Philip K. Dick is the author of more than thirty science-fiction novels that are attracting a wide audience. Paul Williams, writing in Rolling Stone (Nov. 6, 1975), reports that Dick’s books are even more popular in Europe than in the United States and are being translated into French, German, Japanese, Polish, Spanish, and other languages.

Dick’s fiction merits careful reading because he is a skillful writer who treats important themes. Not all his books are currently available, though many are being reprinted. His first, Solar Lottery, was published in 1955. I recommend the following books to the newcomer to Dick: A Maze of Death, Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, The Man in the High Castle, and Martian Time-Slip. The sheer number of his books makes it difficult to generalize about them. Instead, I will discuss one novel, A Maze of Death, in some detail because it develops his themes in an explicitly theological context.

On an unexplored planet, Delmak-O, a random group of people are assembled to form a colony. The colonists do not know the purpose of their colony, and when they contact a satellite that is to transmit taped instructions to them, the tape is accidentally erased. Then one by one colonists are mysteriously murdered or commit suicide. Finally the remaining ones begin killing one another.

This brief summary of A Maze of Death only hints at the atmosphere of the book, and I will not reveal the solution to the mystery of the colonists’ situation and deaths. Like Dick’s other novels, A Maze of Death explores the nature of reality, presenting the world of experience as dependent on the minds that experience it.

In an earlier novel, The Man in the High Castle, a character cites a line from Gilbert and Sullivan that expresses Dick’s basic apprehension of life: “Things are seldom what they seem.” In his novels he dramatizes the variety of ways through which illusory or alternate realities occur: the use of electronic media and propaganda, political conspiracies, technological tinkering with the natural, psychotropic drugs, religious experience, and, finally, the human mind itself.

A Maze of Death posits a cosmos in which religion is real. Dick’s foreword states that “the theology in this novel is not an analog of any known religion” but is based on the “arbitrary postulate that God exists.” Actually, the religion in Maze is a composite of real religions, with a definite gnostic tinge.

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The theology is simple: there is one deity who acts through three Manifestations—the Mentufacturer, the Intercessor, and the Walker-on-Earth. These figures appear and interact with various human characters. Explicit references relate the Intercessor to Christ, the Mentufacturer clearly suggests the Father as Creator, and the Walker-on-Earth is an analogue of the Spirit. A five-period division of cosmic history is given that reflects the Bible’s view of history, even to the covenant with the Jews.

In this theology the cosmos is viewed as a series of concentric emanations from the deity; the deity’s power becomes progressively weaker in the more distant circles. An adversary, the Form Destroyer, is awakened by the deity’s creative activity, and the Curse results. This cosmogony is a clear parallel to gnosticism. The coming of the Intercessor as God on earth results in a partial lifting of the Curse.

While the deity aids human beings, his power to do so is limited and dependent on external factors. Prayer, for instance, is augmented electronically and sent to “god-worlds” inhabited by superhuman beings. If the prayer is received it may well be answered, as were the prayers of several of the colonists, but the whole thing is chancy and dependent on natural conditions rather than divine power.

Dick apparently does not present this theology as true, in the sense that C. S. Lewis believed the theology behind his imaginary worlds to be true. Instead, he has imagined a world where the people believe the theology outlined above and where, therefore, it is real in their experience.

In attempting to find out who or what is killing them, the characters in Maze search for a building that they hope will provide the answer. When they discover it, it turns out to be a projection, whereas the real building is concealed by what one character describes as “a negative hallucination—when you do not see something that is actually there.” This statement is a special case of a more general principle in this religion, namely, that part of the Curse is that we are always “prisoners of our own preconceptions and expectations.”

A creature on Delmak-O, the Tench, functions as a kind of oracle. Dick derived the answers that the Tench gives from the I Ching; his use of the I Ching here and in The Man in the High Castle shows his anticipation of and contribution to the popularity of this ancient Chinese book that supports Dick’s own view of reality as multiple and ambiguous.

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The characters of Maze confront the Tench with a basic question about where and why they are. Each of them has the same tattoo, PERSUS 9. When they ask it what the tattoo means, the Tench disintegrates. As a consequence, the reader, and the characters, discover that they are “really” the crew of a spaceship, the Persus 9, which has been disabled: “[an] accident had come and now they circled, forever, a dead star.”

The novel up to this point has been the computer-generated collective hallucination of the crew members, who have resorted to this device to drain off interpersonal tensions caused by their hopeless situation. They worked out assumptions for a reality, including the religion, programmed the computer, and plugged in. The computer’s “objective” output is a punched tape, a comment on the utter cleavage between human experience and the results of technological processing of experience.

This dénouement might leave the reader feeling tricked, albeit cleverly, except for two factors: the characters, especially Seth Morley, have become real enough that the reader feels continued interest and sympathy, and Dick twists the situation through a couple more turns of ambiguity.

We learn that Seth Morley does not easily adapt to the transition from the collective hallucination to the shipboard reality. Details from the adventure on Delmak-O are still real to him after he has unplugged. At one point, in despair, Morley exclaims, “I wish to God that there was really an Intercessor.” Shortly after this, the Intercessor appears to Morley in an isolated part of the ship. When Morley expostulates, “But we invented you!” the Intercessor simply replies that he is there to take Morley wherever he would most like to be. Morley decides he would most like to be a cactus, alive but not conscious, and the Intercessor takes him from the ship.

What “really” happens to Morley is left ambiguous: on the one hand, the Intercessor might be just a remnant of the hallucination; on the other, the people remaining on the Persus 9 cannot find Morley after this incident. As the novel ends, the crew is beginning another collective hallucination.

An important feature of the collective hallucination is that the crew members have “memories” of a past consistent with the hallucinatory world. For instance, Seth Morley and his wife begin the book with memories of eight years at Tekel Upharsin Kibbutz; as Seth thinks at the end of the novel, the eight years “had been a manufactured recall-datum, implanted in his mind … to add the semblance of authenticity to the polyencephalic venture.”

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The impact of these artificial memories is to cast doubt on the “real” memories and situation of the crew of the Persus 9. For Dick, the artificial environment of our technological society is not just outer but also inner: his characters’ identities, as well as their worlds, are ambiguous and elusive.

I have been using the term “hallucination” to refer to the experiences of the crew of the Persus 9 while in “polyencephalic fusion.” However, this term is misleading: Dick says of similar events in another novel that they are “not a dream or even a hallucination [but] … a state entered into by the characters.” In Rolling Stone, Dick is also quoted as saying that “if two people dream the same dream, it ceases to be an illusion.” Since a number of people experience the colony on Delmak-O, Dick would have us conclude that that experience is as “real” as their situation on the Persus 9.

The catastrophic inability of the Tench to answer the question suggests that the question of the ultimate meaning of life is not answerable from within life itself. Although life may contain clues that point to a transcendent realm (i.e., the Persus 9 tattoo), immediate experience falls apart like the Tench when forced to answer the question of its own meaning. And since there is no suggestion in Dick’s fiction of a clear revelation entering the limited field of life, his characters are left with shadows and suggestions and faint hope.

There seems to be a strong sense of human fallenness in Dick’s work. The colonists on Delmak-O must struggle with the effects of the Curse. In another novel, several characters independently realize that “Genesis is right, there is a stigma on us, a mark” (The Penultimate Truth), but unfortunately, for Dick, the Intercessor won only a partial victory, and His objective existence would be doubtful anyway.

The significance of Dick’s fiction lies in the way he handles the themes of how we know, what is real, the social and spiritual effects of technology (including drugs), and honesty and a kind of doggedness as the only ways of surviving in an uncertain and dangerous world. The Walker-on-Earth praises Seth Morley for his love for an old cantankerous tomcat and his refusal to change the cat’s nature. This implies that Dick does hope there is a reality, a basic nature of things, that can be known if we respect things for what they are and refuse to alter them to suit ourselves. The terrible danger of technological man is that our power to alter now seems unlimited. Dick’s fiction sounds a clear warning about the dangers of this technological alteration of reality.

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Eugene Warren is an assistant professor in the humanities department of the University of Missouri, Rolla.

Jesus, Naturally

There he sits: a Greek New Testament on his right, Lang’s Commentary on his left, an open Bible before him. And on top of the Bible, a fine-tooth comb. Thus barricaded, Mr. Evangelical (why does the word “evangelical” seem to have male properties?) is ready to fight for the faith.

That’s the image I got as I read the various statements by various evangelicals about Franco Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth, shown in two parts on NBCTV. Although some, notably Bill Bright, gave the film high praise, others either qualified their approval or launched into harsh, unjustified criticism.

To film the story of Jesus for a six-hour program is a difficult task at best. It means condensing certain episodes and leaving others out completely. But isn’t that what the gospel writers did? They all are in basic agreement, but each brought his perspective and memory to work on the material.

The producers of this film knew they would not please everyone. And some details were confusing. For example, John, after baptizing Jesus, says, “This is my beloved son.…” Zeffirelli wanted to avoid assigning a voice to God, he explained at a press conference. His idea was that John was repeating the words he had just heard God speak. Hence the long pause after Jesus’ baptism. But without the explanation, the viewer might think that Zeffirelli was denying the incarnation. He used the same technique with the annunciation; there it worked. There were also some minor discrepancies with Scripture, but they didn’t detract from the impact of the film.

The film was beautifully photographed and sensitively directed, and the actors chosen with great care, which is what we would expect from a director as gifted as Zeffirelli. But the ingredient that sets this Jesus film apart from the others is its naturalness, its simplicity. The Gospels tell Jesus’ story in simple, straightforward prose, with no purple passages or trumpet-like words. And Zeffirelli translated that style onto film. Mary matter-of-factly tells her mother that Elizabeth is no longer barren. She quietly explains that she must visit her. Mary and Joseph calmly, though at times wonderingly, accept the unusual occurrences surrounding Jesus’ birth and circumcision.

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In much the same way Jesus begins his ministry. He is baptized along with others who came to hear John preach. He has an air of quiet dignity, meek and strong simultaneously. He performs miracles naturally, as though they are as much a part of his nature as breathing—which of course they were. The feeding of the five thousand shows this perhaps better than his other miracles. The raising of Lazarus comes close to theatrics but is nevertheless a powerful scene. Zeffirelli avoided melodramatic camera close-ups of Jesus’ eyes, the technique previous film-makers used to convey the intensity of Jesus’ personality.

Jesus’ resurrection, too, is almost understated. Although some critics thought Zeffirelli used too light a touch in the resurrection and thus undercut the event, I think he matched the spirit of the gospel writers. There were no angel choirs at the resurrection. Just a stone rolled away, an empty tomb, limp grave-clothes. The drama came later, with Mary Magdalene telling the disciples of the resurrection. Of course, Jesus rose from the dead; he said he would.

Zeffirelli is an artist; he uses film the way painters use oils and canvas. Some of the scenes even look like Renaissance religious paintings. During the Magnificat the camera backs up to show Mary and Elizabeth centered in porticos, each seemingly a half of an early religious painting. The crucifixion shots reflect the great religious paintings that are part of our religious heritage. At those points Zeffirelli might be accused of some slight posturing, but for me the use of tradition and its symbolism enhances the beauty and meaning of the episodes. And it places the director in the long line of great religious artists of Western culture.

The six-hour film got more than 40 million viewers, half the audience of Roots. Jesus of Nazareth is a better film, and a greater story. In fact, it is the story by which all others should be judged. I hope NBC makes the film an annual Holy Week event.


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