Monday, October 10, 2011
"Eye in the Sky" by Philip K. Dick
The novel has a simple premise that's light on the science-fiction and heavier on a dramatic plot. When a group of people are injured while observing a science experiment, they all fall (mostly) unconscious and begin entering, in succession, the subconscious "dream" worlds of each other. The protagonist is Hamilton, an electronics expert who has recently been fired because his wife, Marsha, is suspected to be a Communist.
It's a decent, though not thrilling, set-up, but Dick doesn't seem quite sure of his concept. There's no consistency in the type of dream worlds the characters enter. For example, the world Mr. Silvester, a religious fanatic, is a weird mix of pseudo-Christianity and pseudo-Islam; it's hard to see where that would fit in his psyche. Mrs. Pritchet's "world" is clearly her dream fantasy: she can remove anything she finds unpleasant at will. However, Miss Reiss' world isn't her fantasy, but rather a gross manifestation of her paranoia and fears. From a sci-fi perspective, I found that lack of consistent world building irritating.
Nonetheless, there's some fun to be had in the transition between odd worlds and in the group's (somewhat) clever ways of knocking out the person who is controlling the world in order to progress to another individual's mind. This might have been enough to make for a diverting read had it not been for the main character, Hamilton.
Hamilton's a privileged self-righteous blow-hard who looks down upon everyone else, but it seems Dick wants the reader to admire his behavior. The reader never even gets to see Hamilton's dream world because he's so "in touch" with reality. Yet take his behavior: When Bill Laws, a black physicist (relegated to the position of tour guide in the real world), finds some comfort in Mrs. Pritchet's world (a world in which he commands his own company), Hamilton has nothing but scorn. When Marsha supports Mrs. Pritchet in removing a prostitute that Hamilton is trying to have sex with from the world, Hamilton is furious, and it's Marsha who has to apologize! Marsha's anger should have been directed Hamilton, not the prostitute, but that doesn't excuse Hamilton's behavior. See how he sneers at his wife when she tries to make up:
"I love you, Jack [Hamilton]," Marsha quavered wretchedly.
"And I'm in a hurry," he answered. "Okay?"
She nodded. "Okay. Good luck."
"Thanks." As he moved toward the picnic site, he said to her, "I'm glad you've forgiven me about Silky [the prostitute]."
"Have you forgiven me?"
"No," he said stonily. "But maybe I will when I see her again."
"I hope you do," Marsha said pitifully.
"Just keep your fingers crossed." (168)
Hamilton's attitude toward his wife is bad throughout. He's condescending and easily assumes the worst of her (in this novel, that she's a communist). Marsha is characterized rather pathetically (reading "quavered wretchedly" as a description of her speech makes me wince), but that dosen't make Hamilton's attitude okay. Hamilton's supposed to be the hero, but I couldn't stand him.
The best part of the novel is its fierce anti-Communist stance, which just comes off as funny. It allows for awesome lines like, "You all believe it. You think I'm -- a Communist" (214). I've read some reviews that said the book is a critique of McCarthyism, and I suppose there is some criticism of unfounded Communist paranoia, but the novel clearly supports the idea that Communists = pure evil. In the end, Eye in the Sky is probably better suited as evidence of '50s attitudes than great science-fiction.