Talk Like an Egyptian, Please : William Golding – “The Scorpion God”

If Philip K. Dick’s “Dr. Futurity” is about an alien land where incestuous eugenics are the norm and an intrusive white man will change everything – so is William Golding’s novella, “The Scorpion God.”

ABOVE : So, Lord of the Scorpions…

Golding is once again in the “strange” mode of “The Inheritors,” describing an ancient culture through its own disorienting perceptions, except that instead of Neanderthals, “The Scorpion God” takes a look at the behavior of Pre-Pharaonic Egyptians… and the unexpected rise of what may be the first Pharaoh, triumphant over the old order.

Great House is God and Father to his people; upon his eventual passing from the Now into Eternal Life, all his children will gladly accompany him in mass suicide; after all, he makes the Nile rise and holds the sky up every day, so they owe him servitude in the Land of the Dead. Great House is counseled by The Head Man (enforcer of ancient dogmas) and amused by The Liar (a free-thinking pale man who has arrived from northern lands and tells unbelievable tales about rivers of water that turn white and hard as stone.)

Meanwhile, Great House’s young son hates the idea of having to hold up the sky and direct the Nile’s floods (it’s not easy being God!) He also doesn’t want to marry his sister, Pretty Flower. This mystifies the Head Man: what kind of deviant sicko doesn’t fancy his own sister? Who does the kid want to have sex with, people who aren’t even relatives? GROSS!

Golding makes too much of a point of making unnecessary “wink wink” asides like I just did above.  We get that incest is the norm, so we don’t need anyone vocalizing that. The modern irony intrudes upon Golding’s carefully wrought aesthetic. That’s not too bad; what’s worse is when historical authenticity is marred by abrupt, careless Anglicisms. When the Great House is interrupted at a game of proto-checkers, he snarls: “Do you MIND?” Elsewhere, the Head Man sighs: “Well. Oh dear. Well, well, well. Tut, tut. Bless me!” It takes you right out of Egypt. That same Head Man later offers a monologue of such eloquent psychological introspection that it’s like reading Henry James on a papyrus.

While not overly bound by Egyptological research, “The Scorpion God” hints at the rise of the real “Scorpion King,” whose Proto-Dynastic reign can boast of both early hieroglyphs and the oldest evidence of wine-making paraphernalia. (Writing and alcoholism developed at the same time in world history. What a coincidence.)

ABOVE: I believe this was a BBC adaptation of Golding’s novella. Think I saw it on “Masterpiece Theater.”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH

Paging Dr. Spaceman – Philip K. Dick – “Dr. Futurity”

For a guy who was such a fan of doctors (and other providers of, er, powerful pharmaceutical remedies), Philip K. Dick sure loved his cigarettes. However, I need to make a correction: When writing about “Dr. Bloodmoney,” I said his characters smoked Camels. I was wrong. According to “Dr. Futurity,” in the year 2405 the cigarette brand of choice will be Lucky Strike.

ABOVE: “8 out of 10 Doctors, Conquistadors and Astronauts Agree: Lucky Strikes Take You to a Whole New World of Flavor!”

The titular “Dr. Futurity” is one Dr. Jim Parsons (not related to the actor from “The Big Bang Theory,” thankfully). Parsons is jerked out of the year 2012 into the year 2405, where an advanced society has done away with racism ( by eugenizing everyone into one big, happy, standard brown look) and with old age (by embracing the joy of death and prohibiting medicine.) Parsons, who is white and in his 30s, seems comparatively leprous and ancient.

And so you think Parsons is going to be a stranger in a strange land and walk around meditating on race or euthanasia… but PKD quickly moves on to the next three or four topics that interested him that week (speed is a hell of a drug). That’s why it’s virtually impossible to figure out from the opening chapters that at one point Sir Francis Drake will be an important character.

“Dr. Futurity” is one of PKD’s earliest novels by date of conception (the original idea goes back to 1953 or so). Its reputation is not great, with many fans considering it the worst of all his novels. I enjoyed it quite a bit, however; the obvious awkwardness of its construction makes it unpredictable. Among its many virtues, it effectively puts to rest the so-called “grandfather” paradox that wannabe time-travel “theorists” are always bringing up: “What if I traveled back in time  and killed my grandfather before he had children?” WELL, obviously, if you did that, then you wouldn’t exist, so if you exist is because you DIDN’T do that. DUH.

Also, if you’re using your time-traveling benefits to kill your poor grandfather, then you’re a DICK, and not in the awesome Philip K. way.

ABOVE : So THAT’s what was in the “Pulp Fiction” briefcase!

RATING : I find it pointless to rate individual Philip K. Dick novels. He’s a “body of work” kind of guy. They all tend to be “GOOD ENOUGH” to “GREAT!” building up to a cumulative “MASTERPIECE!!!”

A Gas : Brian K. Vaughan – “Saga” (1-18)

Worlds are at war. Space Montagues fight Space Capulets. Brutal Factions pursue a Brave-Sensitive Warrior, his Sassy-Kick-Ass Consort, and their Magical-Savior-Prophecy-Baby through the far reaches of the Galaxy. Most of Brian K. Vaughan’s self-explanatorily-titled “Saga” has been bought wholesale from a Space Opera junkyard, but Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples have buffed up the parts to launch a shiny new rocket.

ABOVE: “I came here to chew gum and kick ass. Luckily, I still have chewing gum so I think I’ll catch up on my Heinlein.”

“Saga” earns its praise by being funny, exciting, surprising, colorful, vulgar, touching. Another unqualified hit for Vaughan. ALSO, having a Lying Cat would significantly simplify most inter-personal transactions.

ABOVE: The Lying King

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!

Apocalypse Back Then : Philip K. Dick – “Dr. Bloodmoney”

“The book was “Of Human Bondage.” Forty parts had been read already, and it was getting really interesting. Everyone was attending this particular reading. No doubt of it: the man in the satellite had picked a terrific one this time.” – “Dr. Bloodmoney” – Philip K. Dick

ABOVE: From a Czech (?) edition – my favorite “Dr. Bloodmoney” cover.

The “man in the satellite” is Walt Dangerfield, an astronaut left orbiting Earth after the failure of a Mars-colonizing mission – and after the atomic apocalypse (brought to you by a dumb war between the U.S., Russia, China, and Cuba, of course.) Floating in his tin can far above the world, Walt starts a podcast, inspiring the survivors below by reading from Somerset W. Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” It’s not what *I* would have picked to unite the planet in the joy of literature, but the earthbound human audiences seem to appreciate the message.

ABOVE: “Major Tom to Ground Control… Ground Control? Oh, crap, the Apocalypse took out Ground Control. This is gonna suck.”

1965’s “Dr. Bloodmoney” (subtitled “Or How We Got Along After the Bomb” in a mercenary nod to Stanley Kubrick) is one of Philip K. Dick’s best books, an apocalyptic tale that mixes prescience and obsolescence in charming ways. That’s per usual. In PKD’s universe, quantum-cognitive inorganic A. I. bumps elbows with Camel-smoking gumshoes who wolf-whistle at passing dames.

Also as per usual, PKD packs a deceptively short book with more characters, incidents and forward-thinking concepts than most swollen sagas. Forget about Walter Dangerfield up in the sky, and forget about the spacey sci-fi covers. “Dr. Bloodmoney” is about what happens down here on the decimated, post-WWIII America, where we meet, among many others:

Dr. Bluthgeld, (the titular doc), a paranoid, solipsistic genius who will remind most people of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Dr. Stockstill, the ineffectual psycho-therapist trying to cure Bluthgeld’s paranoid delusions  and Dangerfield’s space-cabin fever.

Hoppy Harrington, a psychokinetic phocomelos (that’s TWO interesting Greek-named concepts in one.)

Bonny Keller, a sexually-liberated heroine that is (gasp!) neither praised nor punished for her promiscuity.

Edie Keller, a girl who’s in telepathic communication with an imaginary friend… except the imaginary friend is actually her brother, Bill Keller, an unborn twin “fetus in fetu” that can transmigrate and communicate with the dead!

And Stuart McConchie, an opportunist salesman who sells traps for the talking mutant animals that boldly invade a devastated America.

(That list alone should evoke conceptual dizziness – but Philip K. Dick makes it all work.)

ABOVE: Bridge traffic

Stuart McConchie was particularly interesting to me: He is an African-American character. Why is that interesting? Well, I just finished reading Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, a 2014 novel that features an awkwardly-conceived African-American character. In THAT novel, Stephen King felt the need to go out of his way to explain that his Near-Magical Negro was “articulate” and “law-abiding” and “a college-bound scholar.”

IT’S 2014!!! Did anyone need those defensive caveats?

“Dr. Bloodmoney” was written in 1963, (the same year of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington). There was lot of room for a guy like PKD, who was born in the frikkin’ 1920s, to make all sorts of awkward racist comments. And yet he mostly doesn’t. How did he accomplish that? By writing Stuart not like a “black guy” but like a HUMAN BEING. I mean, Stuart is a cynical, opportunist douche – and it has absolutely nothing to do with his “race”! He’s a douche because HE is a douche!

Now THAT’S futuristic thinking. It’s sad that 2014 still hasn’t caught up with 1963.

Of course, it’s part of the novel’s point that racial prejudices – along with most of America’s other hang-ups and obsessions –  would become pretty darned ridiculous after a nuclear holocaust. It turns out there’s a good reason why the survivors of WWIII might cling to the nostalgia of the go-nowhere drama between Philip Carey and Mildred Rogers.

“The problems that seemed vital to us back in the old days! Like, ‘inability to escape from an unhappy human relationship’! Bah! Now we prize ANY human relationship. We have learned a great deal.”

RATING : I find it pointless to rate individual Philip K. Dick novels. He’s a “body of work” kind of guy. They all tend to be “GOOD ENOUGH” to “GREAT!” building up to a cumulative “MASTERPIECE!!!”

Vehicular Manslaughter : Stephen King – “Mr. Mercedes”

ABOVE: Under the Umbrella-ella-ella-ella

I wrote a rather lengthy Stephen King review not too long ago, and the literary world’s hardest-working retiree is coming out with another novel in, like, a MONTH. So I won’t go too much into “Mr. Mercedes.” It involves one of its author’s favoritest, most re-used tropes: THE HAUNTINGLY SIGNIFICANT KILLER VEHICLE.

ABOVE: CARMAGEDDON! Yes, Christine, it’s all been done by The Simpsons or Stephen King.

Retired Detective Bill Hodges gets caught in a cat-and-mouse game with a crazy killer who rammed a Mercedes into a crowd of applicants at a job fair. (“Terrorism,” “unemployment” and “technological panic of the aging individual” are the ghosts in this earth-bound thriller.)

The blurb doesn’t sound promising, agreed. It’s King’s honest attempt at at a straight-ahead, race-against-time  thriller of the kind Michael Connelly does so well. (Horror don’t sell like it used to.) But there are frequent detours and surprises in “Mr. Mercedes,” and though it is not without padding, the ending is a total nail-biter.

RATING: COOL!

SOME SPOILER NOTES FOR THOSE WHO’VE ALREADY READ IT:

1- Bill Hodges doesn’t work psychologically as a retired detective. He’s out of touch with certain realities that the police has to deal with, from computer searches to street lingo. In fact, Hodges’ behavior is much closer to “retired mystery writer,” but it’s easy to understand why King wanted to stretch a different sweater here.

2- Jerome’s unlikely “game” of  “Oh lawdy, I be a good slave, massa Hodges” had me going like: “Oh, Hell-to-the-No!” First of all, the average black teenager from 2011 isn’t as proficient with plantation lingo stereotypes as King imagines. Second of all, if Jerome did like to pretend to be a slave (WHY WOULD HE?!?), he wouldn’t be playing at it with an old white cop, no matter how buddy-buddy they were.

3- The character of Holly Gibney, who turns out to be so emotionally pivotal, is too much of a mess and added much too late to the story. King knows this, so he tries to flesh her out RIGHT AT THE WORST POSSIBLE TIME. The book is barreling to the end, our heroes are running to stop an explosion – and suddenly we go into a lengthy flashback to Holly’s teenage years? Couple of pages before the end? TOO LATE! NOBODY CARES! The only reaction is annoyance at the digression. It almost stops things on its tracks. Almost.

4-The “wrong person eats the poisoned food” twist worked so great here, that it took me a moment to recollect that King had already used it once, very memorably too, at the end of “Thinner” (which is considered minor in King’s canon, but totally enthralled me as a teen.)

5- Exciting as the ending was, King really handicapped himself by setting it in a crowded stadium during a boy- band concert.  If Brady’s explosion had meant to hurt a mixed crowd of, say, a couple dozen people at another job fair, we would have been worried. But we know the bad guy isn’t going to get away with killing thousands of sweet girls, because King himself isn’t going to dare. The days of “Pet Sematary” are long gone.

RATING: COOL!