Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.


GALACTIC POT-HEALER by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/08/2013]

GALACTIC POT-HEALER by Philip K. Dick (ISBN 978-0-679-75297-4) is a later Dick novel, after he has had time to develop a distinctive voice:

"A man is an angel that has become deranged, Joe Fernwright thought. Once they--all of them--had been genuine angels, and at that time they had a choice between good and evil, so it was easy being an angel. And then something happened. Something went wrong or broke down or failed. And they had been faced with the necessity of choosing not good or evil but the lesser of two evils, and so that had unhinged them and now each was a man. ... Joe felt weak and unsure of himself, and ahead of him lay a terrible job--terrible in the sense that it would put inordinate demands on his waning strength. I am like a gray thing, he thought. Bustling along with the currents of air that tumble me,that roll me, like a gray puff-ball, on and on."

At first, the view of Muslims as crazed jihadist terrorists seems to pre-date 9/11 here: when the "Padre booth" is dialed to Allah, the first thing it says is, "Kill your foe." Yet it is also true that when Joe replies, "I have no foe. Except for my own weariness and fear of failure," the Padre says, "Those are enemies which you must overcome in a jihad; you must show yourself to be a man, and a man, a true man, is a fighter who fights back." In other words, jihad is not necessarily a war carried out against other people; as many have pointed out, it can be against personal shortcomings or other abstractions. (One criticism I have of the Padre booth is that for most of the settings Dick uses the actual theology or belief system of the religion, but for Judaism he resorts to the booth recommending a bowl of fatworm soup. One, that is cultural rather than theological, and two, worms of any sort would not be kosher. So he is not just ignoring the religion and treating it as "funny culture" but he is actually contradicting the religion.)

Dick is not strong on zoology either. He refers to "the life of an insect, a spider," implying that spiders are insects.

To order Galactic Pot-Healer from amazon.com, click here.


"The Golden Man" by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/20/2007]

In preparation for the film NEXT, I read the story upon which it is based, "The Golden Man". This appeared in IF in 1954, and was reprinted in Judith Merril's BEYOND THE BARRIERS OF SPACE AND TIME that same year. Of it, Merril wrote, "The theme [of predestination vs. free will] is handled here, with unusual dramatic impact, by a young West Coast writer of exceptional promise." And who was that writer? Philip K. Dick, now so esteemed that he is the only modern science fiction author whose name is actually used to promote movies based on their work. I am sure there is some anthology or collection in print with this story, as Hollywood usually makes sure that there is advertising for their films even in bookstores.


THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/02/2006]

Our science fiction group read Philip K. Dick's classic alternate history, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (ISBN 0-679-74067-8). Some things became more meaningful for me after our Hawaiian trip, such as references to the Wyndham-Matson shipping line. But the I Ching references are still something I assume Dick got right, because I am not so familiar with it that I can recognize the hexagrams. The one or two I looked up were accurate, but more importantly, Dick relied heavily on the I Ching in writing the book (making one of the characters semi-autobiographical in that regrad anyway). Characters use both the yarrow sticks and the coins, though the coins are much easier to use. The alternate history aspect was very unusual at the time, but people reading it now may well ask what the fuss is about. And Dick has decided to show the Japanese influence on society by having his characters talk and think in the stereotypical pidgin English spoken by Japanese characters of the time ("Essential to avoid politics. ... Yet they might arise. ...Mr. Baynes, sir, they say Herr Boormann is quite ill. That a new Reichs Chancellor will be chosen by the Partei this autumn. Rumor only? So much secrecy, alas, between Pacific and Reich."). One could argue, I suppose, that if the Japanese were the conquerors, they would not feel any need to learn perfect English (did the British learn Hindi in India?), but why would the American characters be talking and thinking like this?

We got somewhat side-tracked in a discussion of what the title "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" (the title of the book within the book) is supposed to mean. It comes from Ecclesiastes 12:5, but even that source seems to have as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

The entire verse reads in the King James Version as "Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets;"

The one phrase is variously rendered as:

ASV/KJV/WBS/WEB: the grasshopper shall be a burden
BBE: the least thing is a weight
DBY: the grasshopper is a burden
JPS: the grasshopper shall drag itself along
YLT: the grasshopper is become a burden

(The Vulgate refers to "lucusta", or locust, but everyone translates it as grasshopper.)

Everyone agree that the verse as a whole, refers to old age, but the precise meaning of this phrase is unclear. The Geneva Study Bible annotates the phrase as "They will be able to bear nothing." Wesley's Notes says, "They cannot endure the least burden, being indeed a burden to themselves." Another commentator says that the grasshopper is used as a metaphor because it resembles a man on crutches.

Of course, none of this got us any closer to what this meant as the book title, unless it is the notion just as even a small a thing as a grasshopper can be impossible to carry, so even the smallest change in reality may be impossible to accomplish.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/27/2015]

As probably most readers know by now, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick (ISBN 978-0-679-74067-4) is set in an alternate universe in which the Axis won World War II. So when Random House put on the back a New York Times Book Review quote saying, "Philip K. Dick's best books always describe a future that is both entirely recognizable and utterly unimaginable," one does not know if Random House realized that THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE was not actually set in the future, or if the reviewer was reviewing some other book entirely, or indeed, if the reviewer was reviewing THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and saying something negative about it.

There does seem to be a misconception about the plot. It seems to me that the book with the book (THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY) is often described as describing our world. It does not; it describes a third outcome, where the Allies win, but where Roosevelt has only two terms, and there are various other differences as well.

The title "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" comes from Ecclesiastes 12:15. If it sounds unfamiliar, it is because the familiar King James Version renders it as, "Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets." Several other versions say, "The grasshopper drags itself along." I do not think there is a standard translation that renders it as Dick has it.

The Japanese characters seem to talk in a sort of pidgin English, or rather a stilted and slightly incorrect English. For example, in describing THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY, someone says, "No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise." (In particular, it is English without definite or indefinite articles.) At least one reviewer attributes this to racism on Dick's part, particularly as the German characters all speak perfect English. But the American characters also use this "pidgin" when speaking to the Japanese ("One cannot judge by book being best seller.") or even when thinking to themselves ("Pilfer customs right and left, wear, eat, talk, walk, as for instance consuming with gusto baked potato served with sour cream and chives, old-fashioned American dish added to their haul. But nobody fooled..."). The reviewer may be right but there seems to be more to it than that.

To order The Man in the High Castle from amazon.com, click here.


"The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/05/2008]

Our science fiction group read the short story "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick. This tied in with the lectures on values Mark and I have been listening to, particularly those on the legal system and punishment. One of the big questions in the lectures was why the crime of "attempted X" almost always carries a lesser penalty than the crime of "X" and whether this is justifiable. I cannot remember if it discussed the crime of conspiracy as well, but that certainly fits in with Dick's notion of Pre-Crime, the Pre-Crime police force implementing what might be considered a very well-informed campaign against conspiracies, even those of which the person or persons involved may be unaware. Manzanar, Guantanamo Bay, ...,--all these seem like merely imperfect implementations of Dick's Pre-Crime. (And though Dick's hero makes sure Pre-Crime survives--for the good of society--it is worth noting that he himself manages to escape it and head for the frontier, where presumably things are more like the Wild West and Pre-Crime doesn't exist.)

Of course, the scientific (or rather logical) basis of precognition has some flaws. For the story to work at all, we must accept that precognition is accurate. Assume the pre-cogs see a murder and Pre-Crime arrests the (potential) murderer, thereby preventing the murder. But then their prediction is not accurate, because there is no murder. There seem to be only two possibilities. One, preventing the crime changes the timeline to one not seen by the pre-cogs. Or two, the precognition is merely probabilistic. Neither one sounds very convincing, although either explanation is consistent with Dick's notion of a minority report.


THE PHILIP K. DICK READER by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/11/2011]

Our science fiction discussion group chose six stories from THE PHILIP K. DICK READER (ISBN 978-0-806-51856-5) for this month's discussion: "The Hanging Stranger", "Strange Eden", "Foster, You're Dead", "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", "Paycheck", and "Second Variety".

"The Hanging Stranger" (1953) is not one of Dick's better-known stories, and has only been anthologized twice before this. (By comparison, "Paycheck" has been anthologized nine times and "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" dozens.) "The Hanging Stranger" had a premise very similar to Jack Finney's BODY SNATCHERS (a.k.a. THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS): that of people turned into zombie-like beings. Finney's novel came out two years later--was it inspired by the Dick story, or is it just coincidence?

"Strange Eden" (1954), on the other hand, seems more "inspired by" than "inspiring"--in particular, inspired by one of Odysseus's adventures.

"Foster, You're Dead" (1954) is reminiscent of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth stories such as THE SPACE MERCHANTS and "The Marching Morons" (1951). "Inspired by" would probably be too strong, though, as there were a lot of stories in the 1950s that satirized marketing and advertising. Mark thought it was similar to "The Midas Plague" by Frederik Pohl, where the poorer you were, the more you had to consume to support the economy, while the rich had much lower quotas.

"We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (1966) is one of Dick's most anthologized stories, and was the basis for the film TOTAL RECALL. This time around I found myself asking if the ending was supposed to imply that he keeps asking for things because he has a subconscious memory of them, or that he creates a subconscious memory to match his wishes, or that he has the power to change reality to match his wishes, and Rekal is merely detecting this?

"Paycheck" (1953) seemed to anticipate the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision regarding the free speech rights of a corporation when Dick wrote: "When an individual person was defenseless, a business was not. The big economic forces had managed to remain free, although virtually everything else had been absorbed by the Government. Laws that had been eased away from the private person still protected property and industry. The [Secret Police] could pick up any given person, but they could not enter and seize a company, a business. That had been clearly established in the middle of the twentieth century."

But there was a different kind of irony in a character saying, "A lot of people here would be glad to work in Detroit." So would a lot of people in Detroit these days.

And at the end, Jennings just assumes that Kelly will marry him and Dick implies that that is a happy ending. No one seems to care whether Kelly wants to marry him, especially given that he is basically blackmailing her at the time. It is reminiscent of the ending of Robert Sheckley's "The Seventh Victim", except that Sheckly has a much better handle on the dynamics of the situation.

"Second Variety" (1953) was the basis of the film SCREAMERS, and it seemed pretty obvious where it was going early on.

One problem with the collection as a whole is that it gives you no idea when each of the stories were written. They are not in chronological order--indeed, it is not clear how the order was determined, since the three "strongest" stories come at the end rather than having one at the beginning (as is usual). The lack of any copyright information (other than "The stories are copyrighted in their year of original publication") means it is hard to say whether a given story was influenced by some external event or other piece of fiction without doing a fair amount of digging.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/01/2011]

The science fiction groups here seem to be fixated on Philip K. Dick; our local group did a bunch of stories out of THE PHILIP K. DICK READER for January, which I commented on in the 02/11/11 issue of the MT VOID, the Middletown did "Paycheck" (story and movie), and locally we did another batch for March (almost all of which were from 1953 or 1954). Because the person who picked the selection for January picked the best of the book then, these tended to be a bit weaker.

"Fair Game" (1959) led to what was apparently supposed to be a surprise ending, but wasn't. And as a further indication of the weakness of this, in it Dick re-used some of the imagery from EYE IN THE SKY (1957), making it all seem very hum-drum.

And speaking of eyes, I did rather like "The Eyes Have It" (1953), a linguistics-based story about what happens when you don't understand synecdoche. (There's an old joke about how science fiction authors get their ideas from a post office box in Schenectady, but that postdates this story.) As a fan of the oddities of language, I love this sort of thing.

"The Golden Man" (1954) deals with precognition, predestination, and free will (and was the basis for the film NEXT).

"The Turning Wheel" (1954) is about post-apocalyptic cults in Detroit. Given the economic situation in Detroit these days, maybe we should see if it's coming true.

"The Last of the Masters" (1954) is one of Dick's more overtly political stories--many are political, but they tend to be people living in various political situations than people discussing various political situations. Here, Dick looks at the consequences of anarchism.

"The Father-Thing" (1954) seemed to have a lot of ideas in common with Jack Finney's [INVASION OF] THE BODY SNATCHERS, but since that also came out in 1954, it seems more a coincidence than one copying the other. (There are also echoes of INVADERS FROM MARS, which was a 1953 movie, so there may have been some influence there.)

"Tony and the Beetles" (1953) (also known as "The Retreat from Rigel") seems trite and obvious now. It may have been fresh when it was written, but I'm skeptical of even that.

To order The Philip K. Dick Reader from amazon.com, click here.


A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/03/2006]

Our science fiction discussion book this month was A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick (ISBN 1-400-09690-1). My first observation is that in 1977, Dick felt it necessary to explain that a 7-11 grocery store was part of a chain in California. He also predicted plastic houses by 1994. (He was somewhat more on target with security guards checking for what is basically identity theft.) But I must admit I gave up after a hundred pages, because it seemed basically unreadable.

To order A Scanner Darkly from amazon.com, click here.


UBIK by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/30/2005]

Our science fiction discussion group read UBIK by Philip K. Dick (ISBN 0-679-73664-6), a novel that we all agreed was fairly incomprehensible the first time through. At Philcon, the Philip K. Dick panel mentioned that John Carpenter's film DARK STAR seemed heavily inspired by this novel, and indeed the film does have the consultations with the dead (who seem to be in some sort of suspended animation even though they are dead), and the talking elevator (and bomb) in the film are similar to the voice of Joe Chip's apartment. Dick is an author we will be re-visiting; THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE was chosen for April.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/06/2013]

UBIK by Philip K. Dick (ISBN 978-0-547-57229-1) was the book chosen to go with the film CYPHER, though any Philip K. Dick where reality is not what it seems would probably have done. (Actually, the closest might be "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale".)

Anyway, in UBIK strange things start happening. Some items seem to age very quickly: cigarettes from a new pack crumble to dust, milk delivered with your coffee seems to have turned several days ago, and people age and die like Amina in THE MUMMY'S GHOST or Maria in LOST HORIZON or even Ayesha in SHE. Other items seem to regress: you leave a 1959 car outside your house, but when you go out again, it is a 1939 car. Jet planes become propeller planes, and then biplanes, television sets become radios, and so on. This regression strikes our protagonist Joe Chip as odd:

"But why hadn't the TV set reverted to formless metals and plastics? Those, after all, were its constituents; it had been constructed out of them, not out of an earlier radio. Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato's idea objects, the universals which, in each class, were real. The form TV set had been a template imposed as a successor to other templates, like the procession of frames in a movie sequence. Prior forms, he reflected, must carry on an invisible, residual life in every object. The past is latent, is submerged, but still there, capable of rising to the surface once the later imprinting unfortunately--and against ordinary experience--vanished. The man contains--not the boy--but earlier men, he thought. History began a long time ago."

One does not usually find science fiction novels of the 1960s--or any era--based on this level of Platonic philosophy. The problem is that this still does not provide a unified explanation for the divergent phenomena. In one case time seems to be running backwards for objects, in the other, running forward faster than normal.

To order Ubik from amazon.com, click here.


THE WORLD THAT JONES MADE by Philip K. Dick:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/18/2013]

THE WORLD THAT JONES MADE by Philip K. Dick (ISBN 978-0-679-74219-7) is another book I read in conjunction with SFF Audio. Again, just a few comments, all from the first few pages of the book. The narrator claims that food rationing after the war (not World War II, but a later one) has ended extremist religious and political views (!). Since no earlier rationing did that, this seems unlikely. And they have food rationing but they still have tobacco. If food is so scarce, wouldn't they use all the arable land to grow food?

I thought it interesting that Dick has his reactionary character saying, "we beat those Jews and atheists and Reds"--usually authors have their characters ranting about just the atheists and Reds.

In the circus sideshow, he says, "The next freak was part human, part animal. Somewhere along the line, inter-species mating had occurred; the event was certainly lost on the nightmarish shadows of the war. ... From the war had come intricate legends of man-animal progeny, exaggerated accounts of human stock that had degenerated, erotic tales of copulation between women and beasts." It is interesting that these hybrids are said to be the result of copulation between women and beasts, rather than the result of copulation between men and beasts.

To order The World Jones Made from amazon.com, click here.


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