Wednesday, October 9, 2013

PKD's Mars

"When I think of these stories of mine, I think of the Lucky Dog pet store.  There's a good reason for this.  It has to do with the lives of most freelance writers.  It's called 'poverty.'"
 --Philip K. Dick

Today, a colleague of mine showed me this documentary: Philip K. Dick--A Day in the Afterlife.

Philip K. Dick is a writer who is often heaped with laurels.  This is not without good reason.
His work changed the genre of science fiction in ways that remain to this day.  The underlying themes of his stories, notions such as "what is real?" and "things are not what they seem" now permeate the genre to degree that they almost seem as necessary furniture.  He is regarded by many as more prescient of our current society than writers such as Asimov.  As one of the authors says in the documentary, Dick should be as respected as Huxley when it comes to dystopia.

It is an unquestionable travesty that Dick did not enjoy this adulation in lifetime.  The fact he kept writing at all is a titanic achievement considering that the doc tells of how he came home one day to find 17 rejected manuscripts in his mailbox.  Seventeen.  The man was a saint, a saint so much in tune with human nature that I wish I could run to him right now and say, "Help!  You're the only sane person on the planet!"

But beyond all of this PKD neatness, it was the documentary's look at the author's view of Mars that truly captured me.  As Kim Stanley Robinson said, Dick saw Mars as a blank slate, a tabula rasa view of suburbia.  Empty.  Everything stripped away into "an x-ray vision of Californian culture in all of its mindlessness and triviality."
"How the land became plastic," as Dick once said.

A selection from Martian Time-Slip is read in the documentary, describing efforts of colonists as they attempt to raise crops on Mars.  Pests and parasites arise out of the Martian soil to attack the crops.  Human-made pesticides have no effect for the organisms have waited 10,000 years for their chance.  The life expectancy of the average colonist declines as "the torpor, the hopelessness, claimed them." 

Preach it, brother.

Is this what awaits us on Mars?  I keep seeing, perhaps romantically so, Mars as a new start, the obverse of current life.  I see it as an escape to the chance at a new society, a new life (perhaps not unlike my rapture-esque views on Transhumanism.)  But PKD saw right through this.  Nothing will change for human nature will not change.  Not even on Mars.

Hell, to read about it now, Mars ain't even all that.  This typically snarky piece by Seth Shostak points out that even slight traces of methane have yet to be found on the planet.  There was likely water and there might even have been microbial life at one point, but Shostak seems to prance with glee while pinpricking bubbles of anyone who hoped for finding the remains of ruined civilizations.  Forget Mars, young Earthman.  Nothing there for you and PKD knew it long before any of us.

Please check out the documentary.  It's loaded with all sorts of guest interviews, including Terry Gilliam and the aforementioned Kim Stanley Robinson.  I really wish they would have interviewed Rudy Rucker as few contemporary authors can come close to PKD's "drug trip in prose" style as Rucker can.  On the plus side, it's got a cameo by Elvis Costello.

Elvis Costello!

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