Monday, September 24, 2012

Filled Ick

I spent the weekend at a Philip K. Dick Festival, I did. It was at San Francisco State, not too far away, the program looked (and turned out to be) highly interesting, it was inexpensive, and it was to be an intensive study of the work of one of my favorite SF authors, so what's not to like?

The organizer, a lecturer in the SFSU English department, kept insisting that this was a Festival, but it was really a small academic conference, about the same size (100+ people) as Mythcon, and similarly featuring papers and other formal presentations. There were several names I recognized as stars of PKD studies, including some fiction authors like Jonathan Lethem and Rudy Rucker, but there were only two people present I knew personally. I'm not a Dickian scholar myself, just a fan of his work, so I didn't expect anybody else to pay any attention to me, but I got to make a few comments after papers and had a few interesting and friendly conversations here and there: particularly one with Umberto Rossi, an Italian scholar with good idiomatic English but the most amazing accent, who had made a passing comparison of PKD with C.S. Lewis. I was able to flesh out his knowledge of that other author a little bit.

The papers and talks were lucid and insightful. My brain was swelling but my body was sore from all that sitting. What struck me most was how productive PKD's work is: angles of politics, of science, of prose style and characterization, of literary context, of philosophy, of religion, were all addressed productively. Behind many of the talks was an awareness of the Exegesis, a massive pile of philosophical-psychological-religious essays and notes to himself that PKD wrote over his last decade to try to make sense of a bout of intense spiritual experiences that hit him over a few weeks in 1974. A large selection of this work has recently been published in book form (a smaller book came out about 20 years ago), and one of the major panels featured several of its editors and commentators describing how the new book came to be. One of these editors, Erik Davis, also gave a talk on PKD as a subject of religious studies. He talked very fast and very lucidly and was altogether the most awesome speaker. (All or most of the proceedings will be online soon, I'm told. A grad student videographer was running back and forth frantically as the proceedings jumped bewilderingly from room to room, and I hope the work turns out to be viewable.)

One of PKD's goals in the Exegesis was to identify premonitions of his revelations in his earlier fiction, and many of the papers addressed that theme. His post-1974 work is consciously gnostic, and one of the most interesting talks was by a student scholar showing that his early novel Eye in the Sky (one of my favorites) may be seen as gnostic too.

Jonathan Lethem in his talk compared the Exegesis to notebooks by Dostoyevsky and Robert Frost, undisciplined works not intended for publication that reveal a fuller picture of the author's personality and concerns, and open up new levels of understanding of the published work. And I was thinking that, on a slightly different level - for it's more creative work than private notes - Tolkien's multiple posthumous volumes of Silmarillion papers and linguistic material are the same thing: massive, bewilderingly complex, frustratingly inconsistent, sometimes difficult to read - and absolutely essential for understanding the author's mind and work.

And there were movies! Two of them. Director-screenwriter John Alan Simon presented his own adaptation of Radio Free Albemuth, completed a couple years ago and still in search of distribution. I thought it a fine version, charming in its low-budget atmosphere, with devotion to the ornate plot and some good acting (from Alanis Morissette among others), smoothing out the book's characteristic quirkiness but gaining coherence in the process, and preserving the message and the tone of the source. And later on, when I talked with him, John recorded me saying so, along with other short endorsements by others to be loaded up on the movie's Facebook page. Also a short Mexican film, in Spanish with subtitles, called Nia, a slightly cryptic adaptation of the short story "The Electric Ant" with a female protagonist.

But the most interesting and provocative thing that happened at the conference was something else, which I'll save for tomorrow.

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