Saturday, July 5, 2014

#103: A Scanner Darkly, #146: The Child Garden

A Scanner Darkly:

"You put on a bishop's robe and miter...and walk around in that, and people bow and genuflect...and try to kiss your ring, if not your ass, and pretty soon you're a bishop. So to speak. What is identity...Where does the act end? Nobody knows."
" 'It --must --be --day,' the junkie says, or anyhow the tape in his head says. Plays him his instructions, the mind of a junkie being like the music you hear on a clock sometimes sounds pretty, but it is only there to make you do something. The music from the clock radio is to wake you up; the music from the junkie is to get you to become a means for him to obtain more junk, in whatever way you can serve. He, a machine, will turn you into his machine."
"What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me --into us-- clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too."
I like to call Philip K. Dick the Shakespeare of science fiction because he produced a significant number of all-time classics in the SF field, just as Shakespeare did for literature in general, to go along with a good deal of sub-par work early in his career. But PKD may in fact be the anti-Shakespeare in one respect: he puts so much of himself into every page of his work, so that reading his novels can become similar to reading an autobiography --in contrast to the ever-elusive Bard.
A Scanner Darkly, along with VALIS, is amongst PKD's most heavily autobiographical works. A sort of drugged-out Jekyll and Hyde story set in the near future 1990s (Scanner was published in 1977), this novel is much less a work of science fiction, and more an anti-drug novel with a few sci-fi elements thrown in. It achieves its anti-drug message not through moralistic finger-wagging or larger-than-life theatrics, but through a straightforward, honest, realistic depiction of drug culture in Southern California. PKD himself essentially lived this book, futuristic police force aside, freely admitting in his afterword that many of the novel's characters are based on junkie friends of his (most of whom are dead or psychologically impaired thanks to their addictions).
The plot concerns a junkie named Bob Arctor, who lives in a dilapidated house in SoCal, along with two fellow addicts, Ernie Luckman and Jim Barris. But here's the twist: Arctor is actually an undercover cop known as "Fred", and he reports on the group and their surrounding social circle regularly. He is so deep undercover that his direct superiors don't know who he is, and of course, they assign him to monitor Bob Arctor more closely... he has been acting suspicious of late. The head trip isn't done there, because Arctor, thanks to the requirements of his job, is addicted to Substance D, a drug that causes personalities to split in two --now Bob has forgotten he is Fred, and Fred is desperately trying to figure out this Arctor character through the secret surveillance scanners that have been mounted in his home!
Scenes of frantic, wild-eyed paranoia abound, and as you'd expect with a PKD novel, you'll start questioning your own sanity somewhere along the line! But what truly makes this novel one of PKD's masterpieces is the way he turns depraved characters into objects of extreme interest; he is realistic and pitying, yet also harsh when dealing with the condition of the drug addict, and his descriptions are fed by all too much firsthand experience (I found certain scenes to be reminiscent of AMC's Breaking Bad in this respect). It is sad and scary in that it seems to be 100% sincere honesty from an author who has seen a lot in his time. The author's note at the end is a touching way to finish off this highly emotional work, which, as you'd expect from the author of Ubik, features a surprising ending. The only gripe I have with A Scanner Darkly is the slowish pace starting off. The story of Jerry Fabin is a phenomenal way to open an anti-drug novel, but after this, PKD slows down to introduce us to a sizeable cast of characters (quite typical for him). The pace accelerates soon after.
This may be one of PKD's most poignant and well-written novels. It has a depth and maturity that exceeds his earlier work and a certain introspectiveness that one would expect from a philosophy major. I'd recommend this one to any sci-fi fan, with one warning. It is very bleak and depressing, and the ending will not leave you a bright-eyed optimist. But it is one of the very best from one of SF's greatest authors.

The Child Garden:


"They were all young and soft, and they had no time, and so they hated the silence, the silence in themselves that had yet to be filled by experience. Some of them were driven to make noise, were kept jumping by something that was alive inside them. Others like Milena, cleared the decks and waited for something to happen, something worthwhile to do or to say. They loathed the silence in themselves, not knowing that out of that silence would come all the things that were individual to them."
"'s hard to believe how complex people are. Like a whole universe. There's all this chattering going on in their heads. Mist we call it, like the inside of clouds. It fogs everything, stops people seeing. Most people function by shutting almost everything out. Below that, there's the Web. That's the memory. That's where everything is stored, and the Web is a real mess. You can get tangled up in it. A very complex personality is actually difficult to get out of. It can be very scary. Underneath that is the Fire, and that just burns. That's where the heart is."
"If cancer did not swim in the same sea as us, we might admire it, as we admire sharks. We might admire its simplicity and fitness for purpose, its lethal beauty."
I have thought, for quite a long time now, that Philip K. Dick's VALIS would remain the strangest, most unique novel that I have ever read. VALIS may have to move over at this point, because The Child Garden is quite unlike anything I've ever read before. The phantasmagoric plot of this science-fantasy novel defies any attempt at succinct description, but I will try my best. In fact, it felt like I was reading an Impressionist painting (in novel form) at many points.
The plot concerns a young woman named Milena who lives in a strange socialist London, hundreds of years in the future. Cancer has been cured, but people only live until their mid-thirties. Technology seems to have regressed quite a bit, and electricity has been lost. People are educated by specially-developed viruses that inject information-laden DNA into the brain so they can develop quicker than nature would allow, in order to make the most of their 35 years alive. And I haven't even gotten to the really weird stuff yet. Milena is resistant to the viruses, and thus struggles in a future in which almost everyone has the same conglomerated clump of knowledge present in their brains. She is also a lesbian, and she acts quite differently from the assimilated drone-like humans who have been "Read" for the "Consensus" --a living socialist organism that is made up of small copies of every normal Londoner's consciousness. Milena falls in love with another person who has not been Read by the Consensus, a genetically engineered woman named Rolfa, who is, physically at least, a bear. Geoff Ryman throws outlandish information such as this at the reader with alarming frequency, and you learn to go with the flow --or quickly drop the book in bewilderment.
But there's no doubt that Ryman is an excellent technical writer. He opens Part One with a whimsical, yet melancholy voice, giving this future London a moody, atmospheric vibe that leaps off the page. I quite enjoyed Part One, which is, all weirdness aside, a fairly traditionally told story. Part Two, however, was not as enjoyable for me. It is slightly reminiscent of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, jumping around in time without warning, and leaving the reader feeling disoriented and confused. Part Two was very episodic; I enjoyed some of these episodes quite a bit, but was bored or put off by others. In addition, Part Two focuses on Milena much more than Rolfa, and I felt that the novel lost some pizzazz with the absence of such an interesting character. Milena can come across as whiny at times, whereas Rolfa was mysterious, intriguing, and somehow, more genuine. I couldn't quite connect with Part Two as I think Ryman wanted his audience to connect. Although there were many powerful scenes, it was too disjointed and weird in the end for me to completely enjoy. Another gripe I had with the novel was its lack of a solid antagonist. Thrawn McCartney was suitably sadistic and crazed, and the psychological torments she visited upon Milena were suitably horrid, but she was underused in the grand scheme of things, in my view. Finally, I couldn't grasp the logic of Rolfa's Reading at the end of Part One --it seemed counterintuitive to say the least. But then again, listing all the minor points of this novel that seemed inexplicable would take up several pages of text.
With that being said, the novel had many strong points, most of all the phenomenal technical and descriptive acumen of the author. The meditations on silence throughout the novel are particularly excellent --they reminded me of the pseudo-SF short story, The Year of Silence. The SF ideas are incredibly creative, indeed some of the most interesting ideas about viruses and genetic engineering that I have ever encountered. Ryman gives us an outlandish world and somehow achieves a surprising sort of sense and normalcy; despite its weirdness, he makes the reader feel the realness of his world. Although I enjoyed the skilled tone and technique that Ryman flaunted in this novel, I could not connect to it as deeply as I would have liked. I would recommend it only to open-minded folks who are ready for bizarre beauty, twists and turns, and a novel like nothing that they have ever read before.

1 comment:

  1. I read a review of The Child Garden that described it as a book best digested slowly, and that finishing it leaves one with a sense of numbness and relief. Very true! I'm sure I will be puzzling out many aspects of this novel for quite a while.