Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities

The PKD series continues with a rather expensive academic book that I loaned out and never saw again.

Don’t loan your books out, kids.

Raw Feed (1989): Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, eds. Patricia S. Warwick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1984.Robots Androids

Introduction“, Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg — Despite the glib and (at least as far as I can tell from my reading of Dick’s work so far) silly assertion that Dick’s war robots are similar to machines planned by the military and the retreading of the now familiar analysis of Dick’s theme (the nature of reality and humanity), this introduction did have two valid observations. [The older Marzaat certainly thinks we have lurched a lot closer to Dick’s killer machines.] The first is that Dick believed that to preserve your humanness you had to forswear allegiance to any ideology, be unpredictable (unlike the machine which is programmed for predictability), unconstrained by predictability. This explains the characterization of Dick’s protagonists whom we are supposed to empathize with. The second is the point that Dick has a definite propensity to confuse the line between human and machine (a crucial element of his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) with machines being quite human and humans being cold and unempathetic.

The Little Movement” — More of a fantasy than sf story . We never find out exactly where the toy soldiers come from, their larger purpose, or if they are part of a larger plot. This story is not particularly moving, but it does show some Dick characteristics: the dangerous toy whose harmless appearance is deceiving; mysterious, battling forces present in the universe with humans in the middle; and the hint of Dick’s concern with individual perceptions of the world with the in passing reference to the different worlds of adults and children. And, of course, there is a oh-so Dick baroque plot twist at the end.

The Defenders” — I’d heard about this story and read Dick’s The Penultimate Truth so the main plot feature of this story — that robots were faking a war to keep humans underground — was not a surprise. What was a surprise is, unlike in The Penultimate Truth, the robots are not doing this at the behest of manipulative, selfish masters but for altruistic reasons. Ironically, Dick, the anti-authoritarian, sees the initiation of the One World state as good and his characters pragmatically unite to rebuild the destruction and wildly exalt in the possibilities of the future. Unlike the vicious robots of The Penultimate Truth, these robots are kind but firm and view man as needing one final temper tantrum before uniting into one culture. (I don’t buy Dick’s argument that cultures who lose moral goals opt to civil war.) [I’d say it’s when cultures differ on moral goals.]

The Preserving Machine” — A light hearted story (with a black statement) showing Dick’s love of music. I fully agree with music being a wonderful, terribly fragile product of culture. [No, I’m not sure what younger self meant by “terribly fragile” — subject to the availability of technology? musicians?] I liked the fantastic notion of a machine turning music into animals (with oddly appropriate results including the final scene of the Beethoven beetle building a mud hut). Yet the story has a odd, rather depressing theme if I’m interpreting it right: the beautiful products of man’s cultures — the art, ethics, philosophy — are all fragile and, like living forms, respond to evolutionary pressures of the environment and mutate into unrecognizable forms. Dick’s depressing conclusion seems to be that art is doomed. He ties this into a curious religious point: that God must have felt humiliation and sadness at seeing his creation in the Garden of Eden respond to evolutionary pressure. A strange conclusion I’m not sure I agree with. But I do agree culture is fragile.

Second Variety” — If you read enough Philip K. Dick, you begin to become familiar with some of the turnings of his mind, anticipate his plot twists. That was partially the case here. I did immediately suspect the first David (with the disturbingly lethal Teddy bear) of being a crab. Towards the end I suspected Tasso. However, Dick still managed to catch me by surprise with Klaus being a crab, and I thought Dick was going to be sneaky and simply have no second variety crab — have the implication of the second variety’s existence be a plot to demoralize both sides and create general paranoia. Speaking of paranoia, this had some fine, powerful moments of such on a par with John Carpenter’s The Thing. The plot of robotic soldiers slaughtering humans while disguised as such reminding me of another movie: The Terminator (at least as much resemblance as Harlan Ellison’s “Soldier”). [Harlan Ellison famously sued director James Cameron which is why later prints of the movie acknowledge the works of Harlan Ellison.] Dick did a very effective job of describing the bleak, post-nuclear landscape and the violence, confusion, and rush of combat. Clearly the crabs are a stark example of Dick’s theme of thanatos: they are animal-like creatures utterly dedicated to destroying life, the ultimate realization of the Frankenstein theme, a weapon turned against both sides. They may, has Major Hendricks implies, have unrealized potentialities they will realize after the war, but we don’t see them. Indeed, the fact, like all other life forms, they’ve taken to killing each other seems a good thing at story’s end. However, that introduces an ambiguous note: are the crabs just another life form (they certainly are creepy) albeit made of metal? Has man introduced them only in his folly? Or has he served as a creator, passing man’s torch on (probably not a valid reading given Dick’s stated use of the robot/android metaphor)? Tasso does say we always did nice work. Irony or gratitude from created to creator? Ah, that Dick ambiguity. I do not, incidentally, see Tasso — as the story notes state — as a prototype for Dick’s consuming female. The characterization isn’t very similar.

Imposter” — A line from Blade Runner (though not scripted by Dick it accurately conveys his sensibilities) kept coming to mind when reading this: “How can it not know what it is?” Despite the rather telegraphing title, knowledge of Dick’s plotting proclivities, and a vague knowledge of this story from reading past criticisms, this story still caught me by surprise at the end. I thought, all through the story, that Spence Olham was a robot but, at story’s end when the real Olham’s body is first thought to be the robot’s, I thought he was human. Dick gets you whatever your original preconception was — a typical feature of his stories. I thought the portrayal of a self-deceived machine feeling unjustly persecuted was poignant. I also found it ironical that self-knowledge was what finally triggered the U-Bomb. A notion occurred to me that the robot could be a metaphor for all those evil people who really, truly don’t feel they’re evil, a threat, and are being persecuted.

Service Call” — This is one of those stories about a visitor from the future who can’t even really be questioned because human culture has changed so much. I liked this story a great deal. The idea of eliminating war (an extreme manifestation of disagreement) by imposing ideological (of whatever flavor) conformity is ironic given Dick’s values. He hated war, but he also hated conformity. This story has some of the moral ambiguity of Dick’s “The Last of the Masters“: good achieved at perhaps too high a cost. The idea of having a machine, willingly buying it, to insure your ideological conformity is both scary and funny (“Why be half loyal?”) and great entertainment. The end, with the swibble consortium securing their past, was unexpected.

Autofac” — Another very good story in which Dick invests his machines with animal-like qualities. Here the autofacs (I was reminded of the delightfully crazed autofac — the only part of the novel I really remember — in Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Dies Irae.) plan, war (like the crabs in “Second Variety” waging war on each other seems a major step in becoming another lifeform), and reproduce. This is another story of Dick’s where people try to thrust off oppression, succeed, and don’t get the expected results. Rebellion, good, evil are not clear cut things in Dick’s life. There is also an intriguing element of satire: the factories of production protecting themselves, reproducing, serving humans second, an economic system perpetuating itself. Given Dick’s view and economic separation) from the conspicuous consumption of the fifties, this is an outsider’s disapproving look at that cultural phenomenon (this story was written in 1956). I also thought Dick’s description of the bleak, blasted landscape and the many trappings of the autofacs was quite effective.

To Serve the Masters” — This is another one of Dick’s many stories with an ambiguous ending. The robots may have been irrationally destroyed by man because of religious fanaticism or they may have truly been a threat to man. There is a hint, as the story’s introduction says, that the former is true with the brutality of the humans. There is little more to this story than Dick’s well-crafted (the injured robot was rather poignant) ambiguity and plot twists.

War Game” — This is another of Dick’s lethal (well, here only subversive) toy stories.  The idea of a Monopoly-like game that manipulates people psychologically to facilitate economic conquest via surrender was interesting, but Dick didn’t sufficiently work out the details of how the game could do so. Maybe Dick’s point was the power of games to shape world views.

The Electric Ant” — I disagree with Warrick’s and Greenberg’s contention that this is the most important and powerful short story in Dick’s corpus. I can think of better stories in this anthology alone. It certainly is, as they say, quintessential Dick, but this story has several problems which make it a prime example of Dick’s thematic obsessions imperfectly realized in a story. Dick entirely ignores the question of pre-destination which logically arises from the plot. If all of Garson Poole’s stimuli are punched on tape then all of his stimuli is predetermined. Also Dick, in the act of expressing his theme, ignores the idea of blocked perception not being the same as the unperceived object not existing. Dick, I believe following the path of Hume (but I couldn’t say for sure being woefully ignorant of philosophy) equates unperceived with non-existence. Also, someone had to construct Poole so there is an objective reality somewhere. This story exhibits too much ambition on Dick’s part. He tries to incorporate too much of his philosophical concerns at the expense of the story which is interesting but ultimately a failure.

The Exit Door Leads In” — A strange, at times funny, story by Dick of a college of the future where the moral and psychological education of an individual is even more important than vocational knowledge. (The idea of an institution conducting secret moral and psychological tests is hardly a new one in sf.) You kind of feel sorry and depressed at Bob Bibleman’s (an obvious bit of symbolism, the Bible being the ultimate manifestation of institutionally encoded morality) fate. Dick makes us empathize with him and then assigns him back to the dump mercilessly. In most sf stories of this type, the protagonist passes the secret test. Bibleman disappoints Mary Lorne and gets the cold approval of a robot at story’s end. When the test was revealed, I thought Dick was going to go for a typical — for him — ending and make you wonder if the Panther Engine was real and Bibleman’s expelling a retaliation or if the stated facts were true.

Frozen Journey” — A fitting end for the anthology. This story of a man wracked by guilt and plagued by an increasingly inaccurate perception of reality seems a spiritual autobiography of Dick in his last years. [Let me repeat that Tim Powers, who knew Dick in his last years, said he was definitely not crazy.] Victor Kemming’s life of fear and anxiety, of spiritual visitations, of agony over his complicity in the death of a bird (a pointed reminder of how Dick valued life), seems Dick incarnate. The story is quite sad in its depiction of psychological deterioration and severed relationships. Like Dick’s life, it is poignant and blackly funny.

 

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Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human

K. W. Jeter was one of the young, aspiring writers, along with Tim Powers and James Blaylock, who hung around Philip K. Dick in his last years.

Amongst other things Dick would do — and Powers definitely says Dick was not, per popular legend, “crazy” — is spin late night conspiracy theories out which would keep the young men in a state of paranoia for a couple of days until Dick would reveal the joke.

Jeter is also the man who jocularly invented the term “steampunk” for the sort of work he, Powers, and Blaylock did early in their careers.

Raw Feed (1999): Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human, K. W. Jeter, 1995.Blade Runner 2

This is a peculiar book, unique, as far as I know, in its intentions and starting premises.

There are several media tie-in books that use characters from tv shows and movies. There are also some books that are sequels to other authors’ works. This novel, though, combines both. To further complicate matters, there are two versions of the film Blade Runner. [My box set of Blade Runner films actually has five versions.] Jeter seems to use the original version of the film as the beginning point of his plot.

Jeter drags out all the usual Philip K. Dick elements: conspiracies (I think he outdoes Dick in this regard – more on the par of A. E. van Vogt who inspired Dick) and the tenuous nature of reality and some specific references to the universe created in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, specifically Deckard’s increasing disgust with killing androids and the nature of humanity and the constantly blurring lines between human and android and the sometimes questionable desire to make a distinction.

The plot is satisfyingly engaging though not without problems. Continue reading “Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human”

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Lovecraft series continues with a brief look at his only true novel.

He wrote it as an experiment, and it was posthumously published in 1941.

Raw Feed (2005): The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, H. P. Lovecraft, 1927.277a820dd7a0f4d98d1dd010.L

Tim Powers, a Lovecraft fan, has said that he took his method of plot construction from H. P. Lovecraft’s letters. I’m not sure what specific story Lovecraft was talking about when mentioning his method, but, re-reading this story, I noticed that, like Powers, Lovecraft inserts historical characters in his story. Specifically, the figure of Captain Abraham Whipple who leads the raiding party on Joseph Curwen. The first times I read this novel, over twenty years ago, I didn’t know he was an historical figure, but I’ve since heard him talked about in the Revolutionary-era folk song “The Yankee Privateer”.

There are probably other historical figures (besides Judge Hathorne — a relation to Nathaniel Hawthorne) I didn’t recognize.  Continue reading “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 2: The Door to Saturn

My Clark Ashton Smith series continues.

This one has an introduction by Tim Powers, the author that got me interested in re-trying Smith.

Raw Feed (2007): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Vol. 2: The Door to Saturn, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2007.the-door-to-saturn

“Introduction”, Tim Powers — Powers observes two things about Clark Ashton Smith’s work: the pagan sense of fate and the dooming of true love. The glamours of Smith’s work, he says, are inextricable from the “merciless field-equations of Fate”.

The Door to Saturn” — Smith said this was one of his favorite works. He operates in a satiric vein, here, but the satire is more obvious than, say his “The Monster of Prophecy”. And it’s better too. Smith constantly denies expectations and dramatic payoffs and formulic plotting all the while relating his story in a deliberate, detached, yet wry, prose of wonder. Morghi the inquisitor pursues, from Smith’s Hyperboria to Saturn, fellow sorceror Eibon. The former is a devotee of the mainstream god Yhoundeh. The latter worships the primitive god — something of an alien exile on Earth — Zhothaqquah. Eibon is granted a magical escape hatch to Venus by Zhothaqquah in gratitude for his worship. The god’s relatives on Saturn can barely understand Eibon’s language, but bare him no will and speak an enigmatic phrase to him. Eibon thinks it’s important, develops a missionary zeal for delivering the message to others. After Morghi catches up to him, the two put aside their differences. They encounter a frightful animal which turns out to be a beast of burden owned by the headless Bhlemphroims — the latter are in a state of “eugenic sorrow” having devolved from their former headed condition. Rather than get caught up in tribal politics a la H. Rider Haggard and other lost race novelists or attempting to convert the tribe to the worship of their individual gods, the wizards are well treated and bored. They are expected to mate with the sole fecund female of the tribe, a “mountainous female” (a comic image reminiscent of Smith’s “The Root of Ampoi”) — and then eaten by them. The two decide to leave. But Smith doesn’t deliver a daring escape or chase. The tribe simply lets them go. Eventually coming to the Ydheem people, Eibon delivers the message of the relatives of his god. Their translation turns out to be banal, unexpected, yet still significant: “Be on your way.” The Ydheems, hearing it after their city is buried in an avalanche, build a whole new city on the divine revelation. And the two wizards settle their dispute for the rest of their life, a life of disappointments — Morghi can get an inquisition going, Eibon becomes a “minor prophet”. There are the compensations of the “potent though evil-tasting” fungus-wine and females “if one were not too squemish”. After several non-adventures it is said their life is not “so radically different from that of Mhu Thulan …”, their home, “… or any other place”. Such is Smith’s anti-adventure, the relatively mundane and mixed bag of life even if lived on an exotic planet. A final irony is that their absence on Earth, triggers the revival of Zothaqquah worship in Hyperborea.

The Red World of Polaris” — This was a story never published in Smith’s lifetime, a sequel to his “Marooned on Andromeda” and the result of an unexpected commission to do a series of Captain Volmar tales. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Smith said he had little interest in the “mythology of science”. However, this story sort of anticipates some later transhuman themes of sf. The crew of the Alcyone is pulled into a metal shelled world inhabited by an alien race who has transferred their brains to customizable metal bodies they discard at well. It is not an upload of a consciousness into a computer or cyborg a la the transhumans, but it has many similarities. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the world have a control over constituent atoms that is like nanotechnology. They also have a problem with runaway experiments in life conducted by various scientists. However, I think these were all incidental plot matters to Smith who was most interested seemingly, given his comments to Lovecraft, about the poetically described apocalypse that destroys the alien world at story’s end. It is an apocalypse brought on by a characteristically Smith menace — a blob of living matter that has animal and plant characteristics. It can be seen as a metaphor for the cancer gnawing away, literally, at the heart of this technological civilization which has more than a tint of racial senescence and individual decadence in the experiments of some of its scientists. Given that it’s a red world, it’s something of a worm in an apple. Continue reading “The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 2: The Door to Saturn”

Declare

I’ve saved Powers’ best for last in the Tim Powers series.

The title comes from the Book of Job, Chapter 38:4:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Declare, if thou hast understanding.

God is speaking to Job out of a whirlwind, the Job whose loyalty He’s decided to test by allowing Satan to take all Job’s wealth, all his children, and giving him boils.

Like Job, Declare is a story of faith and loyalty. But Powers’ story shows that faith and loyalty can have their dark side too depending on the cause they serve.

And, again, my Raw Feeds differ from reviews. They have spoilers.

Raw Feed (2002): Declare, Tim Powers, 2000.Declare

A very accomplished novel and now, of the Powers’ I’ve read, my favorite. [I haven’t read his last two.]

Powers combines the most impressive amount of research and diversity of elements of any of his novels: the minutiae of Cold War espionage (mostly the British and Russian intelligence services but some, also, with the American and French services; I would be curious if the various recognition signals people employ are taken from actual histories), his Roman Catholic faith, the lives of John Philby and his notorious son Kim, Arabian myths involving djinn and A Thousand Nights and One Night, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lawrence of Arabia, legends of the Ark on Mount Ararat, biblical allusions to the real story of Solomon threatening to split the disputed child in half with a sword and also to the mysterious Nephiliim of Genesis, other members of the Cambridge spy network, and the literally, in this secret history, ghoulish nature of Communism.

There are some typical Powers techniques and themes. Continue reading “Declare”

Epitaph in Rust

The Tim Powers series continues with a look at his second novel.

Raw Feed (2004): Epitaph in Rust, Timothy Powers, 1976.Epitaph in Rust

The plot of this novel, Powers’ second, is similar to that of his first novel, The Skies Discrowned. A young man with artistic aspirations (here to be a poet) is suddenly exiled from his comfortable life (here protagonist Brother Thomas aka Rufus Pennick has to flee the monastery after assaulting the abbot), falls in with colorful characters and gets involved in a political revolution (here the colorful characters are actors who are also revolutionaries), is unlucky in love (here his first girlfriend turns out to be an android), and eventually turns his back on a comfortable position in the new political order he has helped found with the story ending with the hero wandering, all in a world of mixed technology (this seems to be some sort of post-apocalypse Los Angeles with firearms ranging from muskets to modern handguns, cloning, androids, and thumbprints).

Again, Powers exhibits his trademark maiming (always physically, sometimes psychically) of his hero. Rufus loses a finger on his left hand. Literature again comes into play with the actors rehearsing a version of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (which features characters in disguise which resonates a bit with the object of desire for the hero and another actor turning out to be an android in disguise). A difference between the general plot of this novel and The Skies Discrowned is that Rufus states he is giving up writing poetry while the hero of the latter work faithfully goes back to his first calling as a painter. However, you could read the opening epigraph, from the unpublished poems of Pennick, as evidence that he does keep composing poetry and that he is despondent about his time in Los Angeles since so many of his friends are killed there, he is maimed, and his first love turns out to be a treacherous android (though he abandons the possibilities of a romance with the female gaffer of the company). Continue reading “Epitaph in Rust”

The Stress of Her Regard

The Tim Powers series continues.

I have not read the “sequel”Hide Me Among the Graves. It’s a sequel only that it is set in the same universe with the Nephilim.

This is the book that started the processing of putting the expensive and complete editions of Clark Ashton Smith’s fiction and poetry on my shelves.

And I will be ending my Tim Powers series with a look at Declare, my favorite Tim Powers’ novel.

Raw Feed (2005): The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers, 1989.Stress of Her Regard

In terms of the number of elements he put together in his plot, the complexity of historical events he had to fit his plot into the interstices of, this may be Powers most accomplished novel.

Powers fits together the lives of several historical figures — not just one Romantic poet but three: John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron as well as their literary acquaintances including Leigh Hunt and the petulant (and here vampiric and menacing) Dr. Polidori, the Biblical nephilim, several elements of the European vampire legend, Frankenstein and its author Mary Shelley, Italian politics (specifically the importantly named Carbonari), quantum physics (and questions of free will and determinism), Austro-Hungarian politics, the ancient riddle of the Sphinx and speculations on silicon versus carbon life. And, of course, there is his excellent use of epigraphs at the beginning of chapters. Most of them are from the Romantic poets in the novel and fit uncannily with his plot (of course, Powers achieved this effect by building his plot from those quotes).

Not all of them are from the featured poets. The wonderful title phrase comes from a Clark Ashton Smith poem (Powers is a fan). Some of the epigraphs are also quotes from letters. Fittingly, for a novel featuring vampires, this novel has a persistent air of horror about it, particularly from the doom of whole families getting the attentions of the nephilim and the temptation to trade inspiration and artistic talent (and reap immortality — the Romantic poets aren’t the only literary figures to have connections with the nephilim) for one’s soul and family. There is, of course, also the air of doom given the lives of Keats, Shelley, and Byron.

There are several of the familiar Powers elements here. The maiming of characters is taken to the extreme of any Powers’ novel. Protagonist Michael Crawford loses one whole finger, part of another, gets a permanent limp from being shot in the leg, and goes bald after spending some time offering himself as a Christ parody to the blood drinking sexual underground of the nephilim fetishists. Josephine Carmody loses an eye. There are family issues — the whole idea of some humans being adopted by the nephilim family. John Keats’ poem “Lamia” is one of the major influences on the story. The portrayal of the nephilim as beautiful, erotically attractive, and snake-like — as well as linked with Medusa — comes from that poem. There is also a fully believable romance, forged in adversity and self-sacrifice (a noble trait many Powers heroes come to embrace), between Josephine and Crawford. Incest — a plot element of Powers’ Fisher King trilogy — is here with Shelley and his nephilim twin sister. As with Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark, there is magic in high places, here in a thrilling scene (which, in other novels, would have been the climax but is here about a third of the way in the book) set in the Swiss Alps. Of course, Powers’ Declare with its scenes on Mount Ararat also features magic in high places as well as sharing the idea of the nephilim.

Austro-Hungarian politics show up here as they do in The Drawing of the Dark. Josephine’s multiple personalities would show up later in the character of Plumtree in Powers’ Earthquake Weather. Byron, of course, also shows up (as a quite different sort of character — he comes off as a very difficult person here and a bit of a jerk — if a very talented one) in Powers’ The Anubis Gate.

I didn’t quite like this novel as well as Declare even though the Romantic poets were as interesting of characters as Kim Philby and the plotting was even more intricate — if not alternating back and forth in time like that novel. (Stylistically, it seemed to me that Powers reveals a major part of his fantasy element — the existence and characteristics of the nephilim — earlier than his other fantasy novels.) However, I didn’t think he quite integrated the speculations touching on quantum physics and what, exactly, Werner the Austro-Hungarian was up to.

I would certainly consider it one of Powers’ three best novels.

 

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