Thursday, December 24, 2015

#141: Time Out of Joint, #79: The Lathe of Heaven

Time Out of Joint:

"The odd thing in this world is that an eager-beaver type, with no original ideas, who mimes those in authority above him right to the last twist of necktie and scrape of chin, always gets noticed. Gets selected. Rises. In the banks, in insurance companies, big electric companies, missile-building firms, universities. He had seen them as assistant professors teaching some recondite subject --survey of heretical Christian sects of the fifth century --and simultaneously inching their path up with all their might and main. Everything but sending their wives over to the administration building as bait..."
"You have to take a chance with some someone... Or you can't live."
"Evidently he had become valuable from the standpoint of publicity. Why the public would want the same person to win over and over again he did not know. Obviously, if he won he won over other contenders. But that was the manner of the public mind. They recognized his name. As it was explained to him, the theory went that the public liked to see a name they could identify. They resisted change. A law of inertia was involved; as long as he was out, the public wanted him --and everyone else-- out; as soon as he was in, well, that made it self-perpetuating. The force of stasis worked on his side. The vast reactionary pressures now ran with him, not against him."
The same rule applies with this review as with my previous reviews on Flowers for Algernon and Non-Stop --I have to spoil the plot somewhat in order to review this book, so stop reading and rest assured that this is one of PKD's best novels if you would like to go in completely blind.
If you've read some of my other reviews, you know by now that I am a big PKD fan. I'd say he is my favorite science fiction author at the moment, and I might even say he is my favorite author, period, if forced to choose a single name. Most of the PKD novels on this list are from his fertile 1960s period, but Time Out of Joint was actually written in the late 1950s, and many people like to call it his first great novel. After reading this slim volume within the space of a few days, I'm inclined to agree. I was shocked at how good this novel was --it frankly puts some of his (very solid) 60's work like The Simulacra to shame, perhaps even rising up to the level of Ubik and A Scanner Darkly. The originality of the plot once again put me in awe of PKD's vibrant imagination just like Ubik or Now Wait For Last Year did when I read them years ago.
Time Out of Joint does not seem like a PKD in the first few dozen pages. We open on an idyllic 1950s small town, the kind that is featured in television shows like Leave it to Beaver, the kind of atmosphere that Norman Rockwell and Johnny Rocket's try to invoke. But in many ways, it's also a classic PKD opening. There's a slowish start as we are introduced to a cast of characters going about their daily routines, and then something goes wrong. After that, you practically can't put it down. The gradual build-up and then swift acceleration is quite characteristic of PKD's pacing in later novels.
The plot centers around Ragle Gumm, an ex-military man who lives with his sister, Margot, his brother-in-law, Vic, and their son, Sammy, in a nice, quiet suburban neighborhood. He doesn't have a traditional job like Vic, a grocer, does. Rather, his job consists in winning a newspaper contest every day. He must pick a square out of about 1200 squares, where "the little green man will be next". In a few years, he has almost never lost, thanks to an obsessive personality, and a myriad of charts, graphs, and other complex systems he has developed to help figure out the pattern of the contest. He often works over eight hours a day with his charts, and his winnings provide him a modest living. But soon strange things start happening that make him question if his entire existence is actually what it seems. Some back cover blurbs that I have seen give away too much detail in this regard, in my opinion, so I will recommend staying away from them for a more surprising reading experience.
As these strange occurrences start to pile up, Ragle leaves town. Here, the suspense, paranoia, and fear are ratcheted up even further than before. PKD does a remarkable job in conveying a desolate, lonely, scary tone as Ragle drives along a deserted highway trying to make some sense of his increasingly disturbed reality. And as you might expect from PKD, much of Ragle's paranoia is confirmed by the novel's conclusion --he indeed has much to be paranoid about, and his reality is revealed to have been a complete fabrication. I have seen some reviews complain about the ending of this book, but I found that it made the entire novel! Yes, you never really find out the full truth about the strips of paper, but there is a lot to be said about the way PKD gradually reveals information along the way about Ragle's reality, keeping you guessing and keeping you turning the pages much in the same way as Ubik does. There are so many twists in the road, yet never so much as to become convoluted.
Time Out of Joint touches on some interesting concepts beyond the usual paranoia, nature-of-reality, and anti-war stuff you get from PKD. There's a lot of psychoanalytic talk, some hints at what is now called the Mandela Effect (look it's weird, and very Dickian), and some excellent depictions of the boredom, monotony, and meaninglessness of suburban life. In fact, you could read the entire novel under the last lens. As a recent student of literary theory and criticism, I also appreciated some of the hints at structuralist and post-structuralist thought, exploring how words construct reality, and the relationship between signifier and signified, amongst other things.
Plotwise, this novel is perhaps PKD's most engrossing and well-done, and I don't say that lightly. I was also surprised at the quality of writing (PKD usually takes flak here, sometimes deservingly, sometimes not) --the construction of characters was done economically, but well altogether. With its influence to be found in more modern stories, like The Truman Show, I could barely believe that this book was written in the 1950s. PKD was truly ahead of his time, and Time Out of Joint can stand up there with PKD's best in any of his periods.

The Lathe of Heaven: 

"What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind so, each morning, waking?"
"Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has a purpose and I don't see that it matters. What does matter is that we're a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass."
"He was aware that in thus relegating to irreality a major portion of the only reality, the only existence, that he in fact did have, he was running exactly the same risk the insane mind runs: the loss of the sense of free will. He knew that insofar as one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock to fill the void."
"You have to help another person. But it's not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you're doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you're right and your motives are good isn't enough. You have be in touch. He isn't in touch. No one else, no thing even, has an existence of its own for him; he sees the world only as a means to his end. It doesn't make any difference if his end is good; means are all we've got... He can't accept, he can't let be, he can't let go. He is insane... He could take us all with him, out of touch, if he did manage to dream as I do."
The premise for The Lathe of Heaven is irresistible: there is a man named George Orr whose dreams change reality. He dreams something, and the next morning he wakes up to find that some part of his dream has changed things in reality, shifted him over to a completely different continuum, where only he has noticed the difference that his dream has wrought. For everyone else, this is the way that things have "always been". It might be one of the most clever premises in all of science fiction --simply reading the back cover of this book got me more excited for it than for your average SF masterwork.
Like some of Le Guin's work, I found this novel a bit hard to get into at first. Her style is certainly rich and thoughtful, but I wouldn't call it traditionally "page-turning", especially early on, even when a lot is happening, plotwise. The conclusion bucks this trend though, and I'll get to that in a bit.
The novel starts with our protagonist, George Orr, as he begins government-proscribed treatment after a drug overdose. His purpose in taking these drugs is to suppress his "effective dreams". He can change reality, but he is frightened by this strange, uncontrollable power. He doesn't want to change things, he doesn't want to effect huge shifts in society, he's just a normal, passive, moderate type of guy who wants to live his own average life. His psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, is of a different mind completely. After a short period of disbelief, Haber becomes the only other person on the planet who knows about George's power. While George wants Haber to help him get rid of these effective dreams, Haber wants to harness them to make the world a better place...or least, to turn the world into his view of a "better place".
Early on, you might even call his actions admirable, in a way. He reserves some of the trends of the near-future dystopia that they live in --overpopulation is solved (although it means six billion people disappear, and now never have existed), and the global food shortage situation is tamed. He also gives himself higher and higher positions in the government. Meanwhile, his meddlings with Orr have a negative psychological effect on the subject, who feels like a tool being used for purposes that he has no say in. He contacts a lawyer, Heather Lelache for help, but is unable to stop Haber for the time being; the government has required him to attend these therapy sessions, and the alternative is worse. Furthermore, Haber goes through the motions, pretending to George that his dreams do not alter reality, and that he is simply trying to cure him. From there, things start to get crazy, with jarring plot elements and conversations that wouldn't be out of place in a PKD novel. There certainly are a lot of enigmas and mind-bending moments to rattle around in your brain here. With this in mind, the novel's bizarre, surreal, yet engrossing ending seems to fit quite well.
I have a feeling that psychoanalysts and fans of Freud would love this book; there is so much great stuff about the nature of dreams and how they function that I couldn't begin to summarize it after a single reading. The premise of the novel and the thoughts behind it are undeniably brilliant. Although this was a short novel (only 184 pages), it felt so much longer because it was packed with ideas, details, and subtle points to ponder over a long period of time --and I must add that I don't mean this as either a pointedly negative or positive observation.
Another great aspect of the book was the duel between Eastern and Western philosophies that lurks beneath the surface throughout its entirety. Haber's Western, purposeful, proactive "doing" vs. Orr's Eastern, Taoist, simple "being" make for an interesting dichotomy. It's also very "Le Guin"; you'll know what I'm talking about if you've read her other Tao-influenced work, like The Left Hand of Darkness.
While this novel can require a long time spent on each individual page, it is worthwhile for its ingenious premise and its impressive, mystical style of thought. Books with the power to change one's entire perspective come along very rarely. This is one of them.