52 Poems, Week 50: The Wish (Abraham Cowley)
52 Poems, Week 51: Miami Woods (William Davis Gallagher)

Sunday Night Journal, December 16, 2018

I have to report that I'm not enthusiastic about Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. On the basis of this and the one other PKD novel I've read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I guess I'm not enthusiastic about his work in general. In both cases, however, I read the book after having seen an excellent movie or TV series based on it, and thus couldn't avoid having at least some of my expectations set in advance.

Androids, as you probably know, is the rather loose source for the movie Blade Runner, which most critics, including me (I mean, if you define critic as "a person who has an opinion"), consider one of the best science-fiction films ever made. It's very potent emotionally. The novel is not, at least it wasn't for me. The characters never engaged me or even seemed particularly real, and I felt very little sense of drama in the story--which, again, makes it compare poorly with the movie.

More or less the same thing is true of The Man in the High Castle. As you probably know, the premise of the story is that it's an alternate history in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. The idea obviously has a lot of dramatic potential. Although I had a good many reservations about the Amazon TV series, it did deliver on that potential fairly well. Comparing the book to an expensively and skillfully produced ten-hour TV series (to limit the comparison to Season 1 only) may seem unfair, but I can think of several such comparisons where the book very much holds its own even to a very well-done adaptation (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance).

The novel seems pretty slight, and I suspect that most people who come to it after watching the series would find it so. Apart from the basic concept, and half a dozen or so of the major characters--Frank, Juliana, Togomi, Childan, a few others--the two don't have all that much in common. It's almost--not quite, but almost--as if the producers of the series took those elements and wrote their own story. After the first season, that's definitely true. 

The novel takes place almost entirely in the Japanese-ruled Pacific states, the rest in the neutral Rocky Mountain region. We get no sense at all of what life is like in the American Reich, apart from the fact that the Nazis have remained monsters in the roughly fifteen years since the end of the war, and if anything are worse than ever, having turned their genocidal mania on the whole African continent. (Obergruppenf├╝hrer John Smith, from the TV show, does not exist in the book.) The Japanese are portrayed fairly sympathetically, somewhat more so than in the series. Dick clearly has a fondness and fascination for Japanese culture. The I Ching plays a bigger role in the novel and in fact is a major presence in it. (In passing: if Dick is accurate, the I Ching, which is Chinese, is more important in Japanese culture than I would have thought.)

Well, it's tempting but would probably be tiresome to go on with a comparison of book to film. I think the book would seem slight even without the comparison. It seems basically cerebral. For me at any rate it held very little dramatic tension. The premise, the characters, and the events that ought to make for a very good story are there, but the intensity is not. And I doubt that anyone has ever claimed that the author writes memorable prose.

I felt more or less the same way about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Now I'm thinking that PKD may be basically a novelist of ideas. But what ideas? I'm not really sure. I gather from his Wikipedia article that he held (or played with?) somewhat gnostic metaphysical and spiritual ideas, the sort of thing that sometimes appeals to the sort of person who has both philosophical and scientific interests--who wants, for instance, to somehow combine or reconcile Taosim and advanced physics. Actually he seems to have been a bit crazy, in the way that a very smart person who has a great drive to fit everything into a mental scheme can be--Chesterton's logician who wants to get the heavens into his head. Maybe more than a bit crazy, actually. 

The Man in the High Castle seems to conclude with some sort of revelation, but I'm not sure what it is. It may be that the novel's reality is not the real reality, that the world where the Allies won the war is the really real one. But then Who's To Say What's Real Anyway? And to be honest I'm not all that interested. 

Merits of the novel as novel aside, I was disappointed in my main reason for reading it, which was to find out more about the films possessed by the mysterious title character which are of such crucial importance in the TV series. They don't exist in the book. The only testimony to a world in which the Germans and Japanese lost the war is a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the title character, the man in the high castle, Hawthorne Abendsen. Cool name.

*

Here's something I meant to post last week. Stu sent me the link to this article about the farmhouse in rural France which W. S. Merwin bought in the early '60s and still owns, though he apparently doesn't live there most of the time. The somewhat surrealistic poems that he was writing then touch occasionally something that seems to belong in just such a place--a door, a wall, a stone, a path--and I always thought it was a place where he lived, or had lived. This is very much like what I imagined, though the one in my imagination was much closer to being a ruin, which will not surprise you if you know those poems. 

*

Another LP from the closet: Joni Mitchell's Hejira. Released in 1976, it was the successor to The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which I wrote about few months ago, and it's just as good. I'd be hard put to choose one over the other, either for my own listening or as a recommendation. Musically they're fairly similar, though the instrumentation on Hejira is sparser overall--but it also has on several tracks the amazing Jaco Pastorius on bass. The lyrics on Hejira are somewhat more focused on herself and her romances than on Summer Lawns. Here's one of the best songs, "Amelia." It's one of Joni Mitchell's best songs, period, which is saying a lot: as a matter of personal taste she's not my favorite artist, but she's certainly among the major talents to have emerged from the '60s pop wave. 

I'm very glad that I have these two albums on LP, because the covers, which Mitchell designed, are beautiful (and on Summer Lawns include her own drawings). They're so good that I went to my local record store and bought, on LP, the two albums that came out after this one and which I've never heard, Mingus and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. I'm sure I will be reporting on them in due time.

Used LPs, by the way. I'm shocked at what people are paying for new ones. I certainly never thought vinyl would come back, and when it did start to come back I thought it would be a short-lived fad. But there's no sign of it going away that I can see.

*

As I have mentioned, we don't get much brilliant color here in the fall from the trees that actually choose to lose their leaves. But if you look closely you can still see some beauty even in the dull sycamore leaves, especially when they retain some of their green.

SycamoreLeaf

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The band I was in in the early 2000's often used "Coyote" as a set opener. We did a mix of originals and covers, and "Coyote" was probably the best of the latter. We were fortunate to have an outstanding fretless bass player, which helped a lot, and a very good female singer.

Re vinyl, I too don't see the point of buying expensive reissues if the originals aren't hard to come by. In my experience the difference in sound quality isn't great enough to warrant shelling out the extra dough. I've bought a few reissues, but they've been albums that have been either hard to find or prohibitively expensive (which often amounts to the same thing) in their original form.

I don't mind spending a little more for new releases on vinyl, considering that I'd most likely be buying them on CD anyways, and I generally only buy one or two a month.

I have never read Philip K. Dick, but I read a lot of SciFi when I was a teen-ager. Somehow I kept dozens of the mass market paperbacks and occasionally I will read one: Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Niven.... It pains me to say it, but for the most part they don't feel like the good reads I remember from my youth. Bradbury is still very good! I re-read Ringworld by Lary Niven I think last year, and was quite underwhelmed. Maybe all of this stuff is more appealing to teen-age boys? Dune by Frank Herbert is very good, and somehow no one has been able to make a decent adaptation of it. Well, I've seen two: the David Lynch, and the crappy one made for cable TV. I never read any of its sequels.

Hejira is a great album! I probably have 6 or 7 Joni Mitchell CDs, and when I look at them and think about wanting to hear her voice I almost always pull Hejira out, and I do especially love "Coyote" Rob!

As a Canadian, I suppose I should be more familiar with Joni Mitchell's music than I am. The only record I've heard is Blue, which I like, but not enough to go digging into her catalogue. I once saw her in concert, opening for Bob Dylan in about 1997, in execrable sound. Her music, as far as I could make out, was not well suited to a stadium show.

A lot of her admirers would say that's her best album. But I much prefer the two I mentioned here. Yes, I can well imagine her music would not be at all suited to a stadium show.

Stu, I had exactly the same experience revisiting sci-fi as a mature reader--most of it seemed pretty lightweight. It was disappointing. I agree that Bradbury is still good.

Wow, Rob, y'all were serious musicians. Even apart from the bass wizardry those are not your everday song structures.

Stu,

Asimov was the first SciFi I read and I just loved the Foundation and Robot books. Then when I decided to re-read them about 10 years ago, I was SO disappointed.

But, you are right, Bradbury is still good.

AMDG

Ha,

I just read what Maclin said about the Sci-Fi

AMDG

"Comparing the book to an expensively and skillfully produced ten-hour TV series (to limit the comparison to Season 1 only) may seem unfair, but I can think of several such comparisons where the book very much holds its own even to a very well-done adaptation (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance)."

Well, that is a kind of surprising statement because I never expect any dramatic presentation to live up to a book I've read. Only Brideshead and the A&E Pride & Prejudice have ever measured up. Blade Runner is different, though, because it really is not based on the book. It seemed to me like the writer of the film just read a couple of things in the book, and then wrote a completely different story. Sounds like MitHC might be similar, only not so much.

I liked the first series of MitHC better than the second, but I enjoyed them both, except for the increasing sleaziness of the second. I'm afraid the third series might be a mistake.

AMDG

I meant to say I like that picture very much. There is a blue sheen that really makes it. A lot of our leaves turned out like that this year. There were a few good red trees, but not much.

AMDG

I agree about The Man in the High Castle. However, Dick's short stories are interesting little explorationss worth reading.

I think a lot of the SciFi writers had real neat ideas and were not good enough fiction writers to express them well. I've been wanting to re-read the Foundation series, Janet. If it's hard to take at least they are short books!

I recall the Foundation books as being rather long, but I'm probably thinking of the whole trilogy. It is a trilogy, right?

Sometime around I guess 2004 my wife and then-teenaged daughter and I tried listening to a collection of Asimov stories on CD. They were utterly, embarrassingly awful. We didn't get very far.

Janet, I think we're basically saying the same thing about dramatic adaptations, just with a little different emphasis.

Glad you like the picture. I think that blue sheen is a reflection of the sky. It had rained but the sun was out.

There's at least one PKD short story collection at our local library, Minority Report and Other Classic Stories. I can imagine some of his ideas might make better stories than novels. I thought the movie based on the title story was pretty good though I don't know how faithful it was.

Did you ever watch Electric Dreams?

AMDG

Yes, not long ago as a matter of fact, and I thought it was mostly pretty good. But it's probably significant that I had to look it up on Wikipedia to remember what most of the episodes were about, and even having done that can't remember how they turned out. Maybe that just means I watch too much tv/movies.

Did you notice that Bryan Cranston aka Walter White was one of the producers?

I only watched two, and meant to get back to them, but it must have been in one of those periods when there was lots to watch
I remember them well. I was wondering if they were made from the short stories Richard was talking about.

AMDG

"The Hood Maker" is one of the few titles from the series that I recognize in the list of his short stories, and I think it's one of those you saw. That could just be my memory. I also can't remember whether in the credits for the episodes they mentioned the stories they were based on. I *sort of* think they did and that the title of the episode wasn't necessarily the same as that of the story.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_K._Dick_bibliography#Short_stories

"The Hood Maker" did not make the cover of the magazine in which it appeared.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hood_Maker#/media/File:Imagination_195506.jpg

Hey Mac, just a note to let you know I'll have a poem for you this evening.

"y'all were serious musicians"

Yeah, I've been fortunate over the years to have worked with some very solid players. As a self-taught musician it's been a real education to play with people who actually know what they're doing!

Definitely not garage-band stuff.

Thanks for letting me know that the poem is coming--I would have been getting anxious by late afternoon.

As a self-taught musician it's been a real education to play with people who actually know what they're doing!

I once sang in a choir where almost everyone else was a professional musician. We would just pick up complicated pieces of music and sing. It was really great for me because I had to learn a lot to be able to keep up. I would have to take the music home and really work on it before the next practice.

AMDG

Re: the price of new vinyl LP's. I found this inflation calculator online which tells you how much something would cost today based on the price you paid for it in a given year. Turns out that new vinyl record prices have kept up almost exactly with inflation (a new $8.99 record purchased in 1986 would cost roughly $21.00 today). What prompted this was my finding of an album I bought in 1986 that had the price sticker intact, and my wondering about the comparative price today.

LP's were basically unavailable for a period of roughly 20 years. When we last commonly saw them they were going for $8-$10 a pop. Suddenly they reappear and are priced in the $18-$22 range, which seems high in comparison to when we last saw them.

They also seem expensive because CD prices have actually dropped considerably since the 90's in terms of inflation. CD's were quite expensive when they first came out in the mid-80's (almost double the price of LP's) but then they leveled off and have remained relatively stable ever since. If CD prices kept up with inflation they'd cost $23.00 today.

Here's the calculator, if you're interested in giving it a go:

https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/

Wow. My $4 LP in 1965 would be $31 today.

The comments to this entry are closed.