Philip K. Dick

The Simulacra

I’ve read a couple of Dick’s books now, and the first thing that comes to mind is the secondary nature of the plot. This reminds me of Pynchon’s ‘Crying of Lot 49’ in the way it meanders rather than centres around the storyline. Part of this complements the time travel aspect of the story, which goes with the multiple possible futures idea: things can suddenly lurch somewhere quite different, and minor characters and events can suddenly become major (and vice-versa). I found the constant movement between characters a bit confusing at times, but there was coherence as originally disparate characters eventually intersected.

Much of the pleasure of this book is the semi-satirical future. Humour is never that far from the surface, such as the depiction of advertisements as something like insects or rodents, and the methods people had of destroying them. ‘Nicole’ was a bit of a tellingly clairvoyant picture of the power of celebrity in politics: Presidents may come and go, but Oprah is eternal. The White House *IS* NBC, and an appearance there is the ultimate validation. Similarly Dick is hauntingly on the money with the trend away from psychology towards drugs. It’s not quite cyberpunk, but this is also a refreshingly messy alternative future compared to the shiny and antiseptic Star Trek. Perhaps Nazis are also a recurring element of Dick novels – they were there in ‘The Man In the High Tower’ as well. Characters were distinct but fairly two dimensional.

I found it an engaging read, which isn’t a bad trick given that Dick has dropped so many standard devices of plot to hook you in. No one is really a hero here. That being said, I think I’d only recommend it as a holiday from more standard narrative. There are lots of clever ideas, but here there is little character development or edge-of-your-seat action. It’s hard to care about what action there is (and it goes a bit thriller at the end) because for all the shooting and shouting no-one really seems to matter (the Board? Goerring? Berthold Goltz?). Then again, perhaps that’s part of the post-modern point (cf. ‘Lot 49’ again): looking for themes and meaning in society is just a matter of which lens you are looking through, and what is significant from one angle is meaningless from another. I don’t know if Dick can quite have his cake and eat it too here though – there is a notion of organised conspiracy supporting much of the book. Also there’s the dimension of constructing a book: the postmodern element may be clever, but does it aid or diminish the pleasure of the read?

December 2010