Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick
Jack Hamilton has just lost his job as an engineer for a government defense contractor because his wife Marsha is a suspected communist sympathizer. Having nothing better to do for the afternoon, he accompanies Marsha to the viewing of a new linear accelerator. An accident at the accelerator beams the Hamiltons and six other unsuspecting citizens into a parallel universe that at first appears to be their world but soon starts to evince subtle differences that become more and more obvious as time goes on. There is some sort of “corny Arab religion” at work — God is all justice and no mercy so, for example, telling a lie brings down an immediate curse such as a bee sting.
There are miracles here that can be taken advantage of, such as a cigarette machine that Jack, a darn good engineer, manages to rig up to produce unlimited supplies of excellent brandy, but generally this is an uncomfortable world that most of them would like to get out of. When they surmise that they are actually living in one of their group’s fantasy worlds, they figure out how to escape. Unfortunately, they don’t return to the real world. Instead, they move on to the fantasy world of another of the group, and then another, and then another.
Though it starts out pretty seriously, the plot of Eye in the Sky eventually becomes rather amusing as we view the world from different people’s distorted perspectives. Eye in the Sky was written in 1957, long before Philip K. Dick’s plots became obtuse and dominated by incoherent hallucinogenic sequences. Some of the story goes on too long and some of it may be distasteful to those of certain races, those with certain mental disorders, or those with certain political or religious beliefs, but that’s nothing new for old science fiction, and Dick has plenty to say on these topics. As usual, it’s really hard to like most of Dick’s characters — they’re obsessed, irrational, and phobic — but we can sympathize with Jack and Marsha Hamilton, at least.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s recent publication of Eye in the Sky which was narrated by Dan John Miller. He was new to me, but I was pleased with his performance and recommend this version. Eye in the Sky is worth a read — it’s a good novel that shows Philip K. Dick very early in his career.
Back in 1954, newspaper headlines announced the recently completed construction of the Bevatron at the Berkeley Lab, California. This device, a particle accelerator so called because it could impart billions of EVs (electron volts) to supercharge its manipulated protons, made the news again the following year, when scientists employed it in their discovery of the antiproton. And it was this news story, in all likelihood, that gave young author Philip K. Dick the inspiration to write his novel Eye in the Sky. Written in a burst of creativity in just two weeks in 1955, the book first saw the light of day in ’57; one of Dick’s first six sci-fi novels, out of an ultimate three dozen. The book is an important one in Dick’s oeuvre as it is his first to explore one of his overriding pet themes: the slippery mutability of so-called “reality.” Highly imaginative, occasionally mind-blowing, and evincing bursts of humor as well as philosophical speculations, the book might well be considered Dick’s first great sci-fi novel; personally, I loved it.
As Kat mentioned above, in the book, the reader makes the acquaintance of a young electronics engineer named Jack Hamilton, who, when we first encounter him, is getting some very bad news from his bosses at the weapons manufacturing firm known as California Maintenance. The company’s security chief, Charley McFeyffe, has accused Hamilton’s wife, Marsha, of being a Communist sympathizer, and thus, Hamilton is about to lose his security clearance … and his job. By chance, later that same day, the Hamiltons and McFeyffe attend a guided tour of the newly opened Bevatron (in the Bay Area city of Belmont; not Berkeley) … on very much the wrong day, as things turn out. An accident at the Bevatron plant causes the 6 billion-volt proton beam to hit the observation platform on which they are standing, incinerating it instantly, and causing the three, as well as five others — senior war vet Arthur Silvester; middle-aged biddy Edith Pritchet and her 10-year-old son David; neurotic spinster Joan Reiss; and the black Bevatron guide, Bill Laws — to go plummeting 60 feet to the floor of the installation, passing through the beam itself. Miraculously, none of the eight is killed, but what happens next is almost as miraculous. Somehow, the octet finds itself trapped in the fantasy-laced consciousnesses of four of the injured party, segueing from one bizarre mental landscape to the next, in an ever more harrowing turn of events, in what Hamilton later describes as a “crackpot universe”…
Dick takes especial pains to engender plausibility at his story’s outset by having Laws give us an explanation of just how the Bevatron operates; the author’s explanation for what happens later, of course, could not possibly be as convincing. But what a phantasmagoria of wonders he has compiled for his readers! In the first fantasy realm that our eight injured protagonists find themselves in, they are immersed in the imaginings of Silvester, who subscribes to an oddball, latter-day religion that itself has been inspired by the Muslim splinter group of the mid-1800s known as Babists. In this world, lies can bring instant punishment, swearing can cause locusts to descend, and all commerce is geared to the spreading of the word of the Second Bab. In this section’s most hallucinatory segment, Hamilton and McFeyffe ascend to Heaven via a holy water-sprinkled umbrella and see our geocentric (not heliocentric) planetary system at a nice remove.
In the next segment, the eight find themselves in the fantasy world of Mrs. Pritchet, a very proper, ultraconservative fusspot with a prim, Victorian bent. In this world, sex organs are nonexistent, and everything the old biddy deems “unpleasant” — insects, noise, garbage, slums, and on and on and on — becomes abolished, one by one. Next, our befuddled eight find themselves sharing the consciousness of Miss Reiss, a woman who is paranoid of just about everything. In this world, hence, food becomes poisonous, kitchen implements turn deadly, and, in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Hamilton’s house itself turns into a very hungry, living organism, and several of our heroes turn into voracious insects! Finally, in the novel’s last section, our by-now completely dismayed eight find themselves in a world where the capitalist forces are very much in civil conflict with the Communists (Marsha’s fantasy world, it would appear), with warfare and bloodshed in the streets. As you can tell, it is Philip K. Dick at his wildest and most unhinged.
Pleasingly, though, the author maintains complete control of his bizarro conceit from beginning to end. Unlike some later Dick novels, in which he seemed to not know how to wrap up his outré story lines, the author here manages to impress with a very tight rein, tying things up wonderfully by the book’s end. It really is a bravura performance from Phil here. Though written in that aforementioned brief time span, Eye in the Sky feels as if Dick had tried extra hard to compose something special here. There are no inconsistencies, such as plagued many of his later books, and my guess would be that Dick gave his first draft a very careful editing later on. (Still, an occasional ungrammatical turn of phrase, such as “a handful of technicians were visible,” pops up here and there.)
Besides an early demonstration of Dick’s “alternate realities” theme, the novel gives the reader an inkling of some of the other concerns and obsessions that would feature in the author’s later work. For one thing, Hamilton is a devotee of stereo systems and classical music (it will be remembered that Dick was, in the early ‘50s, the manager of a record store and the programmer for a classical-music radio station), and references are made to such composers as Brahms, Stravinsky and Dowland, and to such works as “The Mikado” and “Daphnis and Chloe.” Later Dickian subjects such as cigars, the German language, divorce and drugs are not to be found here, but strangely enough, there is a reference to Cheyenne, Wyoming … a town that would be spotlighted in several later Dick books. (I’ve long wondered, Why Cheyenne?) Happily, the wonderful, dry humor that seemed to come so easily to Dick, and his sympathy for his “little-man characters,” are both in evidence here. How funny it is, when some religious-fanatic scientists challenge Hamilton to a knowledge duel, are given some assistance from a literal angel, and Hamilton demands “Who’s kibitzing?” Or when the pudgy McFeyffe attains godlike stature, only to declare “I don’t feel so good … I think I’ll go take a bromo.” And Dick, never a sci-fi author who was overly concerned with making accurate predictions regarding mankind’s future, here hits the nail squarely on the head with his reference to “President Nixon.”
The author, of course, grew increasingly paranoid himself regarding government surveillance in his later years, and in Eye in the Sky, he is pleasingly right on, regarding the subject of McCarthy-like witch hunts ruining people’s lives in modern society. Another instance of his enlightened, P.C. outlook on the world is to be found in his treatment of the novel’s black character, Laws; a fully qualified physicist now being forced to eke out a living as a tour guide. But, as Hamilton winningly tells the racist Silvester at one point, Laws is “good enough to sit down at the dinner table with any man alive.”
In short, Eye in the Sky combines a fantastic story line with imaginative set pieces, larded with humor, well fleshed-out characters, and an enlightened view of the world. It is a wholly satisfying creation from Philip K. Dick, and a complete success; still another great work from this author that would make for an impressive Hollywood, big-screen production. Writing in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle calls the novel “thoroughly enjoyable,” and I could not agree more. It comes very highly recommended by yours truly. And just get a load of that inside-out house cat!