Philip K. Dick Essay - Critical Essays

Philip K. Dick American Literature Analysis

In his essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (written in 1978 but not published until 1985, as an introduction to the story collection I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon), Philip K. Dick outlined the principal themes of his fiction:The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again.

Philosophers, it is sometimes said, are people who sit around asking “Is this table real?” The point of the caricature is to suggest that philosophy is too esoteric, divorced from the problems of everyday life. After all, except for the mentally ill, everyone knows what reality is, so why ask?

Dick was a writer of fiction, however, not a philosopher, and his concern with the nature of reality was anything but abstract. His stories and novels explore collisions between multiple realities. Dick was particularly interested in the interplay between subjective and objective reality. As he noted in a letter written in 1970,I have been very much influenced by the thinking of the European existential psychologists, who posit this: for each person there are two worlds, the idios kosmos, which is a unique private world, and the koinos kosmos, which literally means shared world (just as idios means private).

To function as an “authentic human being,” one must have these two worlds in balance, according to Dick. When the shared vision of the koinos kosmos ruthlessly dominates the private vision of the idios kosmos, the result is loss of identity, mindless conformity—a popular fear when Dick began publishing in the 1950’s, the decade that produced Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and Vance Packard’s early study of the coercive power of advertising, The Hidden Persuaders (1957). On the other hand, when one’s private vision is not tempered by a “strong empathetic rapport with other people” (a fundamental value in Dick’s worldview) and by an awareness of a reality that is greater than any individual, the result is delusion, even madness, destructive to oneself and often to others as well.

Science fiction allowed Dick to explore themes of multiple realities and cognitive dissonance more freely and thoroughly than he could in mainstream fiction. Many of his novels feature situations in which one character invades and distorts the perceptions of others, altering the way in which they experience reality. In Eye in the Sky (1957), for example, the premise is an accident at a particle accelerator. While the victims of the accident—a very diverse lot—lie unconscious, their inner worlds merge in some unexplained fashion; in this dreamlike state, the whole group experiences the world as it is seen by each of the group’s members, one by one. Dick uses a similar plot device to good effect in Ubik (1969) and A Maze of Death (1970), and especially powerfully in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964). Such science-fictional scenarios reflect real-life circumstances; one way to describe the Nazi era is to say that a single man, Adolf Hitler, with the complicity of many others, was able to impose his insane idios kosmos on an entire nation.

It would be very misleading, though, to suggest that Dick wrote stories and novels merely to explore certain recurring themes (no matter how important those themes might be). As a writer he was a consummate showman: funny, wildly inventive, with a sheer exuberance that could not be accommodated within the conventions of mainstream fiction. Even his best books are marked by inconsistencies, implausibilities, and stylistic rough edges aplenty. Yet these flaws go hand in hand with the qualities that make even his weakest books worth reading: the mind-twisting plots, the heady mixture of incongruous elements.

A typical Dick novel contains enough story ideas for four or five ordinary books. Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964), for example, takes its title from the inmates of a mental hospital on a distant moon, out of contact with Earth for twenty-five years as a result of a galactic war between humans and aliens. Left on their own, the inmates have divided into groups according to type of illness, the paranoids living in a state of constant suspicion, the depressives barely able to function, and so on. For their mutual benefit, the various groups maintain an uneasy coalition, threatened when a delegation from Earth arrives with plans to reinstitutionalize them.

At the same time, the novel is about marital discord and reconciliation. Dick’s depiction of the conflict between protagonist Chuck Rittersdorf and his brilliant wife, Mary, rings painfully true, with enough blackly comic exaggeration to make it funny. The novel also has a political angle (the war against the aliens has not ended the Cold War, and Chuck’s job is to program simulacra—that is, humanoid robots—which are used to infiltrate Communist territories, where they will disseminate pro-American propaganda). Also, like many of Dick’s works, it contains an oblique self-portrait of the author. Stir in characters such as the telepathic Ganymedean slime mold Lord Running Clam (one of Dick’s finest creations) and the themes discussed above, and the result is a uniquely Dickian concoction—imaginable only in science fiction.

Indeed, Dick employed the full panoply of the genre’s props: aliens and androids, telepathy and precognition, parallel time tracks—his novel Now Wait for Last Year (1966) makes dazzling use of the latter—and all the rest. Yet along with these staples of science fiction, many of his books feature sharply rendered settings drawn from contemporary life, sometimes given a little twist to fit a futuristic scenario. Time Out of Joint (1959) depicts late-1950’s suburbia; Dr. Bloodmoney: Or, How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965) is set in San Francisco and laid-back Marin County; A Scanner Darkly (1977) evokes the drug culture of the 1960’s; Radio Free Albemuth (1985) ranges from Berkeley in the 1950’s to Southern California in the 1970’s.

Wherever they are set, most of Dick’s novels are grounded in the clutter and trivia, the mundane cares and joys, of everyday life. Most of his protagonists, too, are ordinary people, such as repairman Jack Bohlen of Martian Time-Slip (1964). Dick had a hard time ending his books—he could not settle the metaphysical questions that fueled them—and so, typically, he concluded not with a cosmic resolution but with a modest affirmation of simple human virtues. The last lines of Martian Time-Slip are representative:In the darkness of the Martian night her husband and father-in-law searched for Erna Steiner; their light flashed here and there, and their voices could be heard, business-like and competent and patient.

The rise of the cyberpunk movement after Dick’s death emphasized the changing nature of identity and community in an increasingly online world, and science fiction’s imagined futures were often matched by the realities of modern technology and its culture in the new millennium. While cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson gained greater critical attention and acceptance for science fiction, the significance of Dick’s work as a thematic and literary progenitor of the subgenre has been observed. Indeed, one of the first winners of the Philip K. Dick Award was Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984, popularly considered the first major cyberpunk novel.

“Paycheck”

First published: 1953 (collected in Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, 2002)

Type of work: Short story

An engineer whose past two years of work have been erased from memory unravels the mystery of what he did and why.

Jennings is an engineer who agreed to work for two years for Rethrick Construction and have his memory erased afterward to protect company secrets. Instead of the money promised at the end of his contract, however, Jennings discovers his pre-erasure self asked to be paid with a collection of odd items: a code key, a ticket stub, a parcel receipt, a length of wire, half a poker chip, a green cloth, and a bus token.

As Jennings tries to unravel why his earlier self would request such items, he uncovers the truth of Rethrick Construction—also known as The Company—and the secret project Jennings worked on, a time travel device. Each pay item proves useful in this quest, as Jennings realizes his earlier self was able to see into the future, predict what his questing self would need, and provided accordingly. Jennings also discovers the scope of The Company’s work and suspects its intention to mold the world’s future.

Jennings uses Kelly, a receptionist at Rethrick Construction, to hide the evidence that he uncovers. However, Kelly is the daughter of Rethrick, which she reveals when Jennings tries to blackmail his former employer. Jennings demands that Rethrick let him become The Company’s next leader but is refused by Kelly, who holds the parcel receipt that will lead to the evidence. A hand descends to grab the ticket from Kelly, a nod to the literary motif of the deus ex machina—the god out of the machine, who changes the course of a drama in an omnipotent fashion. If anything, “Paycheck” and its time travel puzzle is the story of how one person takes control of his life in an unexpected fashion and becomes his own deus ex machina, forced to trust his own judgment even when that judgment is obscure.

“The Minority Report”

First published: 1956 (collected in Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, 2002)

Type of work: Short story

The head of an organization that uses precognition to prevent crimes must find out the reasons behind a murder he’s supposed to commit.

John Anderton is the founder and head of Precrime, which stops future crimes from occurring by gathering data from three precogs—humans gifted with precognition, now reduced to caged idiot savants as their babble is recorded and collated. The day that a new assistant, Ed Witwer, joins, Anderton receives a report that he will commit a murder of an army general he does not know, Leopold Kaplan. Anderton confronts Kaplan, who harbors doubts about Precrime, and goes on the run with Kaplan’s help. Anderton is chased by Precrime agents and tries to escape with Lisa, also an agent.

Anderton knows two precogs confirm a precrime before it is pursued, but there is often a dissenting minority report from the third precog. However, the prediction of Anderton’s murder is supposed to change when Anderton discovers the news, changing the significance of the minority report. Kaplan has manipulated events so that Precrime will fall to a restrengthened Army headed by Kaplan. Discovering this, Anderton decides to actually murder Kaplan, thus saving Precrime; with Lisa, he accepts his punishment and goes into exile.

The story’s premise is based on paradoxes raised by predicting the future: If one knows what will happen, can one change the outcome? If so, what does that say about the ability to predict the future in the first place? Precrime satirizes how law enforcement can overreach its mandate; in the modern world, racial profiling could be considered a kind of precrime. Anderton commits his predicted murder to reinforce the validity of his flawed system but in doing so, proves its correctness.

Solar Lottery

First published: 1955

Type of work: Novel

In the corrupt, feudalistic world of the twenty-third century, a troubled idealist refuses to conform.

Solar Lottery, Dick’s first published science-fiction novel, was his best-selling book prior to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That fact says much about the audience for science fiction, for of all Dick’s novels Solar Lottery most resembles the stereotypical and ephemeral products of the genre. Even in this early work, however, some of Dick’s recurring preoccupations and distinctive gifts are apparent.

Most of Dick’s novels are set in the near future (indeed, in certain instances, Dick’s future has already become the reader’s past). Solar Lottery, in contrast, takes place in the distant future, in...

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