A fondness for the work of Philip K. Dick can give a person instant credibility among some segments of the reading population. Unfortunately, Dick is known less for the merits of his individual work and more for what people know about him. In the end, this knowledge can become a cop-out for a real investigation of his work.
Mark von Schlegell's debut novel, Venusia, reads like an homage to Dick and begs to be read as something more than popular fiction. This desire, however, proves to be its downfall. Venusia suffers because von Schlegell can't decide if he's writing science fiction or political statement. Even Dick kept his mind-bending focused on one or two ideas at a time. Von Schlegell, however, dips into the PKD bag and hauls up the ideas by the handful: psychotropic drugs, fluctuating realities, interdimensional entities on the verge of entering our own universe—all things familiar to any Dick fan. Von Schlegell throws as many of them as he can at the reader in the hope that one of them will stick. Or maybe he just subscribes to the channel-surfing school of plot development. Either way, it's hard to pin down just what this novel is about.
The plot goes something like this: in the 23rd century, a hapless Venusian junk dealer, Rogers Collectibles, comes into possession of a book that threatens the regime of benign dictator Princeps Crittendon. Collectibles has also stopped taking his government-mandated Flowers and is experiencing withdrawal. This fact paradoxically makes him an "addict" and sends him into the n-scape, the shared mental landscape humans enter by wearing Morituri helmets. The n-scape appears to be ripe with all sorts of confusion. With the help of his friends—a dwarf, a potted plant, a psychiatrist, and a reporter—Collectibles foments a revolt against the Princeps. Or something.
All this flipping between plot threads amounts to a heap of ideas that never become more than set pieces. There's the mysterious book, the Morituri helmet, and a room full of poo. Each one of them feels arbitrary and without bearing on the characters or plot, like flashy gimmicks pulled out of a magician's hat.
Of course there's always the argument, the last defense of the pedantically literary, that I just don't get it, because I can't handle subtlety or imagery. Well, I like subtlety A-OK; it's bloviation and confusion I have a problem with. Von Schlegell escapes the former by his clean and imaginative prose, but unfortunately succumbs to the latter. I fear he may have let his love of the genre get in the way of his storytelling. In his desire to mash together as many conventions and outré ideas as possible, he loses his connection with the reader and the story itself. The characters never become more than names aiding or hindering one another. The setting feels unrealized, as if it's a stage at the back of which crowds of indistinguishable figures linger among blurry buildings.
In the drive to claim Philip K. Dick as an adjective—Dickian: a sort of catch-all term which covers the whole branch of pop-savvy science fiction that questions the authenticity of reality—too much attention is paid to the drugs and the androids. Some writers forget the humble acceptance and compassion Dick felt for his fellow human beings. He could write plausibly about aliens broadcasting over radio stations and real-estate scams on Mars because his characters felt real. His work remains vital and lively, not because he was a "far-out dude," but because he wrote with humor, from the heart of the human condition.
Hopefully, in the future von Schlegell will tap into this same well of emotion and write something just as powerful. He tried to do too much too soon, instead of letting himself grow into his story. But there remains enough in Venusia to make me interested in reading more of his work. Since this is the opening of his System Series of linked books, I am curious to see where von Schlegell goes from here, and expect I will track them down upon publication. In the end, I always find myself liking a book with a sympathetic potted plant.
Justin Howe was born and raised in the wilds of suburban Massachusetts. For reasons beyond his control, he must live in the vicinity of New York City. He attended the Odyssey Writers Workshop in 2005 and is on a first-name basis with his local librarians.
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