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Friday, January 23, 2015

Radio Free Albemuth: Philip Dick Nixon

Just saw Radio Free Albemuth on Netflix, the 2010 movie released more widely in 2014, based on the Philip K. Dick novel written in 1976 and published posthumously in 1985, or a year after 1984.   The movie is thus an adaptation of late Dick, very late Dick, and contains a smorgasbord of gonzo Dickian conceits, often brilliant, always enjoyable, served upon a constellation of brazen political critique and at times lurid and ingenious science fictional speculation.

The story occurs in an alternate historical America, which diverged from our own some short time after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.   Someone named Fremont is President (played by The Walking Dead's Scott Wilson), reelected umpteen times, and more Nixonian than Nixon.  In this 1984-like dystopia, all agents of the government, not just the plumbers, do the President's illicit bidding, which in this world is not illicit.

Rock music plays a crucial role as a conduit of subversive messages, a realization of the paranoia that gripped the real Nixon administration, whose FCC sought to punish radio stations that played songs glorifying drug usage (this resulted in the banning of Phil Ochs' "Small Circle of Friends" and the Temptations' "Cloud Nine" by some radio stations - two songs that actually were condemning drug usage).  In Radio Free Albemuth, the government shuts down Progressive Records, and executes the man who sought to release a record with a subliminal subversive message - Nick Brady, played by Jonathan Scarfe, who made a memorable contribution to Hell on Wheels last year.

Aliens and extra-dimensions also make an appearance, in what is probably the weakest part of the story, distracting from the realpolitik attack on Nixon Agonistes' America.   But this part is true to Philip K. Dick, who also plays a major role in this story, as a science fiction author named Phil, who has written among other familiar tales an alternate history in which the Nazis won the war (see my recent review of The Man in the High Castle television pilot).   Dick is well played by Shea Whigham, who also put in a great performance as Eli Thompson in the late, lamented Boardwalk Empire.  And good to see Jon Tenney (The Closer) and Rich Sommer (Mad Men) in cameos as evilly madcap Federal agents.

While I'm mentioning names, I should also say I was happy to see my erstwhile science fiction editor at Tor, David G. Hartwell, thanked in the credits.  And the science fiction shown darkly brightly in all kinds of quick bits in this movie, including an alternate reality within this alternate history, of a Portuguese States of America, created in an alternate history in which there was no Protestant Reformation, hence Portugal and Spain, not England and Spain, split up the New World.

An unsurprisingly muddled  review at The New York Times missed all of these touches and more this past June, and Radio Free Albemuth hasn't exactly wowed those who pass solemn judgement on movies from their officious perches.   But that wouldn't have surprised Philip K. Dick, who considered literary theorists KGB agents bent on disabling American science fiction.   As for the movie, I have no doubt that it will amply survive, and go on to become a cult classic in many ways more true to Dick's vision than the high-octane enjoyable big films also derived from his work but which soared off in their own directions.

time travel and alternate history


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