Philip K Dick - An introduction
You might not have read a Philip K Dick book, but you have certainly been exposed to many of his stories. Hollywood has been plundering his canon since the eighties. (And what a canon it is, 44 published novels, 121 short stories). Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and most recently The Adjustment Bureau are all based on his books. The motif at the very end of season 4 of Breaking Bad is plundered almost wholesale from A Scanner Darkly.
Blade Runner aside, few of these films even begin to do justice to the genius of Dicks books. The worst thing is that they don’t even attempt to. Blade Runner, which is an incredible film, cheerfully jettisons almost everything but the initial concept. Technically nearly all of Dicks work are science fiction, but in truth this is misleading. He, along with Borges and Kafka, defy simple categorisation. Taking Blade Runner as an example, (or as the Dick entitled it, Do Androids dream of Electronic Sheep?). It is set in a post apocalyptic near future, and follows the main protagonist, bounty hunter Rick Deckard in his quest to track down and kill Androids who have escaped from the colonies. But that is only what lies upon the surface, it’s a thoughtful meditation on what it is to be human. If an android feels a real emotion, is he still an android? Rick isn’t driven by notions of good or evil, or even fame or fortune. He wants to make some money so that he can impress his bed ridden wife, and also so that he can stop being embarrassed by the relative wealth of his neighbours. In another writers hands Rick Deckard would be driven by an either good or evil. Dick doesn’t really do good, or evil, his characters are almost uniformly small men or women. Small in the sense that they are hostage to events that overtake them. Small in that they act based on the very human motivations of loneliness, jealousy and umbrage. The closest they come to an evil act is when they are petty. This is one of the ways in which Dick transcends his genre, his characters are all believably human. Asimov, for all his talent in creating a an entire Universe, never once created a character that was anything more than a projection of himself.
Dick - “Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can't talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful. A few years ago, no college or university would ever have considered inviting one of us to speak. We were mercifully confined to lurid pulp magazines, impressing no one. In those days, friends would say me, "But are you writing anything serious?" meaning "Are you writing anything other than science fiction?" We longed to be accepted. We yearned to be noticed. Then, suddenly, the academic world noticed us, we were invited to give speeches and appear on panels—and immediately we made idiots of ourselves. The problem is simply this: What does a science fiction writer know about? On what topic is he an authority?”
The most poignent trajedy of Dicks life to me, and there were many, is that he wrote brilliantly about the human condition in a way no other writer has, but because of the literary ghetto that is science fiction he remains unappreciated and misunderstood. Hollywood has popularised him, and made his estate into a small economy in its own right, but at the cost of watering down and obfusticating his message. Blade runner is a triumph, but it isn’t Dicks. The only film to do justice to his vision is A Scanner Darkly. Unfortunately this is a very confusing film. Dick vision of the world was a cruel, dark and confusing one. Minority Report is a good example of Hollywood ignoring Dicks greatest strengths. In the book, the first line is "I'm getting old. Old and fat and bald." This character is played by Tom Cruise.
One of Dicks great strengths is his ability to portray paranoia. I have never read anything, by any author, that comes close to relaying the all encompassing fear and terror of paranoia that Dick manages to evoke. This has to be, at least in part, because Dick was an incredibly paranoid person, especially in the years before his death. He suffered a break-in that clearly affected him emotionally, and became convinced that it was the work of either the CIA or the FBI. In a scanner darkly, Dick portrays a world in which anyone could be working for the secret police, including the hero of the story. It is never clear exactly who he is working for. Who are the good guys? Only Dick could write a novel in which the main character spies on himself.
My favourite of his books, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, traces the use of an illegal drug Can-D, and its more dangerous sister, Chew-Z. Can-D is an immensely popular drug, that allows users to share hallucinations. Chew-Z however, is a much more insidious and dangerous drug. It’s properties are never explained properly, but chewing it seems to result in the user becoming entwined in his own afterlife. Anyone who has been at the wrong end of a ketamin experience can relate to the feelings of Mayerson towards the end of the book, as he gradually loses a grasp on the workings of reality, and begins to doubt everything that his senses tell him to the point where he no longer trusts, or believes in an objective reality. At one stage he believes his teeth have become possessed by his arch nemesis, Palmer Eldritch. A common refrain for Dicks protagonists is the possibility that they are constructs of a hallucination, subjects of an experiment by a higher power, or constantly moving between alterable states of reality.
Dick was prolific in his output, and unfortunately the quality of his books clearly suffered. Some books seem unfinished, perhaps a result of the time and budgetary constraints he faced. But when he was good, he was like no other author. His prose could be at times clunky and haphazard, but when he was concentrating it could be subtle and yielding. His most accomplished book, The Man in the High Castle, centres around language, and he writes with a subtlety and sensitivity to the small details that is breathtaking. Unfortunately towards the end of his life his paranoia led to his work becoming increasingly unreadable. His last few novels are massive, stupefyingly boring pseudo religious tracts that culminate in Valis. It manages to tie almost all of Dicks beliefs and interests together, touching on Christianity, Taoism, Gnosticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, Greek and Modern philosophy, but unfortunately as a novel its quite a dull read.
Dick died without completing what he felt would be his greatest work - Exegesis. Apparently it comprises of 7000 pages, with Dick trying to describe the structure of the universe itself, touching on Greek philosophy, early Christianity, theology, mental illness, metaphysics and occult literature. I have to add in here, that Dick claimed to have regular episodes of Xenoglossy, which is when a person is able to speak or write a language he or she could not have acquired by natural means. He claimed to have be able to sometimes speak Koine Greek, an ancient greek language, and under the influence of LSD, think speak and read fluent latin. Perhaps it’s better it was never released.
'For everyone lost in the endlessly multiplicating realities of the modern world, remember: Philip K. Dick got there first' - Terry Gilliam
Flow my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled forever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.