Angel Archer is in distress. The three people she has loved the most in the world are all dead: her husband Jeff, her father-in-law Timothy, her best friend Kirsten. At a lecture given by Edgar Barefoot (a character based on that of Alan Watts) she reflects:”It costs a hundred dollars to find out why we are on this earth. You also get a sandwich, but I wasn’t hungry that day. John Lennon had just been killed and I think I know why we are on this earth; it’s to find out that what you love the most will be taken away from you..” Barefoot later tells her that the point is to eat the sandwich, the rest doesn’t really matter. Philip K Dick’s book is the story of how Angel comes to the point where she can eat that sandwich.
Angel is disillusioned by many things. By her education (“I graduated from Cal. I lived in Berkeley. I read The Remembrance of Things Past and I remember nothing.”) By concepts (“Like the medieval realists, Tim believed that words were actual things. If you could put it into words, it was de facto true. This is what cost him his life.”)
Timothy is the opposite. He knows things. He knows the Holy Ghost is the Hebrew ruah, the female spirit or breath of Yahweh. He knows ‘If I have all the eloquence of men or angels but speak without love I am just a gong sounding or a cymbal clashing’. He knows he can hold heretical beliefs and take a mistress and get away with both. The charismatic bishop gives life to all the people around him. But as the newly discovered Zadokite documents are published and translated, the cornerstone to his assurance, his faith, is lost. He believes that if the sayings of Jesus are merely quotations from the sayings of another teacher who lived 200 years earlier, then Jesus cannot be the son of god, the gospels cannot be inspired literature and the Christan church cannot be the one true faith. His faith is built on concepts: once one falls, the rest fall too, like a house of cards. Desperately, Timothy seeks another faith to fill the gap. For a while he becomes a spiritualist, believing he has been contacted by his dead son Jeff. Then he believes that if he can find the anokhi, the process whereby the early Christians partook of the Eucharist and became one with Christ, he will find answers which will resolve his doubts. The Zadokite Documents imply that anokhi was a real substance, which believers consumed, a kind of magic mushroom. If Timothy can find and take that mushroom he will be saved. He flies to Israel, drives ill-equipped into the desert, and dies.
Angel has always taken drugs. Now, in her grief, she has come to earth. To help her she has Bill, who can’t follow concepts but who can give her affection. And Barefoot, who knows that death and life are two parts of one whole, and that focusing on being in each moment granted us is the closest we can reach to purity in this life. Pondering on the life and death of Timothy, Angel begins to find meaning in each, comes to understand that it was necessary for him to die and her to suffer so she can find some form of resolution, and with it, some form of wisdom.
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (published 1982) was Philip K Dick’s last published work, and one of his best written and well-organised (Dick’s 12 ‘mainstream’ novels are much more carefully written than his SF stories). Dick’s book comes with a bibliography and references to Aeschylus, Plato, Dante, Donne and Yeats among others.
Philip K Dick is best known for his novels The Man in the High Castle (published in 1962, awarded the SF Hugo award 1963) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (published 1968, the basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner). It is generally accepted that Dick is a great science fiction writer. Stanislaw Lem says in his essays Microworlds (1984) that there are only three science fiction writers: H G Wells, Dick and the Strugatsky brothers. The rest are adventure story writers. It is possible to turn this assertion on its head and say that these three writers are not science fiction writers at all. This fussing about labels is not as trivialising as it sounds. How we classify a writer, for instance, controls what preconceptions we bring to their work, and whom we compare them to, what context we see them in. Dick’s work does not fit easily into the science fiction mould, nor into that of the ‘novel’: romantic, experimental or post-structuralist. He belongs to a tradition that includes Aristophanes, Lucian of Samosata, Grimmelshausen, Swift, Gogol, Kafka, Orwell, Hasek, Samuel Becket, Nabokov, Simenon, Borges. These are all ‘respectable’ authors, but are they novelists? Or science fiction writers? Dick will be appreciated best, and given his true stature, if seen as part of this stream of fiction.
All these writers, including Dick, express unease, self-doubt, even paranoia as a response to the society in which they live. They satirise, express cynicism, look for some more ‘eternal’ structure where ideals and values are more stable.
It is these concerns that unify Dick’s work. “Second Variety” (1953) shows automated mechanisms taking over the conduct of a war for their own, non-human, purposes; in Mary and the Giant (1955, 1987) the titular character enters the alien world of adulthood and becomes an alien herself in order to survive; in Eye in the Sky (1957) a number of characters impose their own radically different ‘reality’ on others (what is real?); in Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959, 1975) characters’ fantasies become realities to others; in The Man in the High Castle (1962) an alternative reality in which the Axis powers won WWII gives birth to a banned work of fiction in which the Allies were victorious – which is real?: more germane, conquest and control are shown as unreal and destructive values; in The Simulacra (1964) the President of the United States is one: is this fantasy or reality?; in The Penultimate Truth (1964) peace is declared, but not for the majority of the world’s population, who are spurred on to greater efforts by a televised simulation of war; in “We can remember it for you wholesale” (1966) memories are implanted, we cease to be what we remember; in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) machines become more human than humans, and have the same existential problems (what is human?); in A Scanner Darkly (1977) reality is distorted by a drug, and the drug is called death, which we all have to take; in Valis (1981) god searches for man just as man searches for god and one of these is a science fiction writer called Philip K Dick: the question asked is, is this real or is it science fiction?; in The Divine Invasion (1981) god forgets who he is and is healed by his feminine part so he can heal the world.
The progression from distrust of political manipulation, fear of alienation caused by mechanical and electronic substitutes for the senses, paranoia and ‘reality fluctuations’ caused by drugs taken to deal with these fears, doubts caused by unrestrained metaphysical speculation ending in a powerful need for a healing resolution fuel the works Dick wrote between 1956 and 1982.
More important than what form of fiction Dick wrote is the realisation that he was a gnostic, one who sought for (and found) hidden knowledge. But he was a very strange kind of gnostic, one who expressed his wisdom in pulp fiction.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.