Philip K. Dick
• The Man in the High Castle (1962)
• Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Around the time of this novel, Dick was being heralded as the next sci-fi writer to break into mainstream popularity after Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The Man in the High Castle.... more
Philip K. Dick
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're wrong
Besides being one of the most important figures in 20th-century science fiction, this guy was crazy.
Also one of my favourite writers. Maybe most favourite.
Philip K. Dick exemplified the cliché about the fine line between genius and madness. He was known for ingesting huge amounts of drugs to keep himself writing without sleep for weeks at a time to complete his novels and short stories, and toward the end he was schizophrenic. And yet—that's when his most intriguing works were composed.
Born in Chicago, he began his writing career in the early 1950s. Almost from the beginning, his works dealt with alternative realities with his characters often crossing over into other worlds. Time is twisted out of joint, human and machine are melded, reality and illusion are mixed, virtual realities are embedded in virtual realities, until the reader—and, one suspects, the author—can no longer keep it all straight.
But that's all right, for Dick's point is often that no reality is more real than any other. During the last decade of his relatively short life, when Dick became certifiably insane, his paranoia continued to provide material for his work.
Now, his writing often seems slapdash. His characters generally have no fixed personalities. And elements of his plots are built up only to be neglected as the narratives take different turns. But, for the reader who is willing to sit back and enjoy whatever may occur, Dick always makes for compelling reading.
Here's part of what the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says about Philip Kindred Dick:
The earlier PKD often lost control of his material in ideative mazes and, sidetracked, was unable to find any resolution; but, when he found the tale within his grasp, he was brilliantly inventive, gaining access to imaginative realms which no other writer of sf had reached. His sympathy for the plight of his characters—often far-from-heroic, small, ordinary people trapped in difficult existential circumstances—was unfailing, and his work had a human interest absent from that of writers engaged by complexity and convolution for their own sake. Even the most perilous metaphysical terrors of his finest novels wore a complaining, vulnerable, human face. In all his work he was astonishingly intimate, self-exposed, and very dangerous. He was the funniest sf writer of his time, and perhaps the most terrifying. His dreads were our own, spoken as we could not have spoken them.
Dick's stories and novels leap ahead quickly with a bare minimum of exposition or description, relying on plentiful, yet terse, dialogue and abrupt action to get from plot point A to plot point B. Unlike most science fiction writers, Dick is not very interested in the details of technological or social development. But he is more concerned with the impact on the characters, on their self-concepts, on their understanding of reality.
His created worlds often feature anachronistic devices—a sometimes disorienting melange of technologies and social practices from different eras. To the uninitiated, it may seem the author just couldn't be bothered to work out scientifically and sociologically consistent environments for his speculative works. But those developments are never the point, but rather the individual character's psychology, religious beliefs or philosophical discoveries.
Dick recognized the disturbing quality of his work and, in a widely quoted 1974 interview, explained it like this:
I say paranoia is an atavistic sense. It’s a lingering sense, that we had long ago, when we were—our ancestors were—very vulnerable to predators, and this sense tells them they’re being watched. And they’re being watched probably by something that’s going to get them....
And often my characters have this feeling.
But what really I’ve done is, I have atavized their society. That although it’s set in the future, in many ways they’re living—there is a retrogressive quality in their lives, you know? They’re living like our ancestors did. I mean, the hardware is in the future, the scenery’s in the future, but the situations are really from the past.
This is an astounding insight into Dick's own work and his mind. As an intellectualized variation on "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you", it rationalizes the continual alternation in his writing between belief and skepticism. Even in his late, most delusional work, we see him questioning how much is psychic and how much can be explained more prosaically.
This may give you the idea though that Dick is an aimless, depressing writer. Just the opposite. His works reverberate with energy, with the excitement of discovery. In each of his best novels, there comes a point when the reader becomes exhilarated with the frenetic careering down the rabbit hole.
See Dick go to the movies
Popularly, Dick's work is best known as the basis for movies that tone down his philosophical speculations, often adding superfluous action scenes.
Blade Runner (1982), sometimes called the greatest science fiction movie, is faithful in that it does not ignore the moral question of what is human, raised in Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However the film shares little else with the novel apart from featuring a cop who catches and terminates androids passing as humans. The novel is a meditation on human alienation—from each other, from society, from the environment, from ourselves—presented over a single day in a future world in which nothing is what you expect. The book's downbeat conclusion may disappoint some who expect a grand revelation, or at least an explanation of some of the craziness that has gone before, but if you let the ending sit awhile you may come to see how perfect it is. It is uncertain whether Dick meant for us to accept the inconsistencies as part of reality or he simply couldn't figure out how to resolve them—but in either case he leaves the reader with intriguing questions. The movie does too, just not quite in the same way.
The 1990 action film Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the 2012 remake under the same title, starring Colin Farrell, are also intermittently similar to the Dick work on which it's based, a story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" which inspired them. (Note also how Dick's brilliant and bizarre titles tend to be changed by Hollywood.) Total Recall 2070 was a short-lived TV series made in Canada and taking Dick's concept further afield.
The 1996 film Screamers and the worse 2009 sequel, Screamers: The Hunting (why? why?), are based on Dick's short story "Second Variety".
The 2002 Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, was adapted from a Dick story of the same name. As were the less successful Gary Sinise vehicle Impostor the same year and the John Woo-directed action flick Paycheck in 2003, starring Ben Affleck. Dick's story "Impostor" was also the basis of an British television episode in 1962.
The best Dick flick, as of this writing, may be the 2006 movie based on the paranoiac novel A Scanner Darkly (1977). It's semi-animated (interpolative rotoscoping, they call the technique), directed by Richard Linklater and starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson. Huge patches of his insane, but so real, dialogue are lifted from the book.
The 2007 Nicholas Cage film Next, about a man who can see two minutes into the future, is supposedly very loosely based on the Dick story "The Golden Man". And the 2011 Matt Damon vehicle The Adjustment Bureau has been expanded into a romantic mystery from a decidedly non-romantic Dick story, "Adjustment Team".
The most faithful Dick adaptation may be the independently produced Radio Free Albemuth, a low-key, somewhat talky presentation of his late, unbalanced views on revelation and revolution, as found in the novel of that name published after his death. The movie, which features a character named Phil K. Dick and stars singer Alanis Morrisette in a small but key role, was scorned by the majority of critics who bothered to review it but is looked upon fondly by Dick fans.
Not yet on the big screen
But one of Dick's most highly regarded novels has never been filmed. In The Man in the High Castle (1962) the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II and divided the United States between them. (Or have they?) It won the Hugo Award, sci-fi's highest recognition. Apparently a film adaptation is in the works, to be produced by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott for the BBC.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), also never adapted, is the most extreme example of a drug-fuelled reality bender without the later paranoia—and a popular choice for top Dick.
In 1970 Dick published a novel, A Maze of Death, for which he and a friend invented, as he says in the foreword, "an abstract, logical system of religious thought, based on the arbitrary postulate that God exists". Crucial junctures of the novel involve divine figures appearing to selected individuals. The visitations, it turns outs turns are part of a collective delusion (although one such incident later in the book remains unexplained).
But in 1974 Dick underwent an experience during which, he claimed, he himself he was visited by a godlike being. Much of his writing after this point dealt with the psychic and philosophical implications of this event. His works in the last few years of his life became even stranger than usual.
VALIS (1981) may be the strangest of the outright schizophrenic novels. In this combination of theology and paranoiac delusions, Dick himself appears in the work himself as a schizoid, SF-writing character who eventually discovers he is also another character in the novel. If Dick did not toil in the disreputable sci-fi genre, this work might place him among the great crazies of the literary canon, alongside Kafka and Nietzsche.
VALIS was followed by Dick last works, The Divine Invasion (1981) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), which pick up elements of the VALIS mythos.
Also recommended in the Dick oeuvre are:
• Solar Lottery (1955), Dick's first and most conventional sci-fi novel.
• Eye in the Sky (1957), one of his first alternative-reality novels with the characters caught up in a modern world with physical laws right out of the Bible—miracles, locusts and Ptolemaic astronomy.
• The Man Who Japed (1962), whose middle presents a switch on the usual alternative reality plot that will catch you unawares, though the novel's ending may leave you unfulfilled as it's more like a short story's ironic pay-off.
• Martian Time-Slip (1964), featuring a schizoid and messianic boy who foreshadows Dick's own future obsessions.
• Now Wait for Last Year (1966), whose title sums up the time-twisting plot.;
• Ubik (1969), a personal favourite in which the dead continue in a half-life and which has been in film development for a decade. Named by Time magazine in 2005 one of the hundred greatest English-language novels since 1923.
• Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), a story as strange as its title, in which a TV star loses proof of his own existence. Winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel of the year, and also scheduled for imminent film treatment.
You might also be interested in some not-so-insane Dick. In the 1950s he wrote several mainstream novels on middle-American life at the time, which were rejected by publishers or printed in severely limited editions. But they've been issued or reissued posthumously and are worth looking for: Voices From the Street, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland and In Milton Lumky Territory. I especially recommend the last as a good old-fashioned read in social realism, with just a touch of the Dick imagination.
Dick didn't make much more money when he switched to science fiction full time. Despite winning prestigious awards, until near the end of his life he was never paid much for his SF novels, most of which were printed in paperback only. He largely supported himself by writing stories for magazines. And, fortunately, in this he excelled. It's no wonder so many movies have been based on his short fiction.
He may be a better short story writer than a novelist. Everything in his larger fiction—his ideas, his obsessions, his fears, his joys—is in his short stories in briefer form.
As with most science fiction, the stories are high-concept, usually presenting an unusual situation: a spaceship lands on a planet thought to be mythical, a man goes to a memory-implantation service to take a virtual vacation on Mars, a human somehow rises in the ranks of our robot overlords, a commuter is told he can't get a ticket home because his town does not exist, a weapons designer is accused of being an android saboteur working for aliens, a bureaucrat hallucinates his political leader is a monster.... Each world is different from any other and is accepted so matter-of-factly, little time spent explaining it. And then the story is wrenched into another unexpected, often stranger, direction. Dick is a master of the twist ending.
The science is never at the centre of Dick's stories, but some of his short reality-challenging pieces have so little to do with science or technology, they might better be categorized as fantasy, or even as Stephen King-like horror.
Five volumes collect Dick's 120-plus stories and several other "best of" selections are available. You'll want to check the stories that have served as premises for movie treatment: " "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale", "Minority report", "Impostor", "Second Variety", and "Paycheck", "The Golden Man" and ""Adjustment Team", if only to see how the movies have messed them up.
But so many other weird and wonderful stories: "Faith of Our Fathers", "The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford", "The Turning Wheel", "The Father-Thing", "The Commuter", "Project Earth", "Human Is"...
But any volume of Dick's short stories should serve you up enough fictions to keep you intrigued through several dimensions.