P. K. Dick as an Idea Writer

The other day I happened to be looking for the exact text of a recurring phrase from Ubik. I stumbled across a Metafilter thread about some P. K. Dick speeches and essays that very quickly settled into the usual dichotomy of Dick discussions: On the one side, "he was a crappy stylist who wrote the same story over and over again, and besides he was insane"; on the other "he was a visionary mystic who looked at the same issue a myriad of ways, and besides, what does 'insane' really mean, anyway?"

Recurring again and again was this notion that Dick was not an "idea writer": Not someone who thinks up new cool gadgets or really extrapolates where things are going. Visionary, yes, but not about society or technology.

I personally think people who dismiss Dick as a writer are missing out. But I also think that people who focus on him as a mystic are seriously missing out. I used to look at the Technovelgy newsfeed as often as I could find the time -- it's a great place to trace back new technology to the treatment SF writers gave to it when they first described it, usually 50 or more years ago. And one thing that I noticed quickly was that Phillip K. Dick stories seemed to be cited more than those of any other writer.*

Here are a few examples, off the top of my head and with some help from Technovelgy:

  • Ubicomp (Ubik in a particularly annoying form, but all over the place in his work).
  • Smart-missiles (The Zap Gun, and many other places).
  • "Electric" pets (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
  • Personalized newspapers ("homeopapes") (Ubik and elsewhere).
  • Insect-sized spy robots/cyborgs (Lies, Inc. and others).
  • Insect-sized advertising robots/cyborgs (The Simulacra).
  • Customized presentation of advertising in general (all over the place, it was one of his memes)
  • Doors, weapons, etc. that are keyed to "cephalic patterns": They recognize you by recognizing the thing about you that is most uniquely you, your thoughts. (Lots of stories.)

Some themes emerge: Most notably for me is that he re-uses things relentlessly. It could be to save effort; more likely, it's because he's still exploring the idea and wants to put it into different situations. Note how he uses the fly as a spy in one setting, and as an advertising delivery vector (a meme-infection vector?) in another. Those aren't just different uses, they're diametrically opposed in one aspect; seeing them both here forces you to understand what they have in common: The idea of sneaking something up on you, whether it be for the purpose of theft (the spy-fly) or infection (the ad-fly).

So for my money, Dick is probably one of the better idea-writers to have worked in SF. I don't see this as separate from his mysticism (or paranoia). Some of these ideas (like the concept of being recognized by something and presented with a pitch that's specifically tailored to you) seem like attempts by technology to mimic a god -- or perhaps (and you have to think this would enter Dick's head, knowing Dick) intrusions of God into the machine. (In terms of his later thought, it might be the Demiurge revealing himself in moments of everyday life.)

*Please, don't go and count, this is just an impression, not science.

China Miéville on Crime Novels as Quantum Narratives

China Miéville on why crime novels end badly. This has particular resonance for me, because both my I and my wife are in-progress on crime novels. One reason is that...

... crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not, for a start, realist novels. Holmes’s intoxicating and ludicrous taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other ‘deductions’, are necessarily ‘illogical’, or don’t make sense of the evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim, vice versa.) The various manly Virgils who appear ex nihilo to escort Marlowe through his oneiric purgatories are not characters, but eloquent opacities in man-shape: much more interesting. Dalgliesh’s irresistibility to hyperrealised moral panics du jour – the poor man manages to contract SARS – is an elegiac opera of Holland Park angst, rather than any quotidian gazette of a policeman’s unhappy lot. Detective fiction is a fiction of dreams. Not only is this no bad thing, it is precisely what makes it so indispensable.

Of course this is even more true of speculative fiction as it is of crime novels (and of course Miéville knows this, in this context that's obviously part of his point).

Miéville goes on to say something else that's very interesting:

Secondly, detective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ – which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing -  but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be? We’ve been banished from an Eden of oscillation.

And yet, and yet, the crime novels that end without a solution -- that let us stay in our 'Eden of oscillation' -- are almost universally reviled. As are the ones that mess too much with the conventions. I wonder if we feel a need to retreat from candyland; or perhaps it's the driving force of the deeper quest narrative that Miéville alludes to above.

When I first encountered Sherlock Holmes as a child, I took lovers of Holmes at their word and took it seriously as 'scientific detection.' But even at the age of 10 or 11 I could see how ridiculous it was at that level. All you have to do to turn it into parody is change the name of the protagonist to, say, Herlock Sholmes, and the very idea of somone publishing monographs on the taxonomy of cigar ash instantly acquires enormous comic potential.

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The Playwright Must Die In the Director, the Director Must Die in the Actors, the Actors Must Die in the Play

Theatre director Natasha Williams on theatrical interpretation:

"The idea is that everybody dies," she says. "The playwright has to die in the director. And then actors have to die in the play because they have to let go their ego to create a world that is a world of its own. And then of course [the] play goes into [the] audience's mind, and everyone understands it their own way.

"So, you know, it's a food chain. It's a theatrical food chain."

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