet read...) The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm.
  • Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. (Delicious!)
  • Stephen King has been writing horror/sci-fi/fantasy/and now Westerns, so you figure it out.
  • Our own Melissa Yi recently posted about being a finalist for the Roswell Award for Short Science Fiction http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/04/the-writers-dilemma-risk-vs-reward.html
  • and Melissa just posted about some modern mash-ups of mysteries and werewolves (and other creatures) in Monday's post: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/06/would-you-like-little-werewolf-in-your.html
  • And my personal favorite: that unique, beautiful, crazy, hilarious, and haunting mash-up of history, mystery, fantasy, and Chinese myth, Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was. I read it in one gulp at a library and went out and bought it that afternoon. (Can you tell that I used to teach Chinese history?)
    • Best quote: 'Immortality is only for the gods,' he whispered. 'I wonder how they can stand it.'
    • Seriously - go buy it, read it, just revel in it. An amazing work…
Anyway, I think this sort of switching between genres is pretty normal and fairly common. When you're killing people [fictionally] for a living, sometimes you need a wider horizon, or a shift in time, or a shift in dimensions in order to get the point sharpened, the point across, the point driven in.

And really, given the basic universals of pride, anger, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, and even sloth - and yes, I remember reading, long ago, a sci-fi story about murder by betrayal being done because of sloth - Anyway, given these universals it just doesn't matter about ages, universes, or much of anything else. It can always work. Anything is possible. Or at least wildly improbable.


And keep writing.

12 March 2015

Riders of the Purple Wage

by Eve Fisher
Lately, a number of very famous people have been getting their knickers in a twist over Artificial Intelligence, or AI:
black and white photo of Hawking in a chair, in an office."The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."  Stephen Hawking
“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out."  Elon Musk
Now I can sort of understand why.  The general premise for decades has been that some day the computers/robots will take over, and run us, with only two possible scenarios:
  • Great - Robots and computers will do everything for us, and we will live a life of luxury (according to the late great Frederick Pohl, too much so), comfort and security thanks to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics that protect mankind from the revolt of the machines.  
  • Bad - Everything by Philip K. Dick, and, of course, "The Matrix".  
Which it will be depends upon the mood of the times.  Currently, we're not a particularly optimistic species, so the common response is, "We're doomed! We're doomed!"  (Unless you're Sheldon Cooper, and then it cannot happen soon enough.)
Maybe.  Maybe not.  But what concerns me about the takeover of the machines isn't that they use my stasis body as a heat source while providing my mind innumerable alternative reality jaunts to keep me a content and unquestioning host organism.  Or even AIs killing us all (for one thing, logically, they'd do it quickly - only humans are sadists.  And cats.).  What concerns me is the simple matter of a paycheck.  Eating.  Rent.  Utilities.

Look, the main reason we have computers and robots is to do our work for us.  Anything boring, repetitive, heavy, dangerous, etc. - eventually, we'll make a machine to do it.  Calculators mean I don't have to add up the columns of figures for which they used to hire Nicholas Nickleby.  Payloaders mean we don't need an army of physical laborers hoisting earth. Tractors, etc., mean that today's Pa Ingalls doesn't need to muscle his way through the sod with horse and plow.  Computers mean I don't have to write everything out long-hand, or type it over and over again until it's perfect.  It's great.

hamburger robotOn the other hand, modern technology has eliminated and is eliminating a whole ton of jobs. Typesetters; typists; clerks; gas station attendants; innumerable factory workers; graphic designers; paralegals; low-level tax preparers; most farm hands; most farmers; bank tellers; airline check-in agents; retail clerks; accountants; actuaries; travel agents; most reporters, etc.  Soon there will be far fewer surgeons, teachers, and other high-level jobs as robots take over.  And in the fast food industry, the robots are coming to flip those burgers and make those fries.

The point is that, as we use technology to do 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90% of the work, we will also unemploy a significant number of people.  There will still be jobs, at all levels - just infinitely less of them.  Perhaps only a handful, here and there.  Which leaves the elephant in the room:  what do you do about the people?

Yes, everyone talks about retraining.  See a typical chirpy article on "The Future of Work" .  BUT, I've always had two basic questions:

(1) There is a significant number of people who can't be retrained.  Some will be too old, some will be too set, and some - frankly - whose mental ability to learn complex problem-solving skills is extremely limited.  I run into some of them at the pen.  (In case you don't know it, prisons are the modern housing facility for many of the mentally disabled, as well as the mentally ill.)  These are the people who are never considered in future planning talks, the ones that are ignored by all economists and pundits, but shouldn't be.  As I once said about a former student who was caught stealing, "Well, how else is he going to make a living?"

(2) If you have 250 people in a town, and there are only 100 actual jobs, it doesn't matter how much retraining you do.  There are still 150 people without work because there are no jobs.  Urbanize that.  Nationalize that.  Globalize that.

In Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage", he posited a society in which they coped with the problem of almost complete unemployment by giving everyone a salary just for being born.  It's enough to keep them housed and fed and hooked up to the Fido, a combination cable TV/videophone, along with a little wet-ware called a fornixator (you translate it).  To get anything else, you have to prove your exceptionality, but most people are happily occupied without it.  For those who aren't, well, there are wildlife reserves where they can go off and be weird - but they have to give up the purple wage.

Soylent green.jpgIt's a successful society, in its own way - and perhaps the only logical one. Because the truth is, sooner or later, in a society where technology is doing 90% of the work, there will have to be a "purple wage".
That, or
(1) society comes up with innumerable "make work" jobs, like picking oakum in the workhouse.  (Personally, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(2) the unemployed masses (a la "Soylent Green" or "Zardoz", etc.) will be pounding at the armored enclaves of the fabulously wealthy.  (As I said, I foresee a lot of crime.)
      That, or
(3) a whole lot of people are going to have to die, leaving just enough to run the machines, and do the few jobs that still cannot be done by machines, and the fabulously wealthy (there is always a group of fabulously wealthy) to enjoy unending leisure.  Wall-E, call home!
      That, or
(4) The Matrix.

Anyway, here's the question:  As we pursue technological advancements, can we let go of the Protestant Work Ethic?  Let go of the idea that we are what we do?  Must people work or starve, even if there's plenty of everything except jobs?  Can we tolerate, support, even design a society where the norm for everyone (instead of just the wealthy) is "the leisured class"?

Now, you may think the last question is nonsense.  For one thing, we've been promised endless leisure for a century now, and most people are still working their butts off.  On the other hand, we do have more leisure than almost any other society in history.  This began with the industrial revolution, and one of the most interesting things about reading "Consuming Passions" by Judith Flanders is watching the development of ways for the working classes to spend their new-found leisure.  (Hey - they had all of Saturday afternoon and Sundays off!)  Thanks to advertising, sports, vacations, theater, and literature were turned into major industries.  (Drinking had always been a favorite activity.)  And, instantly, the pundits, poets, philosophers, and religious thinkers started decrying the horrible waste of human time and energy on trivia.  And talking about the nobility of hard work, piety, thrift, self-denial and sobriety:  for the lower classes only, of course.

File:Victorian cricket team 1859.jpg
Victorian cricket team

We have pretty much the same discussion going on today:  in certain circles, if you don't have a paying job, you're worthless.  (Unless you're wealthy enough not to.)  And the idea that someone who's unemployed has a television, a cell phone, and computer games for the kids - well, they're obviously spending too much money on all the wrong stuff.  Not to mention, if they have such things, they can't be "really" poor.

NOTE 1:  In Florida they give cell phones to the homeless, for a variety of reasons.  (Contact from parole officers, call-backs on jobs, etc.)
NOTE 2:  I'm always amazed at the people who check out other people's grocery carts and then post, outraged, if someone who's on food stamps buys candy or other luxury items.  (See this article for the alternative view:  People on Food Stamps Make Better Grocery Choices.)  God forbid the poor eat something other than gruel...

Basically, I'm leisured, you're lazy, and they're useless.

Anyway, today we've got smart phones, social media, computer games, Netflix, and innumerable other ways to waste what time we have (on the job or off) in the modern equivalent of Fidos and fornixators.  And it seems like the list is going to expand at algorithmic rate. Meanwhile, the list of available jobs is decreasing, at least geometrically, every time we turn around.  IF we get to where technology performs most of the work, and IF we get to where we have a regular unemployment of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 percent, can we change our thinking from "unemployed" to "leisured"?  Can we develop a new idea of what people "should" do?  Of what people are "supposed" to do?

Without work, what are people for?
"Tompkins Square Park Central Knoll" by David Shankbone -
David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

14 August 2013

Fatherlands

by David Edgerley Gates

We were just walking out of CASABLANCA, the new picture starring Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan....
I always thought this would be a cool opening line for a story, setting up the alternate history angle from the get-go. (There are plenty of these might-have-beens. The original casting Peckinpah wanted for THE WILD BUNCH, for example, was Lee Marvin and Brian Keith.) In the case of CASABLANCA, though, this was a misleading Warners PR plant: Bogart always had a lock on the part.

Alternate history is an interesting genre, usually lying somewhere on the outskirts of SF or even fantasy. The first one I remember reading was packaged in an Ace double novel, and I've forgotten the title, to my chagrin, but the premise was that the Spanish Armada had successfully invaded England, so Spain became the dominant European and New World power for the next four centuries. Often the key to alternate history is just such a defining event. If typhus hadn't ravaged Hannibal's armies in Italy, Rome would have remained a provincial backwater, and Carthage taken control of the Mediterranean trade routes.

What if the Germans had won WWII? This being an enduring subset of the genre, and a fascinating one. Len Deighton's SS-GB takes place in an occupied Great Britain, after the RAF loses the air war. Robert Harris hit the ground running with FATHERLAND, an enormously spooky thriller, hinging on the plausibility that all evidence of the Holocaust could be destroyed, and the memory of mass murder erased from the historical record. The precursor of both these books is Philip K. Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.


Japan occupies the West Coast, to the Rockies, Germany the East Coast, to the Mississippi. A weak buffer state exists between them. The engine of the story is the struggle of the two great Axis powers against each other, worldwide, a Cold War that's about blow wide open, and there are also factions and succession rivalries, inside the Reich. The conspiracies, though, are the backdrop to more intimate and familiar characters, and the mechanisms they develop for living in a police state---the Japanese hegemony is nowhere near as brutal, on a daily basis, as the German.

Three dramatic devices surface and resurface all through the book. The first is historicity, the quality an object or an artifact has to absorb and embody the past, a Zippo lighter Franklin Roosevelt may have had in his pocket, say, when he was assassinated in 1932. The play between the counterfeit and the authentic mirrors the storyline. Are we imagining all this? (And there's a huge black market in fakes, such as Zippo lighters.) The second meta-device is a novel within the novel, an alternate history, in which the Allies turn out to have won the war. But this fiction isn't quite the world as we now know it, either. It's skewed in other, odd ways, so again, 'reality,' or authenticity, is slippery, a construct, really, and not immutable. This idea is doubled on itself with the third device, which I think is utterly inspired. Every character in the book consults the I CHING, and the fall of the yarrow stalks or the coins establishes fate. In fact (or, in 'fact'), the novel within the novel is written using the I CHING, each fictional historical development a roll of the dice, in effect. Or to put it another way, pay every attention to the man behind the curtain.

None of this is meant to suggest THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is self-indulgent, or some elaborate post-modernist prank. It's mischievous, and often deceptive, but always highly entertaining, and entertains the unexpected. Nobody in the story is flat, or arbitrary. Everybody holds their own as a fully-fleshed person, and each of them holds their own future in trust, however the yarrow stalks may fall. The great strength of the book is probably that character is fate, and nothing is fated. There will always be defining events, but history is accident. The choices we make are only inevitable in hindsight. For there to be an alternate reality, we have to decide first which fiction we believe.

25 January 2013

Cross the T's and Roll the "I's"



by Dixon Hill

I’m afraid I’ve been out of the net a lot, lately, which is why you haven’t seen many comments from me over the past few weeks. The reason for this, however, has nothing to do with my office power problem, which I’m happy to say is now fixed.

Instead, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in various doctors’ offices with my dad, who’s combating some ongoing ailments. 

During this time, I’ve noticed that doctors seem to enjoy making people wait for long periods in uncomfortable chairs. The good news is, this gave me a lot of time to read while my dad napped beside me.
Philip K. Dick

I’ve enjoyed all three books of the Hunger Games series (Had a hard time putting them down, in fact; much better than the film, though lacking in description [imho]), several EXCELLENT books by Alan Furst (recommended by one of my SS compatriots a few weeks back), re-reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick), and discovering the short stories of Philip K. Dick in two wonderful anthologies of his work. 

Though Dick tended to write Science Fiction,I believe his short story The Eyes Have It is clearly worth posting on our SS site. And, when you read it, I’m pretty sure you’ll rapidly understand why I think so (assuming you haven’t already read it, and are now nodding rapidly).  

Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I was able to upload this comedic gem for your reading pleasure. I hope you enjoy!


The Eyes Have It 
by PHILIP K. DICK 

IT WAS quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything — and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read:

… his eyes slowly roved about the room.

Vague chills assailed me. I tried to picture the eyes. Did they roll like dimes? The passage indicated not; they seemed to move through the air, not over the surface. Rather rapidly, apparently. No one in the story was surprised. That’s what tipped me off. No sign of amazement at such an outrageous thing. Later the matter was amplified

. … his eyes moved from person to person.

There it was in a nutshell. The eyes had clearly come apart from the rest of him and were on their own. My heart pounded and my breath choked in my windpipe. I had stumbled on an accidental mention  of a totally unfamiliar race. Obviously non-Terrestrial. Yet, to the characters in the book, it was perfectly natural — which suggested they belonged to the same species.

And the author? A slow suspicion burned in my mind. The author was taking it rather too easily in his stride. Evidently, he felt this was quite a usual thing. He made absolutely no attempt to conceal this knowledge. The story continued:

 … presently his eyes fastened on Julia.

Julia, being a lady, had at least the breeding to feel indignant. She is described as blushing and knitting her brows angrily. At this, I sighed with relief. They weren’t all non-Terrestrials. The narrative continues:

 … slowly, calmly, his eyes examined every inch of her. 

Great Scott! But here the girl turned and stomped off and the matter ended. I lay back in my chair gasping with horror. My wife and family regarded me in wonder.

“What’s wrong, dear?” my wife asked.

I couldn’t tell her. Knowledge like this was too much for the ordinary run-of-the-mill person. I had to keep it to myself. “Nothing,” I gasped. I leaped up, snatched the book, and hurried out of the room.

 IN THE garage, I continued reading. There was more. Trembling, I read the next revealing passage:

 … he put his arm around Julia.

Presently she asked him if he would remove his arm. He immediately did so, with a smile. It’s not said what was done with the arm after the fellow had removed it. Maybe it was left standing upright in the corner. Maybe it was thrown away. I don’t care. In any case, the full meaning was there, staring me right in the face.

Here was a race of creatures capable of removing portions of their anatomy at will. Eyes, arms — and maybe more. Without batting an eyelash. My knowledge of biology came in handy, at this point. Obviously they were simple beings, uni-cellular, some sort of primitive single-celled things. Beings no more developed than starfish. Starfish can do the same thing, you know.

I read on. And came to this incredible revelation, tossed off coolly by the author without the faintest tremor:

 … outside the movie theater we split up. Part of us went inside, part over to the cafe for dinner. 

Binary fission, obviously. Splitting in half and forming two entities.  Probably each lower half went to the cafe, it being farther, and the upper halves to the movies. I read on, hands shaking. I had really stumbled onto something here. My mind reeled as I made out this passage:

 … I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. Poor Bibney has lost his head again.

 Which was followed by:

 … and Bob says he has utterly no guts. 

Yet Bibney got around as well as the next person. The next person, however, was just as strange. He was soon described as:

 … totally lacking in brains. 


THERE was no doubt of the thing in the next passage. Julia, whom I had thought to be the one normal person, reveals herself as also being an alien life form, similar to the rest:

 … quite deliberately, Julia had given her heart to the young man.

It didn’t relate what the final disposition of the organ was, but I didn’t really care. It was evident Julia had gone right on living in her usual manner, like all the others in the book. Without heart, arms, eyes, brains, viscera, dividing up in two when the occasion demanded. Without a qualm.

 … thereupon she gave him her hand. 

I sickened. The rascal now had her hand, as well as her heart. I shudder to think what he’s done with them, by this time.

 … he took her arm. 

Not content to wait, he had to start dismantling her on his own. Flushing crimson, I slammed the book shut and leaped to my feet. But not in time to escape one last reference to those carefree bits of anatomy whose travels had originally thrown me on the track:

 … her eyes followed him all the way down the road and across the meadow.

I rushed from the garage and back inside the warm house, as if the accursed things were following me. My wife and children were playing Monopoly in the kitchen. I joined them and played with frantic fervor, brow feverish, teeth chattering.

I had had enough of the thing. I want to hear no more about it. Let them come on. Let them invade Earth. I don’t want to get mixed up in it. I have absolutely no stomach for it.

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net 

See you in two weeks, 
Dixon