Martian Time-Slip: In the upper echelon of Dick novels

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It’s easy to be skeptical when you crack open a book by Philip K. Dick; his output is hit or miss. The psychotic craziness of Dick’s personal life so often leaked into his writing that on more than one occasion his work features plots and themes derailed by a chaos seemingly external to the text. In the moments Dick was able to focus his drug and paranoia-fueled energies into a synergistic story, the sci-fi world benefited. Martian Time-Slip, just falling shy in quality to The Man in the High Castle or A Scanner Darkly, is one of these occasions.

The setting is Mars thousands of years in the future when the red planet is experiencing its second wave of civilization. The Bleekmen (Dick’s less than subtle name for Africans) are being pushed to the wastelands while those of European descent terraform the planet in capitalist fashion. The main character is Jack Bohlen, a recovering schizophrenic electronics repairman (sound Dickian??) whose day to day life can only be described as quotidian. Spiritually and morally grey, his dull love affairs do not prevent him from sympathizing with the Bleekmen, the group treated poorly by Union bosses like Arnie Kott. The moderately sized cast is slowly revealed as readers are eventually introduced to Bohlen’s bored wife, his uncle Leo the land speculator, Otto the salesman, and Steiner the suicidal importer whose autistic, perhaps schizophrenic son may hold the key to Kott’s plays for power as Mars develops one parcel of land at a time.

Unlike such novels as Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said that feature plots wandering digressively, Dick maintains focus throughout Martian Time-Slip. Though seeming to tread close to no-plot land on a couple of occasions, he never crosses the border. The conclusion is fully cohesive and satisfying. Dick also successfully experiments with the center of the book’s narrative. Shifting viewpoints like building blocks (imagine an asterisk), the resulting narrative structure may look like an M.C. Escher creation, but is fully supportive of the story — a profitable gamble that pays dividends at the conclusion. (1964 must have been a good year for Dick.)

Minor themes of Martian Time-Slip include the treatment of disabled children, suicide, schizophrenia, and artificial intelligence (a la Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) — all under the umbrella concept of colonial dystopia on Mars. The main theme of the novel, however, is materialism (in the commercial sense) versus traditional ways of life, particularly Africans and their perennial philosophy. Like our world, encounters between the development-minded colonists and the nomadic hunter-gatherer Bleekmen prove awkward and one-sided. Though not in-depth, Dick weaves voodoo magic, time warps, and wisdom of the ancients into the novel’s satisfying conclusion, drawing in the ethnic concerns of his, and unfortunately still, our time.

In the end, Martian Time-Slip is in the upper echelon of Dick novels. The story is well-conceived and presented and only typical Dickian complaints remain, e.g. poor prose, wacky anachronisms, etc. These, however, can be overlooked given the strength of the thought provoking storytelling. While stylistically perhaps most similar to The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, thematic content is, however, of a different mold. Ethnic values and capitalist conceits often take backseat roles in other Dick novels, but they come to the forefront in Martian Time-Slip. The result is a story featuring a dystopian Mars with many other elements Dick fans will enjoy — paranoid schizophrenia, sentient androids, and for good measure, a little voodoo…


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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2 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    I remember liking this one a lot, when I read it 25 or so years back. Thanks, Jesse, for reminding me why….

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