Obooki Does SF

I’ve been reading some SF recently: I read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and The Stars, and I read Philip K Dick’s Ubik.

The City and the Stars, by Arthur C Clarke

Along with Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End and A Fall of Moondust, this seems generally considered to be among his best work. I’ve read the first two in that list before, and have differing opinions: Rendezvous with Rama is, I feel, by far his best work; Childhood’s End I have reservations about; – much the same reservations, in fact, as I feel for The City and The Stars.

Clarke is a functional writer; his style is neither here nor there; it moves unnoticed; – and this is a big plus in the largely illiterate world of SF. The effects he achieves are not through style, nor plot, nor necessarily even ideas – he achieves his effect through SF awe. I think this is where Rendezvous with Rama succeeds; it posits something wonderful and other. The City and The Stars does too, in a way, though it is less other – we are dealing with man far in the future, who lives now in a single enclosed city, from which he is disinclined to emerge, where all evolution has been in stasis for billions of year and feelings of love etc. have been forgotten.

And this is kind of what annoys me about the book. Man has become too rational, has sought in his scientific way to eliminate all chance events, even if this means ruining some of the finer things in life; – and the book is about how he comes to reconnect with love, and discover what it means to be human (blah blah blah). There’s a good bit of awe; but overwhelmed by childish sentiments; things I don’t fear will ever come to pass (man enjoys love and irrationality only too much, I don’t see him giving them up). And I feel a quibble too about this stasis idea: it doesn’t strike me as any sensible way to attempt to survive billions of years, by stopping evolution and trying to control chance events; evolution is itself a means of overcoming chance events, though it cares little whether it’s man which succeeds and some other offshoot – in fact, it cares little if it doesn’t succeed at all.

Ubik, by Philip K Dick

I know less how well regarded Ubik is. I read it because I bought Stanislaw Lem’s series of essays, Microworlds, in which he goes on about Dick (and Ubik) at length in his essay: Philip K Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans, a title for which I immediately feel an affinity, since it is close to what I think about the SF world. (The previous essay, Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case – with Exceptions, also mentions Dick a lot).

Ubik is a strange book, one in which I felt myself lead astray: you think it is going to be about one thing (the development of telepathic powers, an endless battle between people being able to see into your mind and people able to prevent this), and then it interests itself in another (the persistence of existence in a sort of cryogenically preserved brain-state after death). There’s a good half of the novel in which I felt myself largely bewildered as to what the hell was going on, the plot seemed to be spiralling out of control; – but Dick does bring it all to some kind of explanation. It’s just that I didn’t really like the explanation or the direction the novel took – I’d have preferred it had kept on about telepathy; – the life-after-death stuff interested me a lot less; like in Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, all those bits about religion, about someone climbing a hill and having stones thrown at him.

I feel a peculiar sense of sordidness reading Philip K Dick’s novel, and I don’t know why. Again, like Clarke, I think he has a serviceable style; there’s just something about the subject-matter, perhaps about his characters, I find grubby.

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4 thoughts on “Obooki Does SF

  1. “awe” – yes, that’s the best of science fiction.

    I wish I could remember if I have read Ubik. Well, what good would it do me if I could?

    The Lem essays sound like they are written in a spirit I would find enjoyable.

  2. Lem’s essays are enjoyable and have some good lines in them, like for instance, “Philip K Dick seems to write in a vein similar to van Vogt’s, although he does not, like van Vogt, violate grammar and syntax as well as physics”.

    He seems in general annoyed that SF writers seems to know very little about science – or, indeed, writing. In fact, in some ways, he doesn’t seem to like SF at all: there’s some of the Tolstoy disparaging Anna Karenina about these essays; as if Lem finds it all beneath him now. He doesn’t like SF tropes at all.

    What I dislike about these essays is a) he believes in the importance of originality (which is something I’m always suspicious of); and b) that he likes Philip K Dick for precisely what I dislike about him (his rather dull interest in metaphysics), and dislikes him for what I like (his ideas about telepathy, and all that SF stuff – which Lem seems to consider nonsense).

    Also, he drifts at times into over-intellectualised unintelligbility.

  3. Dick’s characters do a lot of blurting rather than speaking in some of his books.

    He’s one of the artists who a lot of people love despite the obvious flaws – some of his books really are dashed off. Whether that was the speed taking over or a deadline to meet or both will also vary.

    I’ve only read A Perfect Vacuum Lem’s reviews of imaginary books. I like the conceit but can’t remember any of the actual reviews. Dick is a bit the same – the ideas fizz but the prose less so.

  4. I prefer Lem’s short stories, to either his novels or essays. Each story is able to capture the essence of a good SF idea in a very short space; the novels tend to drag, I find. I think his later work I’d like less.

    I like the ideas in Dick, and I actually quite like his writing at times (which others seem to have a problem with). I give up though on as many of his books as I finish.

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