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Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Little Time Travel Goes a Long Way (Or Something Like That)

If Philip K. Dick had failed to represent the true confusion of hallucinogenic drugs and the reality/unreality dichotomy in any of his other works, those very ideas are firmly planted within Lies, Inc. Not only is there direct mention of an LSD trip—and it should be noted that it is forced upon Applebaum, rather than being a choice—but the novel lends itself to utter confusion by presenting a narrative structure that folds in upon itself like a confusing time paradox. Perhaps looking at the Terminator films and trying to contemplate—without having one’s head explode—the endless time dilation created by the father of John Conner somehow managing to go back in time and take part in the conception of the “hero of Mankind” would give us some understanding of the confusing and illusive nature of this novel.
How exactly can Applebaum exist in Terran space—on his ship, the Omphalos—and yet still manage to take a Telpor trip across light-years of empty space to Whale’s Mouth? The confusing part is that the idea of time travel is so vaguely represented that the audience is left wondering that very question without a true answer. Unlike the Terminator films, the book doesn’t hinge on the time travel idea; time travel is all but nonexistent, with a single mention of a device given to Applebaum that vaguely refers to time, but is never made exactly clear. In fact, Applebaum cuts off the UN official before said official can finish his sentence—“It’s a time-warping construct that sets up a field which coagulates the…” (193). We’re left to wonder what that exactly means. How does it warp time? To warp something can mean a variety of things. Shall we go through the different connotations? I think so:
  1. Firstly it can mean to bend or twist time out of shape. If we think of time as a flat line, this would mean bending it so it becomes a curve. But what does this mean for time? I haven’t a clue. This is all theoretical—the idea of bending time, or, for that matter, dealing with time in any other way than its linear form is simply unapproachable for someone, like myself, who lacks the scientific knowledge as those who make a living researching such things.
  2. Then there is the idea of bending or turning time from its natural or true direction. This might make more sense, since, in theory, Applebaum is existing in two places at once, but the prior place (which happens while he is out in space on the Omphalos) is the true timeline ending where his return to Terra (Earth) involves his manipulating time to somehow prevent Holm from getting caught up in the lie that is Whale’s Mouth—that it’s a peaceful, loving place that everyone wants to go to, a theme very close to Dick (false advertisement). But by looking at it this way also means we’re left with a blindingly confusing paradox. We know by the end of the novel that everything he has done while fiddling with time results in absolutely nothing changing (except that he somehow gets stuck on Whale’s Mouth with a strange condition that gives him permanent hallucinations). But, wouldn’t Applebaum, in theory, become aware of the fact that he is on Whale’s Mouth? Or is that information hidden? This is probably why time travel novels these days are generally avoided. The confusion created by trying to contemplate how it could possible work without completely discombobulating the framework of linear time is generally too much. After all, how are we supposed to apply logic to the cyclical argument in the Terminator universe?
  3. The last way of seeing time is not all that different from the second, except it touches upon the idea of the real and the unreal in relation to the truth. If time can be distorted from the truth, if it can be manipulated in such a way that it no longer represents our understanding of what it is, then it also ceases to exist altogether. Time is constant. Einstein made it clear that we can’t fiddle with it. Time is always moving at the same speed, always moving forward. For one to actually make time no longer itself would be breaking boundaries, much like in the novel. Applebaum is in two places at once, except he’s not. The one going to Whale’s Mouth is a future Applebaum going back in time, while the one on the Omphalos is the present Applebaum, who falls off the map for a short while as we learn about the exploits of Future Applebaum. This is a problem because it simply goes against the truth of things. Future Applebaum isn’t exactly unknown to the folks of Whale’s Mouth, or the Hoffman folks either. In fact, they are well aware that he is going to Whale’s Mouth to stir things up. Yet they also are fully aware that he is supposed to be on the Omphalos. Trying to think about this is simply staggering. He’s in two places at once, manipulating time in one existence while being unaware of it in another, or seemingly unaware. This is why very few people argue with the inherent problem of the Terminator Paradox. To do so spells certain mental breakdown. Perhaps this is why man created religion: it’s a way of forgetting that we don’t know anything at all about the universe and by creating a God that simply exists we don’t, in theory, have to make the inference that there has to have been something that created God, the Universe, and Everything. Certainly the number forty-two fills this same void.
Moving beyond the time paradox we get an even stranger taste of reality.
Applebaum’s LSD-induced psychotic hallucinations bring out the question of whether or not his trip (no pun intended) was real at all. If his influence there was nonexistent to the Present Applebaum, then it might be possible to assume that he may never have gone there at all. The Telpor could very well have been an illusion. Using that time-warping weapon—which is given to him rather willingly by the UN officer, a matter somewhat bizarre considering the implications of such technology—could be establishing that anything in the center of the novel involving the Telpor trip didn’t happen. Add in the LSD trip that Future Applebaum endures against his will, and the supposed “Paraworld Syndrome”—some sort of condition where one forever switches between different existences where one’s vision sees different things, while still existing within the regular world—and that central piece becomes a big question mark. How much of the center of the novel really happened? Has Applebaum always been screwed up? When did the center happen, if it did happen?
What makes this work so profound, despite its rather stilted prose and Dick’s temptation to use convoluted technobabble (which might not have been so out of the ordinary in his time), is that it leaves you asking for more. This isn’t because the novel is incomplete, which would be a negative mark. Rather, you want more because you’re left with questions. Some part of you wishes that Dick would give everything away: the answer is (drum roll please), forty-two. The rest of you is simply confused and forced to contemplate, to think about every aspect of the novel that has been placed before you in hopes that you can discern the truth of things. But the truth doesn’t exist. That’s what Dick does. He gives you a reality, juxtaposes it against an unreality and leaves the scene with both pushing against each other without any sort of resolution: the endless dichotomy. His consistent fascination with the nature of the mind, and in particular the mind on drugs, is all too present here and again, just like in Ubik, the final question remains: what is real?

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