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Galactic Pot-Healer by Philip K. Dick

Still bingeing on Dick, but this is another re-read. The first time I read Galactic Pot-Healer was back in college, when I read an essay by Le Guin where she called it one of her favorite Dick novels. At the time I found the first half hilariously funny, and the second half confusing, weird, and very dark. This time around I still found the shift in tone, although it didn't seem as dramatic. The religious or metaphysical themes seemed clearer to me this time around. I'm still not sure what I think of the novel as a whole.

The basic set-up is that Joe Fernwright is a sadsack pot-healer, just as his father was a pot-healer before him. What's a pot-healer? Someone who heals ceramic pots. Right up front we have an oddball occupation, and there's a lot of absurdist humor that plays off it. The SFE article on Dick says, "it begins almost as a parody." Joe is broke and unhappy, but out of the blue he is contacted by Glimmung -- a vast alien being who wants him to come to Plowman's Planet to help him and a collection of other artisans in some kind of act of restoration. Eventually Joe ends up on this planet, where he discovers that there is a great struggle going on between Glimmung and submerged forces of darkness. Not that Glimmung is all lightness and good itself.

Essentially Joe becomes embroiled in a cosmic battle between opposed forces, although the opposition isn't perhaps purely Good vs. Evil, Darkness vs Light, or Male vs. Female. Also, Dick is never about heroic battles. Joe is a schlub, and his participation in the battle is one of pratfalls, exhausted resignation, and bad decisions. Yet somehow even his failures aren't exactly defeats. Everything is mixed, each outcome is ambiguous or ambivalent, and there doesn't seem to be a one true way through the mess and morass of decisions and efforts and oppositions. This leaves the narrative feeling a bit aimless at times, as characters charge off to do something, only to be called back to do something else instead. Joe changes his mind repeatedly, his moods shifting like the weak ocean tides on Plowman's Planet.

galactic-pot-healer-cover
Not the edition I read this time, but I love this cover


It feels aimless, yet there's something compelling about the mutating seesaw oceanic transformations of the plot. Part of it is the goofy sense of humor, which has a lot of fun, for example, with the ragtag collection of alien species brought to Plowman's Planet by Glimmung. One scene features "a chitinous multilegged quasiarachnid and a large bivalve with pseudopodia arguing about Goethe's Faust." Gradually Joe forms a bond with a few of these goofy aliens (including "Nurb K’ohl Dáq, the warmhearted bivalve"), and at one point he is even forced into a collective consciousness with all of them. Suddenly what began "almost as a parody" turns into a serious consideration of ideas about collective consciousness, layered on top of a range of gnostic ideas about a conflict between opposing creative/destructive demiurges. The tide shifts again.

One of Dick's great strengths as a writer is his ability to convey ambivalent and conflicted feelings in his characters. Joe perceives his ex-wife as a castrating bitch, yet he also knows that she's smarter than he is and humiliates himself by calling her up to ask for advice, knowing he'll be greeted with a blast of scorn. He's at least partly motivated by loneliness. Even her sneering contempt is a bit of almost comforting attention in a moment of despair. This sort of beat-down human neediness leading to unfortunate decisions makes his protagonists incredibly sympathetic to a lot of readers, which may be the real source of Dick's popularity. The identification with the protagonist can balance out a lot of narrative and ideational confusion.

One odd little sidenote is that Joe's alien (but humanoid) girlfriend in this book is named Mali. Deckard's wife in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is named Iran. I don't remember Dick naming a lot of characters after countries, but are there others?

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
mrhedgehog
Mar. 27th, 2014 09:16 pm (UTC)
This is the one with the translation game, isn't it? "The male offspring also gets up in the morning" is the book title I remember now. And have you read Nick and the Glimmung?
randy_byers
Mar. 27th, 2014 09:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's the one. I keep meaning to email Glenn Kenny who runs a film blog called Some Came Running to suggest he change the name of his blog to whatever the equivalent is in the Game. I can't remember off the top of my head, but it involves addition and ejaculation.

I haven't read Nick and the Glimmung. Is it any good? I haven't read any of Dick's mainstream novels.
kalimac
Mar. 28th, 2014 10:18 am (UTC)
Not mainstream. Children's SF, mapped interestingly on top of Galactic Pot-Healer. Sometimes said to be set in the same universe, but that's not really so. It's more like he took the same elements and names and recombined them. Unusually bright-toned, at least for PKD, and fun to read. Devilishly hard to find a copy.
randy_byers
Mar. 28th, 2014 02:06 pm (UTC)
Wow, I had no idea! Sorry to read your final sentence, but maybe I'll ask around the Vanguardians.
mrhedgehog
Mar. 28th, 2014 09:44 pm (UTC)
There's a paperpack reprint in October in the UK, from Gollancz.
randy_byers
Mar. 28th, 2014 10:05 pm (UTC)
Too bad it's not in August, when I'll be in London.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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