Disturbing Scifi from the 1960s #sciencefiction #mentalhealthcare #scifi

I recently read a story by Philip K. Dick, a scifi author from the Golden Age. Buck Rogers it ain’t!

Science ficiton book cover - Martian Time SlipDick explored philosophical, social, and political themes, with stories dominated by monopolistic corporations, alternative universes, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness. wikipedia

I read every word, all the way through, but “fun” is not the right description.  Mild spoilers follow.

The book comes from 1964. I think the right approach today is to view the story as the alternative history of a Mars colony in 1950s. Mars is barely habitable in shirt sleeves, with sparse plants and animals and a nearly-extinct race of Martians. Colonists use mimeograph machines and secretaries take dictation with a pad and pencil. Fascinating robotic teachers indoctrinate children in proper earthly culture.

Less adorably, one of the main characters makes remarks that are homophobic, misogynistic, and racist. He’s the villain, and casually cruel to everyone, but this can be off-putting. He uses the n-word to describe Martians who apparently look very much like African Saan people (another term for these people, Bushmen, is sometimes considered derogatory, depending on the usage.) There’s a brief suggestion that Martians and Humans were both seeded by some alien intelligence and so are related.

Despite the Martian setting, the story is about schizophrenia, which has become much more common on Mars than it is in real-life today. That term and “autism” are both used, and Dick presents his scifi interpretation of them – those effected experience multiple times in the past and future, which prevents them from relating to “normal” people. The visions these people experience (and we get to see through their eyes) are gruesome and apocalyptic, even for people with mundane lives. Dick gives a striking feel for such disconnects with repeated scenes, sometimes out of sequence, from different characters in the scene. The story shows sympathy for it’s characters, even the unsavory ones.

While it’s not an action-packed tale, terrible things happen in this story. There is guilt and shame from the father of an autistic boy. There is infidelity. There is suicide, and given Dick’s own dark life experiences, I wonder if this comes from something more real than imagination. That will keep me thinking about the book for a long time.

Cover of scifi magazine Galaxy

Dick wrote the cover story for this edition

I know a lot has changed in American culture since the story was written. I suspect a lot has changed in our understanding of schizophrenia and autism too, but I have no idea how readers familiar with these conditions will feel about the story. Please leave a comment and let me know.

The book, republished in 2012, is popular on Amazon and has 4 stars, where several reviewers find it’s look at mental illness to be kindly and sympathetic.

BTW, you know Dick’s work. The movies Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report are based on his writings.

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5 thoughts on “Disturbing Scifi from the 1960s #sciencefiction #mentalhealthcare #scifi

  1. Children are born. And; “I’ve come to a realization, and that is, when a society takes young minds and fills them with anything but a logic based truth, or a fundamental understanding of the way things actually are, then conflict is inevitable and morons will appear”. This is from the book I’ve been working on. What ever we think is wrong with humanity I can assure you, it is much worse than anything we can imagine, and we all now what the holocaust was. I know there are people with good intentions yet there is somehow never enough good to overcome the bad. The reason I think is simple, we have yet to recognize the cause of all this human suffering. From the very beginning humanity has taken a wrong turn and what this has led to is a global psychosis where people begin to accept what is truly unacceptable. We need look no further than the US government to see mental illness manifesting as normal behavior.

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      • When people began to reason what made them invent explanations instead of admitting that they just didn’t know how to answer a lot of very profound questions? Their inventions were the product of some reasoning, yet it was mainly superstition and exorbitant claims. Now consider that, what they set in motion (a stream of consciousness) still guides the actions of many people today. God is in a cracker, old men marrying children, people blowing themselves and other’s to bits to have a bunch of virgins. Women forbidden to drive a car. Much of this brain washing is of course religious, but the conditioned mind is not limited to religion alone.

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