September 16, 2016
‘Precious Artifact’ is a short story by Philip K. Dick that I read recently in the collection The Golden Man (Methuen, 1981). I won’t get into the story here, or the book, except to lend context to a phrase he coined for it. But if you’re averse to mild spoilers, skip ahead a little.
The phrase is introduced when the protagonist, based on Mars, is preparing to return to Earth, or Terra as it’s called in the story:
Milt Biskle said, “I want you to do something for me. I feel too tired, too—” He gestured. “Or depressed, maybe. Anyhow I’d like you to make arrangements for my gear, including my wug-plant, to be put aboard a transport returning to Terra.”
Milt’s singling out the wug-plant is significant both narratively (for reasons I’ll ignore) and emotionally: he’s attached to it to the point of calling it a pet. Later, on ‘Terra’, he finds it has not prospered in the new climate (‘my wug-plant isn’t thriving’), and soon afterwards ‘he found his Martian wug-plant dead’.
But wug-plant is most significant linguistically. Those of you with a background or interest in linguistics will know why, but for the benefit of other readers I’ll explain briefly.
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July 16, 2015
Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:
Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.
From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’
‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.
I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.
July 20, 2010
There was a minor book avalanche here last weekend. I removed one from its tower, which toppled unstoppably against its neighbour, and so on, with results that need hardly be described at length. Luckily there were no casualties: no toes crushed or book spines broken, just a torn cover getting torn some more. I took the hint and arranged them more stably. (And yes, I need a new bookshelf, or a dozen.)
It prompted me to carry out a plan that had just taken seed. A little earlier I had come across Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project and immediately wanted to try it. The tangling of titles, the possibilities of ‘found form’ and cut-up wordplay — as a game it was irresistible. I took photos of a few, and have written them as mini-poems for ease of reading and to see how they appear in verse:
How it is
How it is, the way that I went
Into the wild ancient world
Where the wasteland ends.
Chew on this moondust –
Good enough to eat.
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