WELCOME TO THE (NOT SO) REAL WORLD
Eight accident victims awake to find themselves trapped in a bizarre alternate reality… Or do they?
Philip K. Dick
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback, 256 Pages
Date: 9th December 2010 (First Published 1957)
Philip K. Dick was not a writer generally known for his humour, therefore it is unsurprising that his stories aren’t particularly noted for their comedy value. Yet, his 1957 novel, Eye In The Sky, is undoubtedly a hysterically funny book whether or not he intended for it to be comedic in tone. A story by which he uses his trademark motif of distorted reality to take a satirical swipe at the Cold War paranoia of McCarthyism that had gripped the US during the Fifties when the book was written. The end result mocking the absurdity of persecuting people for what they may or not secretly think, based on random, innocuous criteria which effectively means that anyone can come under suspicion.
The narrative concocted by PKD actually has a few more layers than a cursory synopsis might convey. While being a denouncement of the witch-hunts of the era, the book does also posit that the beliefs that people hold can and do shape how they view the world around them. And the author takes this conceit and uses it in the literal sense within the story, with laugh out loud hilarity ensuing, as he torments his characters with manifestations of how the world is perceived in the minds of other people.
The story centres on a group of eight sightseers on a guided tour of a scientific research facility to witness the activation of a new invention. A malfunction results in things not go according to plan, which leads to these eight characters being involved in a serious accident. Upon regaining consciousness they find themselves living in a bizarre alternate reality. The initial suspicion that the group actually died in the accident, and are subsequently experiencing the afterlife eventually gives way to the realisation that they are trapped in a world that is literally being shaped and even controlled (whether consciously or sub-consciously) by the thoughts of someone within the group’s ranks. In order to escape the alternate reality, and return to the real world, they have to identify the individual controlling their distorted existence then render that person unconscious.
The quest to return to reality inevitably leads to paranoia, suspicion and ill-feeling within the group as the altered state around them doesn’t provide definitive clues identifying who is responsible, only what that person thinks and believes; these thoughts and beliefs taking the form of literal and figurative manifestations of that individual’s world view. So when the world appears to be based on a warped anti-science, right wing religious world view in which arbitrary wrongdoing is instantly punished by a higher power, where negative racial stereotypes become real, and liberal minded people are transformed into hideous, barely human looking people, they can deduce that one of them is a bigoted, conservative, religious whack-job.
Likewise, when the alternate reality subsequently becomes a world that favours culture and the arts over knowledge, and people’s actions are constrained by Victorian moral sensibilities, it is then obvious that someone within the group is a frigid, puritanical prude. When the world turns into a nightmare formed by paranoid delusions of persecution, suspicion falls upon the unhinged conspiracy theorist among them. And when they find themselves in a Communist dystopia with street battles being waged against Capitalist gangsters, they come to realise that there is a closet Communist in their midst.
While the story focuses on the plight of the group as a whole, the protagonist is ostensibly, Jack Hamilton, a man who lost his job with a weapons manufacturer that builds missiles for Uncle Sam, after his wife is accused of being a secret Communist; ergo a potential security risk. The story unfolds entirely from Hamilton’s point of view, and it is his reactions to what is happening to the collective that makes the book so funny. He is so erratic in his behaviour it’s difficult not to laugh. One moment he will be calm and rational when confronted with occurrences wildly out of the ordinary. Then another moment he’ll become hysterical over the most mundane of situations. It is also particularly funny that despite being the one member of the group who is consistently hell-bent on returning to reality, Hamilton still manages to be distracted by a harebrained get rich scheme that can work in the alternate reality, but not in the real world.
Looking beyond its narrative, Eye In The Sky, while being a very funny and enjoyable tale, is also a book that really highlights one of PKD’s most noteworthy weaknesses as a writer; female characterisation. It’s hard to say if the way in which he wrote women was the byproduct of casual sexism (although that would be the obvious conclusion given he was born in the Twenties), or if his personal experiences with the women of his day contributed to his perception of women in general; thereby influencing how he wrote his female characters. Whatever the case, it’s probably safe to assume that if you are a female reader you will not appreciate the depiction of women in this novel.
Someone with a mind to do so could no doubt write a multiple pages long tirade critiquing the depiction of the novel’s three principal female characters, Marsha Hamilton, Edith Pritchet and Joan Reiss. But I’m probably not the best person to take on the task as I must confess to laughing a lot at their expense, in spite of myself. Please don’t kill me.
In summation, Eye In The Sky is not one of PKD’s strongest offerings. But it is an entertaining, frequently hilarious read, nonetheless. And the resolution to the story does effectively illustrate the point that the author was making with his book: The futility of trying to conclusively prove what an individual thinks or believes on the inside, based solely on inconclusive, arbitrary outward actions.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.