Wednesday, 30 October 2002

Michael Bishop: Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1129

Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas is a direct tribute to the famous science fiction author; not only does it use many themes from his work, but Dick himself is one of the major characters. The novel begins with the death of Dick and the rising of a ghostly form from his body. But this is not the world we know, but an America which won in Vietnam, and where the increasingly dictatorial Richard Nixon is approaching the end of his fourth term in office. This is an America where travel is severely restricted, black people have almost all been "repatriated" to African countries, and the remaining population live in fear of the secret policemen known as "No Knocks". Dick is an almost forgotten author, though his earliest novels are still required reading for the Vietnamese who come to the States and are "Americulturated" - indoctrinated into the American dream. Dick's later work (more like the satirical science fiction for which he is really known) was never published but circulates in photocopied samizdat form, among the remnants of the sixties counter-culture. It is to one of the owners of these dangerous manuscripts, a pet shop employee, that the ghost appears, driving him on a course which both of them hope will change this nightmare reality.

Among the themes that Bishop picks up from Dick's novels are alternative realities, external supernatural intervention, a blue collar central character (rather than the middle class scientists/engineers of the genre before him), the importance of the desire to care for animals (as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and the triumph of American popular culture. Although rather uneven (in this reality, there is a lunar base, and the chapters set there fail to grasp the reader), it must be one of the best homages to another author ever written. Bishop even re-uses something of Dick's style.

To choose this way to memorialise one of the greatest of all science fiction writers - one who (eventually) massively raised the literary profile of the genre - seems entirely appropriate, and this is perhaps the best indicator of how successful Bishop has been in this novel. Genre fiction, like popular culture generally, has a tendency to forget most of its past, and so reminders of just how good some of the earlier masters were serve an admirable purpose.

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