A Brief Philip K Dick Interlude

I recently binged both the TV and book versions of The Man in the High Castle. Thatsa lotta Nazis.

I started to blog about these particular alternative histories–both the Asian-centric original and the Nazi-centric contemporary. But then I picked up a minor Philip Dick work, published 2 years after TMitHC, The Simulacra, and it was like TMitHC took acid, watched a bunch of Marx Brothers films, and foresaw a future in which Nazi evil takes the form of corporate oligarchy subduing the masses with HGTV and an ornate, comprehensive bureaucracy of citizenship.

As can happen when you pick up a Dick novel.

Brightly lit, cynical, jumbled, and hilarious, this book reminded me of some contemporary work–Infinite Jest in particular.

In fact, the only two things dating this book were the breasty, congenial secretary and the shallowly Freudian lingua franca, where everyone talks about their mother complexes (except the women, because hahahahahahahahaha who wants to hear them talk.)

Aaaaah, comfy midcentury sexism.

Although I must note that people don’t read Infinite Jest for its transformative representations of women. Some people (coughcoughme) stopped reading Wallace, in fact, because he couldn’t manage to direct his storied, borderline hagiographic empathy toward them.  Sexism and racism, David: this is the water.

In TMitHC, Nazism is primarily genocidal. Germany has murdered almost all Jews, black people, and–in a pleasantly accurate touch in the TV version–disabled and chronically ill people.

The Simulacra reminds us that Nazism was also organizational. In a way that presages the banality of our own social evils. Mega German corps have rendered citizens reliant on pills rather than doctors (check); housed them all in apartment building-communities (check); lulled them with everlasting reality talent shows (what?!); installed an android as president (ummm); and laid the technological, military and economic groundwork for a full coup (yikes!)

Radiation has poisoned swaths of earth and altered human evolution. Hucksters sell interplanetary “jalopies” to folks so desperate to escape the ravaged, anxious US that they’ll spend their life savings on a one-way trip to Mars, where they’ll farm red dirt with friendly neighbor/slave androids, the simulation of social contact/control a balm against the depredations of extraplanetary colonization.

My favorite gag is the “Nitz” commercial: a tiny robotic insect that slips through cracks in doors and windows to project against your wall advertising for drugs that treat existential crisis. This image will provide me everlasting joy. Expect a prototype from Merck any day now.

Oh yeah, we killed all the native Martian critters and recreated them technologically. Li’l orange skittering telepaths. Used to shill cruddy goods.

As perhaps already suggested by my summaries, both of these books are honest about human brutality: Japanese elites in TMitHC’s San Francisco collect ephemera of “native” American culture while depriving the white folks of basic rights and watching their Nazi allies exterminate them. And The Simulacra’s ruling classes use reality shows, manufactured tribalism, austerity, and a permanently young Jackie O figurehead to repress communal thirst for freedom and self-determination and to compel the citizenry to die colonizing Mars rather than make Earth livable.

These books remind me that our visions of dystopia were seeded long before our current moment. Global cultures have been wrestling with colonialism, repression, and environmental depredation for a long time.

That Dick’s early 60s visions of these problems are almost unchanged by writers 30, 40, 50 years later shows how little progress we’ve made.

No wonder we sent Matt Damon to Mars.


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