Philip K. Dick Short Fiction Analysis
Philip K. Dick often commented that “the two basic topics which fascinate me are ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What constitutes the authentic human being?’” Science-fiction writers are naturally questioners of reality, since they are constantly asking “What if?” Despite his robots and androids, time travel and spaceships, Dick is not a writer of technical science fiction. He is concerned with human values, and his speculative “what ifs” aim to answer his two main questions, if they can be answered. Reality in Dick’s stories is fluid; just when readers think that they understand what is real and what is not, Dick moves the goalposts. Fakes, deceptions, misunderstandings, and differing points of view all cloud the issue of what is real. In each story, the answer might be somewhat different. Ultimately, reality seems to be something defined on personal terms, something slightly different for each individual. Dick’s exploration of “what constitutes the authentic human being,” however, does yield a fairly clear-cut answer: It is “caritas (or agape),” unselfish brotherly love or empathy, the “esteem of good people for one another.” Many of Dick’s stories portray the exact opposite in the form of political or corporate evil, a desire for power, a selfish lack of concern for others. The underlying theme of love, however, is still there, in the little human being who fights for his or her individualism, for his or her own decisions and not someone else’s. In some stories caritas is overt; in others it either is simply hinted at or is conspicuous in its absence. Despite the importance of Dick’s main themes, the stories are not just metaphysical tracts: They are enjoyable, often amusing, sometimes horrifying excursions.
“Roog,” Dick’s first story to be accepted for publication, already displays his concern for point of view, his idea that for different people, or in this story, dogs, reality is different. “Roog” concerns a dog that is firmly convinced that the garbagemen who pick up his master’s trash each week are taking an offering or sacrifice, which prevents them from taking his master, as they would like to do. In commenting on this story, Dick wrote, “I began to develop the idea that each creature lives in a world somewhat different from all the other creatures and their worlds.” Obviously, the dog’s reality is different from the master’s. To the dog’s master, the garbagemen are there to take the trash away, and the dog’s howls of warning, despair, and fear are simply annoying and likely to bring on the complaints of neighbors. The dog, however, locked in his view of reality, exemplifies caritas: He loves his master, and he unselfishly confronts these fearsome beings each week in order to protect him. The story smoothly switches back and forth from the points of view of the dog, his master, and even the Roogs, as the dog calls the evil garbagemen.
One of Dick’s last stories, “Rautavaara’s Case,” published in 1980, also contrasts several opposing points of view, none of which can firmly be said to have the true picture. The narrator of “Rautavaara’s Case” is a being from the Proxima Centaurus system who has no body but is “plasma.” This entity and his colleagues are monitoring the thoughts of Agneta Rautavaara, whose brain, but not her body, has been kept alive after an accident that killed her co-workers. Rautavaara’s thoughts seem to reveal the presence of Christ with those killed and the promise of an afterlife, but is it a “genuine window on the next world” or “a presentation of Rautavaara’s own cultural racial propensities?” The plasma beings introduce to Rautavaara’s thoughts their version of the Savior, and the result horrifies Rautavaara and the Earth people who are also monitoring her case. Rautavaara’s brain is taken off its support and the “window” is closed.
“Rautavaara’s Case” twists reality in all sorts of ways. Christians have long believed in an afterlife; this story suggests that what kind of an afterlife a person has depends on that person’s beliefs. There is also the possibility that all Rautavaara’s thoughts have been hallucinations, that her mind was driven mad by complete sensory deprivation. Is what Rautavaara is experiencing real in any way, or has her mind created some sort of reality for her, since she has no other inputs? Reality differs for the Earth people and the beings from Proxima Centaurus as well: Because they cannot understand each other, cannot even agree on right and wrong, because their points of view are so different, there is no consensual reality—nothing that they agree on as being true. The only thing that is sure is what actions were taken, and there are even disagreements about whether those actions were right.
Many of Philip Dick’s stories meditate directly or obliquely on the existence of God. “Project: Earth” concerns a boy, Tommy, who discovers that the boarder at his friend’s house is keeping an enormous file on Earth and has a cage with nine tiny people in it. He steals the people, lets them explore his room, and gets a friend to make clothes for them. When the boarder gets them back, they attack him and escape.
There are a number of biblical references in “Project: Earth” which make the story a comment on the nature of human beings. The boarder tells Tommy about the failure of Project A, which he describes as consisting of beings like humans but with wings. Pride brought Project A down. Project B, men, the boarder...
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