Please see PART 1 if you don’t know why the following list starts at 3 and ends at 4.
In a sense, none of Phillip K. Dick’s works are in fact speculative fiction. Dick’s tales of shifting realities, supernatural paranoia and cosmic uncertainty were very much influenced by his personal experiences and world views, to the point that he often stated that his works were influenced by alternate (but very real) dimensions tangential to our own. Of course, he was a bit crazy, but that doesn’t necessarily prove he was wrong now, does it? The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, besides having what I believe to be the best name for a novel in history, is Dick’s most cogent examination of his most important theme: that of shifting realities. In TTSoPE, the eponymous businessman from beyond the stars and dubious messiah, Palmer Eldritch, returns to Earth with a drug that creates a discrete, individual reality that the user can inhabit at the time of his or her choosing. Of course their is a catch here, and it is left to a less-than-impressive collection of individuals to stop him. To do so, they must sojourn through a convoluted series of realities, and it is not too much to give away to say that they might not have come out on the other end. Oftentimes Dick is criticized for his writing being generally weak. I respectfully disagree. Dick writes from the perspective of the common man, and this menschy approach mitigates his sense of looming cosmic insanity, as well as informing it. His characters, and by extension the narratorial voice, speak from this perspective of limitation. The other strong point of Dick’s writing, and TTSoPE in particular, is that it stands half-way between the wide-eyed, ‘gee-golly’ spectacle of classic science fiction and the grimmer, more realistic sci-fi of the later 20th Century, while avoiding both their excesses.
A Good Non-literary Alternative Might Be:
VALIS, by Phillip K. Dick. His second-to-last novel, VALIS explores Dick’s obsessions to their logical extreme. A deeply personal meta-fictional narrative arising out of a lifetime of thought and speculation, unfortunately it is also a little too obtuse and fragmented to be satisfying in the manner of Dick’s earlier novels.
In deference to my co-worker Lilly, I will describe the semi-obscure BotNS pentology thusly: imagine if H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith got together with Proust and Joyce in Borges’ sitting room to write a massive five-part science fiction series while G.K. Chesterton stands on the sidelines shouting out snippets of his philosophy. Book of the New Sun is comprised of five books: ‘Shadow of the Torturer’, ‘Claw of the Conciliator’, ‘Sword of the Lictor’, ‘Citadel of the Autarch’ and ‘Urth of the New Sun’– and the style and content of these novels is every bit as baroque and purple-prose tinged as those titles. The story is set on a dying Earth millions of years in the future, where humanity is relegated to a small and hardscrabble nation known as The Commonwealth. Severian, a torturer’s apprentice, makes the mistake of falling in love with his ‘client’ (that is, his assigned victim) and as punishment is banished from his home city. His journey across The Commonwealth, which drives most of the story, takes many interesting turns, and by its end Severian recognizes his life’s purpose as savior and destroyer of Earth. More interesting than the story is the choices as a writer Wolfe makes. For one, the setting is in many ways a deconstruction of fantasy and science fiction tropes; beginning the story we see a world in many ways indistinguishable from any other fantasy setting, but carefully Wolfe reveals the science fiction underpinnings that inform the story. Tied to this is Wolfe’s use of language, which is rather florid. While it is a convention for fantasy authors to invent words as it suits them, Wolfe resists this temptation and instead utilizes a cornucopia of obscure and archaic words derived from the strata of real language, creating an impressive sort of Joycean indeterminacy surrounding the story. Another one of Wolfe’s impressive gambits is the use of Severian as a first-person narrator. From early on and continuously throughout the story Severian brags of his ‘perfect’ memory, which allows him to exactly recall in every detail every moment of his life. Of course, such boasts might not be true; clever readers will soon notice that Severian is, in fact, an unreliable narrator. Severian lies, misinterprets facts, makes assumptions, and occasionally is just looking the other way when all the action is taking place. What more, it is implied that his perfect memory is in fact a major handicap, his eye for detail leading him to perpetually miss the forest for the trees (shades of Borges and his “Funes the Memorious“.) All of this, the strange language, the stranger setting, and the uneasy distrust the narrator engenders, create fertile ground for a kaleidoscope of mysteries planted in the text, some easy to answer and others requiring deep reading and interpretation. More than a simple well-written science fiction epic, Book of the New Sun could be considered ‘hypertext’ literature, asking the reader to read the story in a non-linear fashion as well as a linear one, considering different interpretations of the text, finding stories within the story that secretly inform the main action, finding allusions in other works that reveal missing facets. Like few books I have read, Book of the New Sun involves the reader in the act of authoring the works, allowing for multiple interpretations and sequences of events based on the reader’s level of involvement and methods of extrapolation.
A Good Non-Literary Alternative Might Be:
Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance. A full list of the allusions made to other authors and works in BotNS would be exhaustive, but one of the most obvious is to Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, which is the story that initially influenced Wolfe to write this series. Vance reads something like a cross between Tolkien and Terry Pratchett, sort of a light and funny heroic fantasy style with humorous, eccentric characters and fantasy-staple plots. What is interesting though, is that his stories are set, like BotNS, on a dying Earth far in the future– though the world Vance’s characters inhabit seems more like stock fantasy than anything else. Fans of “Dungeons and Dragons” will notice that many of the details of that game were taken directly from Vance’s Dying Earth stories, making Tales of the Dying Earth foundational to the nerd canon.
See you back here next week for another installment.