His output hit or miss, it’s easy to be skeptical cracking open a book by Philip K. Dick. The psychotic craziness of Dick’s personal life so often leaking into his writing, on more than one occasion his works feature plots and themes derailed by a chaos seemingly external to the text. In the rare moments Dick was able to focus his drug and paranoia fueled energies into a synergistic story, the sci-fi world benefited. Martian Time-slip, just falling shy of The Man in the High Castle or A Scanner Darkly, is one of these occasions.
The setting Mars thousands of years in the future, the red planet is experiencing its second wave of civilization. The Bleekmen (Dick’s less than subtle name for Africans) are being pushed to the wastelands while those of European descent terraform the planet in capitalist fashion. The main character is Jack Bohlen, a recovering schizophrenic electronics repairman (sound Dickian??) whose day to day life can only be described as quotidian. Spiritually and morally grey, his dull love affairs do not prevent him from sympathizing with the Bleekmen, the group treated poorly by Union bosses like Arnie Kott. The moderately sized cast revealed slowly, readers are eventually introduced to Bohlen’s bored wife, his uncle Leo the land speculator, Otto the salesman, and Steiner the suicidal importer whose autistic, perhaps schizophrenic son may hold the key to Kott’s plays for power as Mars develops one parcel of land at a time.
Unlike such novels as Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said that feature plots wandering digressively, Dick maintains focus throughout Martian Time-slip. Though seeming to tread close to no-plot land on a couple of occasions, he never crosses the border. The conclusion fully cohesive and satisfying, 1964 must have been a good year for Dick. Making this statement all the more complimentary is the successful manner in which he experiments with the center of the book’s narrative. Shifting viewpoints like building blocks (imagine an asterisk), the resulting narrative structure may look like an M.C. Escher creation, but is fully supportive of the story—a profitable gamble that pays dividends at the conclusion.
Minor themes of Martian Time-slip include the treatment of disabled children, suicide, schizophrenia, and artificial intelligence (a la Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)—all under the umbrella concept of colonial dystopia on Mars. The main theme of the novel, however, is materialism (in the commercial sense) versus traditional ways of life, particularly Africans and their perennial philosophy. Like our world, encounters between the development-minded colonists and the nomadic hunter-gatherer Bleekmen prove awkward and one-sided. Though not in-depth, Dick weaves voodoo magic, time warps, and wisdom of the ancients into the novel’s satisfying conclusion, drawing in the ethnic concerns of his, and unfortunately still, our time.
In the end, Martian Time-slip is in the upper echelon of Dick novels. The story well-conceived and presented, only typical Dickian complaints remain, e.g. poor prose, wacky anachronisms, etc. These, however, can be overlooked given the strength of the thought provoking storytelling. While stylistically perhaps most similar to Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, thematic content is, however, of a different mold. Ethnic values and capitalist conceits often taking backseat roles in other Dick novels, they come to the forefront in Martian Time-slip. The result is story featuring a dystopian Mars with many other elements Dick fans will enjoy, paranoid schizophrenia, sentient androids, and for good measure, a little voodoo…