“If you find this world bad, you should see some of the others.” – Philip K. Dick
In my dreams I am walking down a long hallway, plush red carpet under my bare feet. The walls are gunmetal gray and the fixtures are impossibly shiny. There is a soda machine at the far end and – like the right hand of god – I am thirsty. I pour myself a bucket of ice, and turn to face the pop-box, but it has vanished. In its place, on the floor is a tiny strip of torn white paper. Two words are printed on it, in blocky script: “Soda Machine.” Undaunted, I tear the strip in half, discarding the machine, and swallow the remaining piece. I am sated.
Californium is a little like a game, and a lot like a dream. Everything is 2D, and impossibly stylized. I am a writer, and my daughter is dead. My wife has left me alone and I am hopelessly addicted to booze and pills. I write for a weird little magazine and do ad work to pay the bills. Except I don’t, the bills are past due and the narcs are closing in on my neighborhood. Clearly, I’m on a real bummer.
I poke around. The world is thin here, and the television is talking to me again. I search high and low for glyphs and sigils. My writers block is a hidden object quest for the seams that stitch the fabric of the world together, and the work is shoddy at best. There is another version of my life beneath the surface. I run to it, and it’s even worse than the one I just left. Things tumble downhill from there.
The mechanics are obnoxious, insistent. To progress I must regress, first to a darkened world of fascist paranoia and phony patriotism, and finally – to a distant simulacrum of my rubber band reality, where I am emperor to the dreams of schizophrenic replicant assassins. It’s a dark trip, filled with fiendish friends and dead-end dreams of daughters lost to the sea and dark haired girls who want to top me off for a lift. “I’ll make you forget her,” she coos from the sidewalk. Everything I want is just out of reach. The voice on the TV has become my universal narrator. I begin to suspect that the narrator is me, and everyone else is to, and that only I can write my way out of this particular story.
The mind-body problem is in full effect here. How can I be certain that the world is not a stage, and that other people aren’t just characters in my one-man show? My friend Don reminds me that he has always had my back, but actions speak louder than words, and his are printed on the faded script in 12-point type. I search for the payoff, but I am rooted to the framework of personal tragedy and bad habits that die hard. Eventually, I find my way home, but how can I know for sure? The TV is insistent, like a ringing phone, and the typewriter crouches alone on the desk like a sphinx with a Cheshire cat grin, taunting me.
I finish up and log out. My dog is outside barking at fire trucks. It’s too late for today and too soon for tomorrow. Isn’t that always the way of things?
I don’t know that I’d recommend Californium to you, dear reader. How could I? You have grown up in a world where the third or fourth iteration of Dick is foundational to your experience of science fiction, entertainment and alienation. You get Dick through osmosis, certainly, but the source is a little rough around the edges.
If you’re a fan of the real deal, whatever that actually is – jump in. It’s a short trip and the scenery is beautiful. Me? I’ll be doing the old-school thing, paperback book in hand, sipping on a pop and turning the pages as fast as I can. One layer at a time. My imagination will fill in the blanks.
It’s been a lovely trip, but the robot needs rest.