Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: Counterfeit Unrealities

Counterfeit Unrealities
Counterfeit Unrealities by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Please note: Originally read and reviewed in September 2007. Just copying over my review from Amazon.

In this omnibus, some of the Philip K. Dick stories that explore the borders of reality are brought together:
In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dick works through the nature of reality and illusion. Set in a dystopian future, Earth is going through a "fire" age and humans cannot survive more than a few seconds outside during daylight; this has forced humanity to spend daylight hours in a warren of buildings and tunnels. Additionally, a draft is set up to send humans out to the colonies on Mars and various asteroids - whether they want to or not. These colonies are living at subsistence level and the colonists there invariably end up hooked on a drug called Can-D, that allows them to live in an illusory world populated by Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walt, thereby escaping their miserable existence. They use miniature items to create these worlds; these "mins" are provided by the same company that supplies the illegal Can-D, which is run by Leo Bulero.
When the famous explorer Palmer Eldritch returns from his trip to Proxa, he brings with him some lichen, with which he creates a product called Chew-Z - a legal alternative to Can-D. This is a more potent drug that allows people to create their own universes, without needing the mins. However, what most do not know is that all these universes are controlled by Eldritch. Is Palmer still human, or did something else come back in his place?
Playing onto our worst nightmares - namely those in which we continually think we've awakened, only to find we're still inside the nightmare - this story keeps you guessing as to what is real and what is hallucination. It is difficult to explain too much of the plot without giving away key elements that will spoil the story, which is why I've stuck mainly to what is given in the editorial review or on the book cover. However, I found the story to be very much in the lines of a typical Philip K. Dick story - twisted and convoluted. Well worth the read, however.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, we find ourselves alternating between two intertwining plot lines. One involves Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who "retires" escaped androids. The latest model - the Nexus-6 - can only be differentiated from humans through use of a sophisticated psychological testing mechanism that measures empathy levels; empathy being the one thing that androids quite simply lack. The other plot line revolves around J. R. Isadore, a "chickenhead" (that is to say, a man who has mutated enough that he is starting to lose his cognitive abilities, but not so much that he cannot still manage to take care of himself and serve the public in some small way). He works for the Van Ness Pet Hospital, which serves people who own electric animals. However, his day gets off to an uneven start when first he discovers another tenant in his previously empty building, and then he is given a real cat - which subsequently dies on the way in to the hospital before he even realizes it is actually alive.
Similar in theme to "Stigmata," this book explores the differences between reality and fantasy by probing the differences between man and machine(sometimes that line is very blurred), electric animal and real animal, and so forth. Always in the background is the constant back and forth of Mercerism vs. Buster Friendly, who always gently (and sometimes not so gently) accuses Mercer as a fraud and fake.
I found the story enjoyable; dense and difficult at times, but the interchange and interplays are always deft and intriguing. This classic bit of surreal sci-fi is not to be missed.

When reading Ubik, the first comparison that came to mind was Don DeLilo's White Noise (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) Not due to any special thematic comparison, but because of the advertisements for great new products named Ubik at the beginning of each paragraph in the story; this reminded me of the constant low-level onslaught of information that came at you while reading White Noise.
As far as the story itself - what can one say without spoiling it? The main character is Joe Chip, a tester for the Runciter Group, which is a group of "Anti-psis" - they null out psionic power to help protect people's privacy. I was by stages amused and appalled by the vision of 1992 painted in this novel - apparently we were supposed to have made our way to Mars and the Moon by now, with colonies on each, and we're supposed to be dressing even more outlandishly than we do now. However, it seems odd to me to note the things that are kept in the style of the 50s and 60s. Women are either young and in the service industry or they are matrons and stay at home. If they are other than that, then they are shown as . . . strange, even dangerous, such as Pat Conroy in this story. It is this that makes her such an appropriate foil for Joe Chip, as he stumbles through his attempts to keep the group together after a major fiasco occurs when the Glen Runciter - the owner of the company - takes a group of his most highly skilled workers to the Lunar colony for a job and is there attacked.
The rest of the story shakes down while the surviving characters notice a strange combination of entropy and growth - recession and coming into being. The world seems to be regressing to an older era, but at the same time, they keep getting messages from "beyond" instructing them on what to do. Then the question arises - who is really dead? Who is really alive? What is reality? Who is creating it?
Not for a light evening's read, that's for sure! But well worth the slodge if you have the time. Most intriguing and something to keep the ol' cerebellum stretched. Give it a try.

A Scanner Darkly was the most difficult of the stories for me, personally - I'm not quite certain why, but it just didn't hold my interest as much as the others in the omnibus. Telling the story (on the surface) of the deterioration of the undercover narcotics officer "Fred," living as Bob Arctor - due to substance abuse - into paranoia and split personalities when he is told to begin investigating himself intensely (undercover agents wear a "blur" suit and none of them know each other, nor are they aware of whom is who in the field). Additionally, the federal government is seeking the source of Substance D, a deadly and highly addictive drug that invariably leads to burn-out in the case of users. Darkly comical in the earlier parts of the story - and in general any time when Arctor and his friends and roommates are sitting around and shooting the breeze - it is also in its way terribly depressing.

Overall, however, I give a big thumbs up to this omnibus. If you're a fan of Philip K. Dick, obviously you don't want to miss it. If you enjoy fiction that challenges your perceptions of reality, you definitely don't want to miss it!

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