Some authors you just love reading because they transport you away into another real world. As a writer, you need imagination and creativity to create a completely new world, and it usually ends up being something that is entirely invented – the more bizarre, the better. Take Tolkien, for example, or even Calvino.
Not so for Philip K. Dick. His science fiction novels mostly entail worlds that are “real” – they play in some distant future, but they have all the ugliness and baseness of our own world. Usually it is a catastrophe that forms the background of the story, something that humans have done to themselves. And on this background, Dick paints a subtle portrait of people just trying to survive, struggling to make ends meet, and somehow they always manage to touch the sublime with a fingertip, before they have to let go again.
His most famous novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, has long been a favorite of trivia buffs. Nobody outside sci-fi really knows much about it, other that it was the basis for Ridley Scott’s outstanding Blade Runner. Few know, for instance, that the rainy Los Angeles in the movie was quite the opposite of the unrelenting sun on a San Francisco scorched by a nuclearly charged sun that was the protagonist in the book.
A Maze of Death, the book I just finished reading, plays similarly in a dystopic universe: Earth has been abandoned by virtually everyone but the military and the insane (and it’s not clear where the boundary between the two lies); common people that struggle to make ends meet are sent on a fishing expedition to a little known planet, Delmak-O.
This novel is very remarkable amongst science fiction in general, in that it tries to weave religion into the plot to a great extent. Dick’s output is such that each novel can have a major theme, and religion is a very unusual theme for sci-fi. As the pages turn, we are presented with a fictional religion that behaves a lot like a distillation of all major world faiths – with the uncommonly smart twist of being initiated by a single person in a single book with the strangely bizarre title How I Rose From the Dead in My Spare Time and So Can You.
As the novel progresses, the little colony on Delmak-O starts seeing dysfunctional behavior ending in the death of many of its inhabitants. What is distressing is that many of them die at the hand of other community members. While the killing spree progresses, the saner members of the group try exploring the planet, focusing on the strange human artifacts that pose as insects, as well as on a giant fortress that appears and disappears at random.
Like in a Bach fugue, where things get more and more crazy towards the end, the plot starts twisting back and forth as the pages turn. First we learn that Delmak-O is not a planet at all, but a location on Earth. As soon as we digest that, we are informed that the whole experience is a mental projection, that the religion is entirely made up as part of a hallucinatory game (not unlike Star Trek’s holodeck), and that “reality” is a ship that has malfunctioned and is going around a dead star, unable to move and unable to send a signal. Finally, in a contrarian twist, as soon as the main protagonist of the novel decides to put an end to his and the other crew members’ misery, the god-person called Intercessor, a stand-in for Jesus, actually comes to visit and spirits the man away before he can harm all others.
[SPOILER WARNING! END]
As usual in Dick’s novels, the plot is so fascinating that it almost drowns out the remainder of the writing. That’s a real shame, because Dick evidently loves his scenery and characters and develops both very artfully. Whether it’s the constantly bitching Morley couple, the slutty Suzie Smart, the crazy Dunkelwelt: all of them appear real, tangible, distinct, and yet all human and fragile.
In all, we care about the protagonists in Dick’s novels because he cares. The same love he has for his little people is the love we feel for them, intensified by the similarity of their trials with our own hardships.