Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Three Censures of Philip's Transcendence

(Aforethought: spoiler alert, for those of you who care about that sort of thing. I'll be discussing a novel and two short stories, so you may want to find - if you can - and read Faith of our Fathers and The Turning Wheel if you're too lazy for the long one.)
So let's talk about ten-foot poles. Philip K. Dick, as I commented in my last post, has been adapted to undeath. As most Hollywood attempts to cash in on a popular author or work yield unholy abominations unfit for showing even as punishments, it's no surprise most PKD adaptations have also strayed far, far from their source material. Nevertheless, movie studios push ever onward, vying for the chance to slap his name on their promotional posters.

Yet still, some of his stories remain as socially uncomfortable or politically incorrect as to send entire marketing departments into hysterics at their mere mention. While thinking of this post I've thought of two more examples, but for starters let's focus on my original notion, Palmer Eldritch... which, just to get this out of the way, is if nothing else just a freaking stellar character name!

Ever since finally reading it a couple of years ago I thought The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch would make a great movie, revolving, as it does, on visually striking changes in perception laced with a fair bit of body horror. Plus it comes pre-packaged with sex and a smidge of violence, which would save whichever penny-dreadful screenwriter landed the contract a bit of work. Discovering that characters achieve their altered states of consciousness through massive psychotropic drug use should clue you in as to large entertainment corporations' reluctance to go anywhere near the book though. It conflicts with the censorship imposed by the upper crust's facetious "war on drugs." This hurdle may be overcome (read: sanitized into an innocuously castrated script demonizing -illegal- drugs) for the love of PKD name-brand recognition and the profits it brings, were it not for the inescapable religious commentary in the novel's second half.

If even Dogma, which as far as I'm concerned pandered much too much to the mindlessness of faith, caused such an uproar with its light jabs at a slightly silly but otherwise still all-good, all-powerful deity, books like Palmer Eldritch or Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice stand no chance at being adapted in any movie market controlled by those who have an interest in maintaining the social control apparatus. Which is to say any movie market.

Yet Palmer Eldritch the parvenu almighty can still only be characterized (as with Heinlein's Yahweh) as flawed, inept, slightly capricious or power-mad and not outright evil. What if we were instead to pose that theological bugaboo: is God a bugaboo? How tragically laughable is the notion of a movie adaptation of Faith of our Fathers, which confronts us with a bloodthirsty predatory divinity inimical to the life it husbands for its own use? Could this rather more plausible interpretation of the Biblical view of God as a "shepherd" or a wolf tending his own flock ever make it to the big screen? Am I asking rhetorical questions?

Consider for just a second though the cinematic potential of an implacable, well-spoken but merciless Lovecraftian monstrosity controlling the world government and devouring lives behind a veil of hallucination in the midst of polite upper-class dinner parties. Would you watch that? Did you ever lie in bed at night as a child feeling the universe stretch into darkness in all directions from you?

Equally unmarketable if for different reasons, The Turning Wheel attacks our preconceptions of race relations and civilized thought. It dwells on the vision of that very probable future which sometimes springs up in science fiction and is quickly hushed up for political reasons: the rise of the Chinese world state in the 21st or 22nd century. Though not specifically Chinese, Dick's version of a world dominated by Asians, in which Europeans are derided and marginalized as dirty hairy "caucs" and likened to Neanderthals behind their faces could be transposed to any human social hierarchy. Specifics removed, it would merely portray humans' inter-tribal abuse and dares to fly in the face of politically correct Orientalism portraying all but Europeans as noble savages by attributing savagery and not just nobility to a non-white dominant social group.

This last story, I'm afraid really could get turned into a movie. Containing as it does a stab at Dianetics, and with Scientology coming apart at the seams lately The Turning Wheel may find traction with certain segments of the population. I fear an adaptation may get funded by Christian interests eager to hit their fellow con artists while they're down. More specifically I'm afraid it would be degraded to mere single-minded paranoid anti-Asian propaganda while ignoring its more relevant point about the fragility of human intellectual and social progress. Dick's oriental-flavored world state controls its populace through religious means, through vague mysticism and a proposition of rebirth lent a new-age feel by the adoption of a modern fad in metaphysics, to wit Hubbard's idiotic fables about soul-cleansing. It has abandoned the primacy of reason.

While tribalism may be a human universal inevitably tainting soi-disant advanced societies, the ideas of the Enlightenment and its intellectual successors, of science and rationalism, of a resistance to superstition and a reliance on evidence, are a mere historical aberration, a singular accident which may very well fade out of popular knowledge. Having swept these intellectual gains under the rug along with the now-despised race which happened to stumble upon them, the world of The Turning Wheel is collapsing upon itself, settling once again into the blind thaumaturgical groping which has ruled it since the first witch-doctors mumbled gibberish.

A world in which a capsule of antibiotics must be passed off as a magical amulet. Now that is a dangerous vision and I should hope there are enough Science Fiction fans around with the intellectual integrity to discuss as sharp and poignant a story as The Turning Wheel with the self-critical honesty it deserves. The myriad pitfalls an adaptation would need to overcome, while daunting, are nothing compared to the dire need for such visions in the current regressive political climate.

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