One of the best aspects of going on vacation is having the time to read fiction (and write it, but that’s another story). For a Mars-fiction-related book group meeting coming up in my home town I read Martian Time-slip by Philip K. Dick. I am also reading Consider Phlebas, the first in Iain M Banks’ Culture science fiction.
I have a soft spot for Iain because he sat by me at NewCon in Northampton two years ago when I was signing copies of Exit, Pursued by a Bee. He was signing his Matter – by the armful – at least 20 copies for everyone I signed of mine. I didn’t mind. I was just hoping some of his magic would rub off onto me. Consider Phlebas was his first science fiction novel – hence him using the M (for Menzies) in his author name. An action-filled book with a shape-shifting main character and space opera dimensions. Compulsive and compelling reading. Not quite the kind of SF I write (more like mysteries and characters getting out of tricky situations) but maybe I should.
Now onto PKD and his Martian Timeslip (1964)
Set in the near future, Mars has been partially colonised by people escaping from an overpopulated and polluted Earth. The UN polices Mars and control water supply, but there is considerable freedom for free enterprise and speculators. It’s not the only example of how ‘good ole American’ way of life migrates to Mars: powerful trade unions are out there, and their bosses, wives out on Martian homesteads are lonely and have affairs with travelling salesmen; everyone smokes cigarettes; psychiatry is big business; and those lonely wives cook for breakfast apple sauce, toast and coffee. Other aspects of Earth civilisation as known in the 1960s exist in this future Mars too, such as the wearing of spectacles and the existence of bookshops. All of which points to this book being a parody – PDK poking fun at his own America, and at some of the science fiction writers of the early twentieth century, who lacked the futuristic vision he has in his other books.
Earth people are not the first inhabitants of Mars: there are indigenous humanoids, called Bleekmen. They are poor, stone-age, have strange spiritual customs, some become ‘tame’ servants, they have ancient religious places in the arid mountains. Familiar? They shrivel up like leaves when dehydrated and expand again when given water. A nice touch but this book isn’t really about what Mars might be like, or how Earth people could ruin it. It’s about schizophrenia, or a PKD-Martian-variant of it, and it’s cleverly done.
Some children born on Mars are anomalous in that they have mental problems from simple-mindness to deep autism. One such child, Manfred Steiner, is born to German settlers. Not only has he an extreme form of autism, but apparently he experiences life at a different timescale to everyone else. Hence people’s speech comes out as a ‘gubble gubble’ and people seem to move so fast they disappear then reappear.
I believe a linguist would take issue with this, in that if he always heard words in an accelerated form, he would learn them that way, process and understand them. However, let’s not spoil one of the premises of the story. This aspect of Manfred’s schizophrenia convinces Arnie Kott – the leader of the plumbing union, land speculator, and consumer of black-market goods – that Manfred can see into the future and aid his investments. Arnie uses a schizophrenic repair man, Jack Bohlen, to help with the boy because aspects of their mental condition leads to a kind of meeting of minds.
Much of the book is about Jack, falling into an affair and experiencing flashbacks and hallucinations, making him realize his condition is worsening. He, Manfred and the Bleekmen are poignant elements of this story, becoming far more important than the Martian setting and colonization issues
I’ve mentioned that this book is – besides a Martian psychological case study – a parody of Dick’s view of the subordination of Native peoples, mid-twentieth century middle America but also of the simplistic science fiction novels and films involving other-planet colonization, and especially of Mars. At least I hope it is a parody, otherwise the mastermind PDK SF novelist had fallen into the same trope trap of other writers of the day and that I can’t believe.
Science fiction has moved on not only since Phillip K Dick’s early work but from Iain Bank’s Consider Phlebas. Yet they are eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable today, and tomorrow. I hope I am too.