Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Review: "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland" by Philip K. Dick

He picked up his science fiction book and dropped it flat to the desk again. "You know, these guys who write these things... these rocket ships and time-travel machines and faster-than-list drives, all that stuff. If you want the hero to be on Mars you say something like -- 'he turned on the automatic high-gain propulsion tubes.' This one isn't so bad but some of them are. They go barreling around the universe. It must be easy to write this stuff; they must bat it out"

"I see," Fergesson said, not following the man's talk.

"I'd like to meet one of these science fiction boys. I'd hire myself out as a technical consultant." Carmichael's great horse-teeth showed in irony. "Ten or fifteen percent of the price he gets. This stuff is just fake. They fake it as they go along"
Philip K. Dick, "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland"

"Humpty Dumpty in Oakland" is the first PKD book I've read since finishing "I am Alive and You are Dead", the excellent biography of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère. Having read about Dick's feeling (or at least his second wife's feeling) that science fiction work was somehow beneath a real writer and knowing that he always wished for success in mainstream novels, the above passage is striking.

The work itself is pretty typical of Dick's mainstream novels. So many of the elements (the dynamic of salesmen and engineers in retail, health food stores, 1950s San Fransisco) are common to "Humpty Dumpty", "Voices from the Street", "In Milton Lumky Territory" and "Mary and the Giant". The narrative itself is fine. As with so many of Dick's novels, there are uncertainties to be resolved, competing views of reality that accumulate evidence until one is revealed to be if not true, then at least the view that all the characters are willing to act on. This and the general paranoia of the main character are typical Dick, and enjoyable enough. What distracts in the characterization.

There's a passage in "I am Alive and You are Dead" where Carrère compares Dick's characters to termites in a fumigated colony, coming together by reflex rather than design. Although a bit harsh, there's a kernel of truth that stayed with me as I read "Humpty Dumpty". It's not that the characters are entirely unsympathetic or their situations unbelievable. It's just that they are seemingly creatures of intellect and whim with a few "tics" thrown in rather than consistent, emotionally mature, living creations. By way of comparison, I finally got around to reading "The Lathe of Heaven" by Ursula Leguin a while back. The central conceits of "Lathe" (altering reality by subconscious thought) seemed very Phildickian to me, but the characters in LeGuin's work have a more believable emotional center.

Characterization not withstanding, "Humpty Dumpty" is not bad, but is perhaps best left for those who enjoy Dick's mainstream writing well enough to seek it out.

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