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What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations Of Philip K. Dick
Editors: Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter
Duckworth paperback £18.99

review by Steve Sneyd

This final interview with Philip K. Dick (PKD) is, in many ways, a curiosity rather than a source of new enlightenment as to the quicksilver workings of the multifaceted mind of science fiction's answer to Borges or Kafka.

It would be a must for a real Dickhead completist, but as an introduction to the thinking and capabilities of a master writer, and his unmatched ability to undermine every certainty about the nature and know-ability of reality, it is the equivalent of looking at Munch's Scream in a funfair mirror through cracked bottle-bottom glasses.

Putting it another way, it is a meeting not of minds, but of what comes across as a very naïve, almost 'year zero' in terms of knowledge of the interviewee's work and the field generally, interviewer with a PKD who is clearly very much off form. His mind seeming very much elsewhere than on his responses, whether from the effects of illness, an attempt to stick to a level the interviewer might be able to grasp, the effects of some substance or other temporary or ongoing distraction of concentration, or a combination of pressuring factors.

The results often have a disappointingly garbled air, as if badly translated from another (alien?) language. This is in no way to doubt the accuracy of the transcriptions. They are too self-consistent in tone and content to be other than a genuine record of what was asked and the replies received. Ostensibly at least, too, it is a complete one, other than the passing reference to "a tape gap" - cause unexplained "later that night." The problem here is simply that this is a PKD bafflingly far below par compared with the dazzling challenge of his usual mega-expressiveness both in his fiction and his, often ostensibly self-contradictory but always compelling, earlier non-fiction explications of his conceptual and metaphysical universe-view.

In a way, too, for much of the time the interviewer's naivety, which could under different circumstances, with a nearer 100 percent subject, even have been a plus, as it would have permitted Dick to explain himself unmediated by having to cut through pre-conceived interviewer opinions, instead seems to have been catching, arousing a similar ostensible naivety on Dick's part. This is particularly noticeable when he talks of a visit to the set of Blade Runner, gosh-wowing like a very young child about the wonder of the sets or being, equally childishly, "mustn't tell" secretive about the details of what he had seen.

So his views about the movie and its divergences from his own book, which could have been extremely informative, instead turn to silly peek-a-boo partial unveilings of wide-eyed almost fanboy wonderings.

Moreover, elsewhere when discussing his ideas and their inspirations, he displays weirdly unexpected knowledge gaps, reminiscent of the self-proclaimed autodidact, schooled solely in the university of life, who in a bar explains how to set the world to rights, then proves to be unaware of generally obvious facts, or to have only just encountered them and thinking himself to be the first ever so to do. To give just a couple of examples from the interview, first there is his mention of recently having to look up Santa Sophia in an encyclopaedia. Given the use he had made for many years of Gnostic concepts, to which Sophia is so central, this seemed preposterous, as did the statement - this from someone with a lifelong obsession with the farther shores of Christian metaphysics and their implications - that he had only just discovered the 13th chapter of Revelations.

As an instance of implausible naivety at a more general level, he not once but twice adduces as evidence for an anachronistic subsequent insertion into the Bible the preposterous claim that writers of biblical times couldn't get inside other people's heads as this extract did, or at any rate did not have that writing device yet. Again, he seems startled by the suggestion that humans might react to the arrival of, to them, ugly aliens by trying to kill, rather than welcome, them, an unbelievable unawareness of likely possibility from even the most tyro SF writer, let alone someone with a lifetime in the field.

At one point in the interview, PKD mentions Parzival, the 'holy fool' of the Grail story, and I couldn't help wondering if he himself was playacting that role, having a (postmodernist?) game with the interviewer, perhaps for his private amusement, by pretending himself to be the holy fool, or whether this genuinely was his mind-state at the time, or at least the state of what portion of his mind he could actually focus just then on responding to the process of being interviewed. It was, in a weird way, as if both interviewee and interviewer were characters in a PKD story, engaged in a double bluff directed at the reader, challenging 'which of us either/ neither/ both - is really an impostor/ a replicant/ an alien?'

Yet, among the many unsatisfactory, even deeply disappointing aspects, muddying rather than clarifying even partial understanding of so major and seminal a writer, there are points of genuine interest, albeit limited in number. Sometimes, it is a window into his craft, as in the remark that future technology can be treated as an unexplained given - as long as the characters are happy with this, so will the reader be. Again, we get a glimpse of the role visions played for him, as with his 'knowledge' of the abiding Empire coming thus, from a revelation of the presence of its soldiers in our time, though we get nothing new on the meta-vision which so affected his later books, of VALIS. There is the kind of throwaway remark, which could be the core of a major novel or philosophy-reconfiguring insight, as in his implied comparison of the likely ugliness of aliens to humans, with the putative physical repellency of God if ever encountered 'in person'. We get a brief glimpse of a mischievous side, too, as in an anecdote of tricking a supposed expert in a subject into making a fool of himself by betraying ignorance of a basic fact, albeit that anecdote is ironic given the apparent knowledge gaps PKD himself has ostensibly revealed in the interview.

The most sustained section of interest, sometimes painful in its suggestions of PKD's mental distress at the time of the interview, comes with a lengthy discussion of the book on which he is working - even the title .'The Owl In Daylight', implies pain, the wise nocturnal bird at bay, vulnerable to mob attack from lesser avians when daylight blinds its vision.

He speaks, using analogies of Faust and Beethoven, and then remarking more directly of himself, of the stress the struggle with the book, and its ideas - he says the concepts are at the limits of reason - are putting on him, a reminder of a comparison, much later in the interview, he makes between the aging process and the slow tightening of a boa constrictor's coils on its prey.

The Owl's planned core clearly lay in ideas somewhat akin to synaesthesia, the phenomenon whereby some individuals see the input of one sense in terms of another - sounds as colours, for example. He explains that it would involve the possible, or more precisely apparent impossible, interaction with us of a species which communicates in terms of wonderful lights and colours, so that their world would fit a human idea of heaven, but who are utterly deaf. Without sound they have no music, but somehow become aware it exists and that humans understand it, and Dick explains to the interviewer, step by step, but at the same time very much as if he is making it up as he goes along, or at any rate that it is only coming clear to him now that he has to express it in at least fragmentary synopsis form to another person who is putting him on the spot for answers here and now, what the plot will involve. In essence, it is that one of the colour-communicating aliens will come to Earth, and make himself symbiotically, or at any rate parasitically, incarnate in human form, with Christ-like parallels, in order to gain, and bring back for his people, an insight into music and the 'Heaven' it could offer his people. Dick speaks of doing this perhaps via mathematics as an intermediary - a triad of colour, perhaps .as a starting point. The device which will enable the 'incarnation' to permit the information to be taken back (or sent back, for the experience may destroy the alien, physically or mentally or both, who would thus be in effect sacrificing himself to enlighten his people) Dick plans to be a biochip able to retain the essence of the human host, and in particular the musical understanding capability.

Reading this section, with its revelations of the nature of the 'book that never was' because of his death soon after, and of the evidently painful struggle PKD had to try to bring to painful gestation even its mere still shapeless outline, is reason enough in the way of insights why, as said initially, any Dickhead completist will want this book.
What If Our World Is Their Heaven?

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