Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick - Sci-Fi Classic Review
One of the early paperback covers
Before I devote this summer to Robert Heinlein in the coming weeks, there is one science-fiction novelist I have neglected that demands immediate attention: Philip K. Dick. Known for psychedelic explorations of identity, technological confusion, and alternative realities, Dick is not for the uninitiated. Most readers discover him through the movies based on his works, which include the likes of Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly, but even though many of these films are excellent bits of landmark science-fiction cinema, they don't entirely do justice to Dick as a writer. I'm not sure any movie could really capture what it feels like to read a Dick story, even though several have tried.
Dick is not without his controversies, of course. He was a deeply troubled man who struggled with mental illness and the consequences of youthful drug abuse. He became pretty unhinged at various points in his life--especially the end--and survived multiple suicide attempts, including one in which he tried to take his wife with him off a cliff in their car. He also tried to kill his wife once, and then he had her involuntarily committed instead of admitting it. He is not a good role model, is what I'm saying.
With that in mind, let's start looking at Philip K. Dick through one of his earliest novels, the trip-tastic Eye in the Sky. It starts out innocuously enough as an almost hyperbolic satire of communist paranoia, with an engineer named Jack Hamilton forced out of his government job when questions are raised about the dubious left-wing political leanings of his wife, Marsha. Hamilton, Marsha, and their friend Charlie McFeyffe (the security officer responsible for putting suspicion on Marsha) refuse to change their plans for the day, however, and visit a newly opened particle accelerator called the Bevatron. There's a catastrophic malfunction that results in all three of them, along with four other tourists and a tour guide, being thrown into the machine, getting severely injured, and losing conciousness.
It's not in English, but it's the coolest cover
Things begin to get unsettling and weird at this point, and it isn't long before the characters realize something has gone terribly wrong. Though they awaken in the hospital and appear to be none the worse for wear, reality itself seems to have broken, and eventually it becomes clear that they are living in an alternate reality dictated by the warped mental perspective of one of the eight victims of the Bevatron explosion. They navigate the terrors and warped rules of their new reality, only to discover that, once free from it, they are thrown into yet another. What follows is a journey into each other's minds, each one full of unexpected pitfalls and bizarre revelations.
On paper, this is an amazing concept, and Dick tries to execute it as a series of whodunnit-style mysteries, with readers left wondering whose reality they are thrown into and how they can possibly navigate it. Unfortunately, he never properly establishes the eight different characters around which the story revolves--even the main character, Jack Hamilton--leaving readers at a constant disadvantage. Also, the people occasionally act out-of-character, due to the machinations of their altered realities, but when you don't have a firm foothold on the characters in the first place, it's hard to tell the difference between a misplaced outburst and a genuine character flaw. This muddies the water more than Dick probably intended.
But he still manages to offer plenty of philosophical meditation, religious inspiration, social satire, grotesque Cronenberg-style imagery, and political blasphemy. It's sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny, and sometimes incomprehensible, but it is always engaging, making it hard to put the book down, even when your grasp on what is happening is tenuous at best. Dick has a way of making relatively innocuous events like a bee sting feel more important and unsettling than it should, and pulls from his apparently inexhaustable imagination to create scenes you won't find anywhere else, like the sequence in which the characters find themselves in a house that slowly morphs into a giant mouth that is trying to consume them.
The standard modern cover
It's far from Dick's best work, but it contains all of Dick's strengths, albeit in a primitive form. He cuts through human psychology with uncanny adeptness--one of his alternate realities is dictated by a character with a legitimate mental illness, and it's fascinating--and takes readers through one hell of a trip. Though I wouldn't recommend this as an entry point into Dick's universe, it is a good starting point for him as a writer, a playground where you can witness him formulating the concepts and styles that would later define him.
The climax and ending are especially strong, taking the story full circle and revealing that it's been about Jack and Marsha's relationship the whole time, about how well you can really know somebody and how easily you can doubt even those you love the most. It's no coincidence he wrote it right after he and his wife (his second of five) got an unwelcome and frightening visit from the FBI, which they attributed to her socialist and left-wing views.
This is a novel that rises far above its flaws--like two men floating up to glimpse the eye of God while clutching an umbrella--and reveals Dick as a unique voice in the realm of science-fiction that simply cannot be ignored. His personal life may be problematic at best, but as a writer, he is one of the late Twentieth Century's strongest and most original science-fiction voices. His works belong on the same shelf as William Gibson and Michael Crichton, though probably well out of reach of the kids.
-e. magill 5/23/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: