Diverging from Philip K. Dick

After bingeing on at least four novels by Philip K. Dick [hereafter, PKD] and being discomfited by the future he envisioned—dark, wet, cold, and lacking many conventional comforts—I picked up Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I wanted to compare their versions of dystopia with PKD’s and see if the inevitability of death and the determination to avoid it run like leitmotifs through their novels, too.

Nora Ephron said it best, in the title of one of her last non-fiction books, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman: at a certain point, the effects of aging—a definite intimation of one’s mortality and growing invisibility—kick in; and the temptation to tinker with skin, hair, and other parts of our anatomy is strong. A number of disincentives have kept me from addressing my own aging beyond a cute hair cut, filing my nails, and generally keeping up with good hygiene (more than you wanted to know). Surgical interventions would make me nervous about pain, infection, or other unwanted outcomes; so, I accept (and am grateful for) what I am at the moment with little opposition to the inevitable.

Mia Ziemann, the protagonist of Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, has no such qualms. She lives in a strange and dystopic future world, rebuilt after a series of plagues and other catastrophes, where surgery and substances now prolong human life far into a second century, for a select few. After submitting to a long and complex experimental procedure, Mia regains her youth and sets off to seize the adventurous life she never had. Her mission is to capture ‘holy fire,’ an essential state of creativity, marginally like the buzz one might feel during what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow,’ a mental state of complete absorption in a current experience.  Nothing goes as smoothly as Mia hopes, but she does experience ‘holy fire,’ and the experience is transformational.

Sterling crafted his novel to reflect Mia’s psyche. Its jumpy style and arcane interchanges resonate with Mia’s new life and the state of her world ridden with anxiety about deterioration, a world where tinkering with one’s body and mind is a given, if you can afford it. Only the aged seem to have the capital needed.

How does this compare with PKD’s work? As I wrote in previous blogs, he sets characters in a world where nothing is as it seems, death is often a choice, and robots want to be human. In his The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepUbik; and The Man in the High Castle, Dick’s humans want to live longer and/or better off. They opt for deep-freeze suspended animation, time-altering drugs, or other techniques and strategies to extend their lives in sad, gloomy, challenging worlds. Although these novels allude to a Greater-Something controlling or influencing human activity, none of them states outright that the Something is a super artificial intelligence designed to address mortality. In contrast, William Gibson’s Neuromancer strongly hints at that.

Sterling and Gibson’s characters confront deterioration with various strategies. Scientific discoveries and bizarre realms in cyberspace storing interactive memories accomplish the task in Sterling’s work. Gibson instead creates a meta-world of unfathomable artificial intelligence(s) present in something called the matrix which offers a peculiar kind of immortality.  The novel brings to mind the Wachowskis’ film The Matrix, in which the reality most humans perceive is simulated by rebellious cyber-machines to control people and use their bodies as an energy source; but, unlike the film’s hero, Neo, the protagonist Case in Neuromancer willingly ‘jacks’ into a different kind of seemingly neutral matrix to connect with and hack databases for illegal gain. At the novel’s outset, Case has lost his talent and is living in miserable urban decay somewhere in Japan. A mysterious agent and his hireling, a ninja-like character, Molly, restore his ability and his health, provided he work on their assignment, which remains obscure until about halfway through the work. At that point, Case’s characterization begins to accumulate depth, just as the novel begins to make a little sense. He forms attachments and delves into his own psyche through his encounters with manifestations of two apparently competing AI systems.

Case lives in a cyberpunk world, a futuristic setting that features a lot of low life exploiting and exploited by advanced technology and science. Artificial intelligence, pervading the social order’s multiple breakdowns and changes, is at the heart of the narrative’s mystery. Case merges in a way with an enduring, albeit ever-changing, collective state, ghostly emanations of artificial intelligence, which offers the possibility of a nebulous, circumscribed immortality.

Philip K. Dick said at a 1977 conference: “We are living in a computer-programmed reality, and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed, and some alteration in our reality occurs.”[1] Is he agreeing with Sterling and Gibson, that our perceived reality, one of growth, performance, and deterioration, is an illusion? Is he suggesting we exist in alternate states, one of which promises a kind of infinite existence different from the material one we experience? In that entropic, boundless state, will women like me still feel bad about their necks? Maybe, maybe not, if we merge with AI or benefit from revolutionary life extension techniques. Regardless, PKD, Gibson, and Sterling say, any such action will produce unexpected outcomes and alter society, if not the planet itself. All of the novels considered here explore the consequences of tinkering with much, much more than skin or hair. The authors have considered the future, and their warnings are clear.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix

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