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Happy birthday, Philip K DickAuthor: Simon Sellars • Dec 18th, 2008 •
ABOVE: Ultra-bizarre footage of the Philip K Dick android, whose head was unbelievably left in the overhead bin on an airplane, never to be found again.
If alive this day, he’d be 80 — today. (update: Phil’s birthday is actually December 16; this article was posted late).
For some reason, it surprises me that Dick was two years older than Ballard. It always seemed to me that JGB was the ‘older’ writer, perhaps because, I think it’s fair to say, he came to his mature style earlier in his career than Dick did his.
To celebrate Dick’s phantom birthday, Pirate Cat Radio recently broadcast a two-hour tribute show, now archived here. Appearing as a guest is none other than Umberto Rossi, a man who scholastically straddles both Dick and Ballard, and who has translated Dick into Italian. This self-styled ‘hoodlum intellectual’ talks about Blade Runner and the various film adaptations of Dick, as well as the crossfire between PKD and Kafka.
The show’s main guest is David Gill from the Total Dickhead blog, and he ranges over many subjects that one would normally associate with Dick: schizophrenia, paranoia, the nature of reality, Phil’s supposed gnosticism, Dick’s encounter with the infamous ‘pink beam’ and the (still) shocking similarities between this experience and Robert Anton Wilson’s own ‘alien’ encounters, as well as something I’d never heard about: a rather strange sexual abuse theory that some people are using to explain away Dick’s obsessions. Gill also talks about Linklater’s film of A Scanner Darkly, and he praises it. I don’t get this, either. For me there are two embarrassing gimmicks in that film that ruin it for me: rotoscoping and Keanu Reeves.
But kudos to Gill: besides interviewing Rossi, he also plays snippets from interviews he did with Tessa Dick, Phil’s wife, and John Alan Simon, the director of the forthcoming Radio Free Albemuth film adaptation. He also unearths a 1977 interview clip with PKD himself.
Note that the show opens with a Gary Numan track — which is interesting, in that Numan has been used to signify both Phildickian and Ballardian themes. Like Rossi and Numan, I too am interested in the connections between PKD and JGB, specifically their remodelling of the perceptual tools available to us. On the face of it, that’s not so strange: a number of SF writers in the 1960s were trying to achieve what Dick defined as ‘conceptual dislocation’, riding the winds of a decade of significant cultural mutation caused by global ecological concerns, the threat of nuclear war and a chaotic drug culture. According to Peter Nicholls in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, perception is ‘the philosophical linchpin of many [SF] stories’, and he lists five common types: ‘Stories about unusual modes of perception; stories about appearance and reality; stories about perception altered through drugs; stories about synaesthesia; stories about altered perception of time’.
More than a few commentators in the 60s saw schizophrenia as the only valid response to the enveloping world of information overload. In ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’ (1962), Ballard lays out the map of his own ‘infinite territory’, explaining what he would like to see in the new SF:
more psycho-literary ideas, more meta-biological and meta-chemical concepts, private time-systems, synthetic psychologies and space-times, more of the remote, sombre half-worlds one glimpses in the paintings of schizophrenics, all in all a complete speculative poetry and fantasy of science.
These schizophrenic ‘half-worlds’ are reminiscent of Dick’s desire to use SF to reveal:
our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet… There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or a bizarre one – this is the essence of SF … a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.
Dick, ‘My Definition of Science Fiction’ (1981).
Dick fashioned his masterpiece The Man in the High Castle (1964) as an alternative history set in a present recognisable in many ways, yet fundamentally different to that empirically observed outside the novel. He portrays a post-war period in which the Axis powers were victorious: the United States has been divided into three regions, one German-controlled, one under Japanese rule, with a buffer zone in between. On close scrutiny, High Castle, written in a decade of immense civil unrest, reveals a potent metaphor for the ‘real’ America, ever more authoritarian in its surveillance and control of its citizens, ever more ruthless in its expanding role as Global Policeforce. Crucially, the concept of the buffer zone, where resistance lies, revealing the inverted nature of the real world, is precisely in line with Ballard’s strategy.
For Dick, the danger elsewhere lies in what he terms our continual bombardment by ‘manufactured pseudo-realities’:
Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups – and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.
Dick, ‘How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later’ (1978).
Similarly, in ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’ (1966), a discussion of surrealism published in New Worlds, Ballard suggests that ‘reality’ has become degraded, since the ‘fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the “real” and the “false” – the terms no longer have any meaning’.
Ballard and Dick saw the function of their work in analogous terms. For Dick:
I ask in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.
Dick, ‘How to Build a Universe’.
While for Ballard:
The task of the arts seems more and more to be that of isolating the few elements of reality from this mélange of fictions, not some metaphorical “reality”, but simply the basic elements of cognition and posture that are the jigs and props of our consciousness.
Ballard ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’.
This is a process ideally described in The Atrocity Exhibition, where ‘the faces of public figures are projected at us as if out of some endless global pantomime, and have the conviction of giant advertisement hoardings’.
Just as Rossi draws the connection between Dick and Kafka, so too is the latter’s Metamorphosis
a precursor to ‘inner space’ SF. As John Clute notes in the SF Encyclopedia, its ‘prose of hallucinated transparency’ presents a world ‘radically displaced from normal reality… a horrifying allegory of alienation in which a young man is transformed overnight into a huge beetle’. Elsewhere in Kafka, Clute points to the ‘confidence-man ingenuities of K., the protagonist of The Castle … [who] seems almost capable of forcing the 20th-century world to give him meaning and a room. Kafka’s work is Modernist, its fable-like quality indefinably dreamlike; his influence, which has been enormous, permeates much of modern SF’s attempts to get at the quality of life in dislocated, totalitarian, surrealistic or merely inscrutable venues’.
Ballard updated this Kafkaesque worldview for an age when technology provides even more opportunities for alienation, for the body and for hard definitions of ‘reality’ to lose their boundaries in a world of competing mediated fictions:
A lot of people mis-read Kafka in that they assume that in describing his particularly nightmarish world he saw it in an exclusively unfavourable light. I think it had invaded him, and this vast bureaucracy which is so impenetrable, whose value system is so totally elusive, had enfolded him and the whole power of his fiction rises from this ambivalent response.
Ballard, interviewed by Don Watson, ‘Closely Observed S/Trains’, New Musical Express, 1985.
Faced with the elision of the individual by bureaucratic or corporate demands, Kafkaesque ambivalence provided Ballard with a prescient ‘schizophrenic’ metaphor, what he terms an ‘immersion in the threatening possibilities before swimming through the other side’ — that’s the buffer zone. For Ballard, we have integrated irrevocably with technology and consumerism, making it impossible to be distanced from a ‘new landscape of values’. He therefore poses the question: ‘Do we owe more allegiance to multi-national companies or to royalty? Do I owe more to Avis Rentacar or to Queen Elizabeth II, after all it’s now the multinationals who provide the empire on which the sun never sets’ (Ballard, quoted in Watson).
These are just some initial thoughs on the PKD/JGB axis; if anyone has some more ideas, please feel free to comment. Rossi and I will return to this theme here on ballardian.com in a joint article/discussion at some stage in the well-nigh future.
Newer: 'Here's to the borderzone': life after the PhD »