Slivers of Sensibility: On The Splintered Shards

by Frank C. Bertrand

Amidst the burgeoning battleground of Philip K. Dick criticism the year 1975 is generally remembered, if at all, for the unpretentious but important Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd (Melbourne: Norstrilia Press), a best of SF Commentary anthology edited by Bruce Gillespie, which includes PKD’s seminal essay “The Android and the Human.” Also published that year was a 48-page pamphlet by Angus Taylor with the intriguing title Philip K. Dick & The Umbrella of Light (Baltimore: T-K Graphics), based on his article in the July 1973 issue of the British journal Foundation. Then there was a survey/profile of PKD in Contemporary Authors, Vol. 49-52, edited by Clare D. Kinsman (Detroit: Gale Research Co.) and a review article by Thomas Disch in the December 1975 issue of Crawdaddy called “Phil Dick: Cult Star in the Martian Sky.” Finally, there was the first “special” PKD issue of the academic journal Science-Fiction Studies (#5, Vol. 2, Pt. 1, March; there has since been a second “special” PKD issue, #45, Vol. 15, Pt. 2, July 1988).

Often overlooked, if noted at all, in references to the 1975 PKD critical cornucopia is the submitting and acceptance of Claudia Krenz Bush’s 116 page Master of Arts thesis in English at Idaho State University. Titled The Splintered Shards: Reality and Illusion in the Novels of Philip K. Dick (hereinafter TSS), this perceptive and cogent work deserves to be prominently published by a university press and far better known than most of the aforementioned tendentious tomes. Why it has languished in obscurity is partly answered by Robert P. Armstrong’s pithy observation that “Tradition has it that rather than being the first act of the scholar, the dissertation is the last act of the student. The dissertation is viewed therefore as the work not of a professional but of a pre-professional. Thus the writer of the dissertation is forced by tradition to resort to the writing of a form that is dysfunctional, because in its primitive form the dissertation will be read by few and because no publisher will in all probability consider publishing it as it stands.” (The Thesis and the Book, University of Toronto Press, 1976, p. 25) In spite of this tradition Claudia, in addition to her thesis, has also had an essay about PKD, titled “Staying Alive in a Fifteen-cent Universe,” published in the June 1981 issue of SF Commentary.

Her initial premise in TSS is that: “…Dick criticism is best characterized by it’s lack of agreement. It would seem that the critics are pouncing on this or that element but failing to see how it coheres with the other parts.” (TSS, p. 3) She cites, on the one hand, thematically based works by Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Brian Aldiss, and Bruce Gillespie, and on the other, individual works by Peter Fitting and Stanislaw Lem to exemplify this. Claudia’s argument is that there is indeed “…a bond which unites all these diverse elements.” (TSS, p. 4) This cohesion is generated by Dick’s questioning of the nature and validity of our knowledge of the world. As did Immanuel Kant, Philip K. Dick questions “…the modes of analysis on which we base what we call our knowledge of the world,” (TSS, p. 4) be they through direct experience and/or an ordering of sensory data. Therefore, “If the methods of apprehending reality are faulty, then the resulting knowledge of reality will be faulty.” (TSS, p. 4)

To illustrate this Claudia focuses on just two PKD novels, Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964) and Ubik (1969). The latter choice, perhaps, is to be expected. Since its publication Ubik has been a perennial favorite of the academic intelligentsia, that is, until they “discovered” Columbus style PKD’s Valis trilogy. The former choice, though, is unusual in that Clans of the Alphane Moon has received scant critical attention from scholar-critics, even though Bruce Gillespie in a January 1969 essay (“Mad, Mad Worlds: Seven Novels of Philip K. Dick,” SF Commentary, No. 1) writes that “Clans of the Alphane Moon is a near-masterpiece, which must be read by anybody seriously interested in the works of Dick.” (reprinted in Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, p. 17) While in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1982 Ph.D. thesis, The Novels of Philip K. Dick (University of California, San Diego), he writes “The many reversals and the conflicting understandings of all of the characters makes this one of Dick’s funniest books, and the finale, in which the schizophrenics win the war with the CIA, is a tour de force.” (p. 144) Robert Silverberg, however, in his “Introduction” to the 1979 Gregg Press edition of Clans, writes “It is not, I think, a very important book in the roster of this important writer’s works.” (p. xii) And Barry Malzberg, in his “Afterword” to the 1984 Bluejay Books edition of Clans, writes “…this is a novel which makes the most severe demands upon the reader; to an outsider it might be one of the least penetrable of all the novels: it makes, ultimately, no sense.” (p. 255)

According to Claudia Krenz Bush both novels explore the interplay of reality and illusion. She writes that “In Clans of the Alphane Moon Dick questions one of the means of apprehending reality, the perceiver. Ubik, dealing more with the resulting faulty perception, is a novel about a highly-detailed perception of a world that simply is not real.” (TSS, p. 4) That is, “While Clans focuses on the perceiver — on how he sees and the myriad ways he distorts reality, Ubik emphasizes the perception itself, the what-is-seen: a perception of a complex and bewildering reality.” (TSS, p. 5) Her exploration and explication of Clans is developed at length in chapter 1, “Clans, The Perceiver,” pp. 13-51 while Ubik is considered in chapter 2, “Ubik, The Perception,” pp. 52-101. It is informed, in part, by an extensive epistolary correspondence she had with Philip K. Dick from April 1974 to July 1975, with a few follow up letters in 1976, 1979, and 1981. During the initial timespan PKD sent Claudia 61 letters, the longest being 15 pages. Several of these have enclosures, the longest being 10 pages, that are partly excerpts from his Exegesis and partly amplifications of comments in his letters.

The dominant theme of Clans, she writes, is “…the relativity of sanity,” which in turn “alludes to epistemological problems, problems within the perceiver. What is real? We must look to the perceiver in addition to the perception itself.” (TSS, p. 51) One manifestation of this is the gap between labels and reality. “Sanity is relative, a question of balance. To behave in a paranoid manner does not necessarily imply paranoia — the situation sometimes merits it. To act paranoid where the situation does not merit it does not necessarily indict the individual: it, too, is a question of degree….The label says little about the reality of the individual. Just as the paranoid’s response frequently says little about the situation itself, so the label says little about the paranoid.” (TSS, p. 42) Thus it is that “…the clans see only that part of reality which fits into their “solution.” The Pares see enemies, and the Manses, chances to fight. The characters not only distort reality but also focus only on those things which they “want” to see, frequently basing their actions on illusions rather than facts.” (TSS, p. 33) What PKD is doing in Clans, then, is he “…contrasts the insane with the supposedly sane in order to show the importance of accurate perceptions and the high frequency of perceptual distortion.” (TSS, p. 15)

Claudia also trenchantly notes that there is no obvious explanation for these distortions. Uncertainty and the inability to understand are underscored throughout Clans. It “…does not provide us with answers, only questions. Rather than asking the evaluative “What is reality?”, it is presenting us with the descriptive “What are reality?”” (TSS, p. 51) Ultimately, through its epistemological maze, “Clans gives us an image of ourselves. We act — not knowing ourselves, not knowing what we are reacting to and not knowing what we are doing.” (TSS, p. 51)

As for Ubik, she writes that it is “…at least partially an existential novel: it finds the face of absurdity in “natural” law. Compounding this absurdity is the fact that the whole world is a sham, an illusion.” (TSS, pp. 68-69) And it is “…a complex illusion, one which the characters are not able to unravel. They function in a reality — which is really an illusion — they cannot comprehend. They are further removed from reality by the distorting nature of their perceptions.” (TSS, p.100) Reality, in effect, “…loses its support and collapses. More real than this superficial world is the disintegrative process itself. The process is real, but the illusion of stability is not.” (TSS, p. 58) In Ubik “Reality is not any one thing but, rather is a series of concentric circles, each one further removed than the previous one from the Forest.” (TSS, p. 97)

The dominant reality/illusion construct which accomplishes this is “half-life,” a process whereby the dead are not quite dead, for if cryogenically frozen in time, their cerebral activity can be maintained. Are they then half-alive, or half-dead? “Existing in the half-life world the characters, it would seem, see roughly half of what is.” (TSS, p. 99) But it is just this degree of the characters’ partial perception, Claudia indicates, which confronts the reader. “Being given a limited point of view in the novel enforces the epistemological concerns. Neither the characters nor the reader knows what is happening.” (TSS, p. 82)

Finally, in a concluding section titled “Beyond the Web” (pp. 102-112), Claudia richly yet concisely summarizes the import of PKD’s themes as evidenced in Clans and Ubik. “Ultimately,” she writes, “Dick’s novels efface the boundary between real and unreal, implying that while it is important to discern the real from the apparent, it is also virtually impossible to do so.” (TSS, p. 102) These two novels show “…the scope of the human ability to understand. Having reached the last layer of the reality onion, it is only by intuitive — what Kierkegaard called the leap — understanding that we can understand at all.” (TSS, p. 111).

A marvelous connotative phrase that, “the reality onion.” It epitomizes not only Clans and Ubik, but Claudia Krenz Bush’s MA thesis as well. (FCB 9/94)

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