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Excited Newsmachines by Lord RC

    With my essay on this novel I wish to focus on the skill with which Philip K. Dick prepares his world, that is, the setting of SOLAR LOTTERY and how it is constructed. Here are the opening two paragraphs of SOLAR LOTTERY, reproduced for convenience:

"There had been harbingers. Early in May of 2203, newsmachines were excited by a flight of white crows over Sweden. A series of unexplained fires demolished half the Oiseau-Lyre Hill, a basic industrial pivot of the system. Small round stones fell near work-camp installations on Mars. At Batavia, the Directorate of the nine-planet Federation, a two-headed Jersey calf was born: a certain sign that something of incredible magnitude was brewing.
     Everybody interpreted these signs according to his own formula; speculation on what the random forces of nature intended was a favorite pastime. Everybody guessed, consulted, and argued about the bottle -- the socialized instrument of chance. Directorate fortune tellers were booked up weeks in advance." (SL 5)

    With these two paragraphs Dick effectively sets up the world of his novel and its chief dynamic. The story takes place 250 years in the future. It concerns solar system-wide events: mention of Mars, the nine-planet Federation. And those foreign terms, Batavia, Oiseau-Lyre, Jersey, reinforce this sense of space. We know, one paragraph into the book, that this story is set in great physical space.

     Coupled with this sense of space, intertwined in it, we find the mode of life of the people. They respond to events in a superstitious manner. By his clever choice of words -- harbinger, flock of white crows, small round stones, two-headed calf -- Dick imparts a Biblical feel, a whiff of Old Testament fire and brimstone to the human space of this nine-planet Federation. He places his characters in the mindset of the religious past. As we read we absorb this contrast of a future interplanetary society whose inhabitants live in an almost medieval mental space. And when this anachronism is supported in the third paragraph by mentioning of the severing of 'fealty oaths' and, a little later on, the word 'serf' is actually used, we're ready to accept almost any conjunction of ideas and devices. The later explanation of the 'bottle', for example, doesn't disturb us. In a superstitious world the bottle is easily seen as, for instance, a direct analog of the Lotto America machine of today; its presence known, its workings unseen but yet susceptible to the action of lucky charms.

     One would next expect Dick to further deepen this contrast for his readers, perhaps by showing the situation of one or more of the 'little guys', the inhabitants of this world. Move from the general to the particular in recommended literary fashion. This he does by introducing Ted Benteley who has just been dissmissed of his fealty oath to the Oisseau-Lyre Hill -- a basic industrial pivot of the system we immediately remember -- along with a "variety of trained research technicians... tossed out. Cut adrift... lost among the uncalssified masses." (SL 5)

     Thus we have the deepening of events while the medieval/futuristic contrast is made more particular with the use of the word 'fealty'. And with the lot of the discarded technicians who, from this point on, with the exception of Ted Benteley, are tossed into limbo by Dick as he moves the story to his protagonist, we begin the realisation of a curiously familiar world; the evocation of unemployment once again anchoring the story in the 'real' world of the 1990s. The state of industrial capitalism in 1954, 1996 and 2203 doesn't seem to have changed much.

     But the setting would not be complete without the mundane interactions between the physical world and its inhabitants. We have the macrocosm of the novel and how the characters respond to it. Now we must look to see how Dick creates the microcosm, the everyday reality, for his characters. He has created a future world he must now make it lived-inable.

    Dick accomplishes this by his selection of illustrative objects: newsmachines, industrial pivots, work camp installations, instrument of chance. All terms that could come from a mechanical engineering handbook of this or the last century. Evidently this world of 2203 is a crudely technological one, one that conjures up the sweatshops of early rampant capitalist societies: the London of Marx and Engels time, perhaps. If not the near future that is coming into focus now.

    Thus Dick gives us the world of SOLAR LOTTERY: A vast, interplanetary system operating at am antiquated level and inhabited by unclassified masses of a superstitious if not yet Marxist bent. Like the sketch artist, the master of line, like Degas or Roualt, who with a few quick strokes produce a familiar portrait, Dick with a few well-chosen words creates his world. We recognize it. He sets up a resonance with us, a chain of association in which we do most of the work. We know -- we think we know -- the meaning of 'superstition'. By giving us this and other familiar aspects of his world we feel we understand the whole : nine-planet Federations swallowed along with fortune tellers. Even Directorate fortune tellers. It's an old writer's trick, especially important in science fiction where believability is a problem, to mix the seemingly familiar with the unknown to lead the reader down the garden path.

     However, there is a criticism of this way of writing -- a criticism, I suppose, in favor of the slow accretion of detail in exposition -- that has it that the narrative sketch artist has us do too much.Such critics complain that such worlds do not hold together; they fall apart three days later. The argument is between a stolid realism and a quick impressionism. It's an old argument, one that's been fought in one form or another for many years. But Dick is not a realist like Larry Niven or Gregory Benford. So what if his worlds fall apart? That is only so in hindsight, has meaning only after the novel has been read. The critical reader must always remember the first time they read SOLAR LOTTERY, when they were zipping along in the spell of the novel, building the world in their head.

     Still, it might be interesting to see exactly how such worlds fall apart.

     The immediate problem with SOLAR LOTTERY is, as might be thought, one of anachronisms. How is it that this futuristic world can be so futuristic if its socio-technological level is so backwards?

     But, really, to my mind, this is not a complaint aimed at SOLAR LOTTERY but one directed more to Dick's work at large. It recalls the problems Dick had with his early fantasy stories, particularly with Judith Merrill who refused to anthologize "Roog" because of a fixed adherence to a specialised definition of 'fantasy.' One that did not include garbagemen with thin necks and wobbly heads. But, more, behind this question is the grumbling by the hard science fiction fans that Dick's extrapolations don't extrapolate too well. And what's begind this complaint, to get downto it, is the hard-sf adherence -- analogous to Merrill's -- to a 'hard' definition of science fiction based on the principle of scientific positivism. Science fiction, the hard sfers aver, should consist of carefully worked out technological extrapolation. Only then can science fiction fulfill its historic mission as handmaid to Progress and thus save the world.

     Which brings into question the purpose of science fiction itself; if it has any other than as escapist entertainment. Should it be positivist, which basically means acceptance of the real world with its faith in scientific progress? Or should it show and question the tenets that uphold this faith? Should it, in other words, perpetuate the system or seek to find a new humanism hidden -- suppressed! -- in the Imperialistic Dogma of the de facto Capitalistic Whore State?

     Philip K. Dick clearly belongs in the latter camp. Not for him the reasoned exposition of scientific principles. These he takes for granted: newsmachines jabbering excitedly at passers-by are just there, atronic lightbulbs glow feebly in the homes of the unks because they just do, and MacMillan robots wander clumsily around because because they are necessary to support the science fiction. And the science fiction itself,the genre, supports -- enables, in fact -- the metaphysical speculation that Dick really wishes to explore. We, from our position looking back, can see what becomes of Dick's work when the sf trappings are absent: He gives us CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST, THE MAN WHOSE TEETH WERE ALL EXACTLY ALIKE, THE BROKEN BUBBLE and the others of his 'straight' novels. All excellent books, good excrutiating reads, but not science fiction. A little touch of magic is missing.

    Without the support of the sf genre Dick's works lose their universal appeal, their "numinous quality" of metaphysical mystery that Dick alluded to in connection with Van Vogt's The World of Null-A. They become, at their best,as in CRAP ARTIST, personal, particular, individual in scope, more powerful perhaps than SOLAR LOTTERY but lacking the imagination of that and the other sf novels. In essence, the 'straight' novels miss the freedom the loose structure of science fiction lends.

     Now it may be true that SOLAR LOTTERY could have been written as a straight novel of the type, perhaps, of George Orwell's 1984, but where then would be the fun of it? Where would be the excited newsmachines, the Flame Disk, the climactic battle in outer space between a long-dead visionary and something that never lived?

     Its a matter of reality. To Dick in the late 50s it was something he had to deal with, hence the straight novels, but I see it as too confining for him. He could not open it up to his speculative gaze. He needed the junk of science fiction to get outside of the mundane world, to grasp and enclose it with his futuristic devices, to get a better understanding of it as he went about building worlds that were always secondary to his unfettered quet for the ultimate reality. Sure these worlds fall apart three days later, they are but the vehicle of Dick's inspiring intellect and as we are caught up in the spell of their construction on the page, they are worlds that we might wish for, worlds that we would hate if we had to live there, but worlds the like of which we will never see again.

     And that's a damn pity.

-- Lord RC 1992/1996.


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