I just watched a brief segment of Rachael Ray's talk show while eating a late lunch, and RR, Niecy Nash and Ty Pennington were discussing a website that will dump someone's partner for them for a small fee – something like $10 for a run-of-the-mill BF/GF on up to $50 to jilt someone at the alter. The subtext of the conversation was about the lack of human dignity that seems to go hand-in-hand with the rise of electronic communication and online relationships – people are less likely to communicate difficult, painful things face-to-face because technology has made it so much easier to do it from a distance, so use a website to dump your partner and you never have to deal with the real world pain of the person you once loved. You can whistle as you go about your life, never seeing how the person you dumped has to reassemble the shattered pieces of his or hers.
How this is relevant to Martian Time-Slip is that in large part this is a book about the indignities of modern life. I characterized it in an early status update as a novel of science fictional suburban ennui, and it is that, but one that explores the shattering psychological consequences of the lives people are expected to lead in the modern world. The novel was written published in 1964, and is set in a 1993 that never was when humanity has colonized Mars, at least in part because some people wanted to escape the pressures of urban life on Earth. It's a version of white flight with the middle-class leaving the planet rather than the inner city. They carve out idyllic suburbs in the Martian desert – displacing the native population of “Bleekmen,” also referred to by some of the characters as “niggers.” There is no subtlety to this metaphor. The Bleekmen are American blacks, the native tribes displaced by European colonization, Mexican immigrants – pick a minority and the same story repeats ad nauseum throughout history, which I think is a large part of the point of the novel – humanity can't outrun itself simply by changing location. Humanity can leave Earth, but it can't leave behind the societal patterns that drove it away in the first place. So these people, these Martian colonists, live the proverbial lives of “quiet desperation.” They're bored, unhappy and fragmented and seek solace and meaning in prescription drugs, black market goods, extramarital affairs. These things provide temporary balm, but no meaning. They cannot cure what ails humanity, and so with nothing to anchor them, reality breaks down and they go insane.
Schizophrenia is the catch-all diagnosis of the day in the world Dick has created, but he applies an interesting definition of the disorder as simply not accepting the natural order of things. Anyone who questions the trappings of modern life or tries to buck the system is deemed schizophrenic. Schizophrenia in the novel is more existential crisis than organic disorder, and manifests as a distorted sense of time. The schizophrenics in the novel – namely Jack Bohlen and Manfred Steiner – become so because they can't stomach the lives they're expected to or are destined to lead. In Bohlan's case, he has a psychotic break shortly after he moves into a megadevelopment co-op called AM-WEB. He has achieved every goal he's had in life, but finds the experience lacking. He has nothing left to strive for, and he goes temporarily mad. Steiner is a 10-year-old boy plagued by visions of himself at age 200 – trapped in another version of AM-WEB, kept alive by technology but not really living. But Steiner, as it turns out, is something special and has the ability to infect the realities of people who come into contact with him so that they begin to see the world through the same filter of decay and degradation.
Ursula K. Leguin in the blurb on the back cover of the edition I own describes Martian Time-Slip as a novel of “reality and madness, time and death, sin and salvation,” and it is those things as well. Bohlen breaks from reality a second time when he strays from hearth and family – the things that have kept him grounded. He finds his salvation through abandoning his mistress and reaffirming his relationships with his wife, son and father. Manfred finds his by going to live with the Bleekmen, the only creatures who can understand him and offer him solace from the vision of his future self that is so horrifying he retreats from the human world completely.
In sum, Martian Time-Slip is a trippy, tricky, challenging, maddening, mind-bending novel, and illustrates the way science fiction can hold a mirror up to humanity and reflect back things that are both horrific and graceful. It provides a fascinating look at the nature of insanity and reality, and the insanity of modern life. I found it just as relevant to life in 21st century America as any work of literary fiction, any novel of "how we live today" middle-class realism.