Saturday, July 13, 2013

#143: The Simulacra, #33: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

The Simulacra:

"Frauenzimmer Associates functioned better if it was not reminded of such facts of life. Like a regressed neurotic, it had to hide several aspects of reality from its percept system in order to function at all. This was hardly ideal, but what really was the alternative? To be realistic would be to give up, to die. Illusion, of an infantile nature, was essential for the tiny firm's survival"
"Do you know what the true basis of political power is? Not guns or troops but the ability to get others to do what you want them to do. By whatever means are appropriate."
" 'I don't even know who you're talking about,' Nat said. 'I can't make out exactly what's going on, what the issues are or who's fighting whom. Do you know? Maybe you can tell me.' But I doubt it, he thought. I doubt if you can turn it into something sensible for me --or for anyone else. Because it is just not sensible."
The Simulacra is one of Philip K. Dick's lesser-known novels, but it shares many similarities with his great ones. If you have read any Philip K. Dick, you probably know what to expect: androids, manufactured false realities, mind-bending usage of time-warp, severe mental illness, and a little bit of telekinesis thrown in there as well. The Simulacra delivers hefty portions of each of these, plus so much more, in spades.
The novel is set in the year 2048, and in many ways, it's a typical PKD future-Earth scenario. The Solar System has only begun to be colonized, mostly by societal outcasts and the mentally unstable. The Earth is recovering from a nuclear war. A government rules over the United States of Europe and America, appearing to border on the totalitarian, even to the uninformed underclass of this nation. As PKD fleshes out this future society in the opening chapters, we encounter many typically ingenious science fiction concepts. Pharmaceutical cartels have lobbied the government to ban all psychoanalysis, so they can gain a stranglehold on the mental-health treatment market. Commercials take the form of irritating robotic insects that can fly in through a crack in a window, and spew their recorded spiel about some product or another. And interactive television sets in which the viewer can influence the program he is watching have only managed to make its viewers feel even more powerless, as their preferences are outvoted by the millions of others with similar television sets.
Philip K. Dick's world-building, as is sometimes the case, is his strong suit in the opening half of this novel. We are also introduced to a large cast of characters who are, similar to the cast of The Man in the High Castle, going about daily life. We have Richard Kongrosian, a telepathic musician, Ian Duncan and Al Miller, struggling members of the underclass, Egon Superb, the last practicing psychoanalyst, Nicole Thibodeaux, the powerful First Lady of the USEA, and many more. The characters' paths all intersect in interesting ways throughout the novel, with Superb's psychoanalysis and Nicole's high office being the two main points that the plot revolves around. Indeed, many of the male characters in the novel become obsessed with the oft-televised First Lady, and seek out Superb's help for this and a variety of other mental issues.
Some plot lines I found stronger than others in richly peopled novel. I enjoyed Ian Duncan, Al Miller and Loony Luke's plot-thread but I found Nat Flieger's thread to be less exciting, for example. In terms of other positives, I found Bertold Goltz to be a suitably frustrating villain, reminiscent of Palmer Eldritch from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But overall, it felt as if PKD tried to squeeze in too many characters and plot lines in ~230 pages, especially at the novel's inception, when new characters were springing up with almost overwhelming regularity. The first half of the novel is interesting but not amazing --PKD tends to focus on dialogue rather than poetic language or especially vivid description and that is certainly apparent in this half. But things change when revelations about der Alte and Nicole come out later, as is often the case with PKD, nothing is as it seems! We are bombarded with disorienting information, the pace quickens, and we reach Ubik-like levels of time-warping thanks to the von Lessinger equipment that the USEA government has used. All this is topped off with a very disturbing, open-ended conclusion.
I was hesitant in calling The Simulacra a masterwork of science fiction while reading the first hundred or so pages, but the novel's conclusion made me a believer. This is a disorienting, conspiracy-heavy, mind-bender of a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed --I blazed through the last hundred pages in a single sitting. It may not be in the very top tier of PKD's work, as Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and A Scanner Darkly are, but it is certainly an excellent read that will keep you guessing, second-guessing, and questioning its unique take on reality until the very end.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea:

"It was quite easy to believe that God had created something prodigious. But suddenly to find, before one's very eyes, the impossible realized by mysterious human means, that truly was a staggering thought."
"...contemplating sublime things is never worth losing one's freedom."
" the poet, a pearl is an ocean tear; to Orientals it is a drop of hardened dew; to women it is an oblong jewel with a glassy sheen which they wear on their finger, around their neck or on their ear; to the chemist it is a mixture of calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate with a bit of gelatin; and finally to the naturalist it is merely an abnormal secretion from the same organ which produces mother-of-pearl in certain bivalves." 
Jules Verne, along with H.G. Wells, is rightly considered one of the "grandfathers of science fiction". Of the two, I prefer Wells, and find the phenomenally gifted Olaf Stapledon superior to either one --but still, I cannot overestimate the influence that Verne has had on the genre of science fiction. Verne's stories tend to fall into the sub genre of SF adventure stories, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is perhaps the prime example of this type of adventure story.
Like Verne's own Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, this novel is less concerned with "protagonist vs. antagonist for four-hundred-and-some-odd-pages until one triumphs" as it is with instilling a sense of wonder in the reader. Of course, since this book was published in 1870, the wondrous visions of underwater life and the proto-Hard SF-style descriptions of Captain Nemo's submarine can come across as somewhat dated to the modern reader. But there's no denying that Verne was remarkably prescient with his descriptions of the submarine and self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. So yes, the sense of wonder has diminished in the 140 years since the novel was published, but Verne's scientific acumen and foresight will remain impressive for readers in future generations, I would imagine.
20,000 Leagues is a fairly easy-to-read adventure story, featuring three likable protagonists: Professor Arronax, his servant, Conseil, and the brash Canadian harpooner, Ned Land. The three men find themselves imprisoned on a technologically advanced underwater ship after joining a search for the vessel, previous mistaken as being a giant narwhal. With the submarine's enigmatic, land-hating captain, Nemo, the three men travel thousands of miles around the globe, dealing with tropical savages, dangerous icebergs, and giant squid along the way. There are some fun action sequences --the battle with the squid is particularly famous, and the episode in which the submarine (called the Nautilus) is trapped in ice is frantic and well-done.
However, Verne can tend to get bogged down in pages-long detours concerning scientific plausibility at times when the reader wants more action! Things like endless lists of various species of fish, and their Latin names, as well as uber-specific longitude-and-latitude locations become tedious over the course of 400+ pages. And, although this may in fact be a gripe with the Anthony Bonner translation that I read, the dialogue can seem clunky and wooden at times. High points as far as descriptive acumen and power include the excellent chapter, "A Lost Continent", which is wondrous and enthralling, with excellent imagery throughout. The pearl expedition in Ceylon is also quite striking --although Verne may have wiffed scientifically in this novel when he writes about ocean depths of 50,000+ feet (the deepest ocean trench in the world only goes about 37,000 feet down) and the lost continent of Atlantis, he hits several home runs in his descriptions of these wonders and other exotic locales. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea should be read by SF fans because of its significance to the genre, and its great adventure sequences.
I only wish Verne had cut out a few dozen pages of those monotonous fish lists and sometimes repetitive descriptions of the monotony of life on board for Arronax, Conseil, and Ned. Although I prefer Wells' writing, I appreciated this classic of Verne's mainly for its infectious sense of adventure, and its remarkable influence and prescience.