by Philip K. Dick
Philip Kindred Dick’s novels of ideas are only science fiction in the same sense as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Neither Dick’s stories of his late twentieth-century near future nor Gulliver’s travels to Lilliput could have happened. But that wasn’t the point for either author.
As biographer Lawrence Sutin reports in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, the writer’s long-time editor, Don Wollenheim of Ace Books, turned down one of his finest novels, Martian Time-Slip, because the time frame of the 1960’s manuscript -- with a story set in the 1990’s -- offended his editorial sensibility. “If he’d thrown it ahead a hundred years,” Wollenheim said later, “I would have liked it.“
However, the setting perfectly suited Dick’s satirical story of Earth’s political problems transferred to the red planet. It also slotted presciently into the civil rights issue, with Bleekmen -- Dick’s version of aboriginal Martians -- standing in for Earth’s people of color. And could any countercultural novelist of the 1960’s ignore the looming drug culture? Certainly not one with Dick’s obsessive interest in the nature of reality.
Hollywood discovered Dick shortly before his death. And kept on discovering, movie after movie. After this summer’s release of a Total Recall remake, based on another Dick novel, I’d love to see what filmmakers could do with Martian Time-Slip, with its multiple versions of reality.
Jack Bohlen, an “ex-schizophrenic,” keeps the Martian colony going by repairing everything from toasters to robots. (It’s less expensive to repair than to import new gadgets.) Jack thinks he’s got it bad enough when his father comes to visit and do some insider-trading in real estate, his wife develops a wandering eye, and he’s pulled into local union politics bearing a strong resemblance to the wrangling Dick detested at his Berkley, California, apartment complex.
But when Jack connects with the orphaned “anomalous“ (and apparently autistic) child Manfred Steiner and a wandering group of Martian aborigines called Bleekmen, his life truly comes apart, as Manfred triggers a series of parallel visions of events.
Which visions are real, which aren’t? Which kill and which save? Don’t try to figure it out. Just ride the magic carpet all the way to the surprising but inevitable final vision of Manfred and the Bleekmen.
As a writer, Dick had hoped to escape from the limited audience of the science fiction genre. But with the failure of Martian Time-Slip and other novels to break into mainstream fiction, he put those dreams behind him. In return, fans rewarded him with one of science fiction’s greatest honors, the Hugo Award.
In early 1974, he had a series of religious visions that would haunt him until his death in 1982, at age 53. In addition to his prolific output of fiction (44 published novels, more than a hundred short stories), Dick wrote exhaustively in trying to explain his visions. This year, the thirtieth anniversary of his death, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick has
finally been published, edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem from the more than 8,000 pages of Dick’s notes. Available from
(Next Wednesday -- As NASA rover Curiosity nears its destination on Mars, Adventure classics turns from the skies to a month of adventuring on earthly seas, beginning with Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: across the Pacific by raft.)