SCIENCE FICTION BOOK REVIEW: “The Owl in Daylight” by Tessa Dick (2008)

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Yesterday we talked about “What if Our World is Their Heaven?” a book which transcribed the final interview with Philip K. Dick, in which he gave a detailed outline for the next book he intended to write, “The Own in Daylight.” Alas, he never lived to do so. Today we’re going to talk about “The Own in Daylight,” a book written by Tessa Dick, Phil’s widow, and published last year, and based on her reminiscences of Phil’s own, unwritten story.

Evidently she let it slip that she knew the story, and was begged by fans to please publish it. She says she attempted to capture the spark of his story - which, I’d have to say she succeeded at - but she did it without using his intended plot, as described in a letter he sent his publisher, and in the extensive interview in the book I reviewed yesterday. It does, however, use a lot of touches and flourishes from what we know about his unwritten novel, almost as an homage to an idea rather than an attempt to reconstruct the story by aping his style and notes. In fact, the author has said that she never actually read “What if Our World Is There Heaven,” and had no knowledge of the contents of its big interview while working on the book. It’s an interesting concept, and I’d have to say it works. In fact, intuitively I’d guess it probably works better than a more slavishly-literal reconstruction could be, since it’s got some of the fun and play and unpredictable spark of life in it that we usually expect from his work, which would probably be hard to come by otherwise.

The plot is fairly straight-forward PKD stuff: You’ve got a guy who’s a film score composer for schlock teen slasher films and monster movies. He’s successful, but in the typical idiom of a Dickian protagonist, he feels trapped and unappreciated by his job, and he’s having a hard time balancing his wife and his mistress. Unlike most of Phil’s books, he’s got a kid.

The protagonist stumbles haphazardly in to a cosmic struggle between light and dark, which results in him lapsing in to a coma during which he experiences a whole bunch of major instances from his own life, and is given the option of making different choices. At the same time, the supernatural struggle going on in the background and the ministrations of his family cause his subjective unreal world to have all kinds of reality shifts, many of which are deliberately reminiscent of some well-known incidents in Phil’s own life. These cause his dream state world to spiral off the tracks in to an odd combination of The Magic Flute and Dante’s Divine Comedy (Mostly the Inferno, but there’s a lot of Purgatorio in there as well). Faust also gets a name check.

It’s all fairly clever and written in a jaunty style that involves a lot of unexpected ping-ponging back and forth between people and situations. My personal favorite is when several of the characters turn in to owls for no adequately explained reason. A close second is some aliens who are on earth to do scientific research, but end up deciding to make a movie about the protagonists‘ dream, since that‘s way more lucrative. There’s also some oddities with time: the characters are all middle aged and living in the present day, but all of them have memories of being teenagers in the early 1950s, which would make them in their late seventies. All of which is made fairly palpable by the dream logic you’d expect in any kind of long-form hallucination like this. More interestingly, despite the fact that the main character is KO-ed for most of the book, there’s a running theme of his dreams affecting reality and reality affecting his dreams, a slow, unpredictable feedback loop. Indeed, not only is their dream-logic inside his dream (understandably), but the author makes a point of there being odd bits of dream-logic in real life as well. They’re not as obvious, of course, but they’re there, and this is made to service the traditional PKD theme of life, itself, being all-or-mostly illusory.

We do not get any of the glimpses behind the veil that we occasionally got from Phil’s own work, but that’s not a criticism, as those kinds of things don‘t work as often as they do. Also, there’s plenty of Gnosticism to go around: We’re shown a piece of alien technology that goes all wonky and ends up being in the service of God to some extent, a bum who’s mad ramblings end up actually containing something like divine truth (Which, of course, no one listens to because they’re really attached to the illusion), and the birth of a new kind of humanity that will supplant our present sad existence and help us see the Truth that will set us free. Best of all, it’s kind of fun. For instance, right at the peak of the typical Irish happy ending, we get a little gag that lets us know the new world will not be without its minor annoyances, just like the old one.

I don’t claim to be an authority on Ms. Dick’s writing, but I’ve read three of her books now and this one was far and away my favorite. It’s written in a style that is entirely unlike her own entirely-original books, but at the same time it isn’t really trying to be Phil in anything other than spirit. Indeed, even if you didn’t already know it had any relationship to Phil’s work, you’d still be able to pick up on the fractured world view and other significant stylistic nods to him, same as you can with say, “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. LeGuin. I found it an enjoyable read all the way through.

It’s not without its caveats, though: There’s a mistress character that seems to be set up for a major conflict later in the novel, and then is disposed of in a rather perfunctory fashion. Ditto a layabout brother-in-law character who is up to no good, but I never quite figured out what the point of that was supposed to be. Finally, there’s a minor running theme of incestuous urges that keeps popping up, but is mercifully never acted upon. Though this is ultimately revealed to be something else entirely, its resolution kind of comes out of left field, and I have to admit I found that whole aspect of the novel a little offputting. It’s a minor part of the book, and of course it ends up being a case of bait-and-switch, but it made me squeamish.

These are all just quibbles, though. This is Tessa Dick’s best novel to date, and an interesting addendum to her late husband’s career.

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