Echoes Returning Diverse Shapes of Reality: Some Resonances in “Alternate Reality” SF Novels

“We do not have an ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.”

- Philip K. Dick,The Man in the High Castle

Last week I charged myself with a sizeable task: to discuss Lavie Tidhar’s Osama in dialogue with two significant SF novels of the 20th-century: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. I had also aspired to write about two recent short fictions as well, but after re-reading Dick and Russ I realized that I had more than enough to talk about. So this week I will sketch out some resonances that crossed my mind in the reading of these novels, and how this thinking has changed my perception of Tidhar’s novel. In the process of doing this I want to consider the novum they share and how these books simultaneously utilize and question it.

All three novels emerge from a common SF novum, that of the existence of alternate, parallel realities. Now, all fictions posit some sort of different world; every novel is on some level framing and positing its own actuality. Each work of fiction generates an understanding of the world and, in doing so, creates a subjective conception of “the real” from which its story proceeds, a context for the reader to identify. While all fictions create this effect, some do more than shift the world a touch in one fictive direction an imaginary town, an infallible detective, an improbably romance on the moors). Fantastic literature embraces and intensifies the break, sometimes by creating a completely distinct other-world, sometimes by hypothesizing a future arising from the combination of “our” present with some innovation or event. In the case of these three novels, a more complex middle ground is created, of other worlds that directly relate to ours in some way but that are not speculations of where we might go or discrete secondary worlds. These three novels explore parallels and alternatives to what we the readers understand as our shared history and reality.

This core innovation is not just an “alternate history” because they are about more than positing a reworked timeline. The histories of these novels are about multivalent, parallel or overlapping realities that are related to and inform each other. The disjuncture between those realities, their impingement onto others, and how they influence the others and/or themselves create dynamic tension, suspense, and displacement in the stories. Dick’s novel is the most subtle of the three in this area, using the I Ching, the fictional book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and the trinket that triggers Tagomi’s brief shift in reality to create hints of another reality. Tidhar and Russ are more forceful in pulling the reader between worlds; Tidhar employs several narrative devices such as the interspersed snippets from the Osama bin Laden, Vigilante books and his protagonist’s moves, often passively, between two realities. Russ most explicitly converges her worlds with her colliding heroes who cross realities and aggressively interact with and comment on the others.

But it is important to not think of the alternate worlds novum as classically Suvinian, as some rational form of cognitive estrangement; in these works, it is a dynamic principle. The novum, as Istvan Csiscery-Ronay put it, “can imply an open question, a problem to be solved: what does newness mean for human existence?” In this case the authors are positing a newness that does not emerge from known science or history, but from imaginative reformulations of commonly-held conceptions of “the real world” outside of the novel.  Each of these is not a break from a monolithic historical narrative, but a fragmentation of the notion of a single reality. Thus, they create a “newness” that is not only implying an open question but that questions itself. In all three novels the characters must struggle not only with a history that does not jibe with the reader’s but with other histories occurring contemporaneous to their own. This struggle, a central element of each novel’s narrative, is what brings them closest together and makes comparisons between them fascinating. The newness contains a critique of instability not as the undesired opposite of stability, but as something that we do not examine closely enough in our own lives and stories.

Each novel’s approach builds on that element to create a reflective discourse on the nature of reality and a person’s place in it. Dick’s work is the one that plays with this element the least, staying in a third-person perspective that maintains a normative structure, even as characters talk and behave in unsettling ways and the story eventually shifts into one that muddles the accepted reality of the characters. Russ viciously attacks norms, not just of gender but of class and culture, with the actions of the characters intensified by the agency imbued in them. Dick’s characters seem trapped by their world, and they stumble onto the presence of an alternate reality; in Osama Joe discovers another reality partly by accident, and partly through his noirish questing, which has a seeming of predictability to it. These different levels of agency each serve the authors’ attempts to disrupt an unchallenging reading of their work. The question of fate and free will runs through both Dick and Tidhar’s work, but is most intense in The Man in the High Castle, where characters wonder why they perform certain actions and where agency must be stimulated by some outside force.  Tidhar’s Joe reacts, acts, accepts, questions, going from point to point in the story half-drifting, half impelled by the mystery he cannot solve, which turns out to be one that may have been of his own manufacture the whole time.

Through these fashionings of agency the three novels are written to unnerve the reader. For Dick, the changed history of the characters’ world less than a generation after the end of World War II is meant to be shocking, with the discovery of this other reality functioning as an admonishment to them and perhaps to the reader too. The casual racism of some of the characters accentuates this shock. Russ relies on some radical behavior in her characters as well, who respond to worlds that seem too stark and simplistic, but that when combined create an unsettling, evocative arena for debating sexual and gender politics. Tidhar’s Joe, in  contrast, is a very driven blank-slate, someone who goes out of his way to discover “the truth” but in the end relinquishes it. In each case, the author wants to throw the reader off-balance to make them ponder how ideology, cultural assumptions, and casual acceptance of the reality-story around you can imprison you.

Dick’s novel seems to be much tamer in comparison to the other two, perhaps because of the undercurrents of fate that run through the fairly conventional narrative. Russ fragments her narrative and empowers her characters with their own explicit voices, which then become intertwined, to undermine and rail against a long history of SF (and Euro-American society) that marginalizes women. The Female Man is a splintered barrage of ideas and images whose common point of departure is the alternate realities novum. And here is where Russ departs even further from the other two authors: in her creation of a dynamic space of possibility. As Jeanne Cortiel put it, the colliding and fusing worlds create “an intricate fabric of storylines, an interwoven narrative of possibilities.” This is a problematic process too, both within the novel and from a reader’s point-of-view, but that is also part of Russ’ point.

Tidhar’s point is not as hyperbolic, nor as strident. And there is a weariness in his characters, who seem often aware that things are not right, that we do not see in Dick’s motivated pawns nor Russ’ vocal, often fierce players. But all of them do aspire to a similar conclusion: that reality is not set, that the power exists to make different decisions, conjure different existences. Despite their fantastical elements, all three books are about the world around them; rather than creating another world that can be experienced as dispensable play or some sort of intellectual exercise, these books endeavor to make the reader pay attention to the fragility and confabulations of the reality around them. All of these books are textual soundings in the depths of the political waters around us, testing our notions of what is real as they emerge from the novum of alterity and urging us to pay attention to the possibilities that our stories of the world sometimes foreclose or obscure. This intention and its subsequent execution is what separates their versions of reality from those of many other novels whose alternate worlds shift as little as possible (ostensibly, at least) from generally-agreed upon ideas of what frames and constitutes “the real world.” We shape the world not only in our acceptances, but in our refusals and struggles, and if we listen carefully to those stories we can hear something echoed back that is not what we expected.

5 thoughts on “Echoes Returning Diverse Shapes of Reality: Some Resonances in “Alternate Reality” SF Novels”

  1. Dick’s novel seems to be much tamer in comparison to the other two, perhaps because of the undercurrents of fate that run through the fairly conventional narrative.

    Also, its much older than the other two works, John, and pre-New Wave. I think that has brought a lot of these tools and techniques to the F/SF field, or brought them to full flower.

    I contend that Osama could not be sold if Lavie was sent back to 1950 with a copy of it.

    1. It is pre-New Wave, but by 1960 the Beats were in full swing, for example, and while SF was still in a fairly rigid mode Vonnegut was nominated in 1960 and Sturgeon’s *Venus Plus X* in 1961, so there were some more daring voices seeping into the collective consciousness of the field. But I don’t think that sense of being “tamer,” which may not be the best word, is purely a product of historical context. Dick chose a pretty formal perspective for his novel and creates a grounded reality for his characters, one that for most of the novel is unambiguous. I think that’s an intentional choice and while some of the mannerisms and some of his turns of phrase are dated what makes it seem less bold to me is how agency emerges from the narrative. It’s a lot more constrained than in the other two novels.

      But I agree that in 1950 *Osama* would be a lonely, strange cry in the literary wilderness.

      1. True. Perhaps the field wasn’t quite as hidebound as I thought. But these things come in cycles and waves, as Jonathan and Gary have highlighted in talking about the Hugos over time, and Jo Walton’s stuff on Tor, too.

    1. That’s more than a nitpick – it’s one of the main points of the book. Thus I disagree with the author that “Dick’s characters seem trapped by their world, and they stumble onto the presence of an alternate reality” – it is precisely because the alternate reality is not that at all but actual reality which is contrary to the false world in which the characters are trapped that the characters are drawn – more than stumble – into it (and do so because of their moral rather than intellectual or professional virtues). Dick was Gnostic, remember, and so the Truth/God/Reality/Good are superior to artificiality and evil, like the Nazis, but Truth/God/Reality/Good are too weak to to do anything more than insinuate, suggest, hint at their truth (as KW Jeter put it, God is a “glass hammer”). That’s why reality is reasserted by the I Ching and a piece of jewelry (see The Divine Invasion, where this links to the Christian idea of the Incarnation as the weak child Jesus). Agency may seem weak in Dick’s novel because he’s concerned with the marginalized, the minorities and all the rest who are caught up in oppressive systems from which there is no simplistic escape.

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