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A critical look - One man's opinion

One man's opinion | Various Dick Images

Stephen Hout

Major Writers

Robinson and Dick Alternate Ways of Writing Alternate History


By simply picking up the books that Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip K. Dick have written on alternate histories we can visually and physically see a difference.  Robinson’s book is thick; nearly an inch and a half, with a very dark cover that is covered with text.  Dick’s book is about a half of an inch thick and is covered in bright colors with very little writing on the cover and a rather surrealistic looking layout.  Without reading a single paragraph you can imagine the differences between the writing styles each author has chosen.  There are many effective ways of writing, and these two authors are on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.  Robinson has written a very dense, detail oriented alternate history with The Years of Rice and Salt, versus Dick’s very short interpretation in The Man in the High Castle.  Both authors have a vivid imagination that carries the reader through some action packed and lively paced reading.  The two authors have chosen very different paths to accomplish their work; both styles differ in form and character development.

            The book’s themselves are the same genre, alternate histories with each one looking at different scenarios.  Robinson starts his book off during the plague, and works it to past our present day time.  Dick begins after WWII and stops shortly after that time.  Robinson’s book covers a period of time that is roughly over 600 years compared to the time frame of less than a year in dicks novel. 

The writing style of Robinson tends to be very dense and sprawling.  Robinson’s scenarios seem to be covered by every imaginable view.  The reader is left with very little to imagine due to the massive details that are spelled out for the reader.  This can be a good thing for a reader who has trouble with interpretation regarding an author’s intended purpose.  But for the reader who enjoys creating their own world it might seem limiting.  Another limitation in Robinson’s style is that it is very long, and though it mostly maintains a lively pace, there are points in the book where it seems to almost come to a stand still and the information is so dense that the reader can loose themselves in the meaning.  At times there are pages that seem to slow the reader down.  This can loose a reader’s interest and tempt them to skim along through a section.  As an improving reader; I found the book to be very challenging, an experienced reader, who reads with a quicker pace, might find the book more enjoyable than a slower paced reader.  As stated in class there is a sense of accomplishment when the book is completed.  I feel that the long form of the book hurts its appeal to the masses of book readers.  His style does not limit or constrain the reader as it passes through generation upon generations.  It also the reader to explore several times and places.  Robinson also gives a different feel in his ten chapters.  His style allows a reader to be entrenched in different things.  I wish that he would have kept the style of “you can find out in the next chapter.”  Some might consider his different styles in the chapters as being inconsistent, but I thought it was an appealing feature.

Dick’s writing style also has its own flaws.  Dick is very short and to the point.  He lays out his details and he starts right into the action.  His style leaves the reader a ton of freedom to interpret and imagine what his alternative world looks and feels like.  I thought originally that Dick had a James Thurber feel to his writing, a journalistic approach.  Here it is, here is what happened, and how do you like it?  Unlike Robinson who seems to cover every angle, Dick leaves other views left to the reader to ponder.  This can be stimulating to reader or it can be a disappointment, depending on the reader’s desired outcomes.  My thoughts of Dick relating closely to Thurber have changed; I no know that one of his works, Total Recall was turned into a movie, and that he lived in California, I know have a theory that his ambition was to write movies.  If this theory is true it would explain the quick time frames for his books, it would give directors freedom to create and adapt settings and meaning as needed.  Dick seems to leave things underdeveloped as compared to Robinson’s overdevelopment.  I think that Dick could have spent more time in certain areas, and he may turn readers off that think his work is unfinished or incomplete.  Dick’s style could be more appealing to the reader who is a little bit more on the novice side.  It is very to-the-point and the important things are easy to find in the reading.  There are not a lot of hidden details; he gives it to the reader as prescribed.

The two styles are so different that there must be somewhere in the middle that would create the perfect book.  Putting a page limit on it is not the right way, but there must be a happy medium.  Robinson can turn people off due to length and sometimes pace and Dick’s book might seem underdeveloped and incomplete, If Robinson trimmed about 150 to 200 pages it would have been a great read.  Dick could have elaborated on certain areas for about 50 pages and made his book seem more polished.  Despite the differences both writers are effective with their chosen styles.  Robinson’s book must have been a massive undertaking to try and write and his mind must work overtime to try and complete the novel.  Dick’s imagination is just as developed as Robinson but with a different flare for what a reader needs to know.  There was not a great sense of achievement when I finished reading Dick, like a felt when completing Robinson.  I did find myself wanting to read Dick again and I never felt that desire after finishing Robinson. 

Another major difference between Robinson and Dick is the way that they handle their characters and their development.  Like there form, their characters are written in the same style.  Robinson’s characters are very thought out, and are perhaps the basis of his novels.  His characters are among those who are high in society, the upper class.  In his novel we a have a group of characters who travel thorough life together.  These characters are bound together and are reincarnated so their paths always cross.  The focus of his characters is people who are closely tied to decision makers and history shapers.  His characters are slaves that become advisors to kings, scientist who change the world, all elitist.  I can see how choosing these characters make it exciting for the reader.  It gives a reader a feeling that the character is important, and that what they say or do is just as important.  People want and desire to be powerful, so they like reading about them.  It can be thought that his characters are important enough to keep reading about.  If he told his story using peasants that were continually be oppressed, beat and taken advantage of his readers would be in the dumps while reading about them.  His characters also might be a little on the idealistic side.  There could have been a little more evil in his characters to help balance out all the good that they were doing.  As a reader I enjoyed the characters coming back as different people and even animals.  When the K character reappears as a lion, and behaves the same way he did as a human, I felt it was one of the highlights of his book.  We are able to form a bond with characters because we read about them and know them well.  It is hard to draw affection for someone we don’t know much about.  Robinson gives almost 800 pages to draw closer to the characters.  BY killing off his characters time and time again it leaves the reader with an “oh hum” sense.  I was not worried and there was no feeling of suspense.  If the character was killed, so what they will just reappear after their stint in the bardo.  This choice could turn readers off to his style.

Dick tends to focus on a different kind of character that appeals once again to different type of reader.  Unlike Robinson, Dick’s characters are very ordinary.  Dick does give us some characters who a in the upper class, movers and shakers, but he portrays them as everyday people with limitations and problems.  His view is much more realistic, as opposed to the idealistic characters of Robinson.  Dick gives readers a bond to his characters because of their realistic flaws and situations.  Dick also seems to have some animosity to women.  He does not portray his leading lady in a favorable light.  We see Juliana as a woman who is just looking to use her next victim to get what she wants.  She has no skill, besides being good looking.  Her promiscuous ways take her from bed to bed until she gets what she wants.  Dick does mix in the upper class character to give the book some appeal.  If you do not have some important types in your book it can leave a reader feeling that there is no point.  Not a lot of people want to read about regular old Joes all the time.  I feel that Dick puts just enough of a mix to keep the readers interest.  Dick  is able to get across the feelings of his book in an effective way by using regular people to show the feelings and temperament of his alternate time.  If Dick used just the upper class we could not see what the feeling of the majority was.  I feel this is his strong point, because most people are not in an authoritative position.  His characters are more realistic, even the rich and powerful have struggles; it is not just a tea party for people. 

There are positive and negative aspects to each choice a writer makes.  There are also several different readers who are looking to gain something out of reading a book.  BY choosing a drastic style, like Robinson and Dick, you run the chance of a reader becoming turned off by your work.  It is too long, its too underdeveloped and so on, but by writing a book just down the middle, you can become to bland.  It is important to show and use drastic styles.  If everyone just shot down the middle there would not be a stimulating debate, or controversy.  By pushing the envelope you can give readers a glimpse of what is out there.  If everything were the same life would be boring.  Both authors were very effective in their choice of styles and characters.  There is not a right answer to who has written the perfect book, or better book for that matter.  It is left up to the reader to decide, and that is what make reading so much fun.


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