2012 HAS BEEN a good year for Lavie Tidhar. Not only did he win the British Fantasy Award for his “guns and sorcery” novella “Gorel & the Pot-Bellied God,” he also won the World Fantasy Award for Osama, an alternate-history novel, beating out Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. These are the first major awards the author has received, although, over the past decade, he hasn’t been a stranger to award committees for his short fiction, novels, and blogs. Until now, he is perhaps best known for “The Bookman Histories,” a trilogy of steampunk novels that include The Bookman, Camera Obscura, and The Great Game, all of which were widely acclaimed. But Osama has ushered Tidhar into the limelight.
Osama was originally printed by PS Publishing, one of the UK’s strongest independent genre presses, and then picked up by Solaris books, which is distributed by Simon & Schuster in the US and the UK. In both cases, the novel was publicized as brainwarp fantastika à la Philip K. Dick and hailed as such by The Financial Times and The Guardian. Osama does in fact engage an abundance of Phildickean themes, tropes, and legerdemain, drawing most heavily on the worldplay, meta-devices, revisionist history, and author-as-god mystique of The Man in the High Castle. A lot of novels have attempted to capture a similar PKDness. Sometimes they work as an ode to the legendary SF author while trying to emulate Dick’s idiosyncratic depictions of characters and causalities, the way he splices together opposing plotlines and punctuates key narrative/ontological ambiguities. Infrequently, however, do they manage to embody a compelling sense of genuine PKDness, some of which is premised upon narrative failure.
It’s well known that Dick really wanted to write “literary” fiction and, above all, achieve mainstream success. He wrote over ten non-SF novels in an attempt to climb out of the gutters of pulp fiction and become a “real” writer. Only one of these, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was published during his lifetime. Part of the problem was Dick’s prose. Chronically strapped for cash, he tended to write at lightning speed, completing entire books in a matter of days and attending to concepts more than things like language and characterization. But even when he “took his time” (a month or two for a book, still rather fast and furious), his writing almost always favored ideas over plot, story, social and emotional resonance, etc. — at least according to mainstream standards. More importantly, many of his novels get bogged down in loose ends and weird departures, violating formulae that literary fiction deeply cherishes.
I want to make the bold suggestion that Osama is the narrative symphony Philip K. Dick wished he could have composed. Not only is it beautifully written, it is expertly crafted and, for me, functions as a commentary on Dick’s inimitable narrative of failure as well as a broader ontology of failure that recurrently plagues the human experience. Osama falls into the arena of SF and fantasy. But the genre elements are soft. The novel might just as easily be the mainstream effort of a “serious literary writer” — what Dick yearned for, and what Tidhar is. Whether he wanted to or not, Tidhar has effectively out-PKDed PKD.
Osama channels th...read more