Time to catch up on my book reviews. Today: two books by Philip Dick and one by Stanislaw Lem.
The Man in the High Castle is an early Dick book, and you can tell. It’s very different from most of his other works, particularly the loosely structured, paranoid, drug-inspired fantasies of his later years. Exhaustively researched and meticulously structured, this is a compelling work of alternate history. The book takes place in the western United States, after the Axis victory in World War II. Dick is much more restrained that usual with regard to pacing and action as well; this is more of a slow burner compared to his more manic adventures. Apparently Dick had toyed with writing a sequel to it, which makes sense, because the book doesn’t really have much of a climax and some of the characters’ stories seem like they are just getting started by the end of the book. Still a fascinating read.
Ubik is on the other end of the Dick continuum. This is one of those books where he throws in a whole lot of disparate elements, with the result that you’re never quite sure where the book is going or what it’s even really about.This time around, we get psychics of several varieties, time travel of sorts, talking appliances (including a particularly troublesome door), a trip to the moon, inter-corporation rivalry and contact with people from beyond the grave. Following a character through one of Dick’s paranoid fantasies is a little like watching an ant walking across a dead leaf that’s being tossed about by the wind. You know the whole time that the character’s efforts to puzzle out his predicament are going to come to nothing, but you can’t stop watching. And there’s so much weirdness going on that when a character comes to what should be a stunning realization about his situation, he sort of shrugs and just keeps going, like the ant walking off the edge of the leaf. You remember how freaked out you when you watched The Matrix for the first time and you found out that Neo’s whole life was just a computer program? Imagine a moment like that, except that Neo doesn’t really notice that anything has changed. He just kind of goes, “Oh, that makes sense. I’ve been in a computer program this whole time. And I guess I’m not anymore.” That’s what reading Philip Dick’s better books is like. The paranoia is made all the more compelling by the offhand way it’s shown to be completely rational. Of course the world is crazy, Dick seems to be saying. You’d be insane to think otherwise.
The Investigation is by the famous
Russian Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem, but to me, this book read like one of Philip Dick’s less focused works. It sort of meanders along, following a police detective as he investigates a series of mysterious crimes that may or may not have supernatural causes. But where Dick paints himself into a corner, Lem leaves things open, never really coming to any sort of conclusion. I get that this is probably the point of the book — that the “investigation” of the title is ultimately a fruitless endeavor, but it still feels unsatisfying. You’re better off reading one of the Dick books.