The Tape and The Clock

The last book I remember reading in one sitting is The Scatter Here is too Great (reviewed elsewhere on this blog); not because it was absorbing (although it was) or suspenseful (see previous parenthesis), but because it was a tiny, fragmentary novel that took roughly as long to read again from the beginning as a search for the bookmark.

But I exaggerate.

Short stories are, I feel, better for both instant gratification and a deeper, more abiding pleasure: they invite concentrated reading, but also connect to all the other half-remembered stories in your head with greater ease and clarity.

I have never left a short story hanging in the middle.

Or that’s what I thought.

Last night I picked up Philip K. Dick again. I have read a couple of cracking novels by him, some great hard scifi shorts, but the story I began seemed familiar from the first words in:

At four-fifteen in the afternoon, T.S.T., Garson Poole woke up, knew that he lay in a hospital bed in a three-bed ward and realized in addition two things: that he no longer had a right hand and that he felt no pain.

It was called The Electric Ant, from the collection We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Two pages in I could remember starting but not finishing it; at the halfway mark I remembered why.

This had been the one story I ever left off midway, not because there was anything wrong with the premise or execution, but because the idea at the center was so fucking immense. The writer holds our hand and walks us through the hoops of a straightforward scifi setup before placing us between a mountain of dynamite and the sort of gun they use to shoot down planes from high altitudes.

Then he asks us if we need a light.

The idea, then: a highly influential CEO-type person wakes up post-accident to the realization that he is an electric ant, a humanoid robot made of organic matter and Schwarzenegger’s face mechanical parts. He (it?) is miffed: not least because everyone else seems to already be in on this fact. He does some tinkering before coming to two fresh conclusions:

One, the reality he perceives is controlled by a microscopic punched tape passing between two spools in his chest, like a cassette player.

And two, there is no control mechanism preventing him from messing with the tape.

That’s interesting, Poole observes, I wonder what will happen if I get some microtools and 

at which point I put aside the book and screwed up my Board exams and tried college and tried writing and left college and tried writing something worth two shits for a change and screwed that up and then picked up the book.

I didn’t have the terminology of fancy philosophers to couch the ideas then: Nietzsche was just the guy whose name you mispronounced when the world went to hell, and Berkeley was how semi-literate people spelled the sponsor to the Premier League. Neither did I stop to think about the quaint, retro-futuristic idea of ticker tape driving an artificial intelligence.

… Bet you were expecting someone else, huh?

Despite these fresh handicaps I have finished the story now.

This time it was with a slightly more jaundiced eye, a mind too skeptical to be easily blown; but the story has weathered the years splendidly. The things that happen in the second half are insane.

The conclusion is known to have scared the writer himself; at any rate, I felt glad to have left the book alone when I was younger: the sort of excitable bugger I’d been, it would have driven me nuts.

Well, nuttier, at the very least.

You have probably gathered by now that no further plot points are coming.

Just one more thing before I stop ranting and/or you get bored enough to wander away: Poole discovers during his tinkering that the tape runs at a particular speed. His alterations, potentially world-breaking though they might be, are still wholly dependent upon the clock.

Since the visible part of the tape must obviously be at some distance from the scanner (unless cassettes were after your time), his experiment(s) end up being tempered by prolonged waiting.

It is here that Dick shows himself as capable of drama and suspense as the ideation at the heart of good science fiction: Poole knows he is an electric ant, but his actions continue to cause him anxiety.

His wait is tempered as much by futility as wonder, almost like he has no choice but to see things through to a logical conclusion; and yet he remains heartrendingly human throughout (no doubt the way he has been programmed).

And the damnedest part is, we are waiting right there beside him.

I can stretch your hospitality by way of a neat anecdote tying in my own changeability as a human being; but since you seem to have both the time and inclination, why not give the story a go?

Pleasant vigils and happy trails!

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