Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review of Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop

I’ve read enough Philip K. Dick to recognize the elements common to most of his fiction. Quirky ideas imposed on quotidian settings, metaphysical twists on reality (drugs, technology, dogma, etc.), awkward prose, telekinesis/mind powers, and subtle and subversive political commentary can be found in most of his stories.  And while alternate history was not something he often explored, it is the biggest aspect of his best novel The Man in the High Castle.  Upon learning of Dick’s unexpected passing in 1982, Michael Bishop (of all the unexpected writers) decided to write a novel in honor of the man.  Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas is an immaculate tribute that any reader who appreciates Dick will likewise appreicate.

Reworking the constitution to allow for infinite presidencies, at the outset of Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas Tricky Dick is now nicknamed King Richard, and is in his fourth term of office.  As one might expect, he rules an America bogged down in his brand of conservatism.  Heavy travel restrictions have been placed on crossing state borders and people’s behavior, particularly first and second generation immigrants which are subject to regular nationalization.  Another restriction is cultural censors, including literature.  His early genre work still allowed on the market, the writer Philip K. Dick’s later, more subversive works, however, are banned.  But pet shop employee Cal Pickford doesn’t care.  Possessing a number of illicit copies of Dick’s novels, it comes as a slap in the face one day at work to come across the obituary of his favorite writer.  It’s an even greater slap in the face, however, to learn the disembodied spirit of Dick, a confused entity asking to be called Kai, has shown up at his wife’s psychology clinic shortly thereafter, requesting therapy.   King Richard may not be ready for Kai.

The story that spins away from this premise is quintessential Dick.  Not a connect-the-dots affair, Bishop organically integrates Dick’s major thematic devices into a truly worthy story, then adds Dick’s personality.  Readers familiar with Dick’s personal life are aware how close the author’s views and issues are to the surface of his stories.  In Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas, Bishop brings the author fully to the surface by taking parts of what we saw in VALIS and adding the personal issues, inquiries into self-autonomy, and semi-mental breakdown seen in The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick to create a character that ping-pongs wonderfully through a story cut wholly from the cloth of Dick’s own imagination.  Cal Pickford’s fight to live a normal life in King richard’s regime is the focal point of the novel, but his story would be nothing without Dick (the character).

In the end, there is no denying the effect Philip K. Dick had on science fiction, and as time moves on, perhaps the wider landscape of culture and literature.  Many writers have used his fiction as direct and indirect inspiration, and with Michael Bishop’s Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas we have the perfect homage and presentation of the author.  From quotidian characters to idea types, lopsided prose to metaphysical questions, transcendental occurrences to quirky additions (like the Brezhnev bears), Bishop captures Dick’s mad genius in honorary form.  The novel thus comes highly recommended for readers looking for more Dick’s fiction as well as indirect commentary on the writer himself.   

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