Review by Jason Koornick: Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)
Clans of the Alphane Moon is a book that is dripping with weirdness. Heavily influenced by the science fiction tradition but also uniquely PKD, this novel is an exploration of human psychology set in a bizarre futuristic universe.
The story follows two separate plots which converge in a climax of grotesque satire and twisted innuendos. The main character is Chuck Rittersdorf, an everyday guy who is down on his luck and in the middle of a spiteful divorce. The real stars of the book, however are the inhabitants of Alphane, a planet populated by mental patients. The residents of this far flung planet are divided into clans based on their particular mental illness. The Mans, the Pares and the Heebs are just a few of the clans who must co-exist on Alphane as a matter of their own survival, of course.
The Alphanes must deal with the fact that the governments of Earth have their own plans for Alphane and its inhabitants. What ensues is an overly elaborate series of events centered around Chuck and his ex-wife Mary Rittersdorf. Along the way we meet a telepathic Ganymedian Slime Mold named Lord Running Clam, the egomaniacal entertainer Bunny Hentman and the obligatory android masquerading as a human.
Using the full repertoire of classic science fiction devices and situations, Clans of the Alphane Moon is anything but typical. It is another expression of Phil Dick’s brilliant sense of irony. While it is entertaining in many ways, this novel might be difficult for a new reader of PKD to fully appreciate. With its over-the-top weirdness and convoluted plot structure, Clans of the Alphane Moon can be best understood by those with an “acquired taste” for PKD’s style.
This is not to say that the novel does not present a full display of Dick’s unique sense of humor because it does. Approach Clans of the Alphane Moon with an open mind and the novel can be seen as a true expression of Dick’s mastery of the science fiction genre. For while it is all these things, it is easy to get lost in the book. Just as Phil breaks the rules of reality, he also breaks any and all literary rules at the same time. The result is a Dick vision presented in an inconsistent story that is not fully developed.
Let us not forget that the most memorable moments of many of PKD’s best (and worst) novels are the “situations” rather than the characters or plot development. It is on this level that Clans of the Alphane Moon succeeds.
Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.
I laughed out loud at least a dozen times in the course of reading Clans of the Alphane Moon. The thing that I most appreciated about this book is the spirit in which it was written. Not playing by any rules (especially it’s own!), not trying to be anything but what it is and not afraid to take chances, this novel is truly unique. What the book lacks in plot devices it more than makes up for in twisted, in your face irony and exaggeration.
Written in 1964, Clans of the Alphane Moon was born in a period of heavy output, even for Philip K. Dick. In 1963 and 1964, he wrote 11 science fiction novels. While his personal life was in turmoil in those years, he produced some his classic and most revered works. Among these are The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dr. Bloodmoney and Clans of the Alphane Moon. At this point, Dick’s career was fully established and his inimitable style is clearly demonstrated in this novel.
The best part of this novel are the actions and situations involving the Clans. Their sense of organization and power structure is burning with insightful irony. Dick is investigating the power of collective consciousness toward furthering a common goal. In this case, the goal is their own defense and ultimately, their survival. The first scene of this book is highly entertaining as the reader tries to grasp the nature of the Council meeting. When one learns the role of each group and their respective mental disorders, the depth of the irony becomes apparent. The one thing all of the groups have in common is that they are dysfunctional. By definition that would mean that they can’t deal with reality properly. The fact that they all need each other to survive suggests a view of human nature as a puzzle with each illness representing a piece of our mind. What one group lacks is compensated for in another. For example, the Mans can’t stand the Heebs but need them for their manual labor. Conversely, the Heebs are defenseless without the aggressive tendencies of the Mans. By combining their dysfunctional talents, the Alphanes are able to mount a formidable defense against the Terran warships.
The most disappointing parts of Clans of the Alphane Moon for this reader were the inconsistent plot structure and the wide open ending. The rift between Mary and Chuck Rittersdore is healed (for a reason, difficult to ascertain) but the war is just beginning. The last paragraph admits to the many distinct possibilities where the story could go and leaves the reader scratching their head (not atypical of Dick’s style, I must admit). I was glad when Clans of the Alphane Moon ended, relieved that the best concepts weren’t dragged out any further. The most effective elements of the novel had already been played out.
One of the reasons for these inconsistencies may be the fact that Clans of the Alphane Moon was written during a period when Dick was literally churning out novels. What some of these books may have lacked in focus (ie. Crack in Space, Ganymede Takeover and The Simulacra) Phil more than made up for in quantity. He was under pressure to produce. The more novels he wrote, the more he was able to support himself and his family. He had no shortage of ideas and concepts but lacked the time and energy to fully expand on many of them. Hence, Clans of the Alphane Moon like other novels of this period may have been written quickly and with few revisions.
One of the things that sets Dick’s early to mid-sixties novels apart from the others is the tradition and style in which they were written. These books were written 10 years earlier than Dick’s “Valis” experience of March, 1974 which changed much of the focus of his fiction. But they came at a time when his style was developed and his career established enough to produce some his most enduring works. The strong foundation in the culture of the time (science fiction and otherwise) coupled with Dick’s unique sense of reality and cosmic weirdness make these novels classics which reflect a changing world and pop culture. Born out of the pulp magazines and cold-war fears as well as an artistic renaissance of the period, Dick was masterful at addressing philosophical and psychological issues in a new context. They were hidden in the misunderstood medium that was science fiction. Clans of the Alphane Moon is no exception to this phenomenon and successfully embeds a unique commentary on mental health and human nature in the weirdest science fiction book you’ve ever read.
When considering the value and significance of Clans of the Alphane Moon in understanding Dick’s life and career, one must not overlook the portrayal of Mary Rittersdorf in this novel. In his biography of the author, Lawrence Sutin draws a comparison between Mary and Phil’s third wife Anne Dick, to whom he was married at the time the book was written. Many of Phil’s publicly recorded memories of Anne expose her as greedy and manipulative, a view Phil often held toward women and expressed in his fiction. In the same way, Mary is trying to financially ruin her ex-husband through a bitter divorce settlement. The portrayal of Chuck as the hopeless regular guy in over his head is another familiar Dick character.
In conclusion, Clans of the Alphane Moon has many strong points that make it a clever and almost always bizarre piece of Dick fiction. It is not Dick’s most inspired work and is most effective in its concepts and ideas rather that the expression of them in novel form. A reader who understands the themes and style of PKD would get the most out of Clans of the Alphane Moon. For others, when it comes to reading this author, sometimes weirder is better.
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