Review: Philip K. Dick – Martian Time-Slip (1964)

Books about Mars need red covers, not blue


I bought this book because I like the title. Isn’t it mysterious? (And I’m a big fan of PKD) So, what is going on on Mars?

Isolated homesteaders are eking out a living on the dusty plains of the red planet. Emigration to Mars is slow, and the soil ill suited for crops and cattle. The cows are skinny, and there are always water shortages. Power is in the hands of the self-absorbed, coarse Arnie Kott, head of the Water Workers union. Kott meets a nonverbal autistic boy, Manfred Steiner, who lives accelerated through time and Kott wants to exploit him to get knowledge of the future. The more Kott tries, the more disorienting the story gets.

The writing is vibrant and energetic, with good character introductions that often have a dry, exaggerated tone to them. In Arnie Kott’s introduction, for example, we first meet him in his wasteful steam bath, soaping himself up and being surrounded by yes-men who nod their heads at his rambling speeches. Dick wants to bring his stories in imaginative and entertaining ways, and his books are never about realism anyway, so why be so serious? They’re about fragmenting, confusing realities, and often funny. 

There is a lot going on in this short novel in terms of plot lines, character perspectives, themes, and a lot more worldbuilding than Dick usually takes on. But this Mars is some kind of nonsense future, not meant to be a prediction but the 1960s transplanted; just an outlandish setting for human greed, narcissism, guilt, rationalisations and so on. No clear main character drives the story, which makes the first half a bit jumbled. 

A second storyline involves Jack, a schizophrenic repairman whose story intersects with Arnie Kott’s. Jack’s story shows us how the Martian community’s creepy AI education system tries to imprint a type of life that was normal on Earth but at odds with Mars, and everyone who cannot handle that is automatically labeled autistic and institutionalised. (Making autism a catch-all term for anything out of the ordinary, like Manfred Steiner’s slippage through time.) This ties into a common theme of Dick’s that sometimes it is an appropriate response to reality to go insane. Jack’s story also involves the native aliens of Mars (the Bleekmen) and their religion. It all sort of comes together eventually.

Time has not been kind to this novel. If you feel like going on a righteous moral crusade you can pick and choose between questionable use of mental illness for the plot, hamfisted commentary on racism and casual sexism thrown about by the characters. Partially this is just Dick inhabiting the heads of vile characters and not necessarily his own opinions, and the Martian culture has its own definition of what is autism or schizophrenia for the reality-questioning story. I don’t find this a particularly interesting discussion, though. It’s an old book. 

And it’s a bit of a slow burn. The plot is as scatterbrained as its inhabitants and needs patience, but there is an impressive part where Dick is scratching the internal timeline like a DJ and we feel the same disorientation as the schizophrenic Jack. Some great final chapters offer the payoffs that were sorely needed and make this into one of Dick’s best. Good, but messy. Approach with care.

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12 Responses to Review: Philip K. Dick – Martian Time-Slip (1964)

  1. Andreas says:

    Lots of Dick tropes in this novel: Old Mars, schizophrenia, different flows of time, central government. Some of them return in Total Recall (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale).

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Wakizashi says:

    Excellent review! I read this years ago and only remember bits from it. I think a re-read is due. I went through a year of reading PKD when I was first getting this blog started back in 2016. 12 PKD novels over 12 months, alongside reading his “Exegesis.” For sure he was a pulpy writer who wrote to pay the bills, but I think his ideas were incredible at times. Many critics say that he works better in the short story format, as his novels tend to start well but lose their way towards the end. I enjoy both formats. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one.

    Like you, I am not interested in disecting old books based on current moral thinking. I don’t like the direction this path is heading in. It seems nonsensical to rage against books written over 50+ years ago because the reader doesn’t agree with the portrayal of certain characters, or some of the old-fashioned language used. It’s almost like certain “critics” or “commentators” are actively looking for something to get angry about. Just relax and enjoy the story, remembering when it was written. If you don’t like the story, fair enough. There’s no need to try to cancel the author–most of whom are no longer with us to answer these ridiculous charges. Ok, rant over. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • bormgans says:

      It’s just another form of religious tribalism, demanding purity of thought while purity of thought never existed/exists in the first place.

      Liked by 2 people

    • PKD is one of my favourite writer. I think I have read 9 books of him by now. And there are still a couple on my list to pick up. This one, Martian Time Slip, is one of the better ones, I think. He’s some kind of genius, but his writing is also very messy. But there is no one who writes stories like he does. His Exegesis I haven’t read yet. Isn’t that a distillation of all of his theories or something?

      Yeah I agree with you about people moaning about books written 60 years ago. It deserves nothing more than a footnote, and just doesn’t say anything about the story and whether it is inventive. The reverse is also true. Squeezing a book full of woke representation and political correctness doesn’t automatically make for a good story, and I get the impression that too often people praise books for their message and not for the quality of actual storytelling.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wakizashi says:

        Yes, The Exegesis is what you say. I did a “non-review” of it in 2017 that briefly chronicles my reading experience, if you are curious. It was hard to get through it, but there were moments of insight in there. And moments of madness! Link:

        You are 100% correct when you say: “I get the impression that too often people praise books for their message and not for the quality of actual storytelling.” When did the “message” become more important than the story? It’s almost like some people are ticking off a checklist of “representation” to put into their comics, books, tv shows and movies. Art has become a platform for a kind of moral censorship. Are Orwell’s “doublespeak” and “thoughtcrime” manifesting today? Scary stuff.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Ola G says:

    Agreed to the whole discussion on thought policing and this strange form of anachronistic judgment filled with revolutionary zeal against everything that’s not up one’s modern “woke” standards.
    As a PKD fan, which of his books would you recommend as his best?

    Liked by 2 people

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