Published in 1964, Martian Time Slip by Phillip K. Dick (PKD) is a dark, moody story of tricks of the mind: delusions, hallucinations, power, and a time slip. It is simply told, but dated by socially unacceptable gender, racial, and ethnic descriptions. Despite the language, it has characters you want to succeed and characters you want to see get their comeuppance. Join me for the next book review in my Going to Mars Word by Word series.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
There are multiple colonies on Mars, each dominated by a different nationality or workgroup (plumbers, farmers, etc.) The colonies are officially run by the UN, but each settlement is controlled by the appropriate union boss. They are interdependent and separate communities connected by a series of canals. It is the scarcity of water that gives the plumbing union boss a stranglehold on Mars.
Jack, a ‘recovered’ schizophrenic and a repairman, left earth to escape the pressures of an overpopulated Earth. Arnie Kott, the plumbing union boss, found the power and wealth on Mars that he would never have been able to achieve on Earth. These two men are brought together by the UN announcer’s emergency notification that a party of Bleekmen, in the open desert, were dying of thirst and exposure.
By law, all nearby helicopters had to respond and help the UN-protected Martian natives. Jack went willingly, wishing he could do more. Arnie would have preferred his pilot ignore the notification, but his pilot feared the fine he’d have to pay only a little more than he feared Arnie.
Arnie visits Camp B-G, a home for ‘anomalous children,’ one of whom is his own. There he meets Manfred Steiner, a functionally mute, autistic boy born on Mars. After Manfred’s father commits suicide, Manfred falls under Arnie’s power.
Arnie believes that people with mental disorders live and perceive time differently than regular folk. He believes they have knowledge of the future. Certain he can use this knowledge to gain more money and power, he wishes they could communicate their knowledge to him. He hires Jack to create a mechanical device that will enable Manfred to perceive ‘real’ time and communicate his knowledge of the future.
Jack studies Manfred, keeping the boy at his side most of the time. Soon, Jack has hallucinations and slides into his former schizophrenic state. When Jack confesses to Arnie that not only can he not make the mechanical device for Manfred, but that Jack’s father bought most of the mountain real estate that the UN will soon buy for development, Arnie becomes enraged. Arnie blames Jack for financial losses he assumes he will have because of his lack of knowledge about the pending development.
Manfred finally finds someone he can communicate with, Arnie’s Bleekman servant, Helio. Helio tells Arnie that the sandstone and volcanic glass projection of rock in the so-called Dirty Knobby is sacred to the Bleekmen. It’s a time portal. Activating the portal requires Manfred’s presence. Arnie conceives a plot to kill Jack. He takes Manfred to Dirty Knobby, forcing Jack to fly his helicopter overhead during their pilgrimage for ‘safety’ reasons.
At Dirty Knobby, Arnie uses Manfred to open the time slip and travels to the past. He plans to kill Jack at their first meeting so Jack won’t be his ruin. Instead, he enters into a degenerating time loop, his perceptions more and more confused until he returns to his present where he is shot by an aggrieved victim of his. Arnie dies convinced he’s in the fantasy of a schizophrenic.
With Arnie dead and Manfred with the Bleekmen, Jack realizes that the worlds of the schizophrenic, the autistic, and the ‘normal’ are not absolutely distinct, but a question of degree. He returns home, to competence, and to his family.
HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED
I was a bit disappointed in PKD’s portrayal of the planet. Despite the set-up that water is scarce, water is wasted by those who have enough money. The settlements in Martian Time Slip resemble suburbia in the USA: there are the rich and the poor. The rich have landscapes with roses and other earth imports; the poor struggle to maintain a garden for food. The air is cold but breathable. The F.D.R. mountains are the one place where it seems like Mars. It’s arid and largely unexplored.
The native Martians were disappointing also. The Bleekman, a dark-skinned aboriginal race, are either living on their own away from the settlements and dying of exposure and thirst (for no discernible reason) or they are slaves or servants. They speak a kind of pidgin-English and trade and barter with the Earther-immigrants. Arnie’s servant speaks to Manfred in English and somehow perceives Manfred’s answers. Some reviewers say this is telepathy. The Bleekmen appear to be spiritual but the ‘priest’ at the sacred Dirty Knobby does not come across as a spiritual leader.
Though I was disappointed in the setting, PKD’s point was not the “where” of this story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author of 44 published novels and more than 100 short stories, Phillip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) and his twin sister, Jane, were born prematurely. Jane died just six weeks after their birth. The loss of his twin had a profound effect on PKD.
By seventh grade, he began suffering extreme bouts of vertigo. Multiple physicians and psychiatrists examined him. The differed in what caused his symptoms. Some called it schizophrenia, others identified other illnesses, and one even declared him quite sane. Regardless of the diagnosis, PKD experienced what he called “nervous breakdowns” throughout his life
He often cited two questions as encompassing his work: What is Reality? And What is Human? Those questions reflect his experiences, from the death of his twin to the nervous breakdowns.
He published his first story in 1951 and worked full-time as a writer from then on. His first novel was published in 1955.
He won the 1963 Hugo award for his novel, The Man in the High Castle, the 1974 John W Campbell Memorial Award for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
PKD spent most of his career in near-poverty. He began to see more financial success when he sold the rights to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became Blade Runner. He died of heart failure, at the age of 53, before he could see the finished movie.
After his death, a number of his stories were made into movies: Total Recall; Minority Report; Screamers; Next; Imposter; Paycheck; A Scanner Darkly; The Adjustment Bureau; Radio Free Albemuth; and Confessions d’un Bario, a French film based on his mainstream novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist.
PKD wanted recognition as a literary writer, however, few of his mainstream novels were ever published. Still, PKD loved to read and to write science fiction.
The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It’s not just ‘What if’ – it’s ‘My God; what if’ – in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming. – Phillip K. Dick
Martian Time Slip is full of uncomfortable language and attitudes, inconsistencies, and lacks the story logic that readers often demand today. Does this mean I would not recommend this book? Not at all. As an exploration of tricks of the mind (delusions, hallucinations, and reality) it creates powerful emotions. Was it PKD’s intention to make the reader think deeply about race, gender, and ethnic issues? Possibly. I do believe he intended to stir deep thoughts about reality and mental illness.
It’s not an easy book to read because of the subjects and its flaws, but it will make you think. That’s part of the reason I read science fiction. Isn’t that part of the reason you read science fiction?