Philip K Dick is probably best known, if people outside of Science Fiction readers have heard of him at all, as the author of the book that became the blockbuster film Blade Runner. Most of those people will probably also know that the original book has a strange title, fewer will know it is “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. They might also know that the two Total Recall movies are based on Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember if for You Wholesale’. Philip K Dick was one of the most original sci-fi writers of all time but totally sucked when it came to titles.
His standing in the field of science fiction was marked by the Millennium (part of Orion Publishing) SF Masterworks series as out of the first two dozen titles three of them are by Dick and no other author has more than one. This is the second of these titles, book number thirteen of SF Masterworks published in July 1999 and although I bought it then, along with a lot of the others from this first twenty four, I have never actually read it as it got left behind on the reading list in favour of other books from this series and then more books were bought and this ended up just sitting on my shelves. In total 73 titles were published in the series up to 2007 and it was relaunched in 2010 with a lot of reprints from the first series along with new titles, although sadly for the book collector, the books are no longer numbered. Martian Time-Slip is one of those in the reprints but oddly for a book set on Mars the cover picture is now tinged with blue rather than red.
I hesitate to actually call Martian Time-Slip science fiction though, it’s definitely fiction but there is little in the way of science, the Mars in this book has a breathable, if not great, atmosphere; the canals really are at least part filled with water and there are humanoid Martians called Bleekmen, more of them later. Trips to Mars take only a couple of days, ordinary clothes are fine for wandering about and agriculture is getting going amongst the various settlements, oh and it’s set in 1994. One of Dick’s other blind spots, apart from titles, was his inability to allow enough time for his fantasy to potentially become real, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ is set in 1992, although when it was filmed as Blade Runner in 1982 it was moved into the far future of 2019. But you don’t read Philip K Dick for the science, what you get is a really good story with complex interactions between interesting characters who are often broken in some way. That is certainly the case here with the two main characters being Manfred Steiner, an autistic teenager, and Jack Bohlen, a recovered, but now rapidly regressing as the book progresses, schizophrenic electrical goods repairman.
The other significant character is Arnie Kott, head of the Water Workers Union and therefore a very important man on Mars, who becomes obsessed with the idea that Manfred doesn’t interact with the world around him because he is in touch with the future instead and this could be valuable if only Jack can find a way to communicate with him via some sort of contraption. Unfortunately spending time with Manfred affects Jack’s already fragile mental state which is a pity as he also seems to be making some slight progress. This all comes to a head in a series of three chapters each of which cover the same evening at Arnie Kott’s house but the viewpoints in them become increasingly more chaotic and odd, this is the turning point in the novel and things suddenly progress in a wildly different direction. This method of telling a story is classic Philip K Dick, what is real, what is not? The repetition of the scenes in the house but seen from what becomes by the third time almost hallucinogenic standpoints reflects the inner turmoil of both Manfred’s and Jack’s lack of mental grip on what is happening around them and is surprisingly powerful.
The bleekmen are another powerful image in the book, the native people have been driven from the fertile lands by the settlers and are now either left to wander the deserts in search of water and sustenance or end up in servitude to the new masters of Mars. This is clearly Dick reflecting the treatment of native peoples here on Earth. Nobody appears to have made any attempt to understand their culture, they have just been pushed to the margins of society but after the evening at Kott’s house we get to find out a lot more about them via Kott’s servant Heliogabalus and the ultimate resolution of the book will come from him. It’s a fascinating read, maybe not Dick at his best that is probably either his alternate reality classic ‘The Man in the High Castle’ which looks at a position 15 years after the Axis powers defeat the Allies in WWII, or possibly ‘A Scanner Darkly’ where the main character is a drug addicted detective working on narcotics cases.
Whilst some of his many film adapted books and short stories do retain their original titles, ‘Minority Report’ and ‘A Scanner Darkly’ to name just two, Philip K Dick often seems to have given his best work the worst titles, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is a case in point, it tells you nothing about the book and doesn’t actually make sense as a phrase. Looking through the complete list of his books at the front of this one I spotted his posthumously published (in 1984, Dick died in 1982 just months before Blade Runner was released) novel ‘The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike’ now that is one to look out for.