Read for the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club. SPOILER WARNING.
OH MY EFFING GOD, are people reading the same book I read?! 5 stars, 4 stars, much of these from people whose opinions I respect. But – really?
To me, this book felt like what would happen if The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination had a love child, crossbred with The Taming of the Shrew, and then someone got wrecked on acid, j*rked off all over it, and left it to molder in a sock drawer with a used pair of panties as a bookmark.
I have said repeatedly that so far, it seems to me that PKD got every plot he ever wrote from Alfred Bester‘s two classics. I’ve also said that PKD’s misogyny is distracting in places in his writing. In this case, both of these elements are so overwhelming that you simply can’t excuse or ignore them. People have described this book at the quintessential PKD. If that’s true, then everything I’ve said is the definition of his writing, and he’s extremely overrated.
The SF Masterworks imprint is chalk-full of PKD books. It has a ridiculous amount of them. So I’ve read a few now. A few were very good, but mostly I have a feeling like there’s something I’m just not seeing. I guess it’s because I don’t think flawed characters have to be utterly unlikable.
Dr. Eric Sweetscent is a mechanical transplant surgeon who works for TF&F; particularly for its ancient CEO, who needs replacement parts regularly. He’s considered one of the best in his field, but he doesn’t make as much money as his wife Kathy, who procures antiques for the CEO’s disturbing hobby of trying to recreate the world of his childhood in miniature. Eric is presented as a failure of a man, whose wife loathes him, for this reason. How does being one of the best in the world, if not the best, make him a failure as a man by anyone’s measure? Is it such a bad thing for your wife to make more money than you do? My partners would be proud!
Kathy is presented as this horrible, shrewish, nasty woman, who is mean to Eric through no fault of his own. Everyone whose reviews I have read takes this narrative as given, without any thought whatsoever that Dick is known for unreliable narrators. Maybe she’s just a strong-willed person who is tired of him putting work before her but making no progress to justify the sacrifice.
Pay attention, now, because this is presented as character background, but it’s actually the plot.
Eric is offered a better, if considerably more dangerous job, as transplant surgeon to President Molinari, Earth’s elected leader. Unbeknownst to the populace, the Mole, as he is known, is dying. He is suffering from a mysterious illness that attacks various systems and has brought him to the brink of death many times. Eric has been brought on board to perhaps save him; or to help him commit a medically-induced suicide.
Later, it is suggested (but never confirmed) that his illness is psychosomatic, brought on to protect Earth from having to deal with its erstwhile allies. There is a race called the Lilistar that were the first aliens we encountered when we made it out of the solar system. They are genetically related to humanity and might be our progenitor race. They are also much more powerful and technologically advanced than we are, and run a vast empire. They ask us to assist in their war against their enemies, the reegs, a bug-like species. But Molinari, and soon Eric, learn that we are on the wrong side of this war. The Lilistar are the Nazis of the piece, who want to destroy the reegs and subjugate us into their empire.
Now introduce the McGuffin. Kathy, who experiments with mind-altering substances, tries a new drug called JJ-180, that’s supposed to produce time-sense related hallucinations. Her experience brings her into the past. However, the drug was developed as a weapon of war. It was designed by TF&F to be instantly addictive and to do terrible neurological damage with every dose. It was supposedly given to her by the Lilistar, who wanted a mole of their own in TF&F and also, a way to get close to President Molinari.
I have to ask: why in the name of God would a company creating a drug as a weapon of war develop something that lets you travel through time? That has got to be the most strategically stupid thing I’ve ever heard of in my life! But I digress.
Here, you must decide if this book is science fiction, or if it’s literary fiction and everything that follows are acid trips and psychosis, and nothing else actually happens at all. I suppose the book has some merit when taken as an allegory, although that opens up a variety of plot holes that essentially negates the entire plot of the book (since nothing else is real, neither are any of the decisions made; but if The Road is any indication of literary speculative fiction, obviously, plot holes and illogical inconsistencies do not bother that audience at all, so who cares?)
But since this was, purportedly, one of the SF Masterworks, I assumed it was science fiction, and I proceeded on the assumption that at least some of the time travel the characters experienced was real, as was the existential threat of the aliens.
Eric leaves Kathy and says he’s going to seek a divorce when he goes to work for Molinari. Kathy, under direction (supposedly; although that could be a hallucination and a paranoid delusion) of the Lilistar, promptly goes to see Eric to pretend to beg him to come back, and slips a JJ-180 into his coffee. But JJ-180 affects everyone differently, and Eric ends up in the future, where he learns that the doctor who was working for Molinari is plotting to take over the Presidency, and the Lilistar intend to completely subjugate Earth.
As a side note, why do Americans always seem so confident that a world government would use an Americanesque Republic and elect Americans who act like American stereotypes? Friends, the sheer population balance makes it more likely we’d be a Chinese or Indian style government and elect Asians; at least if it’s actually a democracy. But I digress.
A wild and crazy chase through time ensues. Turns out that Molinari has also taken JJ-180 and it allows him to move sideways into alternate timelines. He has recruited the help of alternate selves to aid him in the task of defending Earth against the Lilistar in this timeline. Eric finds himself in a variety of futures; one where the reegs win the war and work with humanity; one where there never was a war and our pact was with the reegs from the beginning; one where the Lilistar have invaded Earth and imposed marital law, and Eric is rescued from the Lilistar by a self from the alternate timeline. In the process, he learns that not only does Kathy have neurological damage from the JJ-180 (at least, according to his other selves and the people he would have talked to,) but that she has neurological damage from the use of other drugs, which causes ongoing irritability and mood swings.
Okay; so basically, we now find out that she is mentally ill and psychologically damaged. And remember, he’s been treating her abominably this entire time. He was actually, on several occasions, going to leave her to die.
Let me cut in now with some personal experience. My husband is schizophrenic and was in a terrible crippling car accident. At one point, I had to help him brush his teeth and go to the bathroom. I struggled with that, and there can be a real risk in living with someone who is mentally ill and untreated, but I never once wished him dead, or abandoned him when I was needed. It never crossed my mind. My mother is bipolar and that was undiagnosed for most of my childhood. While that made living with her horrible at times, I never once wished her dead either. Eric Sweetscent clearly does not think that the lives of people with mental illness are as valuable as the lives of healthy people.
(I imagine that name has to be some kind of metaphor. Does Dick mean to imply that his sh*t doesn’t stink? Or that he thinks it doesn’t?)
The future Eric tells the one from the past that he will never be free of his wife. She is an albatross that he must bear forever. He briefly considers committing adultery with a woman Molinari recommends, who is maybe barely an adult, the cousin of his teenaged mistress.
Now, before I go on to the conclusion of the book, let’s talk about that. I’m a believer in NOT judging a book by the standards of our time, but rather the time it’s written in. It’s not fair to expect that writers of the past would adhere to future standards they didn’t know would exist. But in this case, there is no way to excuse the horrific, rampant misogyny of this writing.
Nobody is saying a word about these underage girls being the subject of sexual relationships with men in positions of power over them, even in the reviews! What the hell is the matter with people?!
Also, one of the first things PKD uses to describe every woman is her tits. Nipples watch Eric. Big breasts demand to be looked at. Little apple breasts are used as a marker of pride and self-possession. Women over thirty are described as “used up”; the “slender being trapped within them.”
Look; I get that heterosexual men (and homosexual women) like to look at breasts. But seriously, would I describe every male character in my book by the size of their package as an indicator of personality? And within the first two sentences we ever see about them? Why is this okay in “mainstream fiction” while saying anything about a man’s package makes it erotica or “chick lit?” Would I describe every male over the age of thirty as “used up?” And if I did, what would be the reaction? Why are we not calling him on this? GRRRRRRR
Getting inside PKD’s head felt as though I’d accidentally discovered sticky, scuzz-covered underage girlie mags under his mattress. Along with a mutilated, pin-filled poppet of his ex-wife, equally sticky. Was he going through a horrible divorce when he wrote this? Someone should have been watching him to see if he was going up a bell tower with a rifle to punish women for not having sex with him.
In the end, Eric simply abdicates responsibility for any of the trouble he’s started, and placidly watches the Lilistar begin their invasion while he heads back to TF&F. He has a conversation with an AI taxi:
“All right,” Eric agreed. “If you were me, and your wife were sick, desperately so, with no hope of recovery, would you leave her? Or would you stay with her, even if you had traveled ten years into the future and knew for an absolute certainty that the damage to her brain could never be reversed? And staying with her would mean-“
“I can see what it would mean, sir,” the cab broke in. “It would mean no other life for you beyond caring for her.”
“That’s right,” Eric said.
“I’d stay with her,” the cab decided.
“Because,” the cab said, “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”
“I think I agree,” Eric said after a time. “I think I will stay with her.”
“God bless you, sir,” the cab said. “I can see that you’re a good man.”
And … basically, that’s it.
Wait — what?
No, seriously. That’s where the book ends. Eric has embraced the lessons of Marcus Aurelius and now the story’s over.
But – what about the alien invasion? Is Earth going to survive? We don’t know. PKD doesn’t give a flying fig about that. This was the crux of his story.
Okay, so why all this time travel craziness and the alien invasion AT ALL? What was the POINT?
The answer – there is no point. This is meant to be a heartwarming story about how good Eric is for having decided to make sure his wife was safely institutionalized for her own well-being and to keep her there and provide for her.
Personally, I think even if you view the whole thing as a delusion, and the story as allegory, Kathy needs to get as far away from Eric as she can. They institutionalize her ENTIRELY ON ERIC’S WORD. He says she’s mentally ill; the hysterical shrew woman is locked up. And wasn’t he a good man for doing that?
No. No he was not. This book was horrifying, disturbing, and awful.
If you want a study in the cognitive dissonance of self-righteousness, this book is an excellent example. And honestly, although it is ultimately all pointless, the time travel complexities are interesting. But otherwise, I’m glad I didn’t buy this book. Blech!