Saturday, November 10, 2007

About Dick and women (it's not what it sounds like)

A book I'm currently reading is Ubik, by Philip K. Dick. In the manner of his best books, it's funny and paranoid. I can only imagine how shaky I'd be if I read it on the same drugs he used to take.

Whatzit about? Well here's a brief synopsis. Glen Runciter runs a business employing "inertials." These are people who are able to counter the wild talents of others, like telepaths and precognitives and so forth. Joe Chip is a tester of inertials, and Runciter's most trusted employee. He's also dirt poor, a fact which matters slightly less when a new anti-precog named Pat Conley moves in as his mistress.

Runciter leads Joe, Pat, and an elite team of crack(ed) inertials to the moon for a lucrative assignment. This mission turns out to be a trap, and Runciter is killed by a bomb almost immediately. Except, evidence mounts that the rest of the team died, and only Runciter survived. These maybe-dead people face the decay of their physical world, the regression to earlier phones. So that, for example, a videophone turns into an old candlestick model, pre-dial.

Yeah, that's just a rough outline. It's got some twists and turns.

Dick first published in the fifties. Initially he intended to write suburban realist novels. These didn't sell, but his science fiction did, and took on some of the themes he had been exploring with his other work.

Science fiction at this time was not great with female characters. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man had some fascinating concepts, but was undone by turning what should have been a key character into a simpering cypher. Most male authors, in fact, had trouble making women anything more than ornaments.

Dick is a weird exception. Yes, his own romantic history was troubled. At the Marin County divorce court, he was known as "hi Phil." Andy yes, a lot of his women are bitchy and/or pitiful. What they aren't is passive. His male protagonists often have trouble with ex-wives, or sometimes with mutual stalkers. The trouble stems from the fact that these women have their own interests and agendas, and know it. And the solution--if there is one--is not as simple as Ahnold putting a bullet in Sharon Stone and saying "Consider that a divorce."

Another thing I would say about Dick's fiction is that it's not that friendly to studio filmmaking. This despite the occasional interest Hollywood has taken in his work. (A Radio Free Albemuth is in production with Alanis Morrissette in the cast, and Paul Giamatti is interested in doing a biopic.) His novels and short stories are visual, yes, but what you "see" while reading is often cheap and shabby, not really conforming to the look of a summer blockbuster. The lead characters are often kind of schlubby too. Joe Chip, for example, might not be bad looking, but I can't picture an A-list star portraying him. Could be a personal reaction, but I think a lot of readers would share it.

One last note. That picture isn't on the cover of the edition I'm reading. It's from an old Finnish copy. But it certainly is evocative.

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