Sunday, October 28, 2007

Living in the present: Phil Dick's world

The same evening I watched 300, set in a mythic past where people with delusions of godhood really like body piercings, I saw on TV an episode of CSI: New York where the cops had to investigate a murder by tracking his/her avatar down in Second Life. I've occasionally written here about my occasional sense of "living in the future;" watching the episode Down the Rabbit Hole, I had a slightly different feeling, that I was living inside a Philip K. Dick novel. Dick was a prolific science fiction writer who worked mainly in the 1960s and 70s. If you don't know his books, you may have seen films based on his work, especially Blade Runner and Total Recall. I'm very fond of Blade Runner, which I think Dick would have liked, but even it does not give more than a hint of what Dick's universe was like. He was scorned by many dedicated SF readers back then because he tended to focus on the ludicrous or trivially aggravating aspect of the future. A good example is quoted in a recent article on Dick in the New Yorker (brilliantly entitled Blows against the Empire; hijack the starship!):

In “Ubik” (1969)...the first premise is that the ancient human dream of communication with the dead has been achieved at last—but, when you go to speak with them, there is static and missed connections and interference, and then you argue over your bill. At the beginning of the novel, one of the heroes, Runciter, tries to connect with his “passed” wife, Ella:

“Is something the matter, Mr. Runciter?” the von Vogelsang person said, observing him as he floundered about. “Can I assist you?”
“I’ve got some thing coming in over the wire,” Runciter panted, halting.
“Instead of Ella. Damn you guys and your shoddy business practices; this shouldn’t happen, and what does it mean?” . . .
“Did the individual identify himself?”
“Yeah, he called himself Jory.”
Frowning with obvious worry, von Vogelsang said, “That would be Jory Miller. I believe he’s located next to your wife. In the bin.”
“But I can see it’s Ella!”
“After prolonged proximity,” von Vogelsang explained, “there is occasionally a mutual osmosis, a suffusion between the mentalities of half-lifers. Jory Miller’s cephalic activity is particularly good; your wife’s is not. That makes for an unfortunately one-way passage of protophasons. . . . If this condition persists your money will be returned to you.” . . .
Facing the casket, von Vogelsang pressed the audio outlet into his ear and spoke briskly into the microphone. . . . “This is very unfair of you, Jory; Mr. Runciter has come a long way to talk to his wife. Don’t dim her signal, Jory; that’s not nice.”
As the author of this article, Adam Gopnik, implies, this is just too similar to someone today complaining about their telecom problems.

I got a strong Phil Dick flavor from Down the Rabbit Hole. It partly took place in an online social interaction "world," and this had a touch of Dick's fascination with reality lurking behind appearances and semi-human simulacra. Most of the action, it turned out, was the result of a plot to kill a Congressman who met women in Second Life as a way of initiating affairs; Dick could have written that, his books were full of fraught relationships. But what drew the Dick comparison to mind was the little remote device, armed with video cameras, that the cops sent into a silent apartment to show them if there was any danger lurking. If it had only made a cute noise or held conversations with the cops it would have been a perfect Dick touch.

And none of this was at all fantastic; it's just life in the present, as depicted on broadcast TV.

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Blogger Will McLean said...

Gold farmers. Overworked chain-smoking gold farmers. How Dickian is that?

12:28 PM  

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