Friday, December 10, 2010

Lovecraft and Dick

I was reading science fiction when I was too young to know it was science fiction.  Recently, however, something has rekindled my love of the genre and I've been going back through stuff I should have read years ago and somehow missed.  Two works of short science fiction I devoured recently are reviewed here, by two of my favorite genre authors, Lovecraft and Dick.  I chose these two particular works because I feel they are some of the most poignant, most imaginative, and the most accessible of each authors' works to people who are not familiar with science fiction or who have not read these authors before.  Even non-genre fans will enjoy.

Title:  A Colour Out of Space
Author:  H.P. Lovecraft
Pages: approx. 35
Publication Date:  1927

One sentence synopsis:  An unwitting surveyor preparing to turn an old settlement into a reservoir stumbles across a mystery from half a century previous involving a strange and brilliant rock that fell from the heavens.

The Colour Out of Space is a perfect blend of horror and science fiction.  It also tells of the most alien creature ever to appear in literature or film.  Many alien stories and movies depict aliens that are either humanoid in some form, have thoughts and motives that we can relate to on some level, and behave in ways that, while we may not be able to sympathize, we can at least logically understand.  The creature in The Colour Out of Space has no form that can be described using human adjectives.  Its motivations are as foriegn as its appearance.  Its powers we can see the effects of, but we cannot fathom exactly what it is doing.  How, you ask, can a writer craft a story if his creation cannot be captured in words? Read this story.  NOW!

The Colour Out of Space lays to paper some of the most beautiful phrases and emotions I've ever read.  That's coming from an obsessive logophile. What should have taken me an hour to read took probably three hours because I had to keep going back to savor the heartbreaking loveliness of a particular passage, to consume a line of dialogue.  This story does for science fiction what Hamlet did for drama.

The story:  Told through first and second hand accounts of a past event, the tale unfolds to a man who starts out as a skeptic.  A meteroite crashes on a farm and is taken to a lab for examination with bizarre results.  Finally, it fades away, leaving something behind that begins to slowly taint the entire landscape, causing devastation to the farm and the family living on what is called by locals "the blasted heath."  Read it for that description alone:  "the blasted heath." 

News:  While waiting impatiently for del Toro's At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft fans can try to get their hands on a copy of the DVD or Bluray of Germany's Die Farbe, an indie release of an adaptation of A Colour Out of Space that has been getting better reviews than most Lovecraft adaptations.

3.99 for all Lovecraft in one bundle on kindle.  That is the best way to go if you're just wanting to dabble in his material.  Some of it can be quite daunting, however Colour Out of Space is the perfect starting point.

Title:  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author:  Philip K. Dick
Pages:  approx. 135
Publication Date:  1968

One Sentence Synopsis:  In a partially deserted earth-future of fallout dust and aptitude tests, renegade androids who have killed their masters and fled to earth to try to make a life for themselves are hunted by bounty hunters for 1,000 dollars a piece, money that can buy the much-coveted living animal pet.

The movie blade runner, while based on this book, has flip-all to do with it beyond some surface scrapings.  I was a fan of Blade Runner as a teenager, but I hadn't read a lot of Dick at the time. 

Pervading themes throughout the book are loneliness, empathy, identity, and destiny.  All of these are things that slap us into reality as we move from birth to death.  But in a world where only the genetically unaltered from fallout dust can immigrate to other planets and procreate, where android slaves are used as incintive to do so, and where animals from spiders to elephants are all but extinct and coveted as signs of wealth and humanity, loneliness and destiny begin to define life.

The Story:  Bounty hunter  Rick Deckard, in the middle of a stressful time in his marriage, dons his fallout-proof codpiece and hits the hovercar-highway to hunt down renegade android murderers so he can buy a real animal to replace the electric sheep he has grazing on his rooftop garden.  The importance of the animals invades all aspect of life on earth.  Without public displays of affection toward helpless creatures, one can be suspected of being an android.  Affection toward raising and keeping animals has become a measure to define humanity.  Androids do not feel empathy or care to have animals.  At least that is the general consensus.

Rick's been looking for a big break and he might have found it when a group of android hellions murdered their slavemasters on the Mars colony and fled to earth to rape and pillage.  But what Rick finds on his 24 hour journey to bring them to justice (i.e. retire them, i.e. kill them) will challenge the very fabric of his humanity.  Through encounters in his day-long task, Rick finds questions about what makes someone human, worthy of life and respect, and what weight should be put upon intelligence, organs, and acts of despiration.  Questions to which there are no answers.

Another important theme:  Religion is as central to human life on this future-earth as pet ownership.  Mercerism is the religion of the day.  Only humans are allowed to participate in Mercerism because it centers on empathy for all actual living things and a desire for human companionship.  Because the earth is so sparsely populated after the last World War, from death and immigration, many people live their lives without much human contact.  Mercerism connects them to other human beings.  Through Mercerism, Dick explores what makes people human, what draws people to each other, and what a person (or Android) becomes when left out of the circle of humanity.

In so few pages, Dick tells a story so vast and important that it should be required reading.


  1. I'm just glad I finally badgered you enough that you broke down and read Colour. How many months did it take? :-D

    DADoES is probably my favorite Philip Dick. Anything written later than that is muddled by a deepening drug addiction, and by the mid-70s he was psychotic to boot, so his late stuff isn't worth a bother. But in '68 he was still coherent, and it illustrates how great a loss his decline and death was.

  2. It was about 4-6 months of badgering! LOL And I'm glad I did. About PKD, I noticed there are collections of his works from the sixties. Figured I'd get the whole thing for my Kindle and just read those for now. I read Minority Report as a teenager but don't remember much about it.