THERE is justice in the universe, Philip K. Dick would very likely say, but it's awfully hard to find, and only the sharpest vision can perceive it. This brilliant, idiosyncratic, formidably intelligent writer--a cult figure in the world of science fiction, and all but unknown outside it until recently--died in March, only 53 years old. After a lifetime of obscurity, financial hardship, and personal turmoil, he was accorded obituaries in Time and Newsweek. A motion picture based on one of his science-fiction novels is soon to be released: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Three more films are in production. And, having tried for years without success to get a book published that wasn't science fiction, he has one at last released by a major publisher--posthumously. In the great cosmic balance sheet, the bottom line for Phil Dick is rich with murderous ironies.
Though it is not in any real sense sf, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is concerned, sometimes centrally, sometimes peripherally, with many of the same issues that preoccupied Dick in his fables of androids and extraterrestrial invaders. What is real, he asks, and what is illusion? Where does one put the boundary between schizophrenia and divine inspiration? What is the relation, if any, of the divine to the mortal? And--the primary question that any major writer asks, I think: What is it all about, anyway? Why are we here, where are we going?
In the books that won him fame among the more literate sf readers and poverty in the real world, Dick couched his inquiries in the metaphors of fantasy. Some of the titles alone provide the nature of the quest: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and >Solar Lottery. But however fanciful his fancy, his vision was almost invariably tinged with the gritty sour realities of everyday life: the super-machine that will not work right, the cockroach scrambling across the computer, the debt-collecting robot that harries its victims from the sky with shrill accusations.
In The Transmigration of Timothy Archer he has dropped the furniture of science fiction (though one piece of it reappears, surprisingly but triumphantly, toward the end) and written a straight roman-Ma-clef firmly rooted in the "real" world--a thinly fictionalized account, indeed, of the tormented last years and mysterious death of James Pike, the Episcopal Bishop of California, who was so significant a figure in the social and spiritual upheavals of the late 1960s. Dick, a Californian, knew Pike well. But in retelling his story he has, perhaps inevitably, provided us with the same marvelously seedy texture of his fantasy-worlds: the Bay area's shabby corners, its dreary and awkward underside, where restaurateurs are solemnly rumored to be Russian spies and intellectual discussions veer from profundity to glop within the span of a single sentence. It is an eerie and splendid book.
Dick's theme is the perseverance of faith through folly. His version of Bishop Pike is Timothy Archer--already beginning his fall from grace as the novel opens, and portrayed some of the time as a holy fool, some of the time as an ordinary fool. Archer has had word from the Holy Land of a new batch of Dead Sea Scrolls that cast great doubt on the divinity of Jesus Christ, in which he (but none of the other characters of the book) believes with touching intensity. As Archer/Pike comes to question his faith, he deviates into increasingly cockeyed Berkeley-'60s mysticism, takes a cold and crazy aging feminist as his mistress, and drives his sensitive nebbish of a son to suicide, without ever quite forfeiting the reader's sympathy; and when he dies his lonely muddled death in the Judaean desert, he undergoes, to our consternation and ultimate applause, a flabbergasting apotheosis that comes straight out of--well, out of a Philip K. Dick novel.
Dick illuminates. He casts light, he gives off a radiance. Ideas and names tumble past--Wallenstein, Schiller, Humboldt, Heidegger, Goethe, St. Paul, not merely decorations but intrinsic parts of the plot. In an era where a majority of American citizens has only the faintest idea what the last president's name was or where Bolivia is, Dick's erudition is audacious--a tremendous risk. He builds his story out of theological technicalities, never boring, often enormously funny (he was one of the wildest comic geniuses of our time, though hardly anyone knew it except his readers and his friends) and constantly forges onward toward a vision that both confirms and transcends the premises of his plot. A plot, by the way, that dares to turn on the question of whether Jesus was actually God Incarnate-- an issue relatively remote from the secularized minds of Dick's sf constituency, but apparently of surpassing importance to the latter-day Dick.
Angel Archer, the narrator, is the weary and often dejected voice of sanity describing the zoo of crazies that were her nearest and dearest--from an automobile-obsessed boy to a God-obsessed bishop, and all of them suicidal. (There is a characteristically brilliant moment when the bishop, trying to use automotive metaphors in explaining the essence of faith to the schizophrenic boy, is totally undone by the boy's command of his own metaphorical system, by which he demonstrates that the bishop understands neither cars nor metaphysics very well.) She is, so far as I can recall, Dick's first female protagonist, and he realizes her superbly (as he does all the characters) even though she does sound quite a good deal like Dick himself.
If the book has a serious flaw, it is that it is so short that it seems schematic: focusing on its few main characters and its knotted little plot, it offers no real digressions of narrative, has no true novelistic sprawl. But it can be forgiven that: it gives us instead fascinating intellectual excursions and a penetrating view of the mystery of Christian faith in a society where the story of Christ has become just one more interesting myth, up there with those of Tristan and Isolde, Odysseus, and Frodo the Hobbit. And its quirky independence of thought is awesome. Consider this altogether typical passage in which a routine Berkeley argument about abortion turns into something quite other:
"You know, I have very strong views about abortion," the bishop said.
"You know," Kirsten said, "I have too. What are yours?"
"We feel that the unborn have rights invested in them not by man but by Almighty God," the bishop said. "The right to take a human life is denied back to the Decalogue."
"Let me ask you this," Kirsten said. "Do you think a human being has rights after he or she is dead?"
"I beg your pardon," the bishop said.
"Well," Kirsten said, "you're granting them rights before they're born; why not grant them equal rights after they're dead."
Death--especially premature death--runs eerily through the thematic structure of the book. Death coming before a person can complete his work is evil, Dick says. Indeed it is. That Philip K. Dick should be dead at 53, with his most powerful work still sealed in his extraordinary mind, is a monstrous injustice to us all; and now we have no Philip K. Dick to show us the underlying cosmic justice that lies hidden in that hideous prank of destiny.