James Beach

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Nonfiction and More


Review: The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick

The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Philip K. Dick is ‘our own homegrown Borges’.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

Philip K. Dick, perhaps best referred to as PKD in our immature times, was a fascinating and many-layered writer. Other artists might challenge your personal viewpoints of what is real, and whether or not you’re right. PKD would challenge your view of reality itself.

He made this work by not being just a dry conceptual thinker. His conceptual brilliance was married with a deep desire to understand what this all could mean for humanity – a humanity that he deeply loved, warts and all.

PKD is currently most well known for movies made from his writings – the most famous ones are “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner” (as his novel this had the surreal title “Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep”). There was also Richard Linklater’s amazing and underrated “A Scanner Darkly”, which somehow escaped much notice despite having a cast of Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. Most recently there is a TV series based on one of his novels – Amazon Prime’s “The Man in the High Castle.” The most acclaimed show they’ve had to date, it is unusually true to his vision – a brilliant imagining of a 1960s America if the Axis powers had won. In the story, the characters struggling with their everyday concerns find out about our universe where the Axis powers lost – which changes their understanding of not just their world but their lives.

That’s the kind of twists that PKD excelled at – twists that mattered, because they come from a real imagining of human characters just like us. People with messy lives who find themselves in deep strangeness that they can and must figure out, just like we do.

PKD also had a rather large body of work. At one point in his life he wrote 20 novels in 2 years – and sold every single one. For those who aren’t already a fan, *and* for those who want to dive deeper, I highly recommend this collection. It offers a both impressive and accessible overview of the wide range of worlds through which PKD wielded his art. This includes 3 chapters of a sequel to the aforementioned “Man in the High Castle”, a mind-blowing spec outline for a possible “Mission: Impossible” script that was never sold, and a brilliant outline for a new light-hearted caper series involving heaven and earth which is simply too challenging for television to this day.

But perhaps the piece of this collection which best represents both the pessimism, the optimism and the deep-hearted insight that PKD brought to bear is the transcript of a lecture he gave back in 1972 – “The Android and the Human” (pp. 193-194).

…The absolutely horrible technological society — that was our dream, our vision of the future. We could foresee nothing equipped with enough power, guile, or whatever, to impede the coming of that dreadful, nightmare society. It never occurred to us that the delinquent kids might abort it out of the sheer perverse malice of their little individual souls, God bless them. Here, as a case in point, are two excerpts from the media; the first, quoted in that epitome of the nauseating, Time, is — so help me — what Time calls “the ultimate dream in telephone service” as described by Harold S. Osborne, former chief engineer of AT&T:

“Whenever a baby is born anywhere in the world, he is given at birth a telephone number for life. As soon as he can talk, he is given a watch-like device with ten little buttons on one side and a screen on the other. When he wishes to talk with anyone in the world, he will pull out the device and punch on the keys the number. Then, turning the device over, he will hear the voice of his friend and see his face on the screen, in color and in three dimensions. If he does not see him and hear him, he will know that his friend is dead.”

I don’t know; I really don’t find this funny. It is really sad. It is heartbreaking. Anyhow; it is not going to happen. The kids have already seen to that. “Phone freaks,” they are called, these particular kids. This is what the L.A. Times says, in an article dated earlier this year:

“They (the phone freaks) all arrived carrying customized MF’ers — multi-frequency tone signals — the phone freak term for a blue box. The homemade MF’ers varied in size and design. One was a sophisticated pocket transistor built by a PhD in engineering, another the size of a cigar box with an actual coupler attaching to the phone receiver. So far, these phone freaks had devised 22 ways to make a free call without using credit cards. In case of a slipup, the phone freaks also know how to detect ‘supervision,’ phone company jargon for a nearly inaudible tone which comes on the line before anyone answers to register calling charges. As soon as phone freaks detect the dreaded ‘supervision,’ they hang up fast.

“Captain Crunch was still in the phone booth pulling the red switches on his fancy computerized box. He got his name from the whistle found in the Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal box. Crunch discovered that the whistle has a frequency of 2600 cycles per second, the exact frequency the telephone company uses to indicate that a line is idle, and of course, the first frequency phone freaks learn how to whistle to get ‘disconnect,’ which allows them to pass from one circuit to another. Crunch, intent, hunched over his box to read a list of country code numbers. He impersonated to the overseas operator, and called Italy. In less than a minute he reached a professor of classical Greek writings at the University of Florence.”

This is how the future has actually come out. None of us science fiction writers foresaw phone freaks. Fortunately, neither did the phone company, which otherwise would have taken over by now. But this is the difference between dire myth and warm, merry reality. And it is the kids, unique, wonderful, unhampered by scruples in any traditional sense, that have made the difference.

As PKD foresaw, these phone phreakers were early versions of what became hacker culture. They figured out the codes for public and private telephones and would use them to call each other and in other ways infiltrate institutional technology and play with it for their advantage and just for fun. And everything that has followed has played out as PKD suspected. These kids have not only grown on to become engineers and CEOs. Hackers have also stolen passwords, cracked digital rights management and security, sometimes stealing credit cards and worse out of immaturity and simple spite. And also, justifying PKD’s wise faith and love for the perversity of humanity in all it’s messy beauty, consistently undermining and even rendering irrelevant the power of the governmental and corporate security estates at every turn.

He goes on to say:

Speaking in science fiction terms, I now foresee an anarchistic totalitarian state ahead. Ten years from now a TV street reporter will ask some kid who is president of the United States, and the kid will admit that he doesn’t know. “But the President can have you executed,” the reporter will protest. “Or beaten or thrown into prison or all your rights taken away, all your property — everything.” And the boy will reply, “Yeah, so could my father up to last month when he had his fatal coronary. He used to say the same thing.” End of interview. And when the reporter goes to gather up his equipment he will find that one his color 3-D stereo microphone-vidlens systems is missing; the kid has swiped it from him while the reporter was blabbing on.

This was all in an aside from a larger discussion on the nature and purpose of consciousness itself – an aside that both fit in seamlessly, and is well worth exploring in it’s own right.

This is the nature of riches available to those who delve into Philip K. Dick. I think this particular volume is a great exploration point.

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Fade to Absence: The Sopranos ends

So, several years behind the rest of the so-called civilized world that includes America, I have finally watched the final episode of the Sopranos. Including it’s infamous ending, for which let’s just not bother with spoiler alerts because the show ended like 8 years ago.

In the ending, which has been built up to for years and specifically paved by the prior season, Tony Soprano is sitting in a diner with most of his nuclear family in a rare happy and peaceful moment when all is visibly okay. They are listening to “Don’t Stop Believing” on the table jukebox, a man with ambiguous and possibly ominous importance walks past him at the table, and his daughter Meadow is presumably about to enter the diner when…the screen cuts to black. And that’s it.

Which is kind of funny in it’s own way. A prank, a stunt ending. But as a story ending, it’s not satisfying. David Chase, the writer-director-producer, has said that he didn’t want a more resolved ending for artistic reasons. I’ve previously considered that this might really have been a cop-out, a way of avoiding the pressure to create an ending that would satisfy the viewers of a very beloved show. But I reserved judgement until now.

Death, randomness and the search for meaning has been part of this show from the beginning. And it continued and increased as the show went on. David Chase layers strong hints about the final scene throughout the earlier episodes that season. Characters repeatedly mention how when someone is killed, they might not even hear the shot. In an earlier episode, Tony Soprano’s own lieutenant Silvio only realizes that a shooting is occurring when he discovers the red fluid that’s splashed on his face is not wine, but someone else’s blood. Then in the episode right before the finale, Tony’s brother-in-law is shot *and then*, while dying, flashes back to talking with Tony about not even hearing the death shot. Finally, before the final scene, Tony’s nemesis Phil Leotardo is blindsided and falls dead without even seeing the gun – in front of what passes for Phil’s family, his mistress and her children in the car.

Several times also in the last episode, Tony Soprano does not notice people coming up behind him in public – building up the idea that he is perhaps distracted and unawares.

Also leading up to the finale, several other long-standing story tensions resolve. Soprano’s therapist finally ends her interaction with Tony. His own son AJ appears to finally have found a good course, and a good girl to travel on it with, and is at some peace. Tony Soprano’s frenemesis uncle, at the end of his own days in a state home, doesn’t even remember Tony – or his *own* life as a mob boss. He isn’t even angry.

The message being that all of these things we think are so important in life, both good and bad, are all dross, to be dropped off on our way to whatever else may happen. So why even bother with the ugliness? If none of it lasts anyway, why not live lightly and with love and beauty? A strong view, but one worth considering and with it’s own merits in a very real sense. A 21st century mafia-gilded Buddhist conversation.

So with all this build up towards a powerful ending, both in plot and theme, why end it so ambiguously? There was an ending right there – built up from the straight, conventional, and brilliant storytelling all the way to this point. It’s not like Chase chickened out because he didn’t *have* an ending, as I thought before seeing the last season. He has a *strong* ending there, that he meticulously built up to. Why end up denying the audience that climax?

The best clue I have been pointed to is from an interview with David Chase, where he said:

“There was so much more to say than could have been conveyed by an image of Tony facedown in a bowl of onion rings with a bullet in his head…The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been peoples’ alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted “justice.” They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly. […] The pathetic thing—to me—was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”

I think that David Chase was angry at his audience. For many years he gave them a humanized portrait of a sociopath, a man doing awful things to everyone around him, living as king rat among a crew of base parasites with their own deep human issues they compounded through denial. All the while, Tony justified it by being a family man. Many in the audience didn’t take this metaphor as a way to examine the ugliness we all can have in ourselves, that we can let run free by indulging in denial. Instead, they appeared to skip Chase’s intended points to enjoy the vicarious thrills and dreams of being a mob boss. To live the fantasy of being powerful, brutal and unbound by conscience, while able to retain just enough fingernail’s grasp on their conscience to exercise it in ineffective ways. And most of that to obtain an “I’m really a good guy inside” excuse to continue acting like a horrible asshole the rest of the time. The Archie Bunker problem, where people can take a humanized portrait of a person gone wrong and agree with his wrongness rather than go through painful recognition of that wrongness in themselves.

The time-honored way for humans to vicariously enjoy a character doing horrible things and still feel good about themselves and the world, is to ultimately experience and relish the destruction of that character. Internally, they get to binge on those feelings they deny they have, and then purge them so they feel they’ve purged their badness. Externally, they get to feel reassured that the world will by itself bring a justice which even Tony Soprano can’t deny.

And if the ending were to go in the other direction, the audience would see Tony have a relatively smooth ending for all the horrible shit that he put himself, his family, and the innocents around him through, and not get the point either.

So I do think this ending was in a real sense David Chase’s “fuck you” to his audience. “Yes there is an ending to this. And it’s really not that ambiguous. Tony Soprano is probably killed in that diner, in front of his family. But I’m choosing not to make that certain, because so many of you shown you’re not responsible enough to handle that resolution. You deserve to wonder, and not only because that’s how life really is, but because way too many of you enjoyed this show for reasons I don’t like.” And maybe he was even thinking “Hopefully, if I deny you some resolution here then you might not close the book on the ugliness in all of us that I tried to show you with 6 seasons of Tony Soprano and his gang of colorful sociopaths.”

And so, to that point, in a story sense it’s not a good ending. It’s a *deliberately bad* ending.

In which case, because I think I understand where the ending is coming from, I finally do artistically respect it. Because at least, it was not chickening out.

…ref for quote:

[Originally written on August 25th, 2015]


“Nightworld” ends two series for the price of one.

Nightworld (Adversary Cycle, #6)Nightworld by F. Paul Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an interesting idea, for the most part pulled off well. F. Paul Wilson brings two different series to a close in this one book- the “Adversary Cycle” and “Repairman Jack”.

There is a lot to like about this book. Spoilers follow.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the way it handles the climax and the aftermath. As an author, Wilson has the straight-up guts to allow the Earth and its inhabitants’ lives to be changed at the end, forever. This is not some simple happy ending. Continents are damaged, cities are ruined, people die and lives are broken. Disaster is not averted – only disasters that would have been *much worse*.

I also find his “Secret History” concepts fun and interesting, and enjoy the other characters from the “Adversary Cycle”.

But probably the main reason I am giving this a 3-star rating instead of a 4, is that I don’t enjoy those other characters and concepts as much as I enjoy Repairman Jack. I’m really reading this book for him. He’s such an absolutely great character – a Jack Reacher everyman before Jack Reacher. A noir fixer for those with no one else to turn to, who gets sucked unwillingly into dealing with impossible forces and retains a pragmatic mindset throughout. F. Paul Wilson wrote such great page-turning thrillers throughout that series, that I was hoping for a heaping chunk of that in this finale. Instead so much is left on the table – a true showdown with the white trash nemesis group the Kickers, their half-magical rackets and the malevolent intent behind their populist front; a teenage oracle with solid black eyes; a man and his brother’s ghost, and many others. I wanted them and Jack front and center, fighting it out face to face or side by side.

Still a fun read. Also to be fair I am not a reader of the “Adversary Cycle” – perhaps that would provide the fourth star. But for me, a much fuller and delicious reading experience is to be found in the other “Repairman Jack” books.

To sum up, this is a good coda to a fine series – I guess I’m just not as interested in the other notes that come from the other symphony.

Available here.

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Black Elk Speaks, and it’s beautiful.

Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala SiouxBlack Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux by Black Elk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On it’s surface this is a first-hand account of the life of the famous Sioux holy man and leader Black Elk, as told in translation through a series of conversations to the poet John G. Neihardt. This occurred in 1930, when Black Elk was one of the few still-living witnesses to both the death of Custer and the massacre at Wounded Knee. So on that level it’s already quite fascinating. What is transcendent is the beautiful space the seemingly simple elegance of the prose creates. It’s no accident.

I just now turned at random to a page where Black Elk ends a chapter on the killing and unknown final resting place of Crazy Horse:

“It does not matter where his body lies, for it is grass; but where his spirit is, it will be good to be.”

I say this as an agnostic: that’s beautiful.

Get it here.

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