Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Dr. Futurity

Philip K. Dick Dr. Futurity (1960)
Back in 2008, suddenly self-conscious of being nowhere near so well or widely read as I felt I ought to be, I didst vow firstly to read for an hour each night before bed and again in the morning where possible so as to always have a book on the go, and secondly to try to write a review of everything so as to oblige me to think about each title in some kind of depth and so hopefully to learn something from the experience. It's probably not a coincidence that this coincided with my discovering the internet and the realisation of being suddenly able to track down relatively obscure books I'd never even seen in a store without having to pay a fucking fortune, of which Dr. Futurity might count as one of the first; and now I'm reading it again because a second copy has turned up glued to the reverse of John Brunner's Slavers of Space as an Ace Double, and - interestingly enough - just a few months short of the ten year anniversary of my first having read it when I began this journey, if you'll excuse the inherent wankiness of my referring to it as a journey.

This time, I'm better prepared through having read a ton of van Vogt in the interim, and I got a lot more from the book. Dr. Futurity tends to have been overlooked as a formative early work in the general public haste to adapt Dick's every last note left out for the milkman as a shit blue and orange action thriller starring one of those actors no-one can ever remember the name of. I believe it remains in print as part of a collection entitled Three Early Novels - also including Vulcan's Hammer and The Man Who Japed - the publicity of which describes its components as considerably more straightforward than his later novels blah blah Ubik blah blah Blade Runner* blah blah… So the dialogue would seem to have it that he was still finding his feet here, which is only partially true. By this point he'd written the majority of his so-called mainstream novels which would remain unpublished until after his death, so he knew how to write, just not how to get published or taken seriously, which I suspect may have been significant in his turning to science-fiction.

Dr. Futurity conspicuously reads like an attempt to get to grips with the genre in so much as that it's more or less a pastiche of A.E. van Vogt, of whom Dick was very much an admirer. That said, many of the themes to which Dick would return in later novels which Ridley Scott has heard of, were already in place - the cats, the black-haired women, the absentee God, the appreciation of boobs, and most significantly the notion of our reality as something false laid over the way things should have turned out, in this case a version of America which resisted colonisation by Europeans.

'Your forefathers,' Stenog said, 'the early Christians, I mean, hurled themselves under chariot wheels. They sought death, and yet out of their beliefs came your society.'

Parsons said slowly, 'We may ignore death, we may immaturely deny the existence of death, but at least we don't court death.'

'You did indirectly,' Stenog said. 'By denying such a powerful reality, you undermined the rational basis of your world. You had no way to cope with war and famine and overpopulation because you couldn't bring yourself to discuss them. So war happened to you; it was like a natural calamity, not man-made at all. It became a force. We control our society. We contemplate all aspects of our existence, not merely the good and pleasant.'

For the rest of the trip they drove in silence.

The presence of such themes probably shouldn't come as too great a surprise given that he'd been ticking most of the same boxes since Gather Yourselves Together from the early fifties.

The most distinctive aspect of this one however, is how faithfully it mimics van Vogt, working its science-fiction as weird atmospheric philosophy rather than technological speculation in the vein of Asimov and those guys. Jim Parsons, the protagonist of Dr. Futurity, is propelled forward through a dreamlike narrative characterised by seemingly random twist and turns very much in the style of Alfred Elton, and even the prose adopts the jarring, angular quality which van Vogt employed in keeping us on our toes whilst prompting more questions than are ever fully answered.

On all sides of him, meters and controls.
A.E. van Vogt developed his style with the intent of limiting his reader to the powerfully subjective psychological experience of a main character.
I had a lot more to digest this time with Dr. Futurity, but Dick unfortunately also channels some of the confusion one tends to encounter in a van Vogt novel; which, in combination with this tale of impersonators impersonating the impersonators who went back in time to change the past which had already been changed by someone impersonating the first impersonator, makes for a bit of a knotty read at least for the final chapters - not unenjoyable, just knotty.

*: Okay, so it actually mentions Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but they were obviously thinking about Blade Runner.

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