“Something is wrong. I don’t mean with you or me or with any person. I mean in general." --Ragle Gumm

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Eye in the Sky (1957)

“. . . closed worlds that don’t touch on reality at any point.”

“’Illusion?’ Laws grinned sarcastically; with his hard fist he thumped the wall of the kitchen. ‘It feels real to me.’”

“Maybe we have sunk down into the real reality.”

What inspired me to take on the project of reading all of PKD’s books was their ability to touch places inside of me that defied intellectual understanding, emotional response, or social reference, despite their presence in his stories. His writing is something unto itself, unique, and troubling in a way that releases me from the kinds of certainties that our uncertain world does not challenge. Dramatic events in the world can stagger our personal and social security, but no one is going to heaven holding onto the handle of an umbrella, or literally be eaten by a house, or transform into a gigantic insect. All of these events are funny (as Dick intended) if read from a distance, but if you project yourself deep enough into the story, shifting realities can be quite troubling. I found much of Eye in the Sky terrifying, despite the intent of the author.

This novel is about the ambiguity between illusion and reality. The reality shifts are unleashed by the fall of eight people into a proton particle accelerator called a Bevatron and take place one at a time within the psyches of five of the group left on the floor in various degrees of consciousness. In the five reality scenarios, the private reality of one of the fallen draws the consciousness of all of the group into it. Each of the separate realities has a continuity and must, therefore, be accepted as real and played out with its rules. Early on Jack Hamilton, the main character, figures out what is happening and vehemently resists each reality and struggles to return himself and the others to the real world as he knows it, the world in which he is applying for a job but is stymied by accusations that his wife is a communist (McCarthy style).

Getting a flat tire in a dangerous part of town, arriving in India for the first time as a westerner, finding oneself in prison—all of these can be dramatic and challenging assaults on one’s personal reality, but finding oneself in a different universe is another thing. Mental derangement and drugs can induce alternate realities, as depicted in other of his novels, but when one settles into another world and takes on its conditions and lingers there, an uncertainty arises that cannot be anything other than terrifying, were it not confined to a book.

The novel begins and ends in Jack Hamilton’s reality, which the reader can take for granted as the real world. Jack never questions his reality, nor do those who were part of the Bevatron accident. After all, the Bevatron is the concrete cause of all they have experienced. In the reality shifts of the novel, however, the group is never brought into Jack’s private world. One might conclude that all of the realities depicted in the novel are inside Jack, leaving Jack as a solipsistic entity with no reality outside of himself. Or one might conclude that Jack’s world is real only in the context of a higher reality that exists beyond his imagining or the imaginings of others. Or Jack’s world is as he says it is—the real one. Those uncertainties about Jack Hamilton’s reality are for me the essence of the novel.

Philip K. Dick’s stories do not always draw out an emotional response. Some do, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Now Wait For Last Year; for me Eye in the Sky does not. What it does, however, is tear a hole in my mental security and leave me with one foot outside the reality that allows me to make a phone call or fix a meal. There are any number of elements that can be used to define human existence; emotion would have to be high on a list of those elements. Once one has slipped past the bonds of human emotion, one begins to question the other human elements, which one usually takes for granted. As that process continues inexorably and darkly, one eventually finds oneself on one’s own. For me this view of the solitary traveler is ultimately the world of Philip K. Dick.