Fiction Reviews

Five Great Novels

(2008) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, 14.99, trd pbk, 841 pp,
ISBN 978-0-575-08463-6

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964)
The Martian Time-Slip (1964)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968)
Ubik (1969)
A Scanner Darkly (1977)


Over thirty years on after the most recent of this collection of novels was first published we now have a collection of just some of Philip K. Dick's key novels. Of course - if you are not aware of it already - it is extremely difficult to say which of Dick's two score's worth of novels can be said to be key as there are so many brilliant ones. This then is a chance for those who have only recently come to P. K. Dick, and who may not have yet acquired these novels, to add them to their collection: and what a good opportunity it is too with effectively five novels for the price of two.

We have already reviewed elsewhere on this site The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik (click on the title links for these reviews). But what of the other two...?

The Martian Time-Slip came out the same year as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, though was apparently written a couple of years earlier. As with the The Three Stigmata, though far more centrally and evident from its title, The Martian Time-Slip concerns a future Mars, this time of the 1990s. (Well Dick was writing back in 1964 and back then we had just landed on the Moon: a Mars landing did seem at the time a likelihood in several years if not a decade.) However Dick was arguably gung-ho in his enthusiasm for in his (then) future the Soviets first landed on Mars in just a few years within the 1960s. They found that Mars was indeed largely a desert but that there were Martians: the aboriginal 'Bleekmen'. A colony was soon established and developed under the watchful eye of the UN. Giant canals were used to irrigate the planet with water drawn from the poles but even so water was precious; this makes the Water Workers Union a powerful force. Yet following the quick boom the Martian colony began a slow decline. With a suicide, an autistic son, an indigenous race heading for extinction along with a comparatively young Earth colony, The Martian Time-Slip is on one level a bleak novel. Meanwhile water worker Arnie Kot is stirring things up as he ducks and dives for a living and the UN... Well the UN could be having plans for the planet...

Actually in one sense we on this side of the Atlantic are lucky that some time has passed since the book's first publication. European fans back then had to rely on imported copies from N. America for it was some 12 years before The Martian Time-Slip made it to this side of the Pond! Apparently British publishers viewed it as too complicated and seemingly related to Black equal right issues (which in part it was) that were then not as much to the fore in England as they were State-side. Having said that, it is not nearly as (some might say 'overly') complicated as The Three Stigmata. It is though clearly Dickian and as with Do Androids Dream, in which Earth is becoming run-down as the majority of the population head for the stars, so with The Martian Time-Slip Mars itself is rundown and seemingly past its peak.

A Scanner Darkly (like The Martian Time-Slip) was also apparently written (1973) a few years before it finally came out (1977). Knowing this does give the selection of these five novels some coherence in that their authorship (as opposed to publication) all come from the single decade 1963-1973. I don't know whether this was intentional by publishers Gollancz and that we will see other 5-novel Philip Dick collections? (After all there we have a few years ago had Three Early Novels (2000).) Anyway, I am getting sidetracked. A Scanner Darkly concerns a future cop investigating drug crime and the drug concerned itself is a futuristic one. The investigation necessitates our protagonist to go into deep cover and indeed to take the illegal drug himself. But who is the suspect our detective is going after?

As with Do Androids Dream, A Scanner Darkly has as a central theme that of identity. Indeed the question of identity is one to which Dick returns time and again in several of his novels. In 2006 A Scanner Darkly came to the big screen as a film, and the following year this was nominated for a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

The collection will very much appeal to those seriously into SF. Having said that (other than Do Androids Dream) those whose reading consists of lighter, less-developed, novels should not be put off exploring some of his other novels that are easier reads being more linear, or at least presented with a more single perspective. Dick really is a master of SF and if you do not have his novels and want a selection of his more developed stories then this volume is an excellent opportunity.

Jonathan Cowie

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