Tuesday, January 03, 2017

"Philip K. Dick is dead, alas..."

I've been returning to the work of PKD with increasing frequency of late -- a reflex that was put into play about five years ago. Most tributes to the man are of the "Wow, so prescient" variety -- not at all my take on the matter. I'd say that he, like William Gibson, grew better at recognizing just how deeply cultivated a group consciousness could be by (largely malign) influences most people could not be bothered to find names for. An adroit excavator of the ur-consciousness beneath his particular present, in other words.

The other, more common approach to Dick is to borrow his individual consciousness experiments for other, particular narrative purposes. With a little care this can net some very entertaining results (Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall do a respectable job of this exercise). More often than not, if someone heralds the arrival of "our next Philip K. Dick" this is what they're signalling.

What our "next Philip K. Dicks" are usually missing, to this reader's eyes, is his profound and dangerous capacity for empathy. I recently re-read The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and I was struck anew by how deeply invested the author was in his characters and their choices and fates. The jaded eyes of youth, fresh from their tutorials in mimetic theory, will read differently and with their mouths (or thumbs) loudly assert otherwise. "This isn't NECESSARILY Dick we are reading/hearing here. After all, ya rube, the narrator for Transmigration is a woman."

Knock yerself out, kid. I'm here to tell you Philip K. Dick was a woman when he wrote that, and you can go fly yer pomo freak flag somewhere else.

Mind you, it's not a matter I'll duel to the death over, either. I am neither the most broadly nor deeply versed PKD reader on the web. I've read the Ubik trilogy that followed, however, as well as the bulk of his thesis. Looking back on Transmigration, and what followed, I'd say it is fairly safe for even a casual reader like myself to assert that Dick took his characters' fates personally. Whatever happened to them directly affected him -- perhaps directly affected all of humanity. He couldn't not care. He couldn't stop writing.

As I say, that is a dangerous level of empathy. Say what you will about the vertigo inducing quality of Dick's meddling with the grammar of cosmic narrative, the greater peril lay in his grokking the shared need behind our most common and desperate impulses. It is what sets him apart from his acolytes. It is what I look for when I read them, it is inevitably why they disappoint, and it is why I always return again to him.
"They're queuing up,just like he wrote!"

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