Fairwood Press has reissued Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas – originally published in 1987 as The Secret Ascension (an inferior title) – providing a lovely new edition of Michael Bishop’s great work of political satire coupled with homage to PKD.
The PKD in this book was known for his realistic fiction and had to publish his science fiction masterpieces as samizdat under the interminable reign of “King Richard” – Richard Nixon, who, in this novel not only didn’t resign but was able to remain in office in perpetuity. Nixon is also dead, now. That statement doesn’t merit an alas.
Both homage and satire are tricky art forms, but Bishop is a master of both. From the Brezhnev bears to the exorcism on the Moon to the inclusion of Thomas Merton, it’s clear that he’s channeling Dick, but at the same time I found myself getting caught up in the lives of Cal Pickford, an out-of-place cowboy working in a pet store, and his therapist wife Lia Bonner, who is treating the ghost of PKD. I even found myself rooting for some of the characters doing evil things.
While I have enjoyed many of Dick’s stories, I don’t think I ever identified much with his characters. Making you like people in a satirical story is a trait of Bishop’s – he just can’t help writing three-dimensional characters.
He couldn’t make me root for Nixon, but his Tricky Dick seemed all too true to life – the awkward conversations with real people, the behind-the-scene machinations. And while Nixon is history to most people today, the kind of politics he engaged in is still around.
As I said when I blurbed the book (yeah, I liked it that much), “If you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world today, you need to read this book.” That is, it does what good satire is supposed to do: shows you the truth of what’s happening just out of reach.
I don’t want to try to summarize the plot – half the fun of reading this book is finding out where it goes.
But I will quote the poem that Cal (and a couple of other people) wrote when they found out that Philip K. Dick had died:
Philip K. Dick is dead, alas.
Let’s all queue up to kick God’s ass.
Fortunately, Michael Bishop is still very much with us and Fairwood Press is keeping his work available. Go read this book.