This 1964 offering is the fifth book I have read by PKD (after The Man In The High Castle, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said) and it is probably my favourite from him yet. It is a novel of diverse characters and aspects: a domineering plumbing union boss, his do-gooder ex-wife, his concubine, a schizophrenic repairman, depressed and philandering black market luxury goods salesmen, property speculators, and an autistic child, all of which inhabit a Martian colony sparsely populated by mysterious natives. These disparate elements are bought together in a treatment of mental illness, reality, and greed which avoids being incomprehensible while being entertaining and insightful.
It is not too heavy handed, either. Often, the novel reads like a darkly comic soap opera from Mars, full of unhappy housewives, petty vendettas, and suburban ennui. Nevertheless, Dick’s mentally ill characters are the primary focus, and around them there are many observations about autism, schizophrenia, and the relationship between mental illness and the ‘normal’ reality. These ideas are informed by the author’s reading of Carl Jung, who is referenced throughout, as well by the author’s own experiences of schizophrenia in his early twenties. Autism and schizophrenia are portrayed in detail and with sympathy.
The book takes a speculative leap when it imagines how a mentally ill person’s perception of reality can be contagious. The world of the autistic child collides with the self-interested world of business and greed, embodied by a villain who is equally charismatic and unlikable. Here is the meat of the novel, where the perceptions of several characters become blurred with images of decay, time-lapses, and illusion. These are in turns inventive, jarring, and evocative.
Overall I would emphatically recommend this book for those new to Philip K Dick, as well as established readers, and those with an interest in soft SF, and subjects of mental illness alongside psychology.