“The Crystal Crypt” by Philip K. Dick
“ATTENTION, Inner-Flight ship! Attention! You are ordered to land at the Control Station on Deimos for inspection. Attention! You are to land at once!”
The metallic rasp of the speaker echoed through the corridors of the great ship. The passengers glanced at each other uneasily, murmuring and peering out the port windows at the small speck below, the dot of rock that was the Martian checkpoint, Deimos.
“What’s up?” an anxious passenger asked one of the pilots, hurrying through the ship to check the escape lock.
“We have to land. Keep seated.” The pilot went on.
“Land? But why?” They all looked at each other. Hovering above the bulging Inner-Flight ship were three slender Martian pursuit craft, poised and alert for any emergency. As the Inner-Flight ship prepared to land the pursuit ships dropped lower, carefully maintaining themselves a short distance away.
“There’s something going on,” a woman passenger said nervously. “Lord, I thought we were finally through with those Martians. Now what?”
“I don’t blame them for giving us one last going over,” a heavy-set business man said to his companion. “After all, we’re the last ship leaving Mars for Terra. We’re damn lucky they let us go at all.”
“You think there really will be war?” A young man said to the girl sitting in the seat next to him. “Those Martians won’t dare fight, not with our weapons and ability to produce. We could take care of Mars in a month. It’s all talk.”
The girl glanced at him. “Don’t be so sure. Mars is desperate. They’ll fight tooth and nail. I’ve been on Mars three years.” She shuddered. “Thank goodness I’m getting away. If—”
“Prepare to land!” the pilot’s voice came. The ship began to settle slowly, dropping down toward the tiny emergency field on the seldom visited moon. Down, down the ship dropped. There was a grinding sound, a sickening jolt. Then silence.
“We’ve landed,” the heavy-set business man said. “They better not do anything to us! Terra will rip them apart if they violate one Space Article.”
“Please keep your seats,” the pilot’s voice came. “No one is to leave the ship, according to the Martian authorities. We are to remain here.”
A restless stir filled the ship. Some of the passengers began to read uneasily, others stared out at the deserted field, nervous and on edge, watching the three Martian pursuit ships land and disgorge groups of armed men.
The Martian soldiers were crossing the field quickly, moving toward them, running double time.
This Inner-Flight spaceship was the last passenger vessel to leave Mars for Terra. All other ships had long since left, returning to safety before the outbreak of hostilities. The passengers were the very last to go, the final group of Terrans to leave the grim red planet, business men, expatriates, tourists, any and all Terrans who had not already gone home.
“What do you suppose they want?” the young man said to the girl. “It’s hard to figure Martians out, isn’t it? First they give the ship clearance, let us take off, and now they radio us to set down again. By the way, my name’s Thacher, Bob Thacher. Since we’re going to be here awhile—”
Five o’clock Ed Loyce washed up, tossed on his hat and coat, got his car out and headed across town toward his TV sales store. He was tired. His back and shoulders ached from digging dirt out of the basement and wheeling it into the back yard. But for a forty-year-old man he had done okay. Janet could get a new vase with the money he had saved; and he liked the idea of repairing the foundations himself!
It was getting dark. The setting sun cast long rays over the scurrying commuters, tired and grim-faced, women loaded down with bundles and packages, students swarming home from the university, mixing with clerks and businessmen and drab secretaries. He stopped his Packard for a red light and then started it up again. The store had been open without him; he’d arrive just in time to spell the help for dinner, go over the records of the day, maybe even close a couple of sales himself. He drove slowly past the small square of green in the center of the street, the town park. There were no parking places in front of LOYCE TV SALES AND SERVICE. He cursed under his breath and swung the car in a U-turn. Again he passed the little square of green with its lonely drinking fountain and bench and single lamppost.
From the lamppost something was hanging. A shapeless dark bundle, swinging a little with the wind. Like a dummy of some sort. Loyce rolled down his window and peered out. What the hell was it? A display of some kind? Sometimes the Chamber of Commerce put up displays in the square.
Again he made a U-turn and brought his car around. He passed the park and concentrated on the dark bundle. It wasn’t a dummy. And if it was a display it was a strange kind. The hackles on his neck rose and he swallowed uneasily. Sweat slid out on his face and hands.
It was a body. A human body.
“The Skull” by Philip K. Dick
“WHAT is this opportunity?” Conger asked. “Go on. I’m interested.”
The room was silent; all faces were fixed on Conger—still in the drab prison uniform. The Speaker leaned forward slowly.
“Before you went to prison your trading business was paying well—all illegal—all very profitable. Now you have nothing, except the prospect of another six years in a cell.”
“There is a certain situation, very important to this Council, that requires your peculiar abilities. Also, it is a situation you might find interesting. You were a hunter, were you not? You’ve done a great deal of trapping, hiding in the bushes, waiting at night for the game? I imagine hunting must be a source of satisfaction to you, the chase, the stalking—”
Conger sighed. His lips twisted. “All right,” he said. “Leave that out. Get to the point. Who do you want me to kill?”
The Speaker smiled. “All in proper sequence,” he said softly.
THE car slid to a stop. It was night; there was no light anywhere along the street. Conger looked out. “Where are we? What is this place?”
The hand of the guard pressed into his arm. “Come. Through that door.”
Conger stepped down, onto the damp sidewalk. The guard came swiftly after him, and then the Speaker. Conger took a deep breath of the cold air. He studied the dim outline of the building rising up before them.
“I know this place. I’ve seen it before.” He squinted, his eyes growing accustomed to the dark. Suddenly he became alert. “This is—”
“Yes. The First Church.” The Speaker walked toward the steps. “We’re expected.”
“Yes.” The Speaker mounted the stairs. “You know we’re not allowed in their Churches, especially with guns!” He stopped. Two armed soldiers loomed up ahead, one on each side.
“All right?” The Speaker looked up at them. They nodded. The door of the Church was open. Conger could see other soldiers inside, standing about, young soldiers with large eyes, gazing at the ikons and holy images.
“I see,” he said.
“It was necessary,” the Speaker said. “As you know, we have been singularly unfortunate in the past in our relations with the First Church.”
“This won’t help.”
“But it’s worth it. You will see.”
1. I managed to avoid reading anything about Shane Carruth’s new film Upstream Color before I saw it.
I just knew that this was the guy who did Primer, this was his new film, and I wanted to see it because Primer was so strange and engaging.
2. Two immediate responses after viewing Upstream Color:
i). The desire to see Upstream Color again and
ii). The desire to read what other people thought about Upstream Color.
3. (My wife and I, reading the credits, pausing the credits, reassessing the film against the backdrop of the credits, arguing about the film, discussing the film, etc.).
4. I think it’s better that if you have any interest at all in Upstream Color that you just see it cold [update/warning: the comments section of this post is full of spoilers]. But I know that 100 minutes is an investment of time, so maybe you’d like some kind of précis or at least description. So, a loose attempt, which surely will devolve into fragments and references:
Upstream Color is a sci-film, sort of.
Or maybe its a mystery film about ethics and biology.
Maybe a nature film, sort of.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Shades of Philip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, Terence Malick, but also something utterly original.
Creation: knitting, paper chains, music, seeds, life, children, etc.
A film that can and should be described as poetic.
It’s a love story, too.
5. It occurs to me that there’s a trailer for the film. I haven’t seen it yet. Should we watch it?
6. Does that do it for you? I don’t know how to do this anymore. Recommend things. I don’t know, the trailer makes the film perhaps look more pretentious than it is. It isn’t pretentious. It isn’t even confusing—just perplexing, haunting, troubling.
7. (Wanted: Quinoa Valley Record Co., complete discography).
8. My take on Upstream Color, spoiler-free, supporting-detail-free:
The film is about agency, about drive, about how the characters (and, implicitly, us, we, the audience, who identify with the characters on the screen) may be driven by something beyond us, something controlling us like a parasite (internal) or from afar like a ventriloquist (external). That even when we do assert agency the effect, the fallout, the shape lays beyond us, upstream.
9. (This morning, my wife telling me about her dream, a nightmare that our young daughter had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms, clearly a response to the film).
10. I haven’t done a good job of really saying anything about the film. So, lazily:
I think Caleb Crain provides a perceptive and persuasive reading of the film in his essay “The Thoreau Poison.” He reads the film through the American transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, of course, but also Emerson and Hawthorne.
There’s also a piece at Slate by Forrest Wickman that perhaps over-explicates but nonetheless offers perspective, including elements of Carruth’s own take.
11. (I will avoid Carruth’s explanation of the film until I’ve seen it a second time. Maybe I’ll avoid his explanation forever).
12. A take on Upstream Color that I don’t quite buy into (the take is my own): The film perhaps invites us to find metaphysical entities in two of its secondary characters, both of whom exert influence (creative and destructive) over the primary characters. Something something godlike, something something devillike.
I like that the film offers this simple duality and then crushes it, shows something far more complicated, suggests a cycle far more strange.
13. (White orchid. Blue orchid. Yellow orchid).
14. Upstream Color features minimal dialogue and nothing approaching traditional exposition, but we still learn about its characters, come to feel for them, feel their desires and traumas. The film is cerebral and philosophical, but it’s also emotional, offering an aesthetic that sublimely overwhelms the viewer.
15. Carruth wrote, produced, directed, scored, photographed, cast and starred in Upstream Color. (I’m sure he did a lot of other stuff too). He also distributed the film himself. The entire filmmaking process was untouched by the Hollywood system. There’s so much hope for film as an art form in this knowledge.
16. Parting thoughts: See Upstream Color. Resist imposing whatever film grammar you usually bring with you to the movies. Resist the temptation to see the film as a puzzle to figure out. See Upstream Color.
“Beyond the Door” by Philip K. Dick
Larry Thomas bought a cuckoo clock for his wife—without knowing the price he would have to pay.
That night at the dinner table he brought it out and set it down beside her plate. Doris stared at it, her hand to her mouth. “My God, what is it?” She looked up at him, bright-eyed.
“Well, open it.”
Doris tore the ribbon and paper from the square package with her sharp nails, her bosom rising and falling. Larry stood watching her as she lifted the lid. He lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall.
“A cuckoo clock!” Doris cried. “A real old cuckoo clock like my mother had.” She turned the clock over and over. “Just like my mother had, when Pete was still alive.” Her eyes sparkled with tears.
“It’s made in Germany,” Larry said. After a moment he added, “Carl got it for me wholesale. He knows some guy in the clock business. Otherwise I wouldn’t have—” He stopped.
Doris made a funny little sound.
“I mean, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.” He scowled. “What’s the matter with you? You’ve got your clock, haven’t you? Isn’t that what you want?”
Doris sat holding onto the clock, her fingers pressed against the brown wood.
“Well,” Larry said, “what’s the matter?”
He watched in amazement as she leaped up and ran from the room, still clutching the clock. He shook his head. “Never satisfied. They’re all that way. Never get enough.”
He sat down at the table and finished his meal.
The cuckoo clock was not very large. It was hand-made, however, and there were countless frets on it, little indentations and ornaments scored in the soft wood. Doris sat on the bed drying her eyes and winding the clock. She set the hands by her wristwatch. Presently she carefully moved the hands to two minutes of ten. She carried the clock over to the dresser and propped it up.
Then she sat waiting, her hands twisted together in her lap—waiting for the cuckoo to come out, for the hour to strike.
As she sat she thought about Larry and what he had said. And what she had said, too, for that matter—not that she could be blamed for any of it. After all, she couldn’t keep listening to him forever without defending herself; you had to blow your own trumpet in the world.
The Russian soldier made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready. He glanced around him, licking his dry lips, his face set. From time to time he reached up a gloved hand and wiped perspiration from his neck, pushing down his coat collar.
Eric turned to Corporal Leone. “Want him? Or can I have him?” He adjusted the view sight so the Russian’s features squarely filled the glass, the lines cutting across his hard, somber features.
Leone considered. The Russian was close, moving rapidly, almost running. “Don’t fire. Wait.” Leone tensed. “I don’t think we’re needed.”
The Russian increased his pace, kicking ash and piles of debris out of his way. He reached the top of the hill and stopped, panting, staring around him. The sky was overcast, drifting clouds of gray particles. Bare trunks of trees jutted up occasionally; the ground was level and bare, rubble-strewn, with the ruins of buildings standing out here and there like yellowing skulls.
The Russian was uneasy. He knew something was wrong. He started down the hill. Now he was only a few paces from the bunker. Eric was getting fidgety. He played with his pistol, glancing at Leone.
“Don’t worry,” Leone said. “He won’t get here. They’ll take care of him.”
“Are you sure? He’s got damn far.”
“They hang around close to the bunker. He’s getting into the bad part. Get set!”
The Russian began to hurry, sliding down the hill, his boots sinking into the heaps of gray ash, trying to keep his gun up. He stopped for a moment, lifting his fieldglasses to his face.
“He’s looking right at us,” Eric said.
The Russian came on. They could see his eyes, like two blue stones. His mouth was open a little. He needed a shave; his chin was stubbled. On one bony cheek was a square of tape, showing blue at the edge. A fungoid spot. His coat was muddy and torn. One glove was missing. As he ran his belt counter bounced up and down against him.
Leone touched Eric’s arm. “Here one comes.”
Across the ground something small and metallic came, flashing in the dull sunlight of mid-day. A metal sphere. It raced up the hill after the Russian, its treads flying. It was small, one of the baby ones. Its claws were out, two razor projections spinning in a blur of white steel. The Russian heard it. He turned instantly, firing. The sphere dissolved into particles. But already a second had emerged and was following the first. The Russian fired again.
A third sphere leaped up the Russian’s leg, clicking and whirring. It jumped to the shoulder. The spinning blades disappeared into the Russian’s throat.
Eric relaxed. “Well, that’s that. God, those damn things give me the creeps. Sometimes I think we were better off before.”
“If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.” Leone lit a cigarette shakily. “I wonder why a Russian would come all this way alone. I didn’t see anyone covering him.”
Lt. Scott came slipping up the tunnel, into the bunker. “What happened? Something entered the screen.”
Eric brought the view screen around. Scott peered into it. Now there were numerous metal spheres crawling over the prostrate body, dull metal globes clicking and whirring, sawing up the Russian into small parts to be carried away.
“What a lot of claws,” Scott murmured.
“They come like flies. Not much game for them any more.”
Scott pushed the sight away, disgusted. “Like flies. I wonder why he was out there. They know we have claws all around.”
A larger robot had joined the smaller spheres. It was directing operations, a long blunt tube with projecting eyepieces. There was not much left of the soldier. What remained was being brought down the hillside by the host of claws.
“Sir,” Leone said. “If it’s all right, I’d like to go out there and take a look at him.”
“Maybe he came with something.”
Scott considered. He shrugged. “All right. But be careful.”
“I have my tab.” Leone patted the metal band at his wrist. “I’ll be out of bounds.”
“Gaddis Fiction-to-Music Entelechy Transducer” by Gregg Williard (More graphs/via).
Book shelves series #13, thirteenth Sunday of 2012: Four by the late great Russell Hoban. A few Philip K. Dick volumes, although it’s worth pointing out that most of the good stuff I’ve owned by him has been loaned out and never returned and/or exists in ratty coverless mass market editions. PK Dick transitions to William Burroughs to JG Ballard (another writer who I used to own other books by before they were dispersed . . .). Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship is a thoroughly obscure volume in a Ballardian/Burroughsian vein; it deserves a reprint. Gardner, Brodkey, Gass, Kosinski. I’ve owned Raymond Carver’s Cathedral since high school, or maybe freshman year of college. It’s all the Carver that any library needs. Lish comma Gordon. Two by Malcolm Lowry. Two by Barry Hannah. Four from Sam Lipsyte.
The Carver and Kosinski volumes are part of the 1980s Vintage Contemporaries line that all feature awful, hyper-literal covers. I have about a dozen such volumes and I’m planning a piece on them in the future. Observe:
Slate has published an excerpt from the forthcoming collection of letters and other ephemera, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (by, uh, PK Dick). An excerpt of that excerpt—
My books are forgeries. Nobody wrote them. The goddam typewriter wrote them; it’s a magic typewriter. Or like John Denver gets his songs: I get them from the air. Like his songs, they—my books—are already there. Whatever that means.
The most ominous element from my books which I am encountering in my actual life is this. In one of my novels, Ubik, certain anomalies occur which prove to the characters that their environment is not real. Those same anomalies are now happening to me. By my own logic in the novel I must conclude that my or perhaps even our collective environment is only a pseudo-environment. In my novel what broke through was the presence of a man who had died. He speaks to them through several intermediary systems and hence must still be alive; it is they, evidently, who are dead. What has been happening to me for over three months is that a man I knew who died has been breaking through in ways so similar to that of Runciter in Ubik that I am beginning to conclude that I and everyone else is either dead and he is alive, or—well, as in the novel, I can’t figure it out. It makes no sense.
Suffering is the core of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a novel published just months after Philip Dick’s death in 1982. This is a book written by an author sure of his abilities, one who could confidently make this novel about big ideas turn on his characters’ struggles to control the trivialities of their day to day lives. While they attempt to make sense of the nature of God and unravel the mysteries of Christian teaching, they confront the questions that must have puzzled even Jesus’ own early advocates: is joy possible when good people are randomly confronted with confusion, pain, and death? Dick tries to locate a mushy but viable middle ground in this sad, nimble, and touching novel. Opening on the date of John Lennon’s assassination, Dick writes to commemorate the grinders, the survivors who manage to keep waking up, day after day, despite knowing that life often destroys those who dream too large.
The book is ostensibly based on the life and times of Timothy Archer, the iconoclastic American Episcopalian bishop of California in the 1960s whose unending search for truth led to his becoming friends with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating for the rights of women, homosexuals, and the transgendered, and time in the national spotlight. The quest for knowledge led him also to adopt a number of intellectual positions that conflicted directly with his duties as a representative of the Episcopalian church — for example, he was brought to trial for heresy for openly questioning the existence of hell and the Holy Ghost. The character of Bishop Archer was based almost entirely on the life of Bishop James Pike, Dick’s friend, who, like his fictional counterpart, died of exposure in Israel’s Dead Sea Desert searching for the sources of early Christian doctrine. Bishop Archer is the bright flame in this book, the Gatsby who pulls in everyone he encounters — not because he’s influential and wealthy, but because his personality is that rare combination of knowledge and empathy, a true man of God who recognizes no difference between the important writer and the indigent cancer patient. The actions of Bishop Archer form the arc of the book, and his deeds are a mirror to the other characters. They struggle to shape their own individual visions for their lives because they must work in the shadow cast by a giant they love.
Angel Archer, the bishop’s daughter-in-law and the narrator of the novel, becomes one of Dick’s most realistically drawn characters. She’s tough, articulate, and well-read. While those around her succumb to suicidal impulses and mental illness she survives by searching her mind for poems and plays she’s read and committed to memory. She finds uncomfortable parallels between books and her life. She values her education and her self-identification as a “Berkeley intellectual” but makes light of her own pretension, telling us that she’s read all the long books but remembers nothing about them. Do we become apathetic to our own experiences if we’ve read previously about something similar? Angel fears ennui but describes her own artistic awakening as a ridiculous mixture of pleasure and pain — an agonizing night spent reading Dante’s Commedia while drinking a bottle of bourbon to dampen the pain of an abscessed tooth. Aware that intellectual exercises and games both trivial and consequential have led to the deaths of her husband, the bishop, and his mistress, she still can’t escape her own self-made prison of words. “The problem with introspection,” she states while contemplating her own death, “is that it has no end.” When nobody is left, she soldiers on, dedicating herself, a fragile shell, to driving and working and walking and talking, a person “who records on a notepad the names of those who die.”
Like the narrator, this book reveals its depth rapidly, in spurts of astounding erudition and scholarship. Dick writes masterfully about nuances of early Judaic law and the formation of Christian thought, illustrates the petty jealousy, kindness, and warmth that seems inherent to certain friendships between between intelligent, rival women, and indicts our perception and treatment of mental illness. He quotes John Donne, Henry Vaughn, and discusses Virgil and Goethe without arrogance and without disturbing the flow of his story. Like his best works — A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is fully drawn and completely real. His best works seem to be filled with screwed up people trying to get by in a world that has been arbitrarily fucked up by war or technology or drug abuse. This one is distinctly alive not because it’s set in an alternative world, but in sunny California that existed just three decades ago, close to the environs we currently abide. A beautiful, moving coda from a man whose vision and prose changed and continues to challenge American writers.
Here’s Roberto Bolaño on Philip K. Dick (from New Directions’ forthcoming collection of Bolaño’s newspaper columns, forewords, and other ephemera Between Parentheses)—
Dick was a schizophrenic. Dick was a paranoiac. Dick is one of the ten best American writers of the 20th century, which is saying a lot. Dick was a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage. Dick talks to us, in The Man in the High Castle, in what would become his trademark way, about how mutable reality can be and therefore how mutable history can be. Dick is Thoreau plus the death of the American dream. Dick writes, at times, like a prisoner, because ethically and aesthetically he really is a prisoner. Dick is the one who, in Ubik, comes closest to capturing the human consciousness or fragments of consciousness in the context of their setting; the correspondence between what he tells and the structure of what’s told is more brilliant than similar experiments conducted by Pynchon or DeLillo.