Skip to main content

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick - Kyle Arnold ***

Although a huge fan of science fiction, I've never been overly fond of the New Wave authors of the 1960s. Their ideas were remarkable - but their stories tended to be relentlessly bleak and unrewarding - a bit like post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd without the wonderful music. And there's no better example than Philip K. Dick. (It's Kindred, since you ask.) The sheer inventiveness of Dick's stories come through in the number of 'adaptations' of his work, from Blade Runner (taken from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to The Man in the High Castle. But the negative side of his work comes across in those inverted commas round 'adaptations' - the stories usually need a lot of adapting to be less odd and nihilistic to work for a wider audience.

I knew nothing about Dick himself before reading The Divine Madness, a kind of psychoanalytic biography that attempt to retro-analyse Dick's strange life and thinking. His upbringing was never going to leave him normal. His twin sister (the book says 'fraternal twin' as if he could have had an identical twin sister, which is odd) died of malnutrition, as Dick almost did, when their mother didn't manage to feed them properly. For some reason, Dick's mother then seems to have brought him up blaming him for his sister's death and telling him he should have died too. Alarmingly, they even put Dick's name on the gravestone. Throw in a mostly absent and uncaring father and it's not entirely surprising the result was a troubled young man.

All the evidence in the book suggests that Dick had a serious mental illness - from apparently staging a burglary at his home (the book's hypothesis as Dick never admitted it) to paranoid delusions - compounded by massive prescription (and other) drug taking. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this slim volume was the occasional analysis of Dick's stories and novels. I had read many of them (though I wasn't fond of New Wave, I read a lot, because I felt I ought to) and it was genuinely interesting to see how a couple of major underlying themes, revolving around the loss of his sister, and the idea that the world we experience is not reality and reality will occasionally poke through and show itself, are replayed time and again. The book also explores effectively why Dick's female characters are almost always evil or unsympathetic.

What I was less sure about was the heavy lashings of psychoanalysis in the book. Freud's work has already been pretty well comprehensively dismissed as pseudoscience, and there is little evidence that later practitioners had any more scientific basis for their work. The Divine Madness, written by Kyle Arnold, an assistant professor of psychiatry, lays the analysis on thick. One clear example of this is when the author claims that the song-game parents play with their babies and toddlers 'Rockabye Baby' plays out a death wish in which the parents secretly want to commit infanticide. Unfortunately, as anyone who has had children this age knows, the game, like the similar action game 'The Farmer goes a-clip', is all about anticipation of a safe drop - it's the nursery equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. It's not about parents secretly wishing to finish off their little ones, any more than theme park ride owners secretly want to kill large numbers of people in vehicle crashes.

There are times it is difficult not to wince when reading the book - and I certainly couldn't include it as a review on the popular science website due to the lack of science - but it does give some fascinating insights into the mental processes and life of a very inventive but tortured science fiction writer.


Hardback 

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…