You can criticise Dick all you like for being wrong about flying cars, or thinking the LP record was for ever (note: it isn’t?), but he is writing science fiction and, as Ray Bradbury points out far more eloquently than will I, that is about ideas. It isn’t about sentence construction, plot or character development. If you wanted to, it is easy enough to criticise this book on all these counts, but so what? Why would you bother? What matters is that it is really hard to put down.
It is about ideas. Unlike Banks who very carefully creates the detail of his worlds – a sort of sci fi rivet man, I guess – Dick doesn’t give a toss about the technical side of his vision of the future. What he does nail firmly to the page is an understanding of what things will be like for our society in the future, a realisation that is ruthlessly turning out to be true, the idea that it will be about haves and have nots in a way that makes days of slavery look like buddies having a laugh. The cost of technology, whether it be the technology to bear living in a virtually uninhabitable world or to make one superior in some life-strengthening way, will divide us into the few and the many in a way which will become more extreme as the possibilities of what money can buy increase.
That may seem obvious, after all, right now we live in a world where people buy improved parts for themselves from people so poor that their bodies are their most hopeful source of income. That would have been science fiction not so long ago. We live in a world where the ‘greatest democracy’ in the world, ie the US, brags this figure: the richest 400 men own more than the bottom 50% of the population. Is this not incredible? Is it not incredible that a society run in such a way invades other countries to impose this upon them? With our blessings, at that. Equally, that the life expectancy of its wealthy citizens is the best in the world, that of its poorest worse than many third world countries. Equally that the good guys think if they don’t use plastic bags and do drink fair trade coffee they’ve done their bit. Add a few flying cars and honestly, it reads like a horrific sci fi story of things gone wrong. Dick wrote of a future in which WE now live and which we are going to continue to develop along the appalling lines he envisages.
So, this backdrop is persistent in Dick’s stories and it is remorselessly accurate. This is the first thing that makes his work so eeny-meany-my next to sex. (Gotta have it.)
The other is his equally persistent fixation: are things really as they seem? ARE they? Have you ever walked into a lunatic asylum to visit somebody and wondered if your whole life is about to irrevocably change? I find the philosphical aspect of this question not particularly interesting, but its practical application is terrifying, Dick’s preoccupation is ours. We may indeed, wake up in the morning and everything seems as it was just as we left it as we fell asleep a few hours earlier, only to discover that actually everything has changed. The rug has been ripped out from under our feet in some way that leaves us shocked and baffled and, after a while, unable to tell even if things WERE how we think they were.
He is fantastic at doing this. It isn’t just his characters that lose their surety, it is us. We become uncertain of what we read. We become uncertain, indeed, of ourselves. I can’t imagine a greater compliment to give to a book than this.