Clans of the Alphane moon, by Philip K. Dick
Any book that features a telepathic yellow Ganymedean slime mold as a major character can’t be all bad, even if that book does show a frankly creepy interest in its female characters’ breasts.
Philip K. Dick has won a certain critical acclaim in recent years, with readers who wouldn’t normally look at SF being aware at the very least of his most acclaimed titles. Dick though was prolific. Sure, there was Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (best title ever?) and the other big hitters, but there was also a ton of pulp SF.
Our Friends from Frolix 8 (another great title). The World Jones Made. A Maze of Death. Clans of the Alphane Moon. None of them first rank Dick, certainly none of them literary Dick, but each of them a solid piece of classic SF.
Chuck Rittersdorf is in the process of being divorced by his wife, Mary, a famed marriage counsellor. Mary’s frustration with his lack of ambition has been building for years, and she’s enacting her revenge by taking so much of his money in the settlement that he’ll be forced to go for a higher paid job just so he can pay her alimony.
Gleefully she placed the last sweater in the suitcase, closed it, and with a rapid turn of her fingers, locked it tight. Poor Chuck, she said to herself, you don’t stand a chance, once I get you into court. You’ll never know what hit you; you’ll be paying out for the rest of your life. As long as you live, darling, you’ll never really be free of me; it’ll always cost you something. She began, with care, to fold her many dresses, packing them into the large trunk with the special hangers. It will cost you, she said to herself, more than you can afford to pay.
Mary is, unfortunately, one of the most sexist depictions of a female character I’ve read in years. There’s a lot to like in this book, some great ideas and a lot of nicely done comedy, but its treatment of women is actively unpleasant. Every female character description includes noting what her breasts look like, it’s dressed up in terms of some future fashion involving nipple dilation but it’s blatantly just something Dick is fixated on. The only woman to have any agency as a character is Mary, and she’s a self-deluding shrew. I don’t defend any of this. If you read this book you read it despite its monumental sexism. I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be read, because there are a lot of great ideas here, you just have to wade through some crap to get to them.
Chuck, the hapless husband, writes dialogue for CIA propaganda robots. He’s good at it, with a keen eye for comedy that gets the targets listening. His wife wants him to work as a scriptwriter for famous comedian Bunny Hentman (real name Lionsblood Regal, he had to tone it down, “who goes into show biz calling himself Lionsblood Regal?”). Bunny would pay a lot more than the CIA, but Chuck enjoys his work and likes being a public servant. If he’s going to meet his alimony though he’ll need more than a government paycheck.
Meanwhile, in the Centauri system, a psychiatric colony abandoned 25 years ago after a disastrous war has evolved its own unique culture. Now Mary has been appointed as one of the crew sent to reestablish contact, to provide aid to the profoundly mentally ill colonists, and of course to take it back under Earth control. They claim it’s a mission of mercy, but it’s colonialism plain and simple.
In the colony meanwhile, they’ve adapted and without anyone there to tell them they’re broken they’ve created a functional society. They’ve built cities, with the population of each sharing a common mental illness.
The Pares live in Adolfville, where they develop new strategies and technologies to protect themselves against their many presumed enemies. The Manses live in Da Vinci Heights, making new breakthroughs in art and science in a frenzy of enthusiasm, each of which they rapidly bore of. The Skitzes have Joan d’Arc, where they have ecstatic visions of a greater reality and act as poets and priests to the others. The Heebs have Ghanditown, a disorganised hovel where they eschew ambition and materiality and slip slowly into catatonia. There’s the Polys, from Hamlet Hamlet, who remain childlike for life, imaginative dreamers but impractical. The Ob-Coms run the administration, making sure everything works. Finally the Deps dwell in “endless dark gloom” in Cotton Mathers Estates.
The colonists have a council with a representative from each city, and the opening scene of the book where Gabriel Baines, the Pare representative, attends the council meeting is brilliantly funny. Gabriel doesn’t just walk in of course, he first sends in a robot double to check for traps. Once inside he changes seat, argues with the Manse representative, is frustrated by the Heeb who spends much of the time sweeping the floor, and waits impatiently for the Skitz who finally shows up floating in through the window.
They’re meeting because Manse telescopes have picked up the ship from Earth, and they’re wondering how to defend themselves. The Earth ship says it’s come to help them, but as one of its crew notes: “Those people in Adolfville may be legally and clinically insane, but they’re not stupid”.
In large part this is a satire on the artificial boundaries between sanity and insanity. The colonists may not have the greatest society in history, but the one back on Earth doesn’t look so hot either. When someone observes “Frankly, we feel there’s nothing more potentially explosive than a society in which psychotics dominate, define the values, control the means of communication.” they’re talking about the colonists, but as reader you can’t help feeling Dick’s talking about his contemporary America.
There’s some lovely irony as the people on the ship, the sane ones, justify to themselves what’s essentially an act of unprovoked aggression on their part. Here Mary briefs the rest of the crew:
Our presence here will accelerate the hallucinating tendency; we have to face that and be prepared. And the hallucination will take the form of seeing us as elements of dire menace; we, our ship, will literally be viewed—I don’t mean interpreted, I mean actually perceived—as threatening. What they undoubtedly will see in us is an invading spearhead that intends to overthrow their society, make it a satellite of our own.”
“But that’s true. We intend to take the leadership out of their hands, place them back where they were twenty-five years ago. Patients in enforced hospitalization circumstances—in other words, captivity.”
It was a good point. But not quite good enough. She said, “There is a distinction you’re not making; it’s a slender one, but vital. We will be attempting therapy of these people, trying to put them actually in the position which, by accident, they now improperly hold. If our program is successful they will govern themselves, as legitimate settlers on this moon, eventually. First a few, then more and more of them. This is not a form of captivity—even if they imagine it is. The moment any person on this moon is free of psychosis, is capable of viewing reality without the distortion of projection—”
“Do you think it’ll be possible to persuade these people voluntarily to resume their hospitalized status?”
“No,” Mary said. “We’ll have to bring force to bear on them; with the possible exception of a few Heebs we’re going to have to take out commitment papers for an entire planet.” She corrected herself, “Or rather moon.”
I’ve barely touched here on the plot. Chuck tries to kill himself, but is interrupted by his next door neighbour, a telepathic slime mold from Ganymede (“I had planned to borrow a cup of yogurt culture from you, but in view of your preoccupation it seems an insulting request.”) With the Ganymedean as unlikely mentor he decides instead to remote control a propaganda robot on Mary’s ship to murder her, figuring he can blame it on the colonists. Can the colonists defeat the Earth ship? Can Chuck and Mary reconcile their differences? Are the CIA right that Bunny Hentman is really a spy for blind alien insects? If you want to know the answers, you’ll have to read it to find out.
I’ll end with one final quote. I’ve chosen this one because it illustrates why despite the appalling sexism I still rather like this book. Here the council is voting on a plan that might just save them all:
When the total vote had been verified everyone but Dino Watters, the miserable Dep, turned out to have declared in the affirmative.
“What was wrong with you?” Gabriel Baines asked the Dep curiously.
In his hollow, despairing voice the Dep answered, “I think it’s hopeless. The Terran warships are too close. The Manses’ shield just can’t last that long. Or else we won’t be able to contact Hentman’s ship. Something will go wrong, and then the Terrans will decimate us.” He added, “And in addition I’ve been having stomach pains ever since we originally convened; I think I’ve got cancer.”
None on the blogosphere that I know of, though I’m sure there are some. There’s a great piece here in the Guardian though by writer Sandra Newman which uses Clans as an example of how some old-school SF could be at the same time wildly inventive and wildly offensive, and how perhaps both qualities arose out of the genre’s lack of literary credibility and so the lack of any need to pander to any expectations of good taste or convention. It’s a good article, and even if you never read the book I think her argument is still worth considering.
20 responses to ““It is difficult,” the slime mold thought morosely, to no one in particular, “to please Terran girls.””
>a telepathic slime mold from Ganymede
This is what makes his books a lot of fun to read. A strange thing goes on in your head when yet another idea crops up that’s both hilariously absurd and yet entirely reasonable when viewed alongside all the other hilariously absurd ideas already underway.
Reading your review has me realise I’ve read a few of his books now. I rather enjoyed Flow My Tears. Confessions of a Crap Artist was a huge surprise, not being SF at all. But I think a slime mold that’s fixated on human female breasts is the very limit of credulity. What’s not to like?
Oops, my fault, I was imprecise with my use of it. It’s not the slime mold that’s obsessed with breasts, that would be fine, it’s the book. Dick has a creepy breast fixation here. I might actually edit my opening line just to clear that up.
It is fun though. And yes, hilariously absurd but reasonable in context. At one point the slime mold debates whether someone knows Chuck’s plans because they’re a spy and he’s being set up, or if his plans just become public knowledge in the future and a precog is picking them up now. It’s mad, but in context it’s a bizarrely sensible hypothesis.
I’d not heard of this novel, Max. I’ve read one Dick novel but it wasn’t Sci-fi, it was noir. I have a stack from this author on the shelf as I’m convinced that one day I’ll get to it.
Dick wrote an awful lot, of very varying quality. This isn’t top rank Dick. The whole society formed of former mental patients and their kids is a great idea, and very Dickian, but the wider book is very much pulp SF. It’s not one I’d tend to recommend to those not already bitten by the SF bug (unlike some other Dicks, which I would).
Still, it definitely has a kind of mad charm.
I enjoyed your review, Max. Clans isn’t for me (the sexist stuff would be a barrier, I think), but I have toyed with the idea of trying Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I guess you’ve read that one – would it suit a non-SF reader, do you think? I’ve never read Dick, but I caught Blade Runner: The Final Cut at the cinema the other week. (Great to see back on the big screen in a new version, who can tell if it’ll be the ‘final’ one?)
Androids is good, but it’s actually fairly dense and challenging philosophical SF. It’s also not much like the film. Some great moments but I wonder without the film if it would be seen as being in his top rank work, not sure.
I’ll think what Dick I’d recommend, but it likely wouldn’t be Androids. A Scanner Darkly probably, which I consider one of the finest novels on addiction I’ve read (and surreal SF elements work neatly in a novel on addiction since much of it’s about communicating the sense of the experience rather than a literal truth).
That’s very useful, thanks! A Scanner Darkly sounds interesting…no rush, it’ll be something for a wishlist as I’ve started another round of #TBR20. (Roadside Picnic is sitting on the same list, so I might opt for that ahead of another SF novel.)
Good call I’d say. Roadside by the way is a very sad novel in many ways, which may be something to watch for when you’re deciding when to schedule it. It’s not escapist SF fluff. The main character has a physically and mentally handicapped daughter with degenerative symptoms for example. It is though compassionate I think, which means it escapes being sad for its own sake.
“Clans of the Alphane Moon” was one of a string of novels written during an amphetamine fulled stint,in 1963 and 64,for Ace,which regularly published mass produced science fiction paperbacks.As with others he wrote at the
same time,he was under pressure to churn out novels at a furious pace,and there was definitely editorial interference at work that would have shaped them to their requirements.This should be considered when focusing on criticism of the novel.
It was written not long before what would be called one of his more literary works,”The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,this time for a hardcover house,Doubleday.There is no doubt it’s one of his greatest novels.I can’t say any less than it’s brilliant.It’s future is set in stone,along with others of Dick’s books that have been accepted by no less,The Library of America,that houses literary treasures by it’s greatest authors.Yet strangely,those who have read it,will admit to it having been written in a somewhat pulpy,funny and surreal prose,compared to the more clinical and serious prose tone of “Clans”.Also,it’s concepts,albeit of a theological nature,are much wilder and weirder than anything in the other book,that does deal with the more pertinent issue of mental illness in society,rather than the metaphysical madness of TTSOPE,brilliant though it is.
However,it works,and I have to say that “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” is superior to the other novel.Obviously it wasn’t written in a cascade of books coming one after the other,as was COTAM.There’s a tightness in plotting,structuring and brilliance of thought for his themes,that’s lacking in the other book.
Despite this,you can’t get over the discrepancies.There’s excellent and terrible points in “Clans of the Alphane Moon”,as it seems in the greater,more famous book.It’s part of the contradictory nature of Dick life and work,that what he wrote,seems to defy literary convention,analysis or any reasonable sense.This was it seems,reflected in his own peculiar fiction.Furthermore,a coda to this can be found in another of his novels you cite as a lesser work,”A Maze of Death”.Like TTSOPE,it was published by Doubleday,not in a continuous stream of books,and is a far darker and more disturbing novel,that treats it’s theological subject matter in a much more serious and literal fashion.The other novel has a greater literary artistry and is more carefully planned thematically,but there’s definitely a more serious outlook in AMOD,compared to the comedic insanity of “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”.
It seems impossible to come to any defining conclusions regarding his opaque and multiplex stuff.”Clans of the Alphane Moon” though,seems remarkable for what it’s not.As for the sexism,well,in his early sixties novels,he was I think one of the first science fiction authors to feature woman characters as leading figures,such as Juliana Fink in “The Man in the High Castle”,who you will know,plays such a pivotal role in the book.Mary Rittersdoff is a very strong and fiesty character,who can hardly be called a sex object.It’s presense in the novel,seems to be another unexplainable piece of Dickian miscellany.
Great comment Richard, and thank you for it.
It’s interesting to know the circumstances in which the novel was written, and it explains a fair bit, but once written the novel is what it is. The circumstances may explain, but the novel is as good or bad as it ended up in essence.
I do think it has a lot of strengths. It’s no Three Stigmata, but then as you say that’s one of his greatest. It makes sense that this was part of a “cascade of books”, it has a breathless character to it, an outpouring of ideas good and bad slammed down on the page. The book feels amphetamine-fuelled.
But yes, discrepancies. Dick wrote books with strong female leads, he wasn’t necessarily a sexist writer, but I think this particular book is deeply sexist and while Mary isn’t a sex object she is an irredeemable shrew intent on maliciously ruining her ex-husband’s life. She’s basically a caricature of the grasping ex-wife writ large. In other novels though Dick’s far more balanced.
It’s as you say, there’s an inexplicable quality to him. His work resists analysis, even reasonable sense.
Re Maze by the way I was merely suggesting it’s not top rank Dick. I actually recall rather liking it though. It’s certainly more thoughtful though than the others I cited, Frolix and Jones are both much more straightforwardly pulp (though I like both, particularly Frolix which is a bit of a favourite even though I’d definitely argue it’s not top rank PKD).
As you say,a book is as good as it turns out,and COTAM is a fast outpouring of energy and fury that gives it a flawed but special feel,but I think it could have been different under more favourable circumstances.As he said,he’d finish one novel,and then insert a new sheet of paper in his typewriter,and then begin another book! He was unique,and unassailable under pressure.Those that published his novels for very little money,during the time he wrote “Clans of The Alphane Moon”,seemed to have cared for little for him as an author,even if they admired his genius.Ace wouldn’t have published “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,at least not as it appeared.The editorial changes in his novels were drastic.
It’s been said that he didn’t portray usually sympathetic females,which is true,but vituperative women,often “dark haired girls”,something not to be trusted and a sort of succubus,formed a strongly linked motif or theme,that gave his work some of it’s character.I’m glad he could create some more passive female characters though,such as Anne Hawthorne in “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,who is unmanipulative and religious in a personal way.I suppose it makes a difference.The later Donna Hawthorne in “A Scanner Darkly”,although a streetwise girl who sells drugs,is sanguine,and stands somewhere between the two poles the other two women represent,I think
“Clans of the Alphane Moon” and a few other novels written in the same time,including “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,reflected his own bitter marital state though.It no more than a sign of the truth of his life when he wrote the books.Probably the roots of the sexism.
It’s a pity about “A Maze of Death”.There’s an organic brilliance in there that I think equals “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich”,and the creation of it’s concepts and the incredible plot,equals the best of his career.If you look at the final part of the book though with it’s loose ends and the actual ending,there was once again though,strong evidence of editorial interference here,that marked it as flawed.I can’t understand why this was done by the same company that published TTSOPE,and wasn’t written in a rush.
“Our Friends From Frolix 8” was written near the end of the 1960s,once again for his old,distained publisher,Ace.He was begining to tire of writing the themes that had preoccupied him,and was looking for a new direction.The flaws and tiredness within,are no more than what he felt at the time.
Dick was one of the greatest science/speculative fiction authors of the twentieth century,as well as one of it’s the greatest literary figures,so I have to be careful what I say about him.As I’ve said,he defied literary convention and reasoning,but that was also what helped to make him great.
A marriage counselor who gets a divorce. Hmm. Does she still have clients after that?
I guess the sexism would get on my nerves and the spaceship adventures would be too much for me but I enjoyed reading your review.
I rather liked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? even if I found it difficult to read. (I should have bought it in French.)
That’s a point commented on in the text. It becomes moot, since she accepts the mission to the Alphane moon anyway.
Androids is very good, I just think it’s rather challenging. Having it in French would help, but I didn’t find it particularly easy going in English.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is truly excellent.I recently reread it once again.It’s told in a very precise but simple prose.The atmosphere is one of uneasy stillness and emptiness,but is oddly amusing at times.In one scene,you’ll recall,John Isodore and the android Rachel,are discussing their interest in old pulp science fiction magazines,in a very matter of fact manner,but needless to say,their world and situation is exactly one from those old-time space adventures!It’s done in a fashion of ordinary realism.
Only Dick could do this so deftly in such a serious scenario.without drawing any attention.He could render anything with an earthy eye.
Honestly it was one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read. I can’t say it was a masterpiece but it was one of the most fascinating and hilarious books I’ve read in a while. left wing SJW types will hate this book which makes it all the more worthwhile to read. Make sure you leave your feminist lens at the door for once and step into the mind of a man. PKD’s depiction of Rittersdorfs wife isn’t sexist – it is an honest portrayal of a sociopathic character (She would probably be diagnosed as NPD nowadays a diagnosis that didn’t exist when PKD wrote the book.) Also people make a lot of noise about his description of breasts but consider that the focus on breasts is only when the focus is on Rittersdorf and his viewpoint. It is just another part of PKD showing an honest view of a real human being with real thoughts and drives. . Every time I read the term “nipple dilation” i laughed out loud. I’d say that the focus on breasts is meant to be gratuitous and satirical considering how humorously they’re portrayed.
Why would someone else hating a book make you enjoy it more? That seems a bit perverse. Anyway, sorry to break it to you but I’m pretty sure I am a left wing SJW and I’ve read this about three times now so I’m not sure your political hypothesis holds up.
Dick is a great writer, but I don’t think I’ve seen it argued before that there wasn’t an issue with sexism in his work. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes. Lovecraft was deeply racist and some of his key stories depend on that racism for their power (Innsmouth particularly). I think one can recognise that and still enjoy his work. One can like something without suspending criticism of it.
I have found with a few writers that where they describe a female character’s breasts on first describing her then it’s usually a sign the female characters generally will be badly written. There’s occasionally obviously good reason to describe breasts just as there is feet or elbows or whatever, but mostly it’s a sign that the writer literally isn’t looking past the skin. Le Carre does it too as I recall, but it’s an oddly common issue.
It particularly annoys me with SF though. Partly as that’s what I grew up with, and partly because honestly if a writer can imagine telepathic Ganymedean slime molds (my favourite character in this), aliens, psychics, artificial intelligences, godlike cosmic minds at the end of time, whatever, then an ordinary human woman really shouldn’t be too taxing.
Dick was often quite a right wing writer in modern terms (which don’t really apply though of course since he wasn’t writing in a modern context). For example he wrote a short story which was pretty explicitly anti-abortion and then included a postscript saying that’s what it was about in case anyone hadn’t got the point. I rather liked it as a story even though I strongly disagree with its message (can’t recall the title, sorry). It’s perfectly possible to like a writer without agreeing with them. If it weren’t nobody would read Knut Hamsun anymore.
Anyway, glad you liked the book. If you haven’t, you should read Alfred Bester’s Stars my Destination (sometimes titled Tiger, Tiger) which again is politically pretty dodgy but which I think is one of the finest sf novels ever written and which I think you’d like.
This is a very sensitive issue,that does peeve me a bit,partly because I think you are right,if not entirely so,about an author whose characterisation I do admire,including of women,but also because it seems to be a stain,that appears to be untypical for an author who,as you say,can imagine “Ganymedean slime moulds,aliens,psychics,artificial intelligences,godlike cosmic minds at the end of time”.
I have to say,that whatever faults there are in “Clans of the Alphane Moon”,this is not one I remember.I also don’t particularly remember about the girl’s breasts! This is not to say,once again,that you aren’t right,but that particular detail seems to have escaped my critical notice.The point is I think,that such descriptions weren’t neccessarily typical of his female characters,and he frequently included strong,fiesty women,including Mary Rittersdoff in this novel,in his work.They weren’t necessarily there for ornamental purposes or cutouts that suited the plot.That’s probably why I didn’t pay any particular attention to it,as I knew he could do better.
I suppose I can’t disagree with you that there is some sexism in is work,but I think you’d have to look at at it in almost it’s entirety to see how frequently it appears.
I don’t think it’s really a stain, just a flaw. As you said higher up in the comments it may well be a reflection of his own marriage at the time. Books come from people after all and so carry those people’s baggage.
Ultimately I thought I’d given this a pretty positive review. I like the book. I think it’s a lot of fun and it’s imaginative too. There’s a lot to be said for it. I recommend reading it to anyone to whom the subject matter isn’t immediately offputting. At the end of the day though I also think that if one has a concern with a book one should flag it so as to warn the reader – and that’s true whether it’s sexism or a flagging middle section or a scene depicting cruelty to animals or a weak ending or whatever.
It can help going in to know both that a book is worthwhile (or at least that someone thinks it is) but also that it has a particular issue which may concern some readers. If they don’t care, great. If they do care, then at least they know it’s worth pressing on past that issue for the rest of the good stuff that’s in the book.
Even if it’s only a flaw,that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious,I don’t know.As I said,I never took any particular notice of it.That doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with it,but I can’t think of any purpose for it,and as you said of my earlier comments,it probably has something to do with his marital status at the time.