Phillip K Dick was one of the leading purveyors of innovative SF of the 20th century, writing an impressive 44 novels and a plethora of shorter works over a career spanning four decades. His signature style of fragmented, spaced out prose and his obsession with drug use, religion and metaphysics makes his works a singular, confusing read that manage to be profound and even moving even if you aren’t really sure what’s going on. Many of his books sit squarely within the cyberpunk genre and a fair few are post apocalyptic, dystopian or some combination thereof. So here’s a brief overview of the one’s I’ve read which fall under the scope of this blog.
The Man in the High Castle
You don’t get much more dystopian than a world where the axis powers won the Second World War. It’s since become a fairly popular alternate-history setting, but it’s never been done quite like this. The USA has been divided up, with Japan controlling the eastern states and Germany the west, with a demilitarised “wall” of neutral states through the middle. Remind you of anything? Japan and Germany now deeply distrust each other and their halves of the world become increasingly divided as each vies for supremacy and races to develop nuclear weapons. Again, remind you of anything? The story is set mostly in the Japanese part of what was once America (itself an unusual choice) and tells the indirectly related stories of a variety of characters including Mr. Tagomi, a Japanese businessman, Frank Frink, a Jewish American war veteran, and Robert Childan, the owner of a shop selling American pre-war memorabilia to wealthy Japanese clients, for whom this is a very serious hobby.
Not a whole lot of time is given to how the world at large looks under Axis rule. There’s the occasional chilling reference to “the final solution to the Africa problem”, plans by Germany to nuke the Japanese home islands and vague talk of resistance from Sweden, but the primary focus of the Man in the High Castle is much more personal. The book relates how each of the individual characters find ways to carry on living under oppressive occupation. The other central theme is a PKD standard- the blurry line between different levels of reality. This is explored in several ways: upon discovering that some of his Americana merchandise is counterfeit, Robert Childan begins to wonder how he can be sure that anything he owns is real, and whether ‘real’ is intrinsically any better than ‘fake’ after all. This idea is mirrored by frequent references to a secret book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which tells of an alternate history where, you guessed it, the allies win the war. Some of the characters take comfort from the fact that the book exists, and for them the fact that their own reality is far worse than this imagined one is not important. This book-within-a-book device is also used for some poignant commentary on how our world turned out after the war. Although far from perfect, everyone imagines that an allied victory would have led to a far more equal and fair society than the one we actually have today. This makes for a powerful and not altogether optimistic read.
The Man in the High Castle features another PKD standard in that it just…ends. The book follows a strange pacing and structure all of its own, which bubbles to a sort of a climax, then stutters on for a bit more and then just stops fairly abruptly. It’s a trick you’ll have to get used to if you want to get into Dick’s catalogue, but here it’s not overly damaging to the book as a whole. Probably one of the least confusing on a literary and thematic level, this book is a great introduction to reading Phillip K Dick and is a unique, powerful and surprisingly uplifting take on the alternate history genre.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The book that became Blade Runner is a rather different beast to that cyberpunk classic, and whilst it’s honestly not as good (and that’s from a guy who thinks Blade Runner is pretty overrated) it still offers up another slice of reality bending hallucinatory goodness from the master of reality bending hallucinatory goodness. Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war and humanity is slowly migrating to other planets. Most animal life is extinct and so owning real live pets is now a prestigious status symbol. Rick Dekkard is a bounty hunter tasked with ‘retiring’ a group of replicants- androids who escaped a work colony on Mars. As in High Castle, the nature of reality is probed and messed with by examining whether the replicants are really human, and if it really matters since in many ways they’re better than the real thing. Replicants are identified in the book using a series of tests designed to measure empathy, since the androids supposedly cannot possess it, but this gets messier when many of the human characters seem just as cold and heartless- spending more time caring from their secretly artificial pets than worrying about the near-human androids they are killing. The whole thing with the animals as a main concept was dropped from the film, as was a mass hallucination/electronically produced religious experience which many of the characters use as a kind of escapism. These and other features make the book a muddy, confusing trudge at times as it becomes night impossible to determine what is really happening. This is of course precisely the point, and while Electric Sheep is a tough read, it’s still a worthwhile one and fans of Blade Runner would do well to pick it up.
A Scanner Darkly
The first of Dick’s novels I read, after seeing a faithful and utterly mesmerising film adaptation a few years ago, this is still my favourite of his works, if not objectively the best. This semi autobiographical account of Dick’s time spent in semi-homeless, drug addled poverty in the 1970s is set in a future dystopia where pandemic addiction to the drug ‘substance D’ has caused widespread destitution and crime in America. A Scanner Darkly looks at the lives of a group of drug addicts, one of whom (Bob Arctor, played by Keanu Reeves in the film) is secretly a federal agent watching them undercover. He sets up surveillance in his own house and watches his life on CCTV, trying to figure out which of his friends is a major drug dealer up to something sinister. But his own substance addictions begin to take their toll and he starts to lose track of who is who as the two halves of his life grow ever more separated in his mind.
By taking his own internal struggles and the dark world he knew so well and projecting them onto a much larger scale, Dick created a novel with an unequalled level of emotional intensity. Watching this messed up but essentially good group of people waste away and turn on each other in their need for drugs is a heart-rending experience, all the more so since Dick dedicates the book to all the people he knew who suffered death or permanent damage-including himself- as a result their struggles. The drugged up flights of fancy and wild trains of thought also provide moments of black humour but this is still a novel full of sorrow. The usual fascination with reality in Dick’s work is here internalised into the mind of Bob Arctor as he struggles to see clearly into himself and no longer knows which part of him is real. Keanu Reeve’s downtrodden, listless performance in the films only adds to the effect, and the unique look of the film (produced by filming in live action and then animating the characters and backgrounds) gives it a suitably dreamlike feel. An alternately trippy and tragic score and paranoid, nuanced performances from Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr further help the film capture the intoxicated, claustrophobic atmosphere of the novel. Both are phenomenal works that everyone should experience, and present an eye opening look into drug culture which warns people away from being too quick to condemn those who “were punished all too severely for what they did.” Dick often commented on how his experiences with mind-altering substances aided his writing process, and that’s easy to see throughout his outstanding body of work, but by writing A Scanner Darkly he made sure the whole world knew the price he had to pay.
I’ve read a couple of other PKD novels which don’t really fit into the theme of this blog; Counter-clock world is an interesting but under-developed foray into ideas he would later return to, Faith of Our Fathers is a truly nightmarish short story included in the infamous Dangerous Visions anthology, and someday I aim to get around to finishing Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. The three novels described above are probably some of Dick’s more famous and best works so I’d advise starting with them. Consistent as a body of work but distinct from pretty much anything else out there, Phillip K Dick’s twisted, paranoia soaked tales are guaranteed to mess with your perception of reality and have you looking over your shoulder for days after you read them. Might not be your idea of fun, but if it is, then go nuts.
– Review by Paul Ewbank