'I don't get you, Helio.'
'Purpose of life is unknown, and hence way to be his hidden from the eyes of living critters. Who can say if perhaps the schizophrenics are not correct? Mister, they take a brave journey. They turn away from mere things, which one my handle and turn to practical use; they turn inward to meaning. There, the black-night-without-bottom lies, the pit. Who can say if they will return? And if so, what will they be like, having glimpsed meaning? I admire them.'
On the Mars colonies, life forms around water. Civilization huddles around the great canals, and still water is scarce; the water authority turns a switch that grants water to one homestead this month and another the next. It is, hilariously, the 1990's. The man who controls the water, Arnie Kott, is an old-school union gangster in the Jimmy Hoffa mold: unfailingly corrupt and in love with his own power. He boasts of the steam bath he owns, which lets the excess water seep into the ground, a sign of his own excess. But as forces on Earth set their eyes on expanding their influence in the colonies, he knows his days are numbered, and turns to an schizophrenic child, Manfred, who might have precognitive abilities--that is, he sees the future--to help him cement his power. In this task Kott enlists a talented repairman, Jack Bohlen, himself a recovering schizophrenic, to help him create a machine will communicate with Manfred.
I have read what I think are considered Philip K. Dick's most important novels--Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, the VALIS trilogy. But Dick wrote something like fifty novels in his lifetime, and while some are probably in the vein of the pulpy sci-fi of the midcentury, I'm sure there are some hidden gems out there. But even still, I didn't expect Martian Time-Slip, which I picked up more or less at random, to be so good that it qualifies, for me at least, as one of Dick's very best.
A few things set Martian Time-Slip apart. I liked the presence of the Bleekmen, native Martians who speak a kind of pidgin English and who have been impressed into the service of the human colonizers. It's an old story, but that's part of Dick's point: while space exploration promises a new start to the human race, humans are unable to escape their own poisoned qualities. "Their lives were wasted," a character thinks, "they had simply carried over their old quarrels form Earth--and the purpose of colonisation had been forgotten."
Then there's the visions of Manfred, who really does have precognition. Manfred is only a child, but he experiences the entire arc of his own life over and over again. (This is Dick's theory of schizophrenia: it is the result of a mind working on a different time frame that "normal" humans.) He is tortured because he sees his own future, in which his limbs are amputated and he lives out his last days helplessly in a joyless hospital. Manfred's visions emphasize the way entropy pervades the universe; an inevitable rot he describes as "gubbish":
Gubbish! A worm, coiled up, made of wet, bony-white pleats, the inside gubbish worm, from a person's body. If only the high-flying birds could find it and eat it down, like that. He ran down the steps, which gave beneath his feet. Boards missing. He saw down through the sieve of wood to the soil beneath, the cavity, dark, cold, full of wood so rotten that it lay in damp powder, destroyed by gubbish-rot.
Manfred's visions are terrifying, and they are what Martian Time-Slip does that none of Dick's other books do. We see the same moments from Manfred's point of view over and over again, each time emphasizing the horrible force of entropy: people dissolve into their own skeletons, buildings rot away. Kott wants to use Manfred to see the future, but like all good fables about the future, he is unprepared for what he'll see when he does.
And yet, Martian Time-Slip is as action-packed and exciting as any of the novels that have made Dick such a fertile source for movies. The scene where the plutocrat Kott and the repairman Jack converge at the same point in the desert, obligated by law to help the party of Bleekmen dying of thirst, has a great visual and cinematic sense that helps establish the strangeness of life on Mars. Ditto for the novel's climax, when Kott takes Manfred on a pilgrimage into the Martian desert to a rock worshiped by the natives, known as "Dirty Knobby." I love that. No other science fiction writer has quite that eye for the darkly humorous, or the truly weird. This really is one of Dick's best books.