Thursday, May 07, 2009

Pris: The End Of A Philip K. Dick Romance

Today’s post is a few different things all rolled up into one.

This is an excerpt from near the end of the book, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick. It’s a great book that was made into a popular but very changed movie called, “Blade Runner.”

This excerpt is also a companion piece to a post from last month, “The End Of A Barry Malzberg Romance.” Barry Malzberg and Philip K. Dick were contemporaries, both part of the New Wave movement in science fiction. Both were very poetic writers. But Malzberg wrote with weird, ironic humor. Dick almost always avoided blunt humor and let the narrative simply narrate and it was up to the reader to step back and react to the content one way or another.

This excerpt is also a loose end. Possibly the longest loose end I’ve ever tied up here at Impossible Kisses.

A long time ago, after a Halloween, I mentioned the character of Pris. I never went back and explored why or elaborated on the reference at all. But since the character of Pris is so different in the book than in the movie, I’ve always wanted to do a post that would showcase Pris as she is in the book, rather than the character in the movie. For one reason or another I’ve kept putting off doing the post. But here it is.

I’m still not going to explore or elaborate on the reference but I will set up the excerpt.

This excerpt is the climax of two long arcs within the novel. In one arc a lonely middle age man named John Isidore has become friends with a beautiful young android named Pris. He’s lonely, and even though he has nagging doubts about Pris and her ‘friend’ Roy, John befriends Pris. In the other arc, the androids, including Pris, have been working to reveal to human beings that one of mankind’s deeply held beliefs about religion is a bogus fraud. In this scene, the androids’s hoped for revelation becomes real, and John Isidore experiences a personal revelation of his own that is much more real.

"Fine," Pris said remotely.

Isidore started off once more. I think, he thought, they're exploiting me sort of. But he did not care. They're still good friends to have, he said to himself.

Downstairs again, he gathered the girl's clothing together, stuffed every piece into the suitcases, then labored back down the hall once again and up the stairs.

On a step ahead of him something small moved in the dust.

Instantly he dropped the suitcases; he whipped out a plastic medicine bottle, which, like everyone else, he carried for just this. A spider, undistinguished but alive. Shakily he eased it into the bottle and snapped the cap — perforated by means of a needle — shut tight. Upstairs, at the door of his apartment, he paused to get his breath.

" — yes sir, folks; the time is now. This is Buster Friendly, who hopes and trusts you're as eager as I am to share the discovery which I've made and by the way had verified by top trained research workers working extra hours over the past weeks. Ho ho, folks; this is it!"

John Isidore said, "I found a spider."

The three androids glanced up, momentarily moving their attention from the TV screen to him.

"Let's see it," Pris said. She held out her hand.

Roy Baty said, "Don't talk while Buster is on."

"I've never seen a spider," Pris said. She cupped the medicine bottle in her palms, surveying the creature within. "All those legs. Why's it need so many legs, J.R.?"

"That's the way spiders are," Isidore said, his heart pounding; he had difficulty breathing. "Eight legs."

Rising to her feet, Pris said, "You know what I think, J.R.? I think it doesn't need all those legs."

"Eight?" Irmgard Baty said. "Why couldn't it get by on four!' Cut four off and see." Impulsively opening her purse she produced a pair of clean, sharp cuticle scissors, which she passed to Pris.

A weird terror struck at J. R. Isidore.

Carrying the medicine bottle into the kitchen Pris seated herself at J. R. Isidore's breakfast table. She removed the lid from the bottle and dumped the spider out. "It probably won't be able to run as fast," she said, "but there's nothing for it to catch around here anyhow. It'll die anyway." She reached for the scissors.

"Please," Isidore said.

Pris glanced up inquiringly. "Is it worth something?"

"Don't mutilate it," he said wheezingly. Imploringly.

With the scissors Pris snipped off one of the spider's legs.

In the living room Buster Friendly on the TV screen said, "Take a look at this enlargement of a section of background. This is the sky you usually see. Wait, I'll have Earl Parameter, head of my research staff, explain their virtually world-shaking discovery to you."

Pris clipped off another leg, restraining the spider with the edge of her hand. She was smiling.

"Blowups of the video pictures," a new voice from the TV said, "when subjected to rigorous laboratory scrutiny, reveal that the gray backdrop of sky and daytime moon against which Mercer moves is not only not Terran — it is artificial."

"You're missing it!" Irmgard called anxiously to Pris; she rushed to the kitchen door, saw what Pris had begun doing. "Oh, do that afterward," she said coaxingly. This is so important, what they're saying; it proves that everything we believed — "

"Be quiet," Roy Baty said.

" — is true," Irmgard finished.

The TV set continued, "The 'moon' is painted; in the enlargements, one of which you see now on your screen, brushstrokes show. And there is even some evidence that the scraggly weeds and dismal, sterile soil — perhaps even the stones hurled at Mercer by unseen alleged parties — are equally faked. It is quite possible in fact that the 'stones' are made of soft plastic, causing no authentic wounds."

"In other words," Buster Friendly broke in, "Wilbur Mercer is not suffering at all."

The research chief said, "We've at last managed, Mr. Friendly, to track down a former Hollywood special-effects man, a Mr. Wade Cortot, who flatly states, from his years of experience, that the figure of 'Mercer' could well be merely some bit player marching across a sound stage. Cortot has gone so far as to declare that he recognizes the stage as one used by a now out-of-business minor moviemaker with whom Cortot had various dealings several decades ago."

"So according to Cortot," Buster Friendly said, "there can be virtually no doubt."

Pris had now cut three legs from the spider, which crept about miserably on the kitchen table, seeking a way out, a path to freedom. It found none.

"Quite frankly we believed Cortot," the research chief said in his dry, pedantic voice, "and we spent a good deal of time examining publicity pictures of bit players once employed by the now defunct Hollywood movie industry."

"And you found — "

"Listen to this," Roy Baty said. Irmgard gazed fixedly at the TV screen and Pris had ceased her mutilation of the spider.

"We located, by means of thousands upon thousands of photographs, a very old man now, named Al Jarry, who played a number of bit parts in pre-war films. From our lab we sent a team to Jarry's home in East Harmony, Indiana. I'll let one of the members of that team describe what he found." Silence, then a new voice, equally pedestrian. "The house on Lark Avenue in East Harmony is tottering and shabby and at the edge of town, where no one, except Al Jarry, still lives. Invited amiably in, and seated in the stale-smelling, moldering, kipple-filled living room, I scanned by telepathic means the blurred, debris-cluttered, and hazy mind of Al Jarry seated across from me."

"Listen," Roy Baty said, on the edge of his seat, poised as if to pounce.

"I found," the technician continued, "that the old man did in actuality make a series of short fifteen minute video films, for an employer whom he never met. And, as we had theorized, the 'rocks' did consist of rubber-like plastic. The 'blood' shed was catsup, and," — the technician chuckled — "the only suffering Mr. Jarry underwent was having to go an entire day without a shot of whisky."

"Al Jarry," Buster Friendly said, his face returning to the screen. "Well, well. An old man who even in his prime never amounted to anything which either he or ourselves could respect. Al Jarry made a repetitious and dull film, a series of them in fact, for whom he knew not — and does not to this day. It has often been said by adherents of the experience of Mercerism that Wilbur Mercer is not a human being, that he is in fact an archetypal superior entity perhaps from another star. Well, in a sense this contention has proven correct. Wilbur Mercer is not human, does not in fact exist. The world in which he climbs is a cheap, Hollywood, commonplace sound stage which vanished into kipple years ago. And who, then, has spawned this hoax on the Sol System? Think about that for a time, folks."

"We may never know," Irmgard murmured.

Buster Friendly said, "We may never know. Nor can we fathom the peculiar purpose behind this swindle. Yes, folks, swindle. Mercerism is a swindle!"

"I think we know," Roy Baty said. "It's obvious. Mercerism came into existence — "

"But ponder this," Buster Friendly continued. "Ask yourselves what is it that Mercerism does. Well, if we're to believe its many practitioners, the experience fuses — "

"It's that empathy that humans have," Irmgard said " — men and women throughout the Sol System into a single entity. But an entity which is manageable by the so called telepathic voice of 'Mercer.' Mark that. An ambitious politically minded would-be Hitler could — "

"No, it's that empathy," Irmgard said vigorously. Fists clenched, she roved into the kitchen, up to Isidore. "Isn't it a way of proving that humans can do something we can't do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing. How's the spider?" She bent over Pris's shoulder.

With the scissors Pris snipped off another of the spider's legs. "Four now," she said. She nudged the spider. "He won't go. But he can."

Roy Baty appeared at the doorway, inhaling deeply an expression of accomplishment on his face. "It's done. Buster said it out loud, and nearly every human in the system heard him say it. 'Mercerism is a swindle.' The whole experience of empathy is a swindle." He came over to look curiously at the spider.

"It won't try to walk," Irmgard said.

"I can make it walk." Roy Baty got out a book of matches, lit a match; he held it near the spider, closer and closer, until at last it crept feebly away.

"I was right," Irmgard said. "Didn't I say it could walk with only four legs?" She peered up expectantly at Isidore. "What's the matter?" Touching his arm she said, "You didn't lose anything; we'll pay you what that — what's it called?— that Sidney's catalogue says. Don't look so grim. Isn't that something about Mercer, what they discovered? All that research? Hey, answer." She prodded him anxiously.

"He's upset," Pris said. "Because he has an empathy box. In the other room. Do you use it, J.R.?" she asked Isidore.

Roy Baty said, "Of course he uses it. They — all do — or did. Maybe now they'll start wondering."

"I don't think this will end the cult of Mercer," Pris said. "But right this minute there're a lot of unhappy human beings." To Isidore she said, "We've waited for months; we all knew it was coming, this pitch of Buster's." She hesitated and then said, "Well, why not. Buster is one of us."

"An android," Irmgard explained. "And nobody knows. No humans, I mean."

Pris, with the scissors, cut yet another leg from the spider. All at once John Isidore pushed her away and lifted up the mutilated creature. He carried it to the sink and there he drowned it. In his mind his hopes drowned, too. As swiftly as the spider.

"He's really upset," Irmgard said nervously. "Don't look like that, J.R. And why don't you say anything?" To Pris and to her husband she said, "It makes me terribly upset, him just standing there by the sink and not speaking; he hasn't said anything since we turned on the TV."

"It's not the TV," Pris said. "It's the spider. Isn't it, John R. Isidore? He'll get over it," she said to Irmgard...

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