Transcript for Umberto Rossi on "The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick"

Jim Fleming: But we start by exploring one of the central questions that runs throughout Dick's novels short stories.

What is reality? Umberto Rossi is a literary critic living in Rome. He's the author of  "The Twisted Worlds Of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels."  Umberto Rossi talked with Anne Strainchamps.

Anne Strainchamps: He is regarded as a science fiction writer and you say you feel a special kind of kinship with him as an Italian as though he could be describing life in Italy.
So is there something Science Fictional about living in Italy? [chuckles] Aside from Berlusconi.

Umberto Rossi: Shortly, I'll have to deal with that. He's no more the Prime Minister at the moment, as you probably know, but anyway...
What happens is this: in one of his novels, "The Simulacra" there is also another one, "The Penultimate Truths,"Dick imagines a future America where the president of the United States is actually an android, which is just switched on before the TV. Program starts, talks to the American people, and then when the TV camera is switched off, he is used only as a stage prop, what can I say? As a dummy,  a talking dummy.  

 Strainchamps: Mm-hmm.

Rossi: Well, we had the feeling that for eleven years Italy was ruled by something like that. I mean, when Berlusconi was the Prime Minister we felt that, basically, the political program of his Party was the screenplay for a reality show, and that's what Dick and also Italian but I think also American  and probably something that is worldwide today, the mixing of media reality and daily life and politics and the way of life, you know, this is something that you find in this novel that talks to everyone, wherever he lives. [Wherever they live]

Strainchamps: And part of what you're describing is just kind of fundamental uncertainty about what's real and what's not real.  Dick himself, there's this famous thing, he said, once,  who defining reality, and he said it's: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  Which, at first glance, would seem obvious, of course reality doesn't go away.
But I think it's a subtler comment?

Rossi: What I find fascinating in that famous quotation of Dick is that the basic idea is that reality is not something that manifests itself clearly, it's something that doesn't want to go away.

What's the meaning of this? The meaning is that we have a map, a mental map of reality in our head.

And sometimes we superimpose the map that we have in our head, the image of reality that we have in our head, that can be wrong sometimes.

We superimpose it on reality  so sometimes we don't really access reality directly: we have our desires, fears, expectations, paranoias, whatever, that act like a sort of filter between [xx] reality, create a sort of virtual reality.

That happens for everybody. Well, in a media-saturated society like ours, this is even stronger. We know a match not because we have been there and seen that, we know a lot because we have seen it on TV, on the Internet on some website, or read it in the Wikipedia, and, well, when things do not fit our mental map, mental image, maybe we have touched reality. Because it doesn't fit our little mental play, our little mental theater, OK?

That's, I think, what an interpretation can be of that famous  statement by Dick. 

Strainchamps: So is this your feeling what you mean when you say that this theme running through all of Dick's work is something called Ontological Uncertainty?

Rossi: Well, yes. Yes. Definitely. Basically, it's what I have used as a unifying thread in my book, reading twenty novels and several short stories that Dick wrote,  what does ontological mean? It's something that's got to do with the reality and being . a philosophical term obviously but it's a term that Dick often used, especially in the second part of his career, in the seventies and the early eighties.

Ontology has to do with what being really is. And obviously, when we talk about reality, fake reality, virtual reality and whatever and whatever, is this the reality, or just an image of it, an image that can be faked, can be altered can be wrong, and whatever.

Well these are ontological issues. And ontological uncertainty, because basically what you feel, what you find yourself into when you read a novel or a short story by Philip K. Dick, is not that you find that is another reality behind this. And that is the truth.

This isn't the Matrix, the Wachowski trilogy of Science fiction movies: what you think is real is not real, but we will tell you what is the real real. OK? And that's all.

Now, in Dick's novels you have four, five, sometimes six different possibilities. Which is the real one?  We don't know.

Strainchamps: We should talk a little bit more about his work; is there another story that you think illustrates pretty well what we're talking about, this ontological uncertainty? 

Rossi: Let me speak about "Ubik," which is a 1968 novel. It's set in a far future where big corporations fight against each other using people with supernatural powers , a sort of telepaths, telekinesis and somethings like this. Psi power. Well, there is an agency that provides big corporations with people with a special talent. They are called the "intertials." They don't have real Psi powers. They can stop people who have them. So, if you are worried that one of your executives, suits, can be read by a telepath, you put an inertial near him and that stops that.

This is just the beginning of the story. Because what happens is that there is a bombing, and this group of characters think they have survived, but — strange things begin to happen and they realize that, as a famous sentence says in the novel, they are not alive, they are all dead, and kept in a sort of cryogenic suspension, a sort of  half-life, as it is called in the novel.

So what they experience is not a real world. It's a sort of collective hallucination, sustained by machines, because their employer wants to keep them alive to ask for advice in the commercial struggle that goes on in the story.

Strainchamps: God, that's creepy!

Rossi: It's quite creepy. It is a classical example of Dick's black humor and he had a lot of that, actually.

And, in this story, you see, the basic problem is that since the characters through whose eyes you see the narrative falsity of the story, are all dead and are all in a sort of collective hallucination, what is really going on outside? Who knows?


Man: In a low voice Pat said, "I don't go back in time." She raised her eyes, confronted Joe Chip half apologetically, half belligerently. "I do something, but Mr. Ashwood has built it up all out of proportion to reality."

"I can read your mind," G.G. said to her, looking a little nettled. "I know you can change the past; you've done it."

Pat said, "I can change the past but I don't go into the past; I don't time-travel, as you want your tester to think."

"How do you change the past?" Joe asked her.

"I think about it. One specific aspect of it, such as one incident, or something somebody said. Or a little thing that happened that I wish hadn't happened. The first time I did this, as a child -"

"When she was six years old," G.G. broke in, "living in Detroit, with her parents of course, she broke a ceramic antique statue that her father treasured."

"Didn't your father foresee it?" Joe asked her. "With his precog ability?"

"He foresaw it," Pat answered, "and he punished me the week before I broke the statue. But he said it was inevitable; you know the precog talent: They can foresee but they can't change anything.

Rossi: What happens in the end is that something makes you understand, make you realize, make readers realize, that what you thought to be the real world outside where people are still alive and life goes on, and these unlucky people in the so-called moratorium are dead.
Even the apparently real world maybe isn't. So in the end, they really don't know.

Strainchamps: Right. And so the end result is that you put the book down and you wonder: Am I really alive or am I something somebody else's dream or am I kept up in cryogenic suspension?

Rossi: Or you read it twice.

[both laugh]

Rossi: To see if there is another important detail that maybe make you understand the if there is another possibility.

Strainchamps: Is is strange at all, given this kind of twisty-turny kind of paranoid world, that Dick created in his network of novels. Is it ever weird to you to think of him as dead
Do you end up thinking: Could somebody as complicated as Philip K. Dick actually be completely dead?

 Rossi: Well.

Strainchamps: Do you know he really is dead, but he created a world in which people are so often not really dead.

 Rossi: Yeah. Well, there's another Science fiction writer, Michael Bishop, and he wrote a novel "Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas."  He wrote it in '86 or '87.
In that novel he imagines that Dick doesn't die in 1982 but rather goes on living in another world, a different world from ours.

The novel has been written in 1986. At that time Nixon was still alive, but obviously Reagan was the president of the United States. So Bishop imagines an alternate reality in which Nixon is still the president  because he gets re-elected and re-elected every four years.

Strainchamps: [chuckles]

Rossi: And he's a sort of life president like those people that you have, I don't know, in North Korea, OK?

Strainchamps: Mm-hmm.

Rossi: And Dick is alive and he sort of is a dissident. Like these intellectuals in the Soviet Union who are not alowed to express their opinions, but had to circulate their writings in an illegal form.

Strainchamps: Mm-hmm.

Rossi: To smuggle them. There's a model also called samizdat, you know?

Strainchamps: Mm-hmm.

Rossi: And Dick, in that novel, he didn't die but survived, and in some way is part of the resistance.
So I say the idea that Dick is not really dead, but survives in some way, has been exploited by someone. Anyway, my personal opinion is that, I'm literary critic and I don't believe in the survival of the soul after death, but I believe that something survives in literature and something survives in books.
And I am not the only the only one to think that : John Milton also said something: "A life after life,"he called it.

And surely Dick is living a life after his own life in his novels and in his short stories.

Strainchamps: In the parallel universe he created himself.

Rossi: Our Universe! Which may be a parallel universe.

Strainchamps: [laughs]

Rossi: Parallel to what, I don't know. That's a possibility. There's a chance that [xx] like that.

Strainchamps: OK. Thank you so much for talking to me.

Rossi: You're welcome!

Jim Fleming: Umberto Rossi is the author of  "The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels." He spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

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