Tag Archives: philip k dick

Thoughts on Eden while mowing my lawn

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil on the serpent’s advice, “know their nakedness,” and are thrown from the garden to a life of toil and want – the original sin that in Christianity, Christ died to forgive.
This sin of the apple is such a tortured and joyless reading of the story that I (nominally atheist, though also not) had to wonder how it has taken hold. Perhaps because we learn it as children, when banishment seems impossibly hard, when knowing nakedness only connotes embarrassment.
If you let go of this reading, the story is a much better message for adults than for children. It’s an obvious metaphor for adulthood, and of the need to separate from any parent – if you’re gonna have sex under My roof, God tells His creation, time to get your own roof.
If you are anthropologically minded, it represents the transition from the hunter-gatherer life to stabler but more labor-intensive agricultural life. A fall from grace, perhaps, but with the planet’s grace, hewing our own structures and spaces out of it, using ever more of it, removing ourselves from it with the flaming swords of burning wells.
Eden is garden, always a garden. Gardens are safe. You don’t worry about running through thorn bushes from lionesses in a garden, but you can still pick a strawberry. We take this idea into our names for safe child spaces, real or imaginary – kindergarten, A Child’s Garden of Verses.
A garden is a managed space. Adam and Eve don’t mow their lawns or trim the verge – who does? Maybe this is why the angels rebelled.
To a gnostic, of course, the serpent is the true good in Eden, the pirate message from outside the garden, warning the garden is unreal and pernicious. Think of the clones in Never Let Me Go, or Neo in The Matrix. They know something’s not right in their managed world. The serpent is the path out, and a reassurance that maybe what is beyond isn’t nearly as terrifying as they tell you.
Maybe you don’t need forgiveness for wanting to leave. Maybe you just grew up. Those flaming swords keeping you from that past? They’re just time.

Optimism and Zombies

Almost fifty years ago, Stewart Brand wrote in the Whole Earth Catalog that we were as gods and that we might as well get good at it.
At roughly the same time, George Romero made Night of the Living Dead.
Guess which one inspires our culture today?
Fifty years from now, the zombie might have the quaintness of little green men, but for now, they are everywhere. Newt Gingrich observed some time ago that for better or worse, the Earth is about human beings now. The zombie is our reflexive response to the disgust this idea rightly inspires: a fear our modern world is a fragile thing that fights nature, enabling concentrations of power that persist when they should rightly decline. The zombie says that we are Greek gods, petty and short-sighted, bad gods. Fifty years ago, our lone Gnostic writer Philip K Dick wrote pulps; today his work still inspires movies.
Perhaps we should be more optimistic. Last weekend I attended Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s inaugural Zombie Workshop, to kick off their spring 2015 satire Zombie the American. Along with zombie movement explorations (we form herds so quickly when we pretend to be dead) and hilarious script scenes, the theater hosted a discussion of “zombie economics” with the law professor Ilya SominContinue reading

The pre-apocalypse

My writing group noted that my new story, though a different setting, is also a post-apolcyalypse tale, or at least post-disaster. One colleague included my novel in that theme, even though in my novel things are good, but about to get worse. It’s pre-apocalyptic, she said.
Something in that. My faith is that humanity will persist, but a lot of bad things are going to happen. By the standards of the past they already have. Like my mentor Philip K Dick, I’m less pinpointing details of the great shift, just exploring scenes after upheaval, where people have adapted to far different norms of environment and behavior. I no doubt absorbed this from my family history, for my parents fled war and Soviet occupation, and my own late 20th century life, where we took on huge social changes, and where the rest of the world changed vastly more. I greatly admire writers like Jim Shepard and Harlan Ellison, who change up place and time each story yet keep consistent in their approach and style.
Perhaps I’ll be more sensitive to this strain of pre-apocalyptic. I hope it will give me a way to glide across genre. I would enjoy writing historical.  Continue reading

Buying a Philip K Dick book (almost totally true)

Friday night after my son went to sleep, I walked up to Dupont Circle, to buy a Philip K Dick book as a birthday present for my friend V___. I gave her a copy of my novel too. It’s a rash and adolescent thing, to include one’s own writing along with Philip K Dick’s, but I did. Got punished in advance.
It was a warm summer night and I was dressed sloppily, shorts and mocs and a black T-shirt with a Triumph car logo over a Union Jack.
As I crossed P Street, a brown-haired white man blocked my path, clipboard in hand. This happens weekly. Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, US PIRG, Human Rights Campaign, all panhandling for virtue. But, I stopped.
“Excuse me,” the man asked, “but do you know where I can find an optometrist that is open twenty-four-seven?”
I looked him over. Isthmi of sweat on his black polo shirt. Gray jersey sweatpants in this heat. No non-profit badge. Crazy? Tourist?
“No,” I said. “We’re too liberal for a Wal-Mart around here. There’s an excellent hospital just a few blocks –”
“Yes, but I need an — I need, you know –”
“An eye doctor?”
“Yes!” he said, entirely too relieved that I understood him. Then the design on my T-shirt completely absorbed his attention. “Excuse me, but are you British?”
“No-oo. If you need a hospital, go down to 23nd Street and left five blocks –”
“But would they have any way of treating synethesia?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Drugs, maybe? I need to go –”
“Oh but thank you!” he said. “I really feel you helped me out. Is there some way I can recompense you? I don’t have –”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Just pay it forward.”
“Oh! Well. You know, I wish I could but I don’t have a sixth sense or anything?”
Ha. The Sixth Sense and Pay It Forward both starred actor Haley Joel Osment. ‘Method in it’ maybe, but I take the baby monitor after ten PM, and no one wants to be some sweaty loon’s Polonius. I walked away.
He shouted after me. “Don’t you think there should be seven senses, at least? Like, one of humor?”
One day non-profits will attack street performers for pissing off the bleeding hearts with schtick. Andy Kaufman was lucky to go first.
The bookstore was big and bright. I had hoped to buy my friend V___ a copy of Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, about an alien con man using a virtual-reality hallucinogenic chewing gum to become a messianic cancer. (Read it before you buy your wife a genetic upgrade.) Alas the only version in stock was one of four novels, in a staid black shrinkwrapped hardbound Library of America edition.
Doubly problematic. As a gift, one novel is thoughtful, four is peremptory. As a giver — OK, bear with me. I collected Philip K Dick books in my high-school days, long before he became respectable. I searched out all his yellowed paperbacks in any used bookstore I could find across America and Europe, less to own the complete set than to read his every fevered word. I am very glad he is being preserved for everyone on acid-free paper now, but for me, a Philip K Dick book without a luridly-colored cover misses an essential part of the experience, like an espresso in a sippy cup.
Of the others, the best choices were VALIS and The Man in the High Castle. I read pages of each. Both are gnostic texts, separated by two decades, showing Dick’s progress from a writer obsessed with the hidden to an ecstatic to whom truth was revealed. In The Man in the High Castle the Axis won World War Two, but one writer uses the I Ching to discover his world is a false one. VALIS is a thinly-veiled fiction of the visions Dick endured in the 1970s, which (after diagnosing his son’s inguinal hernia, which doctors missed) revealed a veil of false time had been drawn over humankind since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 72 AD/CE, keeping us from the return of the Messiah.
I went with VALIS, mainly because it’s a more desperate novel, and also because it had a Roberto Bolaño blurb which would speak better to V___.
On my way out I saw the guy with the clipboard, heading to the children’s section, talking to a bookstore staffer. He spoke with a British accent now.
Some books just leak crazy, irrespective of space and time. An essential part of the experience. I walked home wishing what I’ve wished since childhood, that I could write half as well as Philip K Dick did without suffering quite so much. I worry that I can’t. I worry that I already have and missed it.