18 July 2009

Philip K. Dick, Voices from the Street. New York: TOR, 2007.

Voices from the Street
is a previously unpublished novel from Philip K. Dick, the sci-fi icon behind Total Recall, AI, A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner, and Minority Report. According to the publisher, it is the last of his novels to be published--only twenty-five years after his death.

Visions is clearly an early book. Set in 1950s Southern California, it chronicles the disintegration of Stuart Hadley, a handsome young television salesman. The prose is clean and measured, never reaching the frantic fever of later works like Valis, in spite of a sometimes brilliant mirroring of style and scene--the prose of someone consciously writing well, rather than confidently writing. It is very good, but not identifiable as Dick.

What is immediately identifiable, however, is the ever-recurrent conflict between perception and reality--what some call metaphysical exploration and other, paranoid schizophrenia. Hadley is a young man, with a new son and a good job, but all his good fortunes are nothing compared to his dreams and inarticulatable ambitions.

First Hadley turns to religion for answers, joining the Society of the Watchmen of Jesus. He is inspired by their leader, who speaks of prophecy:

"Even exceptional insight cannot give us exact information, the day, the month, the year. Do you understand what the prophets were? They were men gifted with this exceptional insight, this special sense, an ability to perceive future occurrences, to remember them as we remember events of the past. The impact of great things yet to come impinged on their minds. Everything they saw will come about; but these events were of such foreign and awesome nature that only by rendering them in elaborate poetic imagery could they translate them into the diction of the times, and represent the events to themselves."

But the speaker is not a prophet, only a charismatic speaker, and Hadley is quickly disillusioned. Renewed focus on work leads to promotion, but this, too, proves hollow, leading to a final break with reality from which Hadley never recovers.

The final result is a book that, while far from the science-fiction for which he is known, shows Dick to be a fully-competent, character-driven novelist already exploring some of the complex themes of his finest material. Publication may have been delayed by some occasional profanity--much less acceptable in the 50s than today--but availability now completely the work of an important writer and provides further insight to his artistic development.