In my opinion, Philip Kindred Dick (1928
) was not just one of the outstanding science fiction
writers, but one of the outstanding writers
of his generation. The Ursula K. Le Guin
quote that invariably appears on editions of his novels these days runs:
"The fact that what Dick is entertaining us about is
reality and madness, time and death, sin and
salvation--this has escaped most readers and critics.
Nobody notices; nobody notices that we have
our own homegrown Borges, and have had
him for 30 years."
And every word is true. (Except, more people are noticing these
A lot has been written about the themes and motifs Dick employs in his books, his trademark reality-shift, his literary experiments with drugs and religion, but I think if there is one theme which runs through all his work (and it's a slightly dubious suggestion, given the extremely diverse nature of his output) it's to do with the (related) questions: What is it to be human?
and What is reality? - and often it's the relation between these questions, and the question their relation implies: What is it for us humans to be real? that drives his work.
It's a standard theme in literature, and, if publishers and the literary world had allowed, Dick would have probably been a mainstream writer, rather than a science-fiction writer. (Which is not to say that he didn't love and enthuse about science fiction - plainly he did.)
He had mainstream novels, written and projected, that no one
would publish (though the ones he did write were published
after he became widely known outside science fiction, mostly
due to the film Blade Runner, based on his novel
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which opened
in the cinemas shortly after his death in March 1982.)
His conception of science fiction was as a fiction of ideas. In a May 1981 letter, he distinguishes science fiction from 'space fiction', what we would perhaps call 'space opera':
"adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced techonology. Why, then, is it not science fiction? [...] space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient." (Emphasis in the original.)
And PKD had ideas aplenty. He would often throw enough distinct new ideas into one novel to keep a lesser writer going for an entire career. It's probably, as much as anything, his remarkable capacity for invention that won him the readership and reputation amongst his peers that solidified his career.
Take his 1964 masterpiece Ubik for instance. Within the first 40 pages we're introduced to organisations using 'psionic talents' for industrial and political espionage; we get the 'prudence organisations', selling the talents of anti-psionic individuals to prevent this, with their insiduous TV advertising: Gosh, Jill, I wish I knew what's been wrong with me lately. Sometimes, with greater frequency almost every day, the least little remark at the office makes me think that, well, somebody's been reading my mind .... The idea that you can speak to your dead relatives ('half-lifers') through psychic amplifiers in the moratorium - a commercial operation run strictly for profit, though the half-life experience was real and it had made theologians out of all of them. We get the 'homeopapes' - electronic newspapers tailored to produce the kind of news the customer is interested in: The 'pape machine said, 'Set the dial for low gossip'. Electronic apartment billing systems that charge you (and deny you credit) for daily essentials: 'Ten cents, please,' the refrigerator said. 'Five cents for opening my door; five cents for the cream.'.
And (a critical plot idea of the book, though ultimately, as often in Dick's work, it turns out to be a foil) the strange talent of a nineteen year old girl who can change the past so that (more or less) only she knows what has really happened.
This bombardment of inventions hardly lets up throughout the rest of the novel.
But the ideas are not an end in themselves. They're tools,
and Dick uses them with aplomb. His multilevel literary technique puts them to work with an amazing facility, developing the characters, exposing his themes (in this case, perhaps the commodification of the human soul) and entertaining the reader. Take the following couple of paragraphs, Ubik again. It's a strategy meeting where the assembled team of anti-psi talents is planning a difficult job. The girl with the past changing talent has just worked her magic. Francesca Spanish, a more mundane talent, has noticed something, and demands to speak:
'Someone,' Miss Spanish said, 'just now moved us, all of us,
into another world. We inhabited it, lived in it, as citizens of it, and then a vast, all-encompassing spiritual agency restored us to this, our rightful universe.'
'That would be Pat,' Joe Chip said, 'Who just joined the firm today.'
Dick could work just as comfortably inside more conventional
scenarios, and, had he achieved recognition inside mainstream fiction, its gain would have been science fiction's great loss. But the work he produced would probably have had the same focus on the small victories and struggles, the everyday heroism of folks just trying to turn in a decent day's work in an incomprehensible and sometimes unforgiving universe.
He shows this in his Confessions of a Crap Artist, the only mainstream novel he managed to publish in his lifetime. It's a first person account of a fragment from the life of a believer in hollow-earth theories, heavy light, and other pseudo-science. This innocent soul (brilliantly portrayed by the carefully imperfect narrative voice) is put down, manipulated, and generally shat on by most of the other characters in the book - high achievers, people who aren't social misfits, people who can live in and deal effectively with the real world - and especially his high-achieving, successful bitch of a sister. At the end, he comes to realise that his theories and ideas are bunk:
I realized, sitting there, that I was a nut.
What a thing to realize. All those years wasted. I saw it
as clearly as hell; all that business about the Sargasso
Sea, and Lost Atlantis, and flying saucers and people coming out of the inner part of the earth--it was just a lot of crap.[...]
All those people like Fay and Charley and Nat Anteil were right. [...]
They were right, but thinking about them I came to the conclusion, after a long period of hard meditation, that they were not a hell of a lot better than me. I mean, there's a lot of rubbish in what they have to say too. They're darn near a bunch of nuts in their own way, although possibly it isn't quite so obvious as in my case.[...]
As far as I'm concerned, the nuttiest of all is my sister, and she's still the worst; take my word for it. She's a psychopath. To her, everybody else is just an object to be moved around. She had the mind of a three-year old. Is that sanity?
So it doesn't seem to me that I should be the only person who has to bear the onus of believing an admittedly ridiculous notion.
Dick is writing, again, about human value
, its precious,
precarious nature. About how puny and pathetic are our attempts to fit the world into a simple code
, how important our simple humanity; how trivial is one beside the other.
Here's a quote from a letter he wrote to SF Commentary, in 1970.
I only know one thing about my novels. In them, again and again, this minor man asserts himself in all his hasty, sweaty strength. In the ruins of Earth's cities he is busily constructing a little factory that turns out cigars or imitation artifacts that say, "welcome to Miami, the pleasure center of the world." In A Lincoln, Simulacrum he operates a little business that produces corny electronic organs -- and, later on, human-like robots which ultimately become more of an irritation than a threat. Everything is on a small scale.
Collapse is enormous; the positive little figure outlined
against the great universal rubble is, like Tagomi, Runciter, Molinari, gnat-sized in scope, finite in what he did do...and yet in some sense great. I really do not know why. I simply believe in him and I love him. He will prevail. There is nothing else that matters. That we should be concerned about. Because he is there, like a tiny father-figure, everything is all right.
Some reviewers have found "bitterness" in my writing. I am surprised, because my mood is one of trust. Perhaps they are bothered by the fact that I trust what is so very small. They want something vaster. I have news for them: there is nothing vaster. Nothing more, I should say. But really, how much do we have to have? Isn't Mr Tagomi enough? I know it counts. I am satisfied.
PKD Novels in order of publication date:
Solar Lottery (1956 UK) (1955)
The World Jones Made (1956)
The Man Who Japed (1956)
Eye in the Sky (1957)
The Cosmic Puppets (1957)
Time Out of Joint (1959)
Vulcan's Hammer (1960)
Dr. Futurity (1960)
The Man in the High Castle (1962)
The Game Players of Titan (1963)
The Penultimate Truth (1964)
The Simulacra (1964)
Martian Time-Slip (1964)
Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)
The Unteleported Man (1964)
Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965)
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)
Now Wait for Last Year (1966)
The Crack in Space (1966)
The Ganymede Takeover (1967) (with Ray F. Nelson)
The Zap Gun (1967)
Counter Clock World (1967)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Galactic Pot Healer (1969)
Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970)
A Maze of Death (1970)
We Can Build You (1972)
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974)
Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975)
Deus Irae (1976) (with Roger Zelazny)
A Scanner Darkly (1977)
The Divine Invasion (1981)
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)
Lies, inc (1984) (John Sladek completed this, an expanded version of The Unteleported Man)
The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1984)
Radio Free Albemuth (1985)
Puttering About in a Small Land (1985)
In Milton Lumky Territory (1985)
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (1986)
Mary and the Giant (1987)
Nick and the Glimmung (1988)
The Broken Bubble (1988)
Short story collections:
The Variable Man (1957)
A Handful of Darkness (1966)
The Turning Wheel (1977)
The Best of Philip K. Dick (1977)
The Golden Man (1980)
Beyond Lies the Wub (1987)
Second Variety (1987)
The Father Thing (1987)
The Days of Perky Pat (1987)
We Can Remember it for you Wholesale (1987)
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick edited and with an introduction by Lawrence Sutin (1995)
Films based on PKD works include:
Blade Runner (1982) from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Total Recall (1992) from the short story We can remember it for you, wholesale
Barjo (or Confessions d'un Barjo, 1992) from the novel Confessions of a Crap Artist
Screamers (1995) from the short story Second Variety (with screenplay by Dan O'Bannon of Dark Star and Alien fame!)
Minority Report (2002) from the short story The Minority Report
At the time of his death, PKD was working on a novel to be called The Owl in Daylight.