[4 May 2010]
PopMatters Comics Editor
“The Electric Ant” was far from Philip K. Dick’s most reality-bending, mind-blowing (I mean that literally) acid trip of a story. Those honors would have to be saved for how ever PKD stories are prioritized by individual readers. Something with a grand sweeping, historical scope, the Gone With The Wind of paranoia sci-fi, would pull up Man In The High Castle. Something urban and gritty, a grim and daunting battle against tomorrow would call for a Do Androids Dream….
“Electric Ant” has its own rhythm, its own slow grind towards Dick’s proselytizing of reality as a sustained and consensual hallucination. In broad strokes, Garson Poole wakes after an horrendous accident. It’s the near future, and yet. The loss of a hand, something Garson has ostensibly suffered, is still a setback. A slow dread mounts as Garson prepares himself for living with the best prosthesis future-money can buy. And yet, the absence of pain, and the absence of phantom-limb complex allows for an entirely other kind of dread to steadily mount. Why is there no pain?
Garson Poole of course is the titular Electric Ant, parlance for an organic robot. In a Byzantine, near-Kafka-esque conspiracy, Poole’s wealth and resources, his position as CEO, his friends, are simply deleted from his recognition of the world. Garson Poole is an object, property that is owned, that has been traded, positioned into an artificial life, and ultimately is replaceable. His steady relationship with his partner (his choice not to pursue a conventional marriage), his friendship with his corporation’s CFO; these are nothing more than controls implemented by Poole’s perennially unseen owners.
How scary is having to reconfigure your life after the loss of a limb? It really is nothing compared with the deletion of a history. It was 1969 and PKD crafted a tale of pure terror. “Electric Ant” was and remains a white-knuckle ride into fear. It was and remains Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” where change in basic identity is fear and pain, or Poe’s “Pit and the Pendulum” where manipulation by gloating, perpetually unseen forces dehumanize the human spirit.
Yet, “Electric Ant” has more than a good measure of Theodore LeSieg’s Oh The Places You’ll Go. “Electric Ant” is also the unfurling of the human spirit. Taking his existence into his own hands, Garson Poole begins to manipulate the paper reel that runs his punch-card code that controls his reality. Garson Poole, on the terms of his new existence, begins to edit the code that represents his reality. And he slips anonymously away from objecthood into personhood. Very literally, Garson Poole re-humanizes himself. There is an indomitable refrain that appears. Not just in Poole’s courage to manipulate reality, but in PKD also. It is 1969. And PKD’s idea of reality being locked into place as a perception of a wide spectrum of possibility, narrowed to one code that must constantly re-run is 15 years ahead of Kanerva’s famous algorithm of distributed memory.
So the impact of PKD’s work is immense. It is a wave. Reaching backward in time just as it crests forward. There is almost too much to live up to. Why even bother rendering the story as comics?
Not because the secret hero of this story is the comics medium itself. not because comics is really a medium that is more natural to a PKD translation than film. Not because comics bends time like a ride in a rocketship. Not comics, although all those reasons are valid.
Not comics but David Mack.
David Mack who reinvented the way comics stories need to be told after the 1994 debuting of his Kabuki book. David Mack because his sensibilities are so particular, so focused that there’s almost no scope for working with another artist. And yet, Mack writes but does no artwork (save a variant cover) on the adaptation of “Electric Ant”.
There is a garish dissonance to Pascal Alixe’s artwork. A vast and terrible array of missed opportunities. An anti-tandem. A disjunction, a rupture. Alixe and Mack seem to want accommodate each other’s styles. And yet this disconnect is exactly the strength of Marvel’s adaptation. Whatever forces, economic or creative, drove Mack to work with Alixe really produced the finest caliber of work. The cognitive gap between their styles and sensibilities and their accommodations of those styles are exactly the profound strengths of the work.
Really, what better metaphor for PKD’s seminal story of reality-as-locked-by-language than its creators not entirely reconciled to each other. It is in this way that Marvel’s adaptation of “The Electric Ant”, like the original story, transcends entertainment and becomes art.
Electric Ant must be read. Whoever you are.