Martian Time-Slip

Philip K. Dick
Martian Time-Slip Cover

Martian Time-Slip

Sable Aradia

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge and the Science Fiction Masterworks Reading Club.

A lot of people are big fans of PKD. A lot of people give him a great deal of respect as a literary science fiction writer. Academia permits you to like science fiction if you like Philip K. Dick. It's not like the rest of that science fiction stuff, which as you know, is all about aliens and spaceships and the like (at least, if you believe Margaret Atwood).

My partner, on the other hand, really does not like PKD. He thinks he's a hack who is overrated as a writer. He thinks he's dull to read and certainly does not deserve the accolades he receives. He thinks that people give PKD the respect that they do because they don't understand him and therefore think his themes must be really deep.

It's become something of a tribalistic division, so to challenge either is to risk being sneered at. However, I pride myself on rating a book honestly and without allowing the biases of others to determine my opinions. Therefore, I would have to say that I thought that Martian Time Slip was good, but not great.

Writers tend to rate books in two ways, especially in science fiction. For some, it's about the ideas. Vast philosophical themes that make you question your version of reality, or technological marvels and their implications -- these are what this group reads science fiction for. If you're in this camp, I can certainly see how this could be considered a masterpiece of science fiction.

Another is looking for a good story that also makes you think. This group really wants a human story of human people reacting to strange situations, or a myth in a modern setting. This person is much more concerned about the characters and the plot than they are about the worldbuilding. And if you're in this camp, this book is raw garbage.

Me? I can appreciate both, but as a result I also expect delivery on both, and so therefore, while overall I have to say that yes, I liked Martian Time Slip quite a bit, I would also have to say that it has deep flaws which hurt it badly in the overall presentation.

The book takes place on a colony on Mars in the not-so-distant future. I suspect this is the Mars colony that they keep urging people to immigrate to in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And therefore, it takes place in the same universe. It takes us a while to figure out who the protagonist is, because Dick jumps around between seven or eight different characters and their viewpoints. He does have his reasons for doing this that are integral to the overall plot, and eventually you do see it, but it makes the book difficult, initially, to get into. I would say, stick with it though. The plot centers around an autistic boy who might be able to manipulate time, an unscrupulous narcissist (very well written, this character) and his schemes to make use of this ability, and the people caught in the crossfire, including the protagonist, Jack, who is a repairman who has had a psychotic episode at one point in his life, and therefore, is called upon to try to communicate with the boy, because he has partial understanding of how the boy thinks.

Therein lies the first major flaw of the book, though perhaps it's not something that anyone else would notice, since schizophrenia (which is the word that was used for Jack's condition) and autism still mystify most people. But I have had a partner who is schizophrenic and another who is autistic, and thus I probably have a greater-than-normal understanding of both. And PKD conflates them, when they are totally different. Indeed, his entire understanding of psychology is bogus, including a gender-essentialist view of men and women that I find especially frustrating because otherwise, his people seem quite modern. Now, I do have to cut him some slack on this one -- after all, he wrote it in 1964, and our understanding of psychology has changed considerably since then. But it completely spoiled my suspension of disbelief, to have autism and schizophrenia linked in this way. I was finally able to muddle through by using it as a code; I accepted that the boy was severely autistic, because his behaviour was consistent with that of a severely autistic child. As for Jack, I decided that he'd had a major psychotic break as a result of a great deal of stress in his life (people do that all the time and they don't call it schizophrenia now; it's only if it's consistent or recurring, and the symptoms are different) and that he probably had a touch of autistic spectrum himself but had managed to cope, until he became deeply involved with this autistic child. And I therefore accepted that in this alternate universe (which it has to be, because it's the 90s and we have a working colony on Mars, with aboriginal Martians,) autism is actually a disorder of time perception.

The second major flaw of this book is the stock characterization. Jack and Rick Deckard from Androids might as well be the same person, suffering from all the same flaws and leading almost parallel lives, including a suspicion that they themselves might be going crazy and might not be who they think they are, emotional distance leading to a poor relationship with their pill-popping, emotionally distant wives, whom they both end up cheating on with the secretary (who is delighted, for no reason at all that I can figure out, to go to bed with them,) of the major villain, who is some big, powerful person in charge of a lot of people who takes a disliking to the protagonists for some reason before they start having sex with the secretary (who are also having sex with the secretary). It made me wonder about his mental health enough to look up his biography in the process of writing this review. And yes, PKD struggled with issues of mental health and drug use; and with five marriages, I imagine that this really was his experience of women.

There is a certain school of thought that if a character is innately flawed and if the characters around him are brutally selfish, that this is an edgy (and therefore, clever) novel. But I personally don't believe that everyone in the world is an a**hole, and so I don't see that as being any more "realistic" than having a cast full of Polyanna hope and Santa Claus goodness, and jerks are a lot more tiresome to read about because you just can't care what happens to them as much. Jack is a good man who struggles with his mental health, so I was actually invested in his well being, and the autistic boy (whose name was Manfred) was a pitiful figure who aroused all my maternal instincts, whom PKD contrasted with Jack's perfectly normal son, but aside from those three people, I did not give a damn what happened to the rest of the characters.

According to his biography, Dick's struggle with mental health and his experiences as a meth addict made him question the validity of reality, something that definitely seems to be a theme in his writing and certainly was in this case. He also believed that a more "flexible" reality could lead to psychic experiences, and that was part of the theme of this book as well. People marvel at the surreal, hallucinogenic quality of the realities that he creates in his writing. And they're right, it's amazing. But I find myself wondering if he was just writing parts of his life story over and over again.

Strangely, while Dick was suspected of being a communist by the FBI for his leftist views in the 50s and 60s, this novel labours under what I would characterize as a lot of right wing propaganda, and a thorough paranoia of large socialized institutions. The UN, who runs Mars like a government, is portrayed as an utterly uncaring monolithic bureaucracy so devoid of compassion that they make everyone suffer horribly who doesn't have the money to fight them; and the only one who seems to is a "Big Union" boss named Arnie Kott. The only saving grace in all of this is that a certain character, Jack's father, who is a capitalist land speculator, is portrayed as being so personally selfish that it borders on true evil.

So what did I like about the book? For one thing, that unique, surreal quality that everyone else who liked the book raves about was really amazing. It was very difficult in places to tell what was reality, what was psychotic hallucination and paranoia, and what was a possible reality that wasn't actually reality. That's good stuff, and is certainly a novel approach to time travel that I've only ever encountered in select fantasy books before, or in really "artsy" science fiction. I guess he must have been one of the first to approach it in this way, and you can certainly see Martian Time Slip's influence in modern science fiction, including such critically-acclaimed films as The Matrix and Inception.

So, yes. The ideas are amazing. The worldbuilding is great. The characterization is horrid. Was it worth reading? Oh yes, most certainly! Would I recommend it? Depends on what's important to you in a story.