There are some names in literature that for some reason intimidate me before I even read a word of their work. Since I’m not a voracious reader I think I have a tendency to put some authors on a pedastal. When I do get around to reading something by one of the “greats”, I feel silly for having avoided them for so long.
So it was with science fiction legend Philip K. Dick, whose canon I have finally entered by reading his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. Why this one, and not one of his more famous works such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or A Scanner Darkly you might ask? My wife owns a copy so that’s the one I decided to start with, that’s why.
As I made my way though the story of Ragle Gumm and his struggle to break through what he at first only vaguely feels to be the false suburban reality he is trapped in, I thought to myself, “self, this would make a neat movie.” Then I remembered, “self, you’ve seen The Truman Show haven’t you?” It’s the same basic premise really, except that instead of putting the protagonist into a fake world for the amusement of a TV audience, Gumm is placed into an idealized 1950s neighborhood to keep him focused on a very important task – entering and winning a newspaper contest called “Where will the little green man be next?” It’s sort of a precursor to Where’s Waldo?, but it involves statistics and probability so it’s five times as hard and half as fun.
It’s a fun read, but nothing special really. Dick keeps the action moving along at a good clip, and drops enough hints along the way to keep things interesting. After some tentative steps and a few red herrings the central theme of “the world is not what it appears” takes center stage. Gumm’s efforts to figure out just what is going on around him, and then to escape it, are the most interesting aspects of the novel.
I think what ultimately dulls the impact of this book for me is the big revelation of just why Gumm’s work on the newspaper puzzles is so important that he is forced to live in a fantasy world. I don’t want to give it away totally, but basically it involves nuclear missiles and lunar colonists.
In the late ’50s these plot devices would’ve been of no small impact, seeing as how instant nuclear annihilation was a very real and commonly perceived danger and the moon was still the subject of much mystery. But now it all seems rather quaint. That’s not a knock on Dick mind you – he was merely writing of what he knew, but Time Out of Joint reads more like a time capsule of American phobias now than anything else.