Martian Time Slip by Philip K Dick – A Review

Welcome to Mars, where repairman Jack Bohlen has set up home with his family, fleeing schizophrenic hallucinations on Earth. Union man Arnie Kott controls the water on the planet, and is always looking for the next grift. His latest scheme is to exploit Manfred Steiner, an autistic boy he thinks can predict the future.

Canals on Mars

The best part about the novel is the world building. Mars is a lonely, dusty desert world, criss-crossed with canals. Water is at a premium, and even the villain of the piece is morally outraged at another citizen who takes more than his fair share for a luxury garden. There’s a sly dig at education inflation; many emigrants to Mars have moved there because you can’t even get a menial job on Earth without a Masters degree. There’s also a reworking of psychiatry as an exercise in avoidance. You don’t hire a psych professional to help you cope with difficult life events, you hire them to do the difficult tasks for you.

The Earth colonists have displaced and exploited the native Bleekmen, who are human, although many earthlings prefer to pretend otherwise. The ‘good’ characters are kind and sympathetic toward them, while Arnie Kott’s racism toward the Bleekmen is designed to demonstrate his villainy. He has a native manservant, frequently implied to be a better and more intelligent person than him; they share a mutual hatred.

Mystical Disability

Martian Time Slip posits that neurodivergent and mentally ill characters are simply individuals who perceive the world differently; perhaps more accurately. The novel is very much informed by a since debunked 1964 theory that autism was believed to be a childhood onset form of schizophrenia. This leads to PKD tapping the ‘mystical disability‘ trope, where Manfred is believed to have psychic powers.

The book also references the horrors of Nazism, with a Jewish camp of neurodivergent kids who are about to be ‘euthanised’ to disguise the ‘corruption’ in Mars’ air. Wealthy Arnie Kott wants to get his kid discharged to save him, but otherwise approves; his wife is fighting the camp’s closure. Manfred’s blond, blue eyed good looks ironically reference the Nazi Aryan ideal.

Women on Mars

The other problem is that Dick’s personal antipathy to women informs his work. One character explicitly blames the mother of an autistic child for his autism, expressing the discredited ‘refrigerator mother‘ theory. It’s no coincidence that both mothers of autistic children in the book are characterised as tough, professional, intelligent women.

Two of his other female tropes are featured. Protagonist Jack’s wife is a limp, insipid, disengaged drug addict, numb to the world around her. His girlfriend is a stunningly beautiful woman in a low level job, sleeping with a powerful man in a transactional relationship. These women exist to fix the men drinks, to take dictation and lay tables, to sleep with whomever wants them. Like everyone else in the novel, they exist as props to the main characters.

Predictions and Blinkers

Martian Time Slip

Martian Time Slip is not one of PKD’s best. The novel attempts to tackle issues like racism, colonialism, neurodivergence, and mental health in a sympathetic fashion. But the author simply doesn’t have the knowledge or experience to handle it.

It’s another novel where PKD has incorporated a futuristic and forward thinking concept, while being incredibly blinkered and prejudiced in another. In Vulcan’s Hammerhe predicted AI controlled attack drones, but couldn’t conceive of a woman having a professional job. In 1964 novel Martian Time Slip, he theorised that autistic people perceived time differently – a concept that was only properly studied in 2010 – but again, couldn’t fathom the concept of equality.

I want to give him some credit for trying; it was written in the 1960s, when knowledge about neurodivergence and psychiatry in particular were in their infancy. The civil rights movements for Black people and Native Americans were just emerging.

However the book quite offensive in places.

The MI and neurodivergent characters are portrayed in the same well-meaning, (but ultimately cringeworthy and offensive) way that the caricatured ‘noble savage’ Bleekmen are. Both are used as one dimensional props to elevate and decry the main characters. This is somewhat redeemed by the boy forging his own path with the Bleekmen at the end of the novel, with both escaping the influence and control of an exploitative mainstream society.

Overall… I’d give it 3 stars.

Note: I use the phrase ‘autistic person’, ‘autistic boy’ etc throughout because both in my personal experience and statistically, autistic adults prefer identity first language in describing themselves

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