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Martian Time-Slip
Philip K. Dick
Millennium paperback £6.99

review by Steve Sneyd

Once you've entered one of Philip K. Dick's worlds, escape is impossible. This is a book I'd read probably a dozen times before, yet once started again, it was 3am and 'the end' before it let me go - and, once in bed, I was awake another hour or more speculating again around the ideas and possibilities he threw in so lavishly.
   Dick enthusiasts won't need reminding of this book - so the question really is, is this particular novel a good starting place for someone new to the work of the one SF writer who can without doubt be put alongside names like Kafka and Borges as a master explorer of the absurdity of the human condition?
   One health warning, by the way - it isn't one for the suicidal. Darker work can certainly be found in Dick's ouevre, but this story of - to wildly oversimplify - an attempt to exploit an autistic boy's special powers in the interests of profitable land-speculation unleashes a terrifying cross-time revelation is not in any way a bundle of cheer; there is, though, very dry, bleak, low-key humour to be found.
   What isn't to be found in any conventional SF way is sense-of-wonder. Dick was a master of this when he wished, but here be no electric sheep, no master-of-the-universe sentient fungi, no metal stigmata triumphing across whole star systems.
   This Mars isn't just marginal, it's irredeemably seedy. Earth dreamed a dream of a Red Planet paradise, and the result is a backward, poverty-stricken, colony of, predominantly, losers - people who couldn't cope on the home world. Even the most powerful man on Mars, the corrupt boss of the plumber's union which has a stranglehold on the sparse water supply, is small fry when the big money boys of Earth decide to take an interest - and it is his desperate attempt to change that situation which unleashes what Conrad called 'the horror.'
   Yet that horror, Gothic as its effects are - it is seldom noted how much Dick, in his obsession with death and decay, is in the Poe tradition as much as he is of the SF genre - is also ultimately mundane rather than 'sensawunda'. We are merely forced to look that most insidiously final of mankind's enemies, time hunchbacked by entropy, square in the face.
   A backward society is going nowhere; the colonists have no more longterm prospect that the despised Bleekmen, Mars' aboriginals - and yet, oddly, a book that should be tedious gloom squared in fact enthrals. Why? I mentioned ideas - Dick's speculations about schizophrenia as a survival mechanism, his observations on how imposing on the Mars colony a rigid Earth-past-based education system using android teacher (who said Blairite education policy?) hinders adaptation to the new world, are just two of the most mind-stretching. But in the end, it is because we believe in and care about Dick's cast of characters, his precise yet loving exploration of the individuality of 'heroes' and 'villains' alike as they cope day to day is what makes this a fine book; unlike many current genre absurdist writers, he realises that recognising that the universe is uncaring to a surreal degree is not an excuse for having cardboard characters, actuarial statistics no one could care about. No, this is not the ideal Dick for a newcomer to the writer, if that newcomer demands science fictional pyrotechnics. But, yes, it will do very well for the introducer if that newcomer wants SF with that added ingredient - real people.
   Two final comments - first, the book, written in 1964, is by now, set as it is in the 1990s, on an alternative timetrack in our own past - even typewriters are still state-of-the-art on Mars. Second, it's deeply regrettable that, for whatever reason, the Brian Aldiss' Introduction to the 1977 NEL Master SF Series edition is not included here, to act as reader's reader's Virgil to the Dickian Dantesque of Martian Time-Slip.
Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick

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