Showing posts with label Philip K. Dick. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip K. Dick. Show all posts

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Voder

In Chapter Nine of Philip K. Dick's We Can Build You, Sam Barrows dismisses the Lincoln simulacrum's desire to "speechify" as nothing but "the familiar mechanical man gimmick, with this dressed-up historical guise. The same thing was demonstrated at the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair, Pedro the Vodor." A true Cartesian, Barrows distinguishes the human from the animal (which Descartes metaphorically likened to the machine) by the human capacity for language. The Lincoln simulacrum is, in effect, dismissed by Barrows as being as mindless as a parrot imitating human speech.

I suspect Philip Dick was writing from memory, as he (or the book's editor) has made a minor orthographic error, for it's actually spelled voder, not vodor. In all likelihood Dick visited the San Francisco World's Fair (formally, the Golden Gate International Exposition, held 1939 - 1940) and saw, at around the age of 11, Bell Laboratories' demonstration of what he (mis)remembered as "Pedro the Vodor" (pictured above, with operator; Bell's voder exhibit is to the right). Developed by Bell engineer H. W. Dudley, the voder was Bell Laboratories' first demonstration of an electronic speech synthesis device. This early analog system preceded Bell Labs' work in "articulatory synthesis"  conducted by Cecil Coker in the 1960s, and Joe Olive's later work on "concatenate synthesis" in the 1970s (see Mark Tatham and Katherine Morton, Developments in Speech Synthesis, Wiley 2005). I mention this later research in speech synthesis by Bell Labs because it is worth mentioning that a famous milestone in that research was a sample created by John L. Kelly in 1962 using an IBM 704 computer, consisting of Kelly's vocoder synthesizer recreating "A Bicycle Built for Two"  (AKA "Daisy Bell"). Arthur C. Clarke, then visiting his friend John Pierce at the Bell Labs' Murray Hill facility, witnessed the demonstration and later used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey during the scene when the HAL 9000 computer is being dismantled by Dave Bowman. (I recommend the essay by Joe Olive, recognized as one of the leading experts in text-to-speech [TTS] synthesis, titled "'The Talking Computer': Text to Speech Synthesis," in David G. Stork, Ed., HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality, MIT Press 1997).

Note that the voder is an electrical speech synthesizer while the vocoder is a speech analyzer coupled with a voder speech synthesizer. Dennis Klatt has posted a historical review of the development of speech synthesizers and has also conveniently posted a short sample of the sound of the voder (which Philip K. Dick undoubtedly heard) which you can hear by clicking this link. For those interested, I note that Wendy Carlos' music for the film Stanley Kubrick made after 2001, A Clockwork Orange, is the earliest work in her ouevre to use the vocodor, but she indicates here that the vocoded portions were done prior to being assigned the film, those vocoded portions being the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony #9 and Timesteps.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Search For Philip K. Dick

Anne Dick, third wife of the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (the couple is pictured at left, early 1960s), sent me the link to an interview with her conducted in conjunction with the re-issue of her revised biography of the great author, Search For Philip K. Dick, first published by Mellen Press in 1993. Anne still lives in the house she shared with Philip K. Dick, located in Point Reyes Station, California, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Her book is a fascinating, and I think candid glimpse into the domestic life of the writer, to whom she was married from 1959 to 1965 (Dick left Anne, his and Anne’s daughter Laura, and his three stepdaughters in early 1964; the divorce was finalized in 1965). The period from 1959-64, that is, the period during which he was married to Anne, was a tremendously prolific period for the writer, and Anne was there to see it all. During the period 1958-64, Dick wrote many of his most celebrated novels, among them The Man in the High Castle (1962, for which he won the Hugo Award in 1963), We Can Build You (written 1961, immediately after Man in the High Castle; eventually published 1972), The Penultimate Truth (1964), Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Simulacra (1964), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), and Dr. Bloodmoney (1965, in which the house in which Anne still lives is depicted). His great “mainstream” novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was also written while he was married to Anne, but remained unpublished until 1975. Note that this is not all of the work Dick published during this period, merely a representative sample of several of the noted works, but in any case The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, in my view, among his greatest works, and Anne’s portrait of the author before, during, and after the writing of this novel is utterly engrossing reading.

As Anne indicates in the interview, she was compelled to write the book after Phil’s death at age 53 in March 1982, as an attempt to try and come to a complete understanding of her relationship with him, which ended unpleasantly and strangely in March 1964. (The novel for which he is perhaps best known, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was not written until 1966, while he was married to Nancy Hackett, but draws on some material he first explored in We Can Build You, unpublished at the time he wrote the later novel.) I’m not sure Anne has ever received the proper acknowledgment she deserves for writing Search for Philip K. Dick, as it remained in manuscript form for many years, during which it was used as a source of information for Dick’s biographers—she did them a great service in tracking down a number of the author’s friends and acquaintances from the Berkeley years, as well as providing a rather candid and detailed account of her years married to the author. I’ve spent many delightful hours with Anne, although I haven’t had the opportunity to visit her at her Point Reyes Station home in several years. At a remarkably robust 82 years of age, she reveals in the interview that she is as articulate, candid, and insightful as ever, and explains her reasons for writing the memoir/biography in greater detail. She has always been extremely generous with her time to those like myself who are fascinated by Philip Dick’s remarkable body of work, and so I’m extraordinarily pleased that Anne was able to revise and re-issue her valuable and important book. If you have any interest at all in one of the greatest and most important American authors in the second half of the twentieth century, then I would strongly encourage you to purchase a copy. Order information is available here, and the link to the interview with Anne (also provided above) is available here.

Congratulations, Anne, on the publication of the revised edition of your important book!