The sand dunes near Swakopmund, Nambia, desolate like the Martian landscape

‘Martian Time-Slip’ by Philip K. Dick

Dick’s great pulp novel of Martian settlement deserves a second look, despite its rough edges.

Christopher Walker
Aug 1, 2013 · 8 min read

The two great obsessions for those interested in extra-terrestrial human settlement have always been the Moon and Mars, though neither will prove to be easy homes. Moon dust is pervasive and destructive, each grain coated with a layer of a glass a few hundred nanometres thick and the powder extremely difficult to clean from clothes and equipment. And if it gets into the lungs it can cause severe respiratory problems. The dream of a human colony on the Moon is still little more than a romantic one.

Mars has been in our thoughts for centuries, and the idea of visiting it is hardly very new. It seems that almost every year there is an announcement by NASA, or their European equivalent, the ESA, of a plan to visit it, either with another unmanned probe or, in schemes every bit as unrealistic and dreamlike as colonising the Moon, a manned expedition. At the moment such a trip would effectively mean suicide for the pioneers.

Philip K. Dick, in his novel ‘Martian Time-Slip’, takes it as read that humanity will get there. He imagines a small colony struggling to survive, ruled by a United Nations governing body but split on national lines. He presents Schiaparelli’s canals as real, providing just enough water for the first colonisers to eke out a rough existence, and he imbues the planet with a life-form that looks vaguely humanoid and talks and acts and is treated like a combination of slavery-era Black American and Old West Native American.

It is very clear from which era Dick was writing, as he has found himself unable to look further than the prevailing political environment. The Cold War is a fact. Not only does he mention West Germany, but also “Communist officials from Russia and Hungary”. ‘Martian Time-Slip’ was published in 1964; the Hungarian Uprising was presumably still fresh in Dick’s mind.

However, Dick has managed also to look ahead and offers keen insight into life on Mars. The methods employed in the automated school system, for example, can seem rather prescient given our current fascination with testing. Jack Bohlen, a repairman at the heart of the novel, travels to the school to fix a malfunctioning teacher robot. Whilst he waits:

“From a magazine rack he took a copy of Motor World, and heard, with his trained ears, a switch click. The school had noted his presence. It noted which magazine he selected, how long he sat reading, and what he took next. It measured him.”

This is chillingly prescient. Jack Bohlen, who is borderline schizophrenic and struggling to deal with his mental problems, is quick to perceive the negative aspect of the school and its mission. In a section that could almost have been lifted from an analysis of the education system in Japan, he goes on to say:

“And yet he felt repelled by the teaching machines. For the entire Public School was geared to a task which went contrary to his grain: the school was there not to inform or educate, but to mold, and along severely limited lines. It was the link to their inherited culture, and it peddled that culture, in its entirety, to the young. It bent its pupils to it; perpetuation of the culture was the goal, and any special quirks in the children which might lead them in another direction had to be ironed out.”

As Jack points out, “A child who did not properly respond was assumed to be autistic.” One of the threads that run through this book is the idea of mental illness and Dick writes passionately about the world of the schizophrenic. Should they be sectioned off, destroyed (as one rumour from Earth has it), or in the case of Manfred Steiner, the schizophrenic young boy who is the driving force of the novel, should every effort be made to reach them?

It is this Manfred Steiner who holds the key to time travel, as it were; Dick’s notion is that schizophrenics live in time out of phase: time itself moves too quickly and every action rushes past the schizophrenic without being comprehended. Jack Bohlen is tasked with building a device to help communicate with Manfred Steiner, and the man doing the bidding is one Arnie Kott.

Kott is ostensibly of Swedish stock, but his dialogue makes him sound like a Deep South kinsman. Here he is discussing the native inhabitants of Mars:

“We had one of those UN boys visiting us the other day protesting our regulations concerning the niggers. Or maybe I shouldn’t say that; maybe I should talk like the UN boys and say ‘indigenous population remnants’ or just Bleekmen.”

Try reading that out loud without sounding like Beauregard Claghorn.

Kott is egotistical, self-serving, grasping, and vindictive, and yet he does not play the role of out-and-out antagonist. Dick is a better writer than that. Instead, Kott has redeeming features; he is one of the first to figure out Steiner’s potential, even though he wishes to put that potential to use in a way that financially only betters himself; he is swift to see the extent of Steiner’s power, beyond what anybody else had thought; and in the dramatic conclusion to his story he realises, somewhat belatedly, what it is to be human and a productive member of society. His story arc is by far the most interesting in the novel, and this is a rare thing in the genre.

So who is Arnie Kott, and how does he fit into the Martian society that Dick so compellingly illustrates? To understand Kott is to understand the future of human colonies, and to understand the future it is likely that Dick looked to the past, and specifically the pioneer spirit of the Old West.

The Old West has been mythologised, like in the spaghetti westerns and the films of John Wayne, and revised and made postmodern by the likes of Clint Eastwood in his ‘Unforgiven’, but whatever the portrayal it was likely a challenging place to live. Dick’s Mars is the same, only more so. On a planet where water is a rare resource, the Supreme Goodmember of the Water Workers’ Local, Fourth Planet Branch, was always going to be a massively powerful figure – and this is Arnie Kott. Powerful figures like to show their affluence by decadent means, and on Mars that suggests not only the consumption of water, but also its waste; and so we are introduced to Kott as he takes a steam bath, delighting in the knowledge that the run off is allowed to seep back into the ground instead of being reclaimed.

Kott is also one of the few people on Mars rich enough to afford a regular supply of alcohol, and where alcohol is concerned, the most expensive is beer as its production requires the most water. This is noted by Dick and then somewhat disregarded, as his principal characters instead crave expensive brands of Bourbon and whisky.

But this wouldn’t be a Dick novel without some form of narcotic playing a role in the story; the very first sentence of the book sounds like a statement of intent:

“From the depths of phenobarbital slumber, Silvia Bohlen heard something that called.”

How Dick fiddles with genre convention here – or, that is to say, the conventions of Western genre writing – is magnificently egalitarian. If you had grown tired of reading about a cowboy slowly sitting up in bed after a hard night of drinking, cards, and whoring, then you should enjoy this next part, as we see Jack Bohlen’s wife take stock of her condition:

“She felt irritable, and it occurred to her that she was not fully awake; she needed a Dexamyl, or her eyes would never be open, not until it was nightfall once more and time for another phenobarbital.”

Silvia’s primary role in the story is to show another aspect of the pioneer dream gone wrong: loneliness. She suspects, rightly, that her husband is having an affair, and as well as being angry with him for this she is also jealous, and wishes that she had the courage of her gossipy friends to do the same.

Jack himself serves two purposes. He has suffered his own schizophrenic episodes, thus linking him inextricably to Manfred Steiner, but it is through his work as a repairman that we can explore an often-forgotten side to the colonist’s life: the inevitability of decay. However, it is left to Arnie Kott to wax philosophical on this point:

“All Mars… was a sort of Humpty Dumpty: the original state had been one of perfection, and they and their property had all fallen from that state into nasty bits and useless debris. He felt sometimes as if he presided over an enormous junkyard.”

Dick’s Mars colony is a sad place, full of alienation and disappointment and anger. When he writes about these aspects, and about the nightmares suffered by Manfred Steiner, his prose rattles along tremendously and he comes across as immensely insightful on a number of points. However, Dick suffers from the ‘Dogs and Demons’ – he can write marvellously about the “intimations of filth and evil”, but when he describes the beautiful Doreen as she meets Jack Bohlen, we get this clunker:

“Observing the girl, he saw in her a vindication of a piece of old wisdom. Nice eyes, hair, and skin produced a pretty woman, but a truly excellent nose created a beautiful woman. This girl had such a nose: strong, straight, dominating her features, forming a basis for her other features.”

He also appears prone to starting sentences with present participle clauses; for example, in the quote above he could have begun ‘As he observed the girl’. It’s fine to use this alternative structure occasionally, but Dick uses it to such an extent that it becomes intrusive. Jack finally gets to kiss Doreen:

“Leaning toward her, he kissed her on her full, good-tasting lips.”

It is almost a pity that Dick has to reduce himself to describing these situations and these people.

The nightmare visions and hallucinations suffered by Jack during his episodes, and Manfred in his everyday life, are powerful and drive the narrative forward. You really do want to know what is going to happen next, and as each little conspiracy unravels we learn more about the characters and see how they have developed. Each is a product of their experiences, certainly, but even more so they are a product of life on a cold and distant planet; in their turn, each has become cold and distant, and you begin to wonder about the logic of moving off-planet to begin with.

Longform Literary Reviews

A collection of longer book reviews, essays that go further into the text than a typical Amazon review.

    Christopher Walker

    Written by

    English teacher and writer. Author of ‘Sixty-Six Little Lessons’ and ‘The Closely Observed Guide to Exam Preparation’, available on Amazon.

    Longform Literary Reviews

    A collection of longer book reviews, essays that go further into the text than a typical Amazon review.

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