You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Eye in the SkyEye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dick wrote this novel in 1957 and set it in 1959. That's not much of a leap as things go in sf novels, but it allows Dick to keep the society he describes, that of Northern California with its combinations of defense contractors and university types,  contemporary. When I read the novel, I thought the slight time alteration also allowed him to create the fanciful Bevatron, some sort of particle accelerator whose malfunction propels the plot. But it turns out UC Berkeley did have a genuine Bevatron on hand, an early precursor of the CERN projects currently attempting to capture anti-matter along the Franco-Swiss border. The one in Belmont featured in the novel is fictional.

I doubt, however, that the real Bevatron could ever have caused the situation that arises in Eye in the Sky. Dick's novel is a kind of Bridge of San Luis Rey in reverse. Instead of learning the past of those characters who die in the collapse of a bridge in Peru, we enter the dreamworld of the victims of the Bevatron's misfire, which has left them unconscious on the floor of the contraption. Initially they are all pleased to find they have come through the event relatively unscathed, but something has changed. They live in a theocratic society and a geocentric universe where the the sun is a low-burning star rotating close to the earth, the moon is a tiny lump of matter, and when two characters ascend into the heavens by holding onto the handle of large black umbrella -- don't ask for details here -- they see the fires of Hell burning below the earth and float over the walls of heaven where the great unblinking eye of God glares up at them.

The main action of the novel involves the characters' efforts to extricate themselves from one world only to find themselves in another: the saccharine, sexually neuter land dominated by the whims of a prissy, middle-aged woman; the monster-filled world imagined by a paranoid old maid; and a fantasy of America as depicted in Communist propaganda.

The Communist angle figures large here. In the opening scene, Hamilton, our main character, loses his job at the missile plant when his wife comes under investigation for her possible left-wing sympathies. Dick and his wife were briefly investigated in Berkeley about the time he wrote this novel, but that could not have been all that uncommon an event in 1950's Berkeley. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Dick seemed to have got on well with their investigators. One of them taught Philip to drive, and his wife cooked for them. The relationship soured when the Dick's turned down an opportunity to relocate to Mexico as spies.

The book is dated by other attitudes and behaviors. Everyone smokes like chimney, although that is probably true of most 1950's fiction. The central character's liberal attitude toward the "Negro situation" can be awkward, although Laws, the black character, is given one good chance to let loose on Hamilton. The ugliest aspects of the novel are Dick's relish in describing the ugliness of two female characters, one obese and the other the uptight old maid who fills the world with monsters. Hamilton's wife, on the other hand, is perfect in every respect. Silky is the only other female character. She is a bar waitress/prostitute who appears in each of the worlds, and her ever-changing breasts receive DIck's usual level of scrupulous attention.

Going from dreamworld to dreamworld threatens to become boring, but the device Dick employs to cut things short is a cop out. The "normal" characters with a firm grasp on reality will not be creating any dystopias. The one twist at the end is not worthy of the dynamic Dick has put into play. Of course, nothing can live up to that umbrella ride to heaven that takes place so early on in the book.

The denouement is another charming period detail. Hamilton and Laws leave the defense industry to start producing state-of-the-art hi fi equipment. This will usher in a new world of racial harmony and high-end electronics


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