Friday, August 09, 2013

Time-slip, gubble, gubble

I can see what lies ahead for me if I continue to lose, step by step, to this completely psychotic boy. Now I can see what psychosis is: the utter alienation of perception from the objects of the outside world, especially the objects which matter: the warmhearted people there. And what takes their place? A dreadful preoccupation with — the endless ebb and flow of one's own self. The changes emanating from within which affect only the inside world. It is a splitting apart of the two worlds, inner and outer, so that neither registers on the other. Both still exist, but each goes its own way.

It is the stopping of time. The end of experience, of anything new. Once the person becomes psychotic, nothing ever happens to him again.

Martian Time-Slip, by Philip K. Dick, is a gem of a novel.

For some reason, it's taken me ages to read this slim book (220 pages). Everything moves along nicely (though some sci-fi fans call it slow), the English is easy, you want to know what happens next — it's not exactly demanding, but I think it deserves to be processed, not to be rushed.

It's set on Mars, but it's not a distant shiny high-tech future — it's a wild west–type frontier, with land claim stakes, the maltreatment of aboriginal people (Bleekmen), travelling salesmen, and Union politics.

Earth is overpopulated. Mental illness afflicts one in three. Earth has established other colonies, but Mars is a near-forgotten outpost — humans have never managed to irrigate the land sufficiently (or understand the ways of the Bleekmen) to support large numbers. Jack Bohlen emigrated to Mars to ease his schizophrenia, by living a simpler life. Jack's wife regularly pops pills to stave off mental illness, and this it portrayed as a commonplace practice.

Jack encounters Arnie Kott, a tycoon of sorts with his own psychological problems. Arnie's son is in a facility for children with, as we say these days, special needs — he's autistic, as is the Manfred, the son of Jack's neighbour. Manfred's dad early on commits suicide, the ultimate manifestation of his depression.

One doctor has a theory regarding mental illness: that if life is a movie, for the mentally ill it plays at too many frames a second for them to comprehend. To establish communication with those who are closed off by or trapped inside their illness, life must be replayed for them in slow motion. Arnie commissions Jack to build such a mechanism.

Dick conflates schizophrenia with autism, and with depression too. Whether the basis for this comes from the medical literature of the period or from Dick's own experience I do not know, but for an open-minded reader this conflation shouldn't upset the exploration of how time is perceived and processed.

Because of this time-processing distortion, it's believed that Manfred can see the future. Indeed, Jack and others appear to have flashes of what is to come, but Arnie, while ostensibly seeking to help his own son, is interested in tapping knowledge of the future as evidenced in the most disturbed individuals for personal gain. But then, everyone has an agenda.

The novel starts getting a little trippy about halfway through. There's a brilliant and disturbing sequence where the same scene is replayed, including from Manfred's perspective (gubble, gubble) — it's an overlay of potential outcomes. Add to Manfred's visions the Bleekmen's shamanistic-like practices, and Arnie believes he's found a way to travel through time and better manipulate his business dealings. But, fate and all that.

Martian Time-Slip has political intrigue and personal drama. And Immanuel Kant. And as a time-travel novel, it is remarkably complex and subtle.

Written in 1964, it is slightly dated in its portrayal of women and its understanding of mental illness, both of which I believe are forgivable as a product of its time.

Brian Aldiss:
ANY DISCUSSION OF DICK'S WORK makes it sound a grim and appalling world. So, on the surface, it may be; yet it must also be said that Dick is amazingly funny. The terror and the humor are fused. It is this rare quality which marks Dick out. This is why critics, in seeking to convey his essential flavour, bring forth the names of Dickens and Kafka, earlier masters of ghastly comedy.

Bill Sherman, Blogcritics: "But his core ideas and characterization remain transcendent; even if some of the jargon employed to explain the psychological ideas seem a bit dated."

Jason K., "It's avoidance of unbelievable and fantastic futuristic adventures works in its favor. The characters are faced with very recognizable and realistic dilemmas."

Read Martian Time-Slip online.

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