Mining the Genre Asteroid is Paul Weimer’s look at the history of the science fiction and fantasy field, bringing to light important, interesting and entertaining books from science fiction and fantasy’s past to you.
A seemingly ordinary 1950’s slice of Suburbia. Ragle Gumm spends his days working on the “Where will the Little Man be Next” puzzle for the local paper. As the reigning champion of solving the daily puzzle, it is practically a full time job for him.
But, then, when a soft drink stand disappears before Ragle’s eyes, to have a piece of paper with the words “soft drink stand” fall to the ground, things are clearly not what they appear. Especially since, judging from the drawerful of paper slips, it becomes clear that this has happened to Gumm before…
Yes, this is a Philip K Dick novel. How could you tell?
Much has been written about the career of Philip Kindred Dick. Science Fiction author. Mystic. Drug abuser. Prophet for our Times. The first SF author to have work published by the prestigious Library of America. More adaptations of his work have made it to the big screen than any other science fiction author. And even beyond the adaptations, his influence is clearly seen on directors ranging from Chris Nolan to the Wachowskis. And in the world today, the endless war, NSA surveillance, drones, our paranoid culture, and the war on drugs are all things Dick would find extremely familiar.
There are many entry points into reading the work of Dick, though, and some Dick novels are much easier than others for readers new to his raw work. Most people will point you at The Man in the High Castle (alternate history with glimpses into another reality), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which has less to do with the movie Blade Runner than you might think) or maybe The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Certainly no one would suggest his later work, like VALIS, as an entry point. No, I want to talk about in many ways a much easier entry into his mind and imagination, and that is Time Out of Joint.
As above, Time Out of Joint is Ragle Gumm’s story. It starts off carefully as a seemingly ordinary contemporary (now historical) story of small time life in 1950’s America. The cracks in this facade are small at first. Cars are different. Marilyn Monroe doesn’t exist. Radios no longer exist — only television does.
But reality continues to slip. The aforementioned incident with the ice cream stand. Snatches of mysterious radio broadcasts picked up with an old crystal radio set. Strange doings by the neighbors, as if they were watching his every move. Why does that futuristic factory model in the basement of the civil defense building seem so familiar? Why can’t Gumm seem to successfully leave his suburban town, blocked at every turn? And why does everyone but his wife seem to think he *must* finish the puzzle every day? It’s just a newspaper puzzle…right?
What really is happening to Gumm? Is he going mad or becoming sane? Why does almost no one else seem to think that things are odd or strange, even if they clearly are? And what does that mean for the world around him? While the answers aren’t quite as wild and surreal as some of Dick’s other work (and more than one Hollywood movie has borrowed heavily from this book), the payoff is the slow burn of the reveal and the plight and study of a man caught in an incredible situation he never dreamed was possible.
Is it Dick’s best work? Maybe not, but as a wide and deep reader of Dick, I appreciate his works that go deep into the warren of his mind, and the lighter work that only moderately partakes of it.
Time Out of Joint explores reality and identity, but in ways much more accessible than his later work. It is in novels like Time Out of Joint that Dick would start to really explore these themes and concepts and start to work them out. The easy entry into them from the perspective of what seems to be at first an ordinary 1950’s world is the secret sauce. That makes it an excellent book for readers new to Dick, both science fiction fans and those new to science fiction. It also makes it an excellent book for trying out the science fiction author who unexpectedly seems to be writing the story of our world. Once you’ve begun here, you will be better prepared for other Dick novels, which are simultaneously better written, and more inaccessible to readers unfamiliar with his work.
Readers interested in the impact of Philip K Dick may be interested in Issue 16 of Journey Planet, with writers like Jason Sanford and Chris Garcia exploring his work and life.