Monday, October 26, 2009

Martian Time-Slip

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick (Ballantine Books, 1964)

Martian Time-Slip examines the loss of the secure sense of self. I suspect most of Dick’s novels grapple with that subject. This is only the second Dick novel I’ve read and I am willing to acknowledge that this is a significant gap in understanding American science fiction.

The book has the feel of dry, water-rationed, suburban California in the early 1960s, the time and place of its writing. Through the bored housewives and isolated housing, the reader can nearly feel the untrustworthy veneer-thin surfaces of everyday things. Only the native Martians, the Bleekmen, who recall the aborigines of Australia, seem fully rooted in reality.

Housewife Silvia Bohlen uses phenobarbital to ease her dusty, dreary life. Arnie Kotts’ vindictiveness and greed energize him through his day, yet he sees little of what goes on around him. Norbert Steiner, purveyor of nostalgic delicacies from Earth, truffles and caviar, visits his institutionalized autistic son, and then decides to kill himself.

Drugs, alcohol, and too much psychoanalysis (says I, with tongue only partially in cheek) leave these and several other characters vulnerable to the loss of sense of self. Manfred Steiner, the autistic boy, may be experiencing “a derangement in the sense of time,” according to his doctor. The time-slip affects several characters, but Manfred most of all. One particularly horrific dinner party is described in turn by several viewpoint characters, before, during, and after the time the actual party takes place. Some of the characters view the party through a haze of drugs, or hallucinations, or psychotic episodes. The result is powerful and affecting.

A note on the edition: The Library of America has now issued three omnibus collections of Philip K. Dick novels. Jonathan Lethem selected the novels and wrote notes for each volume. Physically, the books are excellent in every way, including a highly readable font. Seek out all three.

A view of Philip K. Dick’s Mars, courtesy of a recent dust storm in Australia.
Philip K. Dick boxed set from The Library of America or Amazon.
Matthew Cheney at Mumpsimus: Dear Library of America...

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