Saturday, January 31, 2015

Radio Free Albemuth: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress entitled Philip K. Dick in Orange County, in which I read each of the novels that acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, and write book reports about them.  This is part of a larger project that will become an art exhibit/zine release in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

In 1974, while living in Fullerton, Philip K. Dick had a religious experience that would inform the last four novels of his life.  This experience, which cartoonist Robert Crumb documented in a comic entitled “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” involved a random delivery girl arriving at his door.  The woman was wearing a gold Christian fish necklace.  When Dick looked at the necklace, a beam of pink light shot into his mind and gave him visions and messages—specifically that his young son had a birth defect and needed immediate surgery.  This proved correct, and Dick believed the beam of pink light was a revelation from God, or something like God.

The first novel he wrote following this experience was called Radio Free Albemuth.  Like his previous two novels (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly), Radio Free Albemuth is set in an alternate/dystopian U.S.A. that bears a striking resemblance to the conservative, reactionary Nixon-era U.S.A that Dick inhabited.  His experience of living in Orange County, birthplace of Richard Nixon, gave him plenty of ideas and inspiration for the novel.

In Radio Free Albemuth, America is ruled by a fascist tyrant (masquerading as a conservative Republican) named Ferris F. Fremont.  The letter “F” is the sixth letter of the alphabet, so the numerical equivalent of his initials F.F.F. is 666, the number of the beast from the biblical book of Revelation.  Fremont’s career closely resembles that of Richard Nixon.  The novel describes  “the budding career of the junior senator form California, Ferris. F. Fremont, who had issued forth in 1952 from Orange County, far to the south of us, an area so reactionary that to us in Berkeley it seemed a phantom land, made of the mists of dire nightmare, where apparitions spawned that were as terrible as they were real.”  

Fremont, like Nixon, had rose to power as an anti-communist crusader.  Following the deaths of such 1960s liberal icons as Bobby Kennedy and MLK, Fremont’s rise (like Nixon’s) signaled the end of the socially conscious 60s dream of a more open society.  The USA, under Fremont (like Nixon), had spiraled into paranoia, scandal, disillusionment, and increased police and military.  The country had curved in onto itself, and was rotting from the inside.

The two main characters are Philip K. Dick (yes, the author is a character), and his friend Nick Brady.  At the beginning of the story, Nick operates a small record store called University Music on Telegraph in Berkeley, where Phil sometimes buys music.  One day, Nick starts getting these strange visionary and auditory revelations, which compel him to move down to Orange County, the belly of the beast, so to speak—the birthplace of Fremont (Nixon).  While living in Orange County (Placentia, in particular), Nick continues getting messages from the mysterious/divine spark of light, which he calls VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System.  Nick discusses these visions with his sci-fi writer friend, Philip K Dick, and the two speculate about the origin, content, and meaning of these strange messages.  They believe they come from outer space, from an ancient, distant star, a star called Albemuth.

Nick’s visions are of the ancient Roman empire in the first century, around the year 70 A.D. when Rome destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and both Jews and Christians were scattered and persecuted.  Nick’s visions and messages tell him that the empire never ended, that there is an ancient, cosmic conflict going on basically between the forces of light and good, the interstellar communication network of the universe, and the forces of darkness, evil, and tyranny, represented by empires like Rome, and now the United States.  Nick’s visions urge him onto a spiritual quest to subvert the empire through rock music.  

Personally, coming from a religious background myself, I was greatly moved by Dick’s mystical understanding of God and religion.  He sees it as a vast, intergalactic mind, communicating across time and space, connecting all living things.  Valis is what some people have called God.  And the few rag-tag people on earth who are able to receive his messages form a small, persecuted minority who bravely stand up against the forces of tyranny and oppression.  They may not see the empire fall in their lifetime, but their spirit lives on, out among the stars, and occasionally glimpsed in the creative productions of the counter-culture—in science fiction stories, rock music, and in love between human beings.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 4: Women

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The fourth surah of the Qur'an comes from the later period of the prophet's life, when he was leader over a growing number of believers in Medina.  Thus, the surah is less concerned with stories and theology (like the earlier Meccan surahs), and is more concerned with practical laws and rules regarding property, inheritance, gender roles, family, and marriage.  The surah also reflects the very real tensions and conflicts (both internal and external) that Muhammad and his community faced in those early years of Islam.

The surah begins with a lovely explanation of the origins of men and women: "People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women, far and wide."  From this, one could derive the idea of the "soul mate"--the other half of one's soul that so many people spend their lives looking for--an idea that persists today.

From this lovely beginning, a reader might get the impression that there was gender equality among the early Muslim community; however, the reality was more complex.  Seventh century Arabia was a patriarchal, male-dominated culture, and unfortunately this surah reflects this reality.  Like the patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament, Muslim men are permitted to marry multiple wives, though all wives must be treated equally.  Men are also allowed to strike their wives: "If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them."  This abuse is tempered by further instructions of kindness: "Husbands should take good care of their wives," and elsewhere, "it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will, nor should you treat your wives harshly."  The picture of husband-wife relations that emerges is not one of equality, but is also more complex than modern stereotypes suggest.

This gender inequality is also evident in inheritance laws: "Concerning your children, God commands that a son should have the equivalent share of two daughters."  The inheritance laws are quite complex.  As I read them, I thought it would be interesting to compare the inheritance laws of the Qur'an with those of the Old Testament.  I believe they are quite similar.

Like the Torah, this surah gives basic laws forbidding theft, murder, incest, and other sins.  Believers are encouraged to "believe and do good deeds" and also to stand up against oppression, and fight against oppressors: "Why should you not fight in God's cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, 'Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By your grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!'?"  Throughout the surah, believers are told to uphold justice for children, orphans, and the oppressed: "Let them be mindful of God and speak out for justice."

The surah also reflects conflicts with Jews and Christians, while also maintaining the shared heritage of these faiths: "We have sent revelation to you [Muhammad] as he did to Noah and the prophets after him, to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Aaron, and Solomon--to David He gave the book of Psalms."  Unlike later Christians, the prophet maintains that the Jews did not kill Jesus.  Also, near the end, the surah argues against the Christian doctrine of the trinity, affirming instead pure monotheism: "So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a 'Trinity'--stop [this], that is better for you--God is only one God."

Calligraphy by Everittee Barbee

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Scanner Darkly: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress entitled Philip K. Dick in Orange County, in which I read each of the novels that acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, and write book reports about them.  This is part of a larger project that will become an art exhibit/zine release in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

A Scanner Darkly is the first novel that Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, that is also set in Orange County.  Like Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly presents a future, dystopian U.S.A., a fascist police state.  Unlike Flow My Tears, in which the police state is overt and obviously repressive (represented by numerous army/police checkpoints and forced labor camps), the police state of A Scanner Darkly is more subtle.  Rather than being overtly oppressed, the characters in A Scanner Darkly are being surveilled and destroyed from within (through drugs, technology, and the occasional secret agent).  For this reason, the world of A Scanner Darkly is much more recognizable and familiar.

The main character of the novel has two personas: Fred (an undercover narcotics officer), and Bob (a drug addict).  Fred the officer is given the assignment to monitor and electronically surveil Bob the doper (aka himself).  The split personality of Fred/Bob reflects a larger schism that has happened in society.  The world of the novel seems evenly divided between two main categories: the straights (conservative establishment) and dopers (liberal subculture).  Because of his position as both a “straight” and a “doper,” Fred/Bob gives us (the reader) insight into both worlds, and into the deeply divided society that the novel portrays.

Before moving to Orange County, Philip K. Dick spent the 1960s living around Berkeley, the heart of “hippie” subculture.  Then, in the early 1970s, Dick moved down to Orange County, the heart of “conservative” reaction to the 1960s social movements.  Through the split personality of Fred/Bob, Dick is also representing the vast cultural divide between 60s Berkeley and 70s OC—two extremes of American society.  

As in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, there is a sense in A Scanner Darkly that the liberal, socially conscious dream of the 1960s has died, and been replaced by something dark and sinister—drugs and paranoia—a society rotting from within.  In the alternate world of Flow My Tears, people turn their brains off with bad TV.  In the alternative world of A Scanner Darkly, people turn their brains off with drugs.  The book laments the early deaths of such 60s icons as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, tragic victims of 60s drug culture.  Whereas, in the 1960s, drugs were seen as liberating and part of a larger social movement, by the 1970s, drugs had replaced social consciousness and become a world unto themselves, a swirling morass of death and despair.

By presenting a cast of main characters who are “dopers,” Dick’s sympathies clearly lie with the subculture, rather than the establishment.  This is represented in a scene in which “Fred” is giving a presentation to a roomful of “straights” at the Anaheim Lions Club.  Fred is supposed to give a canned speech about the “war on drugs.”  As readers, however, we get access to his inner thoughts, Bob’s thoughts, and we see how much he detests his audience: “The straights, he thought, live in their fortified huge apartment complexes guarded by their guards, ready to open fire on any and every doper who scales the wall.”  As Fred struggles to get through his speech, he says actually says, deviating from the scripted speech, “..because this is what gets people on dope…This is why you lurch off and become a doper, this sort of stuff.  This is why you get up and leave.  In disgust.”

As the novel progresses, Bob/Fred struggles to keep his two identities intact, but things ultimately fall apart.  The hypocrisy of his life, like the hypocrisy of the society in which he lives, becomes too much for him to bear.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 3: The Family of Imran

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The 114 surahs of the Qur’an were (according to Muslim tradition) revealed to the prophet Muhammad over a 23-year period of his life, and the revelations are often connected to various events from the life of the prophet and his growing community of faith.  The surahs are usually divided by scholars between the “Meccan” surahs, which came from the first part of the prophet's life when he was living in Mecca, and the “Medinan” surahs, which were revealed after the prophet led his people on an exodus of sorts to Medina.  In a future post, I will discuss the life of Muhammad in more detail, but for now I’ll just point out that Surah 3, entitled “The Family of Imran,” comes from the later, Medina period of the prophet’s life.

The title of the surah is a reference to Imran, whom Muslims believe was the father of the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The surah narrates a story from before the birth of Jesus, when Imran’s wife gave birth to Mary, and then entrusted her to the care of the priest Zachariah.  As she grew up, God provided for Mary and took care of her.  As in the gospels, angels appeared to Mary and announced the miraculous birth of Jesus, saying “Mary, God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honor in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God.”  The angels tell Mary that Jesus will be a messenger to Israel, healing and performing miracles, and will teach the Torah, and some new stuff.

The Qur’an sees Jesus as another in a succession of prophets from God which include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad, the last prophet.  Particular emphasis is given to Abraham, who “was neither a Jew nor a Christian,” and is thus a spiritual ancestor to three faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The surah says, “We believe in God and in what has been sent down to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes (of Israel).  We believe in what has been given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord.”

Unfortunately, as is the case in our world today, tensions arose between the followers of Muhammad and the followers of other faith traditions.  In the Arabian peninsula of the seventh century, when Muhammad was alive, there were (at least) four main faith groups: Jews, Christians, polytheistic tribes, and the new followers of Islam.  It should be noted that one of Muhammad’s main achievements, as both a religious and political leader, was to unite warring tribes into a larger community of faith.  Unity is a main virtue of this surah: “Hold fast to God’s rope all together: do not split into factions.  Remember God’s favor to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace.”

Despite this achievement of unity, conflicts persisted during the life of the prophet, and this surah comments on two specific battles: the Battle of Badr (in which Muhammad and his followers defeated a much larger army of Meccan aggressors), and the Battle of Uhud (in which Muhammad and his followers were defeated).  As was mentioned in the previous surah (The Cow), followers of Islam were only allowed to fight in self-defense.  Victory in battle is understood in much the same way that the Israelites under Joshua or David understood victory—as a sign of divine favor.  The point I want to stress here is that war and violence are a part of the faith traditions of both the Bible and the Qur’an.

I’d like to end this report by giving some characteristics of God that emerge from this surah, by quoting some verses:

God is compassionate. (30)
God is most forgiving, most merciful. (31)
His grace is infinite. (74)
God does not guide evildoers. (86)
God does not will injustice for His creatures. (108)
God knows exactly what is in everyone’s hearts. (119)
God loves those who do good. (134)
It is God who is your protector; He is the best of helpers. (150)
It is God who gives life and death. (156)
God is never unjust to His servants. (182)
Our Lord!  You have not created all this without purpose. (191)

Calligraphy from "The Family of Imran" (Al Imran), the third surah of the Qur'an.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Anti-Club Mixtape 1/23/15

On Friday nights, I DJ at Mulberry St. Ristorante in downtown Fullerton, which I have dubbed The Anti-Club.  Here's what I played last Friday night...

“Blow Wind Blow” by Muddy Waters & Howlin Wolf

“I Put a Spell on You” by Nina Simone

“Hypin’ Women Blues” by T-Bone Walker

“I Couldn’t Believe it Was True” by Willie Nelson

“Lean on Me” by Bill Withers

“La Jaula de Oro” by Los Tigres Del Norte

“Everyone” by Van Morrison

“Grizzly Bear” by The Youngbloods

“Day Dreaming” by Aretha Franklin

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” by Bob Dylan

“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley

“Jimmy Jazz” by The Clash

“Straight Dumb” by Pangea

“Boys Don’t Dry” by The Cure

“Girls of Summer’ by Peach Kelli Pop

“Hold My Head” by Dahga Bloom

“Rattle Shake Bop” by Sean Gospel

“Keep on Knocking” by Death

“Death Cometh” by Babylon Sweethearts

“Calamity Song” by The Decemberists

“Oh Shirley” by Derrick Morgan

“Chance to Play” by Milk n’ Cookies

“Wake Up, Little Sparrow” by Devendra Banhart

“Walking” by The Dodos

“Easy Beat” by Dr. Dog

“Talk to Me Girl” by The Next Five

“That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley

“Alison” by Elvis Costello

“The Night & The Liquor” by Elvis Perkins

“The Wedding” by Cold War Kids

“I Feel You” by Depeche Mode

“A Rainy Night in Soho” by The Pogues

“Sister Europe” by Psychedelic Furs

“The Bends” by Radiohead

“Ruby Soho” by Rancid

“April Fools” by Rufus Wainwright

“I’m Waking Up to Us” by Belle & Sebastian

“Else” by Built to Spill

“Chinese Checkers" by Booker and the MGs

“Extraordinary Machine” by Fiona Apple

“Lady Day” by Richard Swift

“Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” by She & Him

“Tonight, Tonight” by The Smashing Pumpkins

“Megan” by The Smoking Popes

“The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” by The Smiths

“My Friend Goo” by Sonic Youth

“When the Tigers Broke Free” by Stoned at Heart

“I am the Resurrection” by The Stone Roses

“Only in Dreams” by Weezer