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

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…