“While we venerate and mourn our own dead we are curiously indifferent about those we kill. Thus, Killing is done in our name, killing that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking our own humanity and goodness. Our dead. Their dead. They are not the same. Our dead matter, theirs do not.”
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
There were an entire retinue of books I read ages ago that I greatly appreciated, but even back then I appreciated them with an air of caution, and asked myself whether I would still appreciate them a decade later. Many of Philip K. Dick’s books are in this category. I cannot at this point recall with any kind of certainty the sentiments I held towards this book then. What I do recall is that I gave it three stars when I first ranked it. But considering that it was the book that got me started reading PKD, I don’t think that rating is terribly fair.
Regardless, when I found the paperback about my house not too long ago, I figured it was certainly time to give it another chance and to see what I really think of it.
Certainly more than it did then, Dick’s writing style stood out, and unfortunately not in a good way. Certainly there are moments where he could have used a better editorial hand; such as when he phrased things in such a way as to cause confusion about which subject is being referred to, or perhaps worse when he leaves pretty obvious redundancies in his writing (for instance “’I wonder about blah blah blah…’ he wondered” is a fairly accurate imitation of some such redundancies.). But PKD has never been famed for being a great writer. He is famed for being an ‘ideas writer’, something which would make Nabakov turn head down-ward in his grave in order to get further away from the living. But even as far as ideas go I didn’t feel it was great, though mostly to no fault of the writer. Having influenced generations of other ‘ideas writers’ the ideas now come off as a little thin. We’ve seen such idea before, over and over again since about the time off Philip K Dick. Nor do the ideas seem particularly well fleshed out to begin with. Mercerism, Dick’s stand in for Catholicism, requires the reader to fill in many gaps with Catholic sentiments to function, and might lead the reader to wonder why Dick didn’t use Christ to begin with. Obviously, because Christianity is complicated and not everyone believes that it necessarily entails an empathetic perspective from it participants. But that diversity of interpretations is exactly what seems to be lacking in the novel (er, rather what seems to be lacking in how the novel deals with Mercerism). I couldn’t help but feel odd over what seems to be an overwhelming homogeneity among the human character’s attitude towards Mercerism. I think the only time I have ever encountered such homogeneity in opinions about anything is when people refer to TV shows. Even at the novel’s, when Mercerism has been ‘debunked’, all the character excepting the protagonist seem to have a lofty ‘oh no now what ever shall we do?’ to them. One would expect a little more dynamism from a world.
Was anything redeemable? Yes. The novel had charm. Much of it came from the imposed symmetry of the story structure. There are humans real and humans fake, animals real and animals fake, and interlacing them seem to be a set of social patterns that cause us to think hard about our own treatments of others, particularly in situations where the dividing line is less obvious for our world. Dick of course loved to add in moments where the protagonist or other character of note begins to question reality. It is for Dick very much a gimmick, but one that adds much to this particular discourse. Empathy is little more than to be put into another’s shoe, and the fact that the protagonist is at some point being told that he is likely an android with a false memory implant seems like the fastest route to that path. This would have been the focus of another, equally PhilDickian novel that exists in some other world. But the real beauty is found in that latticework reactions among the novel’s various types; how fake humans treat real animals, how real humans treat fake animals, how real and fake humans treat one another…
But then we also find ourselves with the terrible moment where the protagonist is told he must sleep with an android to be able to better kill it (though he has had no trouble up to this point), and one can’t help but lift the whole scene up and sniff it for misogyny.
All things considered the book stood well to a second reading. I am curious to see what I think of it in 2024, three years after the story takes place.