Time is flying. Week 10 is in the books. Time is also a major concern of Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, the earliest work of fiction to include an explicitly autistic character. So, we started a strange but related place: with science, not science fiction. Working in small groups, we read a 2009 study (published in JADD) on the way autistic individuals perceive time. The study concluded that adults with ASD have a slightly more difficult time reproducing lengths of time accurately. I thought this was a pretty interesting connection to the characters of Manfred Steiner, the autistic boy, and Jack Bohlen, the schizophrenic repairman. Here are a few connections we saw:
- We noted that while the neurocognitive research on temporal perception and ASD has happened in the last ten years, Dick created an autistic character with time-bending abilities way back in 1964.
- This led us to speculate whether Philip K. Dick himself was schizophrenic, given his use of a schizophrenic perspective (Jack Bohlen). To understate things, his was certainly an unstable and short life, though he managed to write absolutely prolifically nonetheless.
- We also noted how the narrative reflects a distortion of temporal perspective, as Jack and Manfred loop four times through the “evening at Arnie’s” sequence.
- We wondered if this post-modern, non-linear approach to narrative was more reflective of a neurodiverse mindset than the linear approach in Cuckoo’s Nest. It forces the NT reader into a ND space, as Skye put it.
After the break, we watched a short clip from Blade Runner, the most famous of the films based on Dick’s novels and short stories. Many of Dick’s novels are concerned with simulacra
(machines that replicate humans), so this was a good place to start. Some even think that the replicants in the film represent autistic individuals (see this Wrong Planet discussion). We talked at length about the teaching machines in the public school, noting that they likely stand for the factory model of education, where students are trained to conform rather than to think individually. This is what Jack believes, and we can see Dick again as fairly prophetic here, given the way teachers are increasingly automated in our day and age. There is also something fundamentally creepy about simulacra–they invoke in us a kind of existential horror.
We expanded our discussion of autism/schizophrenia, observing that many of the characters repeat psychoanalytical theories that were popular during Dick’s time. So, are these characters mouthpieces for what Dick himself believes about autism? Probably not: none of the characters in the book really understand what autism is–it transcends their understanding, as Dan put it. The possible exception is the Bleekmen, who seem to have a mystical connection to Manfred and a similar ability to see through time. Is this a stereotypical treatment of an aboriginal culture? Maybe–but as Skye pointed out, at least the Bleekmen (especially Helio) treat Manfred with respect.
We talked briefly about the mental institution, Camp B-G, again recognizing the thin line between those who belong in society and those who do not. This led us to consider the history of Israel and the Zionist themes in the novel: is Camp B-G a kind of Jewish ghetto? John asked. Interesting speculation, especially given that the residents in the camp are destined for extermination.
This the power that science fiction–a lowly “genre” fiction–has to raise ideas. In depicting the intertwining lives of several neurodiverse characters, it has a freedom that more “realistic’ fiction does not have. See you next time.