Martian Time-Slip

Tags:  sci-fi, psychology,

Martian Time-Slip, published in 1964, takes place on Mars in the late 1990s. The United Nations has begun colonizing the red planet, “reclaiming” desert to serve as farmland and establishing settlements along the great canals. Water is scarce, as are fine foods and luxury goods. Most people subsist on water rations and whatever meager crops they can raise.

Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick

Jack Bohlen is a repairman flying from job to job in his Yee Company helicopter. He’s much in demand on a planet where new equipment is hard to get and old equipment must be kept running as long as possible. He can fix just about anything, from industrial refrigeration systems to encrypted cassette recorders to the animatronic teachers at the local public school.

Bohlen’s life is modest, humble, and mostly interior. He left a good life on Earth after suffering a schizophrenic breakdown and has for years lives in fear of a relapse. His repair job suits him just fine, as he’s free to range around the planet in his company-issued helicopter and apply his physical and mental energies to the repair of objects that were intentionally designed, that have a knowable purpose, and consist of well-defined interacting components.

Arnie Kott is Bohlen’s antithesis. The head of the vast water workers' union, Kott lives a life of ostentatious luxury. He dips into the union pension fund to supply his lavish lifestyle, treating himself to caviar and high-end liquor smuggled from earth. He has a big apartment, his own helicopter, a servant and a mistress. He loves being the boss. In his world, others exist to serve him.

He’s crass and self-centered, but also shrewd. He knows what he can get out of others, and he knows how to get it. Shower people with attention, flatter them, bribe them, and they’ll give you what you want. No need to force it.

Kott begins to suspect something is going to happen in the remote FDR mountain range. The United Nations has shown an interest in the region, as have some land speculators from Earth. If there’s money to be made, Kott wants in on it, but he can’t figure out what’s going on and he needs help.

He begins to believe–rightly, it turns out–that a deeply autistic boy named Manfred Steiner can see into the future. He wants to turn the boy’s mind to the FDR mountains, to learn what will happen there so he might know whether to buy land.

But how can he communicate with a boy who has never spoken a word and generally doesn’t even notice the existence of others?

He can’t, but after a psychiatrist describes to him the distorted sense of time and the richly symbolic inner worlds that characterize both autism and schizophrenia, Kott begins to suspect that Jack Bohlen can communicate with the boy, turn his mind toward the future, and draw out the necessary information about what will become of the land in the FDR mountains.

Kott puts Bohlen to work, trying to establish contact with Manfred Steiner’s inner world. To keep Bohlen loyal and interested, Kott sends his own mistress, Doreen Anderton, to have an affair with him. Anderton, whose own schizophrenic brother committed suicide, understands Bohlen’s vulnerable psychological state. She does not like the mission Kott has assigned him.

Nor does Kott’s servant, Heliogabalus, a member of Mars' native Bleekman race whom Kott has taught to read and cook and serve. The Bleekmen, hunter-gatherers pushed ever further into the desert by the expanding colonies, are on a slow march to extinction. The intuitive knowledge by which they live, along with their spirit and their way of living, is being displaced and ultimately exterminated by Earth’s corporate-industrial society.

Heliogabalus understands from the get-go the destructive effects of forcing a deeply sensitive and perceptive mind like Bohlen’s into the service of commerce and greed. While Bohlen subconsciously sees his wealth-driven society as sick, Helio sees this more consciously, and is able to articulate it in a conversation with his boss.

While Helio is reading a manual on how to repair his boss' prized harpsichord, he and Arnie Kott have the following exchange.

“Have you ever been psychoanalyzed, Helio?” Arnie said to him, feeling cheerful now.

“No, Mister. Entire psychoanalysis is a vainglorius foolishness.”

“How zat, Helio?”

“Question they never deal with is, what to remold sick person like. There is no what, Mister.”

“I don’t get you, Helio.”

“Purpose of life is unknown, and hence way to be is hidden from eyes of living critters. Who can say if perhaps the schizophrenics are not correct? Mister, they take a brave journey. They turn away from mere things, which one may handle and turn to practical use; they turn inward to meaning. There, the black-night-without-bottom lies, the pit. Who can say if they will return? And if so, what will they be like, having glimpsed meaning? I admire them.”

“Kee-rist,” Arnie said, with derision, “you half-educated freak– I’ll bet if human civilization disappeared from Mars you’d be right back there among those savages in ten seconds flat, worshipping idols and all the rest of it. Why do you pretend you want to be like us? Why are you reading that manual?”

Heliogabalus said, “Human civilization will never leave Mars, Mister; that is why I study this book.”

Manfred Steiner, the autistic boy, suffering from “a fundamental disturbance in time sense” that characterizes schizophrenics like Jack Bolen, can indeed see into the future, and this is the souce of both his detachment from daily life and his muteness. He is haunted by visions of death and decay, by visions of his own long, slow decline in an inhumane society that can’t or won’t understand his needs; that keeps him alive, alone and neglected for hundreds of years, even as his organs fail. He sees past death, to the ensuing rot. As Bohlen spends more time with the boy, intuiting the darkness of his thoughts and visions, he begins to tilt toward another breakdown.

Helio is also able to connect with the mute boy on an intuitive level. He becomes increasingly disturbed by Kott’s exploitation of the boy’s powers. The kid can’t talk or act on his own behalf in the social world, so he defends himself by manipulating from within both the future and the past of those taking advantage of him.

Arnie Kott, as crude and buffoonish and self-centered as he is, begins to sense this. He wants to control the boy, like he controls everyone else, but he can’t talk to him. “Why doesn’t he talk,” he asks Helio. “Explain that.”

“To escape from his dread vision he retreats back to happier days, days inside his mother’s body where there is no one else, no change, no time, no suffering. The womb life. He directs himself there, to the only happiness he has ever known. Mister, he refuses to leave that dear spot.”

“I see,” Arnie said, only half-believing the Bleekman.

“His suffering is like our own, like all other persons'. But in him it is worse, for he has preknowledge, which we lack. It is a terrible knowledge to have. No wonder he has become–dark within.”

“Yeah, he’s as dark as you are,” Arnie said, “and not outside, either, but like you said–inside. How can you stand him?”

“I stand everything,” the Bleekman said.

“You know what I think?” Arnie said. “I think he does more than just see into time. I think he controls time.”

The Bleekman’s eyes became opaque. He shrugged.

“Doesn’t he?” Arnie persisted. “Listen, Heliogabalus, you black bastard; this kid fooled around with last night. I know it. He saw it in advance and he tried to tamper with it. Was he trying to make it not happen? He was trying to halt time.”

“Perhaps,” Helio said.

“That’s quite a talent,” Arnie said. “Maybe he could go back into the past, like he wants to, and maybe alter the present. You keep working with him, keep after this… You think I’m nuts? As to what I imagine about this kid and his possible abilities?”

“You are driven by rage, Mister,” the Bleekman said. “A man driven by rage may stumble, in his passion, onto truth.”

Kott is obsessed with a drawing the boy made, a drawing of a future world, of the vast development that will soon spring up in the FDR mountain range. He pushes his servant, Helio, to force the boy to take him back in time, so that he, Kott, can place the first stake on that soon-to-be-valuable land.

Helio ultimately does his master’s bidding, knowing that Kott’s rapacious greed can only end in his own destruction.

Martian Time-Slip explores the author’s perennial themes: mental illness, the perception of non-linear time, the disconnect between people’s inner and outer worlds, and the psychologically destructive power of social, economic, and political forces on the human psyche.

Chapter five, in particular, is extraordinarily insightful. Jack Bohlen goes into the public school to fix a malfunctioning animatronic teacher. The teacher looks and acts human, and its artificial intelligence is sophisticated enough that it can carry on long detailed conversations, conveying a distinct and fully human personality. But inside, it’s just a collection of gears, electronic circuits and bits stored on magnetic tape.

Bohlen’s encounter with the teacher nearly triggers his second schizophrenic break. His first came back on earth, when he was working a dehumanizing factory job, inspecting tiny electronic parts on a production line that produced vast machines.

Bohlen’s boss called him in for a talk during which Bohlen’s perception of the man broke down. He began to see, in the person of his boss, not a man but a lifeless skeleton animated by machinery, chattering mechanical words without meaning.

The animatronic teacher recalls the trigger of Bohlen’s first breakdown, because it actually is what Bohlen had once perceived his boss to be. Not a living being, but a machine acting like a man. Bohlen begins to wonder if his initial breakdown wasn’t actually a premonition, a time-slip in which he glimpsed an actual encounter from his own future in this world where humans are replaced by spiritless, mechanical beings.

He’s disturbed by this uncanny feeling of time-travel, and by his inability to connect with the animatron. Schizophrenics, he reflects, don’t read the social cues and surface words of the people they interact with. They connect directly to the person’s unconscious, often perceiving dark emotions such as rage and animosity that the speakers themselves are not aware of. But the animatron has no unconscious. Its speech and actions mimic those of a living spirit, but there’s no felt or lived meaning beneath the outward gestures, and hence nothing for the intuitive schizophrenic to connect with.

His interaction with this spiritless non-being leads Bohlen to a revelation of what school really is: an institution designed to supplant an individual’s direct access to truth with cultural constructs that are not always in line with present reality. In fact, those constructs, as presented in the public school, are always a generation or two behind the ever-changing reality in which its students live. Here on Mars, the schools are pushing a culture that arose on Earth to students who don’t even live there.

The people who allow the culturally constructed truths to supplant their own lived truths become mentally ill. The entire society becomes mentally ill. People like Arnie Kott–the explioters–become successful, but they lose access to their own inner sense of meaning. They feverishly build a society that wanders ever further from spiritual and intuitive wisdom and that will ultimately destroy itself.

In the Martian colonies, the job of psychiatrists is not to cure people of their neuroses, but to help preserve them. The psychiatrists have finally understood that the world we’ve built is so sick, people actually need delusions and neuroses to cope with it.

Those who see reality unfiltered, like Jack Bohlen and Manfred Steiner, are overwhelmed with terror. Cultural artifice protects us from a world too frightening to bear. The people who fully buy into that artifice, like Arnie Kott, are the least troubled among us. They can’t see through through the distractions of material wealth and social status and personal greed to “the black-night-without-bottom” in which the meaning lies.

Philip K. Dick had his own struggles with mental illness, including psychotic episodes and mystical experiences. He went into that pit, and from it he brought forth insights that most people never attain. Chapter five of this book provides a brilliant description of how the human mind breaks down and of what it finds beneath the social and cultural constructs that keep it from going mad.