Science Fiction as Estrangement from Alienation: Philip K. Dick’s THE EYES HAVE IT

This is a story that I have been wanting to comment for some time now. When I first read it I found it pretty silly, but on reflection it is perfect for the interplay of alienation and estrangement that I find interesting in much science fiction.

I recently listened to an interview with PKD where he claimed that one of his books was released as a mainstream novel in hardcover, and as a science fiction novel in paperback. The duality of status confirmed the duality of language that this text already highlights.

The story (text here, audio here) seems a little frivolous at first, but it is a good test case for the definition of science fiction as cognitive estrangement. Here the sense of wonder is induced in the hero as reader of what may well be an ordinary novel, but where he interprets literally certain habitually figurative expressions. Because the author is Philip K. Dick we are left with a certain doubt at the end: is the narrator just naive, perhaps even stupid, in taking words literally, at face value, or is he a step more “meta” than us, understanding what we have been trained to regard as second degree metaphorical discourse as in fact conveying literal truth?

I am reminded of Zizek’s analysis of John Carpenter’s film THEY LIVE. A homeless tramp discovers a pair of glasses that when donned reveals a world of alien invasion hidden beneath the superficial illusion of normality. Zizek claims that the normal perception is “ideology” and that the glasses serve to remove our ideological filters. The book found on a bus (i.e.. outside the conjugal frame) and read in a garage contains no language that is not already familiar from ordinary life, yet somehow this book serves to defamiliarise the language and to reveal a “hidden” content, one that is hidden in plain sight.

The incipit recounts a sudden revelation:

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet…I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings…The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read:

… his eyes slowly roved about the room.

Vague chills assailed me. I tried to picture the eyes. Did they roll like dimes? The passage indicated not; they seemed to move through the air, not over the surface. Rather rapidly, apparently. No one in the story was surprised. That’s what tipped me off. No sign of amazement at such an outrageous thing.

From sentence to sentence the revelations are amplified. With increasing horror and wonder the narrator becomes aware of an unfamiliar world hidden in plain sight within the familiar world, which now comes to seem the alienated one. The unfamiliar world that the narrator is initiated into is one where the Earth has been infiltrated by aliens in human form, going about fairly ordinary human activities.

These aliens differ from us in that they do not have a unified body organised hierarchically with the brain as hegemonic organ. Their various organs can detach themselves and move independently, and their body may split in two (or perhaps even more) parts.

The narrator discovers that what some have considered to be the basis of modern day liberal ideology, the fixed unitary subject, is an imaginary construct, a fictional synthesis of a fragmentary body. That this discovery applies not just to the aliens of the book but to himself is signalled by the end of the book he seeks refuge from the horrible truth in a return to conjugal warmth, playing Monopoly with his wife and children in the kitchen. He tries to forget the truth glimpsed, declaring “I have no stomach for it”, i.e., in effect he himself is just as composite an assemblage as one of the corporally fragmented aliens.

One may consider that what the narrator discovers is a different use or treatment of language, characteristic of science fiction. The expression “his eyes slowly roved about the room” is treated not as a stereotype, the sedimented trace of a metaphor, but as a possibly realistic description of the world. This is one of PK Dick’s earliest stories, and it recounts the discovery of the cognitively estranging science fictional language within the alienated language of everyday life.

See also the Philip K. Dick Review post.