This is what I'd call a decent, respectable Phillip K. Dick book -- nowhere near the level of some of his novels, where he plays with, or rather puts...moreThis is what I'd call a decent, respectable Phillip K. Dick book -- nowhere near the level of some of his novels, where he plays with, or rather puts to work tricky, paradoxical, or deep ideas from metaphysics, epistemology, psychoanalysis, ethics, or religion, binding them into the interwoven lives, desires, and transactions of ordinary and extraordinary people (e.g. The Man In the High Castle, Ubik, The Martian Time-Slip)-- but even Dick's coasting, writing one of the sorts of story that seemed to be his forte (he also wrote some excellent "realistic" novels), is engaging, an entertaining read to go along with for the ride.
This novel sees some of the same themes that structure other Dickesian explorations -- a dystopic future state in which solving some problems faced by humanity has done little to fix the truly perennial ones seemingly inherent to the human condition, the paranoiac plots and fractures along lines just as often personal as ideological, moral and speculative introspection advancing the narrative like a kind of action all of its own, the clash of intellectual perspectives played out existentially. . . even a worn-through purported savior figure who turns out to be different from what he's expected to be.
The conflict coming to a head in this book stems from a stasis between two advanced kind-of superhuman groups -- the New Men and the Unusuals -- recently emerged from the mass of humanity, the Old Men. The New Men and Unusuals alternate holding and exercising elective power (and actually do distrust, sometimes despise, each other), but their real enemies are the Under Men -- those of the Old Men, ordinary human beings, who resent the putatively superior classes' stranglehold over politics, the all-present and influential civil service (which only New Mane and Unusuals can get into), the policed and surveilled society they've imposed. The Under Men distribute, read, reproduce, and live by hopes raised by tracts of the political prisoner, physics professor turned political theorist Eric Cordon.
Cordon's thoughts are continually transmitted to the underground movement, edited, and assembled into new tracts, the product of choice in a black marketplace of ideas -- pushed, analogously to illegal drugs (and most drugs are legal in this world, save alcohol), by unsavory types motivated more by wealth, power and rebelliousness than any ethical or political commitment. Cordon is just the thinker of the Old Men's revolt and resistance, however -- Thors Povoni is the actor, the agent, the doer.
Povoni left Earth's system ten years previous to the story's start, declaring his purpose to seek help out there, amongst the stars, for the Old Men, something, some ally, some new technology, anything that would even the otherwise impossibly stacked odds. As the story unfolds, it turns out that he has indeed found something, and that he is traveling back to Earth. This sets -- well, not events in motion, for they already are -- but new vectors of motion, impressing a new urgency to the powerful but also weary ruling decision-makers, bureaucracy, and police-state apparatus.
Arguably the most central character is Nick Armstrong, an Old Man working as a tire-regroover who, in the first chapter, brings his son to take the aptitude test which determines his classification, and thereby his fate, his possibilities in life -- not knowing that the test is actually rigged, even though other, more sour or cynical characters suggest it. Nick is an Everyman, in the most specific sense, picked out as a representative case by a supercomputer involved in the multilayered surveillance surreptitiously penetrating so many aspects of citizens' lives, and used to calculate likely outcomes and events from its analyzed data. Two of the most powerful members of the ruling body, the head of Police, Lloyd Barnes (a New Man), and the rather Churchillian Chairman, Willis Gram (an Unusual, possessing the gift of telepathy) -- whose lives end up intersecting with Armstrong, also view him as an augur of the average person.
That's probably enough glimpses of the characters and plot -- which are, again, done as well enough as they need to be in a Phillip K. Dick novel. One last thing I'd mention is that Dick employs his usual device of telling the story from multiple intersecting perspectives, those of his characters -- often at odds or counterpurposes with each other -- whose thoughts, motivations, choices, and realizations are integral to the unfolding of the tale. Dick provides much of the background, the world-constructing, through the interior reflections, and the dialogue -- often argumentative, even mistaken, or only partly worked out -- of his characters. That's a knack I've often admired in his greater novels, and it's just as well done in "Our Friends" -- there's just perhaps a bit less placed on the table in terms of grand philosophical ideas, even in terms of personal relationships and character development -- than in those other tales.(less)
This omnibus volume brings all five of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's "Compleat Enchanter" tales together in one nearly 500 page volume -- a...moreThis omnibus volume brings all five of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's "Compleat Enchanter" tales together in one nearly 500 page volume -- a good thing or bad thing depending on one's perspective, since each one of them is short, and really, light enough, to tempt one towards perusing on into the next story.
Each of the narratives was told previously in the pages of the SF/Fantasy magazine UNKNOWN, as the "Harold Shea stories," named after one of their most central characters, and he seems a reasonable enough feature to begin with, in rattling off reasons why this volume deserve the mantle of speculative fiction classics.
Shea starts off in the first story, "The Roaring Trumpet," as a fairly unappealing character -- a psychologist by trade, reflective enough to understand his own neurotic need to impress others, unsure of what he wants -- except that he's up for adventure. Quickly enough though, thrown into do-or-die situations, he finds untapped resources of skill, strength, cunning -- and most important -- resolve within himself, catalyzed through demands imposed by, quite literally, a world of gods and heroes, in this story, the gods of Norse myth. Precisely because he must -- both for his own sorry sake, but also, with growing awareness, in order to turn the tides against impending evil -- he experiments with magic, calls back his previous acumen as a fencer, and puts psychology into actual practice.
A digression here by way of explanation might prove helpful. One of the basic premises of the five novellas is that parallel worlds exist and can be accessed -- magic of various sorts working in many of those worlds, analogously to science and technology in our own plane of existence, in each world whatever principles governing it following the internal and intelligible logic of that world. As Reed Chalmers, the elder psychologist who will, from the second book on, become a full-on enchanter -- the intellectual who originally develops the hypothesis to explore -- frames the matter:
"the world we live in is composed of impressions received through the senses. But there is an infinity of possible worlds, and if the senses can e attuned to receive a different set of impressions, we should find ourselves living in a different world"
An epistemologically and metaphysically interesting notion, sort of putting Kantian idealism into play without ever mentioning that great philosopher or (thankfully!) introducing any of his crabbed and at times obscurantist terminology -- not only would attuning the senses of a person allow that person to perceive a different world indexed to those sense-impressions, the person perceiving would literally enter that world and leave this one, no longer being able to be perceived by those in this world -- also becoming vulnerable to all sorts of fates in the other worlds.
It gets still more interesting -- though if one actually follows out the metaphysics involved, unfortunately implausible (so perhaps better not do so!) -- when Chalmers discusses how one actually carries out this transposition from one world to the other:
". . . the method consists in filling your mind with the fundamental assumptions of the world in question. Now, what are the fundamental assumptions of our world? Obviously, those of scientific logic." "Transference to any world exhibiting such a fixed pattern is possible. . . we merely choose a series of basic assumptions. . . To contrive a vehicle for transportation from one world to another, we face the arduous task of extracting from the picture of such a world as that of the Iliad its basic assumptions and expressing these in logical form."
Shea does this, aiming at the world of Irish legend, but winds up instead in the land of Norse myth, close to the end of the world, Ragnarok -- running first into Odin, who he follows to an inn, traipsing through the frozen north, then quickly meeting Thor, Loki, Frey, and Heimdall. Shea almost loses his life, not least by smarting off without considering the contexts in which he's landed, before gaining his bearings -- then finds himself dragged into the adventure he thought he'd been seeking, trying to locate and win back the legendary weapons needed by the gods in their coming battle with the giants.
Sent back to his own earthly plane of existence by one of the denizens of the Norse world, and confirms Chalmer's hypothesis -- a new, much more confident man, quick with his wits, tongue, and sword, and even a bit experienced with magic. The two of them, then travel off together in "The Mathematics of Magic" to the land of Faerie, based on the logic of Spenser's Faerie Queene, where Shea meets and falls in love with the woodswoman and archer Bephelbe, bringing her back to Earth.
I'll not try to even summarize the plots of the various stories, but just mention the "worlds" which "the Castle of Iron," "The Wall of Serpents", and "The Green Magician" introduce: those of Coleridge's Xanadu, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the Finnish Kalevala, and finally the land of Irish legend. Several other characters get introduced, and well-developed in these stories as well.
There's two traits of these stories that are particularly striking. The first is that the depictions of each of the worlds are surprisingly rich, without ever lapsing into fantasy world-developing for its own sake. The characters are interestingly sketched and explored, social customs and mores come into play in important ways, even the rules and workings of magic vary from world to world. The second feature is that, for stories written in the 1940s and 1950s, they remain very fresh, unconfined by environing assumptions from their own epoch -- precisely why these stories comprise a classic.(less)