Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick – A Lou Review

What is it? A classic sci-fi novel featuring segregated clans of mental patients living on an abandoned moon
Who wrote it? Philip K. Dick
Review: Not Recommended

I was genuinely excited to read Clans of the Alphane Moon. Hyped, one might even say – that is, as hyped as one could be for a book that was written and already released over fifty years ago. Ever since I was pitched the premise during class I was greatly anticipating my reading of this novel. After much anticipation I was able to begin reading Clans. “Here we go!”, I thought to myself, though nearly said out loud in excitement. “I can’t wait to see what kind of crazy, mind bending situations Dick puts these clans in! Let’s do this!” I exclaimed out loud, much to the dismay of my partner. “This is going to be kind of like Lord of the Flies… but with lunatics!”. I began to read. “Alright”, I thought. “Yeah, this is pretty good so far, some very interesting characters at the council room in the first chapter, the Running Clam guy is charming, I like the idea with the simulacra, can’t wait to see what kind of crazy Dickian shenanigans go on with that. Oh and that girl can turn back time five minutes, so she works in the police department bringing people back to life. Very cool!” While I was initially impressed with the novel, my continued reading quickly turned awry. Nevertheless I resigned myself to trusting Dick and assured myself otherwise. I told myself, “Hmm… there seems to be some very run-of-the-mill, contrived marital nonsense going on here as well. But this is Dick, so surely in true Dickian fashion, this wife character is meant to berate our male protagonist, maybe divorce him, and this will somehow give rise to a situation where he finds himself on the moon, at which point the real story involving the clans will take over. That sounds about right. Yeah I won’t worry about it, it’s not like Dick would take this amazing premise, with these amazing side characters, and just end up with the oppressively dull marital narrative taking up much of the page time, right?” Unfortunately, my hope was a waking dream.

Clans of the Alphane Moon was thoroughly disappointing. Though it features some of Dick’s most memorable characters and ideas the story as a whole is rather lackluster. Not terrible, but unsatisfying all the same. This is mainly due to the fact that this two-hundred page novel lacks the space required to cultivate the plethora of characters and ideas within it. As a result, none of the ideas in this novel are fully realized as it suffers from what is commonly referred to as “feature creep”. This lack of realization would be a little easier to forgive granted satisfying characters and plot. Unfortunately, these elements are lacking due to Dick’s overuse of the same character tropes, as well as his problematic writing method with regards to the plot as a whole. Ultimately, the problem with Clans is that it lacked a sense of scope for its story.

It should be noted that feature creep is used to describe a piece of software that has been bloated with too many features. This is also known as “creeping featurism”, or “featuritis”. It is most commonly seen in the world of computer software programming. Bloated with feature creep, the thing in question becomes bogged down, or has its resources spread too thinly, and as a result does not perform as intended. This is the case with Clans. And yet, despite being bloated with features, Clans leaves us impoverished, wanting more. ‘Unsatisfactory’ is an accurate description of Clans. In Latin, the root word satis means “enough”. And a big problem with Clans is that we did not get enough of its compelling features; I was not satisfied with how little we saw of the simulacra, Lord Running Clam, Joan Trieste, and much of the Clan members. Yet in turn I was over-satisfied, that is to say not satisfied at all, by the amount of Chuck and Mary we had to withstand; that was far too much. It seemed as though Dick was operating under the medical principle of triage as he wrote this novel, giving page space to whatever needed it most at the time, without paying heed to the quality of the whole. 

Before I continue to my next point, some background info on the story must be divulged. Clans features several self-made and regulated “clans” of mentally ill people on the Moon: The Deps (depression), The Pares (paranoia), The Manses (mania), The Skitzes (schizophrenia), The Heebs (hebephrenia), The Polys (polymorphic schizophrenia), and the Ob-Coms (obsessive-compulsive). This makes for quite an interesting setup, and one that can have some social commentary read into it. Firstly it should be noted that hebephrenia, otherwise known as disorganized schizophrenia, is no longer recognized or categorized as a form of mental illness. I find it bordering on parody that in this imagined future, those with mental illness, ascribed a sense of otherness, are literally just shipped off to the Moon, to go away and bring their deemed unsavory behavior somewhere else. But of course when these clans gain autonomy of the moon, they cannot deal with those who are different from them either, so they group up with others who have their same particular mental ailment to avoid that same sense of otherness. This sense of otherness, ascribed from a position of ‘normalcy’, then seems rather arbitrary, and some of the characters of the story realize this, such as Gabriel Baines. The differences between the the residents of Earth and the clans of the moon are not so clearly divided as Earth and moon. And of course the differences between the clans themselves are not so rigid all the same. 

Next, let us consider the simulacra. For those of you unaware, a simulacra (known as a replicant in the Blade Runner cinematic universe) is an almost perfect mechanical copy of a human being. There are so many great storytelling opportunities that can arise out of such a literary device. Firstly, one cannot easily tell a simulacra apart from a human. Secondly, the remote control capabilities are also not easily made known. And of course lastly, as mentioned, one cannot easily tell when a simulacra is being remote controlled, or when it is operating on auto-pilot. Deception is intrinsic to the operation of the simulacra as Dick imagines it, and deception lends itself well to storytelling. But needless to say the opportunities and possibilities do not end there. For example, imagine the great potential for both comedy and dramatic irony that could have been toyed with in interactions between Mageboom (being controlled by Chuck) and Mary. Mary is initially unaware that Mageboom is a simulacra to begin with, let alone that he is being piloted by her vengeful ex-husband. Unfortunately for us, Chuck remotely controls the Mageboom simulacra only once in the entire story, and Dick plays with dramatic irony in only that one part. This is a greatly missed opportunity.

The lack of focus on the Clans themselves, along with the corresponding focus on a fairly boilerplate love story, is the biggest point of contention with this novel. Obviously, a love story is not a bad plot choice by necessity. The real issue with the love story and the emotional moments it creates is the fact that we are stuck with the same bland recycled tropes that we have seen in Dick’s short stories. Such bland characters create a barrier between the reader and genuine emotional investment. Without that emotional investment, a love story ends up seeming contrived and tedious, like Clans. 

Instead of getting to explore the clans and their settlements, we are “on-rails”, so to speak, stuck with whatever character is required to push the story to its impoverished two-hundred page limit. The changing of point-of-view characters almost made the cast into an ensemble, and such a change would have drastically improved the story. With an ensemble cast, the premise of Clans could have resembled something like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The Clans of Alpha III M2 can be likened to the great houses of Westeros. But unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, which is allowed to flourish over thousands of pages, Dick makes a mad dash to the two-hundred page finish line without really taking advantage of the possibilities his premise creates. It almost feels as though there are only two parts to the story – the setup, and the conclusion. With the former, it seems as though Dick is cramming as many compelling things into the novel as possible, while with the latter, he is frantically trying to piece together a decent ending from fragmented bits of story. To illustrate my point, consider the following. The “ending” of Clans features a very common trope used in TV and film as well as books: it is closely related to a trope commonly referred to as ‘Everybody Meets Everybody’. Nearly all of the characters of the book, and all of the important ones, find themselves on Alpha III M2 for one reason or another, in something reminiscent of a Preston Sturges comedy. For a more recent example of this trope (though it does not serve as the film’s climax) consider the Will Ferrell film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Several rival gangs of anchormen find themselves at the same place at the same time and engage in an all-out brawl in what is one of the funniest scenes in the film. Clans, however, is unable to successfully execute this trope in a way that is satisfying. Perhaps it is because there is virtually no buffer between the setup of the story and the execution of this trope. For example, when Lord Running Clam is murdered, his spores are collected by Chuck and Joan, and then suddenly they’re on the moon. There are simply too many feature elements in this novel; too many ‘moving parts’, so to speak. And just like anything else, more moving parts means more complication and a greater potential for error.

Perhaps we can intuit some potential contextual explanations as to how Clans could be such a mediocre disappointment in the capable hands of Philip K. Dick. One of the fundamental criticisms I can make about Clans is that it’s plot seems to consist of three or four short stories, interwoven into a patchwork of shallow characters and half-baked ideas. For instance, some of the creatures Dick comes up with would be more than interesting enough for their own dedicated stories. Lord Running Clam, Joan Trieste, the Alphanes, and the simulacra are the main examples. And of course Dick did write some of these into their own stories – The Ganymede Takeover, and the Simulacra. In writing this reflection piece, I learned that Clans itself was actually based on a short story entitled Shell Game. And while Dick never attempts to truly delve into the storytelling potential of this great premise, Shell Game is more satisfying nonetheless. It plays heavily on the theme of mental illness as a spectrum; a group of shipwrecked mental patients are unable to determine if they are actually paranoid or simply victims of some Terran plot. There is no way for them to determine if they are actually paranoid, since they have evidence to suggest both thesis and antithesis – that they are mental patients and that they are not. As is the case with the classic short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, when Dick is toying with one interesting idea, it often leads to a much better end product.

Over the last few years, it seems as though there’s been a rise in the number of Dick movie and TV adaptations. Of course most recently Blade Runner 2049 was met with critical praise but audience indifference. There’s also Amazon’s Man in the High Castle TV series, the recently cancelled Minority Report TV series, and in mid-September Electric Dreams premiered on Channel 4 in the UK (though U.S. viewers were forced to resort to Amazon Video). What better time than now to adapt Clans into a truly enticing piece of media? This premise truly begs for more development – a TV series with an ensemble cast would be truly fitting. There would be enough time to develop Chuck and Mary into relatable characters to make way for true emotional investment. There could be so much more time devoted to the clans themselves, and in turn, if handled properly, the showrunners could use the premise as a vehicle to make its viewers think about the bias of normalcy, and perhaps shift the paradigm of how people with mental illness are viewed in the public sphere. Or it could be absolutely terrible and inspire the ire of whistleblowers nationwide.

To briefly summarize my complaints into one all-encompassing grievance, it might be this: the scope of the story in Clans was very quickly compromised. What I mean by the ‘scope’ of the story has to do with the boundaries that the author envisioned while writing. Throughout the novel it seemed like Dick did not know where to stop introducing new ideas and when to start giving existing ones time and attention; the time and attention that they not only require to be effective, but that they also outright deserve due to their compelling quality. Because of all of the resulting moving parts in the plot, Dick spends much of his time attempting to bring this wheezing jalopy of a novel to a grinding, story-resolving halt. With a premise this compelling, I really had high expectations for Clans. Unfortunately it ended up being one of the most disappointing novels I have read; far from a terrible novel, but also just as far from what it could have been. To think that such an amazing premise was the mere backdrop for a bog-standard martial drama… it is enough to make someone a Dep.

–Lou

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