John Sundman illuminates the world of sci-fi

John Sundman —Stacey Rupolo

“People deprecate science fiction as being a literature of ideas. But so is ‘Moby Dick,’” said John Sundman, who will lead the next Islanders Read the Classics, a two-part event on Feb. 28 and March 1. “Or on the other extreme, they’ll say, ‘Oh, sci-fi, I don’t read it because I don’t need lasers and zap guns, that’s “Star Wars.”’ But “Star Wars” isn’t science fiction, it’s cowboys and Indians in space. Science fiction is concerned with how we know what we know. What is it to be human? What is the nature of a conscious self?” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — written 200 years ago this spring and arguably the first science fiction novel — is a widely admired example. An alternative term for the genre, “speculative fiction,” is increasingly popular, as publishers and authors attempt to emphasize the philosophical heft of the work.

Mr. Sundman will lead people through “VALIS,” a novel by Philip K. Dick, whose body of work has been a massive, if unsung, influence on contemporary creative culture. Even if you’ve never read a Dick novel, you have probably encountered work based on his canon: The list includes the films “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” and the new Amazon TV series “Man In the High Castle.”

“VALIS” is not one of Dick’s better-known pieces, but Mr. Sundman admires it for “asking very provocative questions, like literature is supposed to.” The genesis of the novel is autobiographical: On Feb. 2, 1974, Dick had an “event” that was either a psychic breakdown or a mystical revelation. He spent the rest of his life attempting to understand it, torn between conflicting interpretations of mental collapse and gnostic illumination. “VALIS” (an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System) reveals this preoccupation.

The story is grounded in the everyday reality of 1960s San Francisco, but it’s no Armistead Maupin tale, and to call it “experimental” is almost an understatement. In the first three paragraphs alone, the narrator goes back and forth between first person and third person, then admits a sort of identity crisis to the reader. Add aliens, Watergate, and the toddler-aged incarnation of Holy Wisdom. Also, famous rock musicians.

Mr. Sundman backed into being a science fiction reader — mostly as the result of becoming “an accidental science fiction novelist.” In the 1970s, with a master’s degree in agricultural economics, he thought he would spend his life figuring out how to feed hungry people in West Africa. To pay the bills, he got into the computer industry, writing hardware and software manuals in Silicon Valley. He also “got the crazy idea” of writing novels on the side, and these novels were described to him, by his early readers, as “sci-fi.” “I had never considered myself a fan or a student; I just wrote stories,” Mr. Sundman said. “People compared them to Dick and also to Neal Stephenson.” This was especially true of “Cheap Complex Devices,” Mr. Sundman’s slender second novel.

He dutifully began to read, and watch, sci-fi, to discover what brave new world he had unwittingly entered. In a sense, he introduced himself to the genre.

Mr. Sundman first discovered Dick’s work through movies. He originally thought of Dick as “that guy who wrote the stories these movies were made out of.” He was profoundly impressed by how Dick grappled with the issue of what it is to be human. “Nobody [messes] with your mind like Philip K. Dick,” he said. “George Orwell and H.G. Wells were working on these ideas, but Dick really tore the lid off and got to the essence of many of the issues that preoccupy science fiction writers today.”

While Mr. Sundman acknowledges that some science fiction delivers cardboard characters or inelegant prose, he emphasizes that Dick, especially in his later novels, is “a real novelist, not only in terms of the ideas he is dealing with, but the quality of the prose, the way he lays out a story, the depth of the characters.” He places the posthumous sequel to “VALIS,” “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” on a par with John Updike’s “In The Beauty of the Lilies.” Both are about ministers losing their faith. “Updike is no more a serious novelist than Dick is,” Mr. Sundman said. “It’s all about marketing — and prejudice.”

While the Islanders Read the Classics event will focus only on “Blade Runner” and “VALIS,” Mr. Sundman sees the evening as part of a larger project to destigmatize the genre. “It’s not defensiveness on my part,” he explained. “It’s not that I feel I have to convince people the genre is worthy. It’s just a shame if they shut themselves off from a great reading experience, and I’d like to help them get over that.”

Islanders Read the Classics: John Sundman on Philip K. Dick. Showing and discussion of “Blade Runner”: Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7 pm, Vineyard Haven Library. Discussion of “VALIS”: Wednesday, March 1, at 7 pm, Katharine Cornell Theater, Vineyard Haven. All Islanders Read the Classics events are free. Sponsored by The Martha’s Vineyard Library Association and The MV Times.