February 03, 2003

The Man in The High Castle and A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

One of the problems with slightly offcenter speculative fiction is that the reader has to understand the subculture or political situation or technology the author is talking about. Authors quite often ask the question "What if..." and then go on to tell a story or spin a tale that answers the question. What if...we could clone dinosaurs from fossil DNA? Jurassic Park. Not a particularly good book, way too gruesome for my taste, but an interesting question in light of the recent developments in cloning technology. Should we? How far do we go?

In The Man in the High Castle, Dick answers the question "What if the Allied Forces had lost WWII? What would the world be like?" The book is interesting not for his speculations but because his story reflects light from what really did happen after the war. Of course you have to know what happened after the war to appreciate the book. It was written in 1962. The Cold War. The division of Germany. The diplomacy of brinksmanship. The Stalinist state. Joseph McCarthy. Those things were all current, still fresh.

In the book, the Allies lost. Roosevelt was assassinated before America could enter the war. The US is divided roughly at the Rockies into a Nazi German state and a Japanese one. Americans are a repressed nation. The Four Freedoms and all the rest of the Bill of Rights have disappeared. The Nazis have carried out horrific genocidal experiments in Africa, thankfully not fully explained. The remaining Africans are slaves, as are the Chinese. And one man writes a book about what could have happened if the Allies had won the war. It's a revolutionary thought. And it isn't suppressed in the more liberal Japanese west. I found the whole premise very interesting.

Unfortunately, "A Scanner Darkly" didnít hold forth with the same quality. It was mushy in parts, hard to follow, long winded and not all that pertinent to anything in general. Most of the problems I had with it was that Dick was trying way too hard to find great meaning about society and individuality in the drug culture. I donít personally find much meaning there. But part of the problem, I have to admit, is that the used copy I picked up had obviously been used by a student reading it for a class. Marginalia in pink gel pen with hearts over the I's instead of dots distracted me. Especially since she, and I can only assume the writer was female, seemed to find it so deep. In fact I started reading the marginalia and then the text just to see what the previous owner had made of that paragraph or that sentence. And then I started to wonder the kid who had taken these notes and why was she was finding this so interesting. About that time, I realized I was pathetically bored and put it down.

Too many books, too little time.

Posted by Deb English at February 3, 2003 08:17 PM