In 2013, Bantam published an anthology of new stories entitled Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin, the novelist of Game of Thrones fame, and Gardner Dozois, the preeminent sci-fi anthologist of his generation and a highly regarded editor as well. The dust jacket features a suitably retro-style illustration by Stephen Youll (a rocket in the foreground, a bizarre assemblage of towers, domes, and minarets in the distant background, seeming almost to hover above an inhospitable desert-like surface).
In his introduction to the volume, “Red Planet Blues” (worth reading as an account of the formation of a writer’s imagination, even if you have no particular interest in fantasy and sci-fi), Martin deftly summarizes the history of scientific and quasi-scientific speculation about Mars (the lore of the canals and such) and his own immersion in the fiction it inspired: “Growing up, I think I went to Mars more often than I went to New York, though Manhattan was only forty-five minutes and fifteen cents away by bus.”
Alas, the series of Mariner probes NASA launched in the 1960s and early 1970s sucked the imaginative life from Old Mars: “the planet the Mariner probes showed us could not plausibly support either the swashbuckling interplanetary romances of Burroughs, Brackett, and Moore nor the evocative, elegiac fables of Bradbury and Zelazny.” The volume that Martin and Dozois edited (succeeded by a companion volume, Old Venus) is a defiant “So what?” So what if science tells us otherwise? After all, and contrary to the “purists” Martin loves to provoke, “science fiction is actually a subset of fantasy.”
We’ll leave that debate for another day. In the early 1960s, Philip K. Dick wrote two novels in which Mars figures prominently: Martian Time-Slip (written in 1962, released in book form in 1964) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (written in 1964 and published in 1965). These books don’t fit in either of the categories Martin gives us for fictions of Old Mars. Both are extraordinary, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch has justifiably received a lot of attention from academic commentators on Dick’s work. Martian Time-Slip hasn’t gotten its due.
That book was written at a strange moment in Dick’s career. For years, he’d dreamed of breaking into the “mainstream.” He’d written a number of novels that were not sci-fi, but none had found a publisher, whereas his sci-fi did. Still, he hadn’t given up. Martian Time-Slip, like The Man in the High Castle (written shortly before), could almost be called “science fiction for people who don’t usually read science fiction.” In fact, as Lawrence Sutin notes in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (still the best biography of PKD we have, though it came out in 1989), when Dick’s agent pitched Martian Time-Stream to Donald Wollheim at Ace, who’d published his books and would go on to publish more, Wollheim turned it down. “It offended my science-fiction sense,” Wollheim later explained. Dick had set the book in 1994. “There couldn’t have been a Mars colony when he put it—if he’d thrown it ahead a hundred years, I would have liked it.” This doesn’t make much sense; it’s not just the date of settlement that suggests Dick’s relative indifference to mere plausibility. In any case, happily, another sci-fi publisher took it on.
Thanks to the movies, TV projects, graphic novels and so on spun off from Philip K. Dick’s books, many readers are familiar with his name. But I’m not sure how many people are actually reading him. A lot of the passing references to him I encounter in print or onscreen suggest minimal exposure to his work. I’m not one to grab you by the shoulder and say “Read this!” But I wish you would take a look at Martian Time-Slip; start on page 1 and see if it holds your attention.
Dick wrote most of his books as fast as he could type (and he typed at furious speed). His characteristic method was to include in a single novel enough ideas and premises for eight ordinary books. For most novelists, this would lead to utter disaster, and even in Dick’s case the consequences are apparent. The prose is often careless; there are plot-holes you could drive a truck through. Writing on amphetamines for years was ruinous to his health and well-being and no doubt played a part in his early death. And yet this hectic routine produced books that are at once profoundly disorienting and grounded in the quotidian, grim and weirdly funny, brilliant and trashy.
The colonists in Martian Time-Slip (dependent on water from canals originally constructed by an ancient civilization on Mars) are under the administration of the UN (at which Dick takes jabs throughout the book). Early on, Arnie Kott (one of the principal characters, a bullying union boss) is reading “the previous week’s New York Times, the Sunday edition,” delivered late from Earth.
Reading further in the paper he came upon an article about a reception at the White House for a Mrs. Lizner who, as an official of the Birth Control Agency, had performed eight thousand therapeutic abortions and had thereby set an example for American womanhood. Kind of like a nurse, Arnie Kott decided. Noble occupation for females. He turned the page.
If I add that the novel also has room for “teaching machines” (very timely reading in 2018), some based on historical figures (Aristotle and Thomas Edison, for instance), others based on familiar types (you won’t readily forget Kindly Dad); the Bleekmen, ancestors of those who once presided over that ancient Martian civilization, now reduced to wandering (they are said to be related to African Bushmen); planned UN euthanasia for the so-called “anomalous children” on Mars, many of whom are evidently autistic, and one of whom is a central character in the story; themes of a late ’50s or early ’60s novel of work and marriage and adultery and reconciliation in the suburbs, transposed to a colony on Mars; the eerie time-shifts forecast in the title; and a classic Dickian protagonist, repairman Jack Bohlen (and this list is by no means exhaustive), I hope I will have done enough to persuade you to at least put a toe in the water of the canal.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech. Cropped from original.