Published in 1969, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik takes place in a fictional future of 1992. The corporate world is plagued by spies from Ray Hollis' psionic agency. The psionics have various psychic powers including telepathy and precognition. They infiltrate organizations to steal their valuable secrets. Joe Chip is a tester for Runciter Associates, the world’s leading prudence organization. Prudence organizations find “inertials,” people whose psychic counter-talents can neutralize the talents of Hollis' psionics.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch opens in New York City in an unnamed year of the twenty-first century. Barney Mayerson, a pre-fash consultant for Perky Pat Layouts, drank too much the night before and slept with his new assistant, Rondinella “Roni” Fugate. Mayerson and Fugate are both precogs, blessed with a talent for seeing into the future. At P.P. Layouts, they evaluate common cultural objects for “minning” (miniaturizing), to be sent to the colonies on Mars, Venus, and a number of moons throughout the solar system.
Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle presents an alternate reality in which the Allies lost World War II and the Axis won. The book was written in, and takes place in, the early 1960’s. Unlike many of today’s dystopian alternate-history novels, which tend to be dark and somber, Dick’s story is darkly humorous. Instead of focusing merely on how the victors oppress the vanquished, Dick transposes the absurdities and petty quarrels of twentieth century life onto an America colonized by Japan, a world in which two cultures, fundamentally at odds, must coexist without being able to fully understand each other.
Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice is science fiction of the highest order: a meditation on man’s place in the cosmos, an examination of the limits of our knowledge, and a scathing condemnation of how politics influences the practice of science. Originally published in 1967, this title, along with a number of Lem’s other works, was reissued in 2020 by MIT press. The opening chapters provide a brief backstory. Australian scientists, granted access to the Palomar Observatory, spent two years studying neutrino emissions raining down from space.
The most disturbing thing about this book is that the vapid, false, and mind-numbing world that the media produces and the population so whole-heartedly consumes is so much like our own. The narrator points out more than once that the government didn’t take the initiative to ban books (and by extension, reflection and depth of thought and experience); the people themselves stopped wanting them. In this world, humanity has rejected its own cultural history and the hard-won wisdom of preceding generations in favor of comfort and isolation.
This classic has good suspense and, as always from Levin, is well plotted. I won’t bother to summarize, since so many others already have, but it’s interesting to see a writer bring out the spooky side of sunshine and clean floors and fresh-smelling laundry. If you took the TV commercials of the 1970’s at face value, with their cheerful housewives happily cleaning perfect homes, and built a world that embodied what those commercials portrayed, you’d come up with Stepford.
The narrator of We, D-503, is a mathematician and engineer, the primary designer of a rocket called the INTEGRAL. D-503 is a citizen of the totalitarian OneState, in which the Benefactor presides over a society of perfect reason. People are “Numbers.” There is no I anywhere in the society, no concept of an individual. Each Number is simply a component of the larger We. Everyone’s daily lives are governed by the Table, which tells them when to get up, when to eat, when to work, when to have sex, how many times to chew each mouthful of food, etc.
Solaris is a planet in a distant galaxy that orbits two suns. The laws of physics say that the planet should have been swallowed up by one of the suns as gravity drew it closer and caused the orbit to descend. Curious as why this hasn’t happened, scientists from Earth send satellites to observe the planet. The satellites find that Solaris is covered entirely by a vast sea, and this sea moves against gravity when it needs to, in order to affect the orbit of the planet.
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