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Philip K. Dick

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Biographical details ▽ Biographical details △

Chicago, United States, 1928

Santa Ana, California, United States, 1982

Novels, stories

Science fiction, literary

Writing language

Place of writing
United States

Greatest lists ▽ Greatest lists △

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)


The Man in the High Castle (1962)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)


• "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (1966)

Story Collections

The Philip K. Dick Reader (1997)

American Literature

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

Ubik (1969)

Science Fiction

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

Ubik (1969)

VALIS (1981)

Being paranoid doesn't make you wrong

One of the most important figures in twentieth-century science fiction, 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. Toward the end he was schizophrenic. And yet—that's when his most intriguing works were composed.

Chicago-born, Dick began his writing career in the early 1950s. He wrote several realistic novels in that decade, trying to break into mainstream writing, but none of them made it into print during his lifetime. 

Those rejected literary novels are actually worth reading—in the vein of other mid- century chroniclers of the lives of ordinary people left behind by the upward mobility of more successful middle-class Americans. The works are controlled and interestingly written, with the often paranoiac characters edging up to the rabbit hole without actually dropping down it, as they would in Dick's later science fiction. Gently perplexing plots, narrated in the author's flat tone, drift to inconclusive endings, leaving readers vaguely unsettled.

Unable to get his literary fiction published, Dick was barely able to eke out a living by producing science fiction works for the pulp magazines and cheap paperback publishers, though he didn't write like others in the field. He eschewed space operatics and technobabble. Incidentally in one of his literary novels, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, a character had poked gentle fun at the genre:

He picked up his science fiction book and dropped it flat to the desk again. "You know, these guys who write these things...these rocket ships and time-travel machines and faster-than light drives, all that stuff. If you want the hero to be on Mars you say something like—'he turned on the automatic high-gain propulsion tubes.' This one isn't so bad but some of them are. They go barreling around the universe. It must be easy to write this stuff; they must bat it out."

Almost from the beginning, Dick's own science fiction 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.

Ideative mazes 

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 accept whatever may occur, Dick always makes for compelling reading.

Here's part of what the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of 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 to plot point. Unlike most science fiction writers, Dick is not very interested in the details of technological or social development. 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, never as important as the individual character's thought processes, 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 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 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 they're based: a story called "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale". (Note also how the brilliantly quirky titles his publishers put on his books tend to be changed by Hollywood.) Total Recall 2070 was also a short-lived TV series made in Canada, 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 for 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 (they call the technique interpolative rotoscoping), 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 critics who bothered to review it but it's looked upon fondly by Dick fans.

Not yet on the big screen

But one of Dick's most highly regarded works has never been filmed for the big screen. In the Hugo Award-winning novel 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. An American-produced series ran on television for four seasons since 2015.

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. It's 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 out, 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 was visited by a godlike being. Much of his writing after this point deal 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 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 already 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's 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 published 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, communicating with the living. Ubik has been in film development for a decade. It was named by Time magazine in 2005 as 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-bizarre Dick. His mainstream works that were rejected by publishers or printed in severely limited editions but later issued posthumously include Voices From the Street, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland and In Milton Lumky Territory. Especially recommended is 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.

Short-form Dick the best?

Dick may be a better short story writer than a novelist, according to his hardcore fans. Everything in his larger fiction—his ideas, his obsessions, his fears, his joys—is in his short stories in condensed form. Unfortunately most casual readers are less aware of his 150, or so, stories than his novels. The shorter works were collected in comprehensive book volumes late in his life and after his death.

Dick himself seemed to prefer the short form, since it lets you "catch the protagonist at the climax of his life" rather than force you to plow through all the boring, insignificant minutiae of the character's existence, he wrote in an afterword to one collection.

As with most science fiction, Dick's short 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 presented matter-of-factly with little time spent explaining it. And then the story is wrenched into another unexpected, often stranger, direction. Dick is a master of the twist—and twisted—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.

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 he penned 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", "The Little Black Box".....

Any volume of Dick's short stories should serve you up enough fictions to keep you intrigued through several dimensions.

— Eric


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