Puttering About in a Strange Land
By Philip K. Dick; Performed by Luke Daniels, Kate Rudd, Amy McFadden
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours
Themes: / marriage / boarding school / literary / infidelity /
When Roger and Virginia Lindhal enroll their son Gregg in Mrs. Alt’s Los Padres Valley School in the mountains of Southern California, their marriage is already in deep trouble. Then the Lindhals meet Chic and Liz Bonner, whose two sons also board at Mrs. Alt’s school. The meeting is a catalyst for a complicated series of emotions and traumas, set against the backdrop of suburban Los Angeles in the early fifties. The buildup of emotional intensity and the finely observed characterizations are hallmarks of Philip K. Dick’s work.This is a realistic novel filled with details of everyday life and skillfully told from three points of view. It is powerful, eloquent, and gripping.
Puttering About in a Small Land (written 1957 but first published in 1985) feels very different from Philip K Dick’s usual stuff. It’s a dark and funny slow-burn set in 1950s Southern California, but there are no simulacra, no time slips, and no telepaths, and the only artificial reality is the one built out of society’s expectations of suburban married life.
It also seems unusually sensitive for PKD – not in a corny or sentimental way but just finely tuned into human relationships. He captures the subtle and imperfect communications of a dysfunctional marriage where two people are pretending to work together but are really pushing and pulling below the surface, wanting different things and resenting each other for it.
“I’ll be back pretty soon,” he said. From his eyes shone the leisurely, confident look; it was the sly quality that always annoyed her.
“I thought maybe we could talk,” she said.
He stood at the door, his hands in his pockets, his head tilted on one side. And he waited, showing his endurance, not arguing with her, simply standing. Like an animal, she thought. An inert, unspeaking, determined thing, remembering that it can get what it wants if it just waits.
“I’ll see you,” he said, opening the door to the hall.
“All right,” she said.
The story is told in three alternating points of view: Roger, his wife Virginia, and the “other woman” Liz. All three are trapped, one way or another, in self-made realities they don’t enjoy.
Some readers complain that PKD writes unflattering female characters, and as usual these ones aren’t much to admire: Virginia is gossipy and judgmental, her mother is a controlling nag (who often corners Roger and has some of the funniest scenes in the book), and Liz Bonner is so naïve and childlike she verges on the idiotic.
“She’s sort of a—” Mrs Alt searched for the word. “I don’t want to say lunatic. That isn’t it. She’s sort of an idiot with a touch of mysticism.”
But even so, Virginia has her strengths, and Liz Bonner is lovely in a quirky way. Her flaws and naïve unpredictability are exactly what free her from society’s expectations, and are what attract Roger. Despite the deceit and infidelity, their love story is somehow still beautiful.
And to be fair, PKD also writes pretty unflattering men. For example, Roger not only cheats on his wife, he also abandoned his previous wife and daughter and seems to be a compulsive liar. He’s a bristly, bad-tempered, and indifferent to his wife’s gestures of love and compromise. All he really cares about his TV retail-and-repair business, which is where the book title comes from: he’s a little king “puttering about in a small land.”
The waning of a marriage and infidelity appear in a lot of PKD’s stories, but in this one they really drive this plot. Normally I wouldn’t try to detect an author’s own life in his fiction, but since PKD has openly admitted he weaves autobiographical details into all his stories, it seems safe to see something of him in Roger.
His essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” might give some more clues to his approach to fiction set in the real world. Just because the characters’ universe is based in reality doesn’t mean PKD won’t try to disintegrate it.
“I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. … Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live.”
I listened to Puttering About in a Small Land on audio and read the print version too. The audiobook was read by Amy McFadden, Kate Rudd, and Luke Daniels, one for each of the main characters. All three were great, although using three narrators didn’t work so well for me since the story is in third-person. Hearing the same characters read three slightly different ways gave the audiobook a patchwork feel and was a bit jarring and distracting sometimes.
I’d recommend Puttering About in a Small Land for PKD fans but not so much as an entry to his works. For anyone who knows his style, it’s very cool to see a more subtle side of him and to see how beautifully he can write about human relationships in the artificial universe we call reality. Definitely worth the read.
Posted by Marissa van Uden
The SFFaudio Podcast #271 – The Prisoner Of Zenda by Anthony Hope; read by Andy Minter. This is a complete and unabridged reading of the novel (5 hours 30 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Tam, Seth, and Paul Weimer.
Talked about on today’s show:
1894, the movies, Moon Over Parador, ripoff vs. homage, Dave, the Ruritanian influence, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sherwood Smith, a feminist Ruritanian romance, book trends, Seth kind of enjoyed it, put British taboos in a make believe country, accent on the romance, an eastern German state, the bathroom key in Spanish, to avoid research, a fake name for a real place, Bavaria, A Scandal In Bohemia by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the sister-in-law, Rudolph Rassandale as a pseudonym for Anthony Hope, autobiographical wish fulfillment, an author avatar, not exactly modern storytelling, a male romance, “getting close to something happening”, a chaste-ness, innuendos, what’s lacking in the non-comic book adaptations, red-headedness, the black and the red, Rose, the Red rose of Ruritania, “if it’s red it’s right”, Black Michael, the real king is a prat, the better man, Eric S. Rabkin is all about “food and sex”, Jesse is all about “it’s all a dream”, mirroring and inverting, The Prestige, Madame Maubin, the dream, Total Recall, doubling echoing, the attack plan, Rupert! Rupert!, a happy version of the drunk king, the drugged wine, half the kingdom, that’s really good writing, The Princess Bride, a Fantasy edgecase, is it Fantasy?, “wading in the waters outside the island of Fantasy”, adopted into Fantasy, Coronets And Steel by Sherwood Smith, Doctor Who, The Androids Of Tara, electro-swords in a feudal future, Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein, a professional actor, Mars as Ruritania, A Princess Of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Latveria (in the Marvel universe), Doctor Doom, just a time passer, a finite number of monarchs, Utopia by Sir Thomas More, the noble house of Elphberg (elf berg), Austria, the beautiful streets of Streslau, the tell-tale hair colour, the problem of cheating, the sequel Rupert Of Hentzau, Queen Victoria, The Red And The Black by Stendhal, George R.R. Martin, the ostensible antagonist is Black Michael but actually the baddie is Rupert, “he leaves bloody but laughing”, Rupert as a twisted version of Rudolph, Antoinette du Maubin, a female version of Rudolph, the two Rudolphs, about six months, a romantic trope, no consummation, everybody is cousins here, morganatic marriage, Randy not Randolph, Crusader Kings, Lord Burlsdon, this second son thing is what EMPIRE is all about, smoked in their smoking rooms, India, Afghanistan, North America, South Africa, who this book is for, the problems of aristocratic families, The Man Who Would Be King, the Wikipedia entry, Winston Churchill wrote a Ruritanian Romance, the restoration of a parliamentary system instead of a monarchy, so Churchill, Churchill turned down a Lordship, the suspension of disbelief issue, Colonel Sapt and Fritz, the country is run by like seven people, a kidnapper and a kingslayer, somebody is going to have to swim that moat, the missing cellphone, the moving mole, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, “is this gonna be a thing?”, Saddam Hussein’s doubles, Star Wars, Princess Amidala and whoever…, first person narration, the eggspoon, a new use for a tea table, An Improvement On Jacob’s Ladder, he likes that ladder a bit too much, Jacob (in The Bible) dreams the ladder, GOOD!
Posted by Jesse Willis
Themes: / military sf / basic training / overpopulated earth / battle armor combat / aliens / marriage / mutiny / mathematics /
In the sequel to Terms of Enlistment, a desperate battle for interstellar supremacy pits man against man and humanity against aliens in an epic tale of vicious combat and political deception.
Vicious interstellar conflict with an indestructible alien species. Bloody civil war over the last habitable zones of the cosmos. Political unrest, militaristic police forces, dire threats to the solar system…
Humanity is on the ropes, and after years of fighting a two-front war with losing odds, so is Commonwealth Defense Corps officer Andrew Grayson. He dreams of dropping out of the service one day, alongside his pilot girlfriend, but as warfare consumes entire planets and conditions on Earth deteriorate, he wonders if there will be anywhere left for them to go.
After surviving a disastrous spaceborne assault, Grayson is reassigned to a ship bound for a distant colony—and packed with malcontents and troublemakers. His most dangerous battle has just begun.
In Lines of Departure, Marko Kloos picks up where Terms of Enlistment left off. Earth is overpopulated, various terrestrial governments are still warring with one another in space as people colonize the stars, and there’s a new nearly indestructible alien species that appears determined to exterminate mankind.
The combat scenes are crisp and the action flows at a nice clip. For the majority of the narrative, we tag along with Andrew Grayson as he along with his fellow NAC troopers battle the Lanky, the new aliens on the block. Again we are plunged into a universe where the Chinese, Russians, and North American Commonwealth manage to still fight one another in space as they simultaneously battle the eighty-foot tall Lanky.
Kloos writes a nice sequel, but unlike many others, I didn’t feel that Lines of Departure was as strong as Terms of Enlistment. Still, this is a good Military SF book and worth your time. I like the military hardware, interactions between troops and civilians, and the realistic paradoxical bureaucracy that apparently still plagues humanity’s future.
My favorite scene? Andrew Grayson having breakfast with his mother in a small Vermont diner. I like Military SF combat, and Kloos writes good combat scenes. But the breakfast is something special. Character development happens seamlessly, dialogue feels effortless and natural, and there is some genuine emotional growth occurring. I could almost taste the food, smell the coffee, and feel the heft of the menu and napkins.
The ending is good, maybe not surprising, but it’s true to the story and well written. Nice Job, Mr. Kloos. Thank you for not overreaching. You gave me what the story needed, and you resisted the temptation of adding too many whirly-bangs.
Luke Daniels narrates the audiobook, and turns in another outstanding reading.
I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. If you’ve read Terms of Enlistment, you’ll want to give this a go.
Posted by Casey Hampton.
Themes: / thriller / marriage / diary / writers /
Marriage can be a real killer. On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?
This audiobook was 19 hours and I finished listening to it in three days. That’s on my 3 mile commute. I just couldn’t stop. I’d make up reasons to listen. This is a very well-written thriller that I can hardly discuss without giving things away. I almost hate myself for liking it because of all the hype, but it really pulls you in and makes you want to know where it is going. I don’t read many thrillers, but this was a good one!
The audiobook is a great way to “read” this, because the chapters are divided between Amy, who has gone missing, through her diary, and Nick, her husband who is a key suspect. The two readers, male and female, really bring the story to life. I’m used to Kirby Heyborne reading zombie novels, so it was hard to ever think of Nick as good, but the author does that anyway.
Posted by Jenny Colvin
The SFFaudio Podcast #186 – An unabridged reading of The Lady, Or The Tiger? by Frank R. Stockton (17 minutes), read by David Federman – followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Tamahome, and Julie Hoverson (of 19 Nocturne Boulevard).
Talked about on today’s show:
Monty Hall, Let’s Make A Deal, a can of sardines, a donkey and a block of hay, the Dungeons & Dragons meaning of “Monty Hall”, use in schools, weighting the scales, what is the character of women?, equally loving and equally jealous, love vs. jealousy, how barbaric are women?, where are the female criminals, a fully barbaric king, trial by ordeal, a box with a viper, a box with a knife, the swift choice, a curious justice system, jaywalking into the people’s court, like father like daughter, women were so emotional, unmodernizable sexism, guilt, there are tigers behind both doors, The Price Is Right, imaginary morality in an imaginary land, fairness conflated with arbitrariness, “when he and himself agreed upon anything”, Julie’s problem with philosophy, game theory, a thought experiment, Ray Bradbury style stories convey Bradburian feelings vs. Rorschachian style stories which elicit only the reader’s feelings, The Discourager Of Hesitancy (a sequel to The Lady, Or The Tiger?), smile vs. frown, Batman, Two-Face’s decisions are not actually coin tosses, The Man in The High Castle by Philip K. Dick, I Ching, “the tiger does not eat the straw because the duck has flown away”, phone psychics should agree with their customers, “the cards are telling me…”, psychics as impartial observers, a Ponzi scheme, selection bias, is it a double bluff?, does the father know that the daughter knows?, what is the punishment for adultery?, obsolete pop-culture, zoot suit riots (not just a joke, seriously), “six of one, half a dozen of the other”, “as snug as a bug in a rug”, we have to invent rug technology, nitpicking, Bugs Bunny dialogue, Max Headroom (is still ahead of it’s time), “blipvert”, They Live, shantytowns in the Regan era, Shock Treatment, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Talked about on today’s show:
The E.V. Rieu translation and the , The Great Bow, Odysseus Strings His Bow, The Battle In The Hall, Slaughter In The Hall, Odysseus And Penelope, The Great Rooted Bed, The Feud Is Ended, Peace, flexing that bow, canny suitors, does Penelope know what’s going on?, the Wikipedia entry for The Odyssey (and the Slaying Of The Suitors):
The next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope maneuvers the Suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus’ bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part in the competition himself: he alone is strong enough to string the bow and shoot it through the dozen axe heads, making him the winner. He then turns his arrows on the Suitors and with the help of Athena, Telemachus, Eumaeus and Philoteus the cowherd, he kills all the Suitors. Odysseus and Telemachus hang twelve of their household maids, who had betrayed Penelope or had sex with the Suitors, or both; they mutilate and kill the goatherd Melanthius, who had mocked and abused Odysseus. Now at last, Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is hesitant, but accepts him when he mentions that their bed was made from an olive tree still rooted to the ground. Many modern and ancient scholars take this to be the original ending of the Odyssey, and the rest to be an interpolation.
The next day he and Telemachus visit the country farm of his old father Laertes, who likewise accepts his identity only when Odysseus correctly describes the orchard that Laertes had previously given him.
The citizens of Ithaca have followed Odysseus on the road, planning to avenge the killing of the Suitors, their sons. Their leader points out that Odysseus has now caused the deaths of two generations of the men of Ithaca: his sailors, not one of whom survived; and the Suitors, whom he has now executed. The goddess Athena intervenes and persuades both sides to give up the vendetta, a deus ex machina. After this, Ithaca is at peace once more, concluding the Odyssey.
Melanthius prompts his own mutilation, a mutilating evil dude, “horror swept through the suitors”, on the question of the axe heads, the “battle master”, “cased in bronze”, a “turbid jet” of blood, how awesome would it be to see a bardic performance of The Odyssey?, Sir Ian McKellen, the compliant bard, the ancient Greek holy books, the host-guest relationship, the morality of killing your house-guests, why should you read The Odyssey? Because it doesn’t present a world classifiable into good and evil, the inviolability, Iranian hospitality, how Iranians talk (a circuitous path to making a point), why can’t Odysseus even trust his dad?, the primacy of patriarch, the killing of the twelve maidens, what is the moral message?, an unjustified liar, Agamemnon ghost, “that Penelope’s pretty great”, “talk about odd behavior”, the immovable (marriage) bed, an olive tree, “the gods have made you daft”, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, Odysseus in Antarctica?, Odysseus runs his life crazily, Odysseus’ name means “trouble”, impiety to Polyphemus, the Trojan War was Odysseus’s fault, a kind of comedy like Voltaire’s Candide, a satire of The Odysseus, True History by Lucian of Samosata, “the natural ending”?, Athena’s solution, the end of The Stand by Stephen King, is the deus ex machina ending satisfying?, Poseidon’s rage, the Norweigan version of The Odyssey (Beowulf), the Beowulf movie, Beowulf is tough braggart but is not wise, melancholy gods, the hero is the villain, the merciless Odysseus, the unquestionable Odysseus.
Posted by Jesse Willis