Dick, Philip K(indred) (Vol. 30)
Philip K(indred) Dick 1928–1982
American novelist and short story writer.
Dick has been one of the most acclaimed science fiction writers of the past thirty years and his work is praised for encouraging confrontation with the problems and enigmas of human existence rather than escape into outer space adventure. His work is also noted for its inventive treatment of the complex relationships between illusion and reality. For example, one of Dick's techniques for emphasizing the elusive nature of reality is to explore in his stories the idea that consciousness may be manipulated through drugs or the influence of an outside force. Barry N. Malzberg has called Dick's works "strange, rending, off-center visions which probed at the borders of reality and finally ruptured reality itself." Another characteristic of Dick's fiction is his projection of a near future in which machines acquire human traits, while many humans lose those traits—kindness, empathy, warmth—that differentiate them from machines. Dick's characters are antiheroic; at best they survive in this environment by caring about each other.
In the first three years of his career, Dick wrote the majority of his numerous short stories; in 1955, with the publication of Solar Lottery, he shifted to writing novels almost exclusively. His early novels, including Eye in the Sky (1957) and Time out of Joint (1959), establish his long-standing question: "What is reality?" and its corollary "Who, or what, controls it?" A second and very creative period of Dick's career began with his Hugo Award-winning novel, The Man in the High Castle (1962). Critics consider this work the best example of Dick's use of parallel worlds. By considering two possible realities—that the United States either won or lost World War II—Dick compares the insight of one character with the belief of the masses. Dick's second major concern is exemplified in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). This work features very humanlike androids and a protagonist who kills them by profession. When the lines become blurred between human and android, the hero questions the morality of his occupation. In 1982 the novel was adapted to film as Blade Runner. Valis (1981) initiated an experimental stage in Dick's writing in which he delves further into metaphysics in search of reality and a higher being. Valis, The Divine Invasion (1981), and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) are considered a trilogy, for the works, though unrelated in any obvious way by setting, character, or incident, are bound thematically.
Critics find Dick's work diffcult to evaluate. While they admire his unique, often startling visions, they lament his careless, unsystematic style. His complex narrative structures are difficult to decipher, though some critics maintain that this difficulty is indicative of his profundity. It has been said that Dick can take the most trite elements of science fiction and make them significant, humorous, and, at times, even poetic. He is sometimes accused of losing control of his work, becoming sidetracked in his narrative or trapped without a plausible resolution. Despite this, Dick is credited with displaying sympathy for his characters, thus giving his work an admirably humanistic quality.
(See also CLC, Vol. 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, Vol. 106 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)
[The following excerpt was first published as "Back to the Cactus" in SF Commentary, November, 1970.]
I have always enjoyed Dick's work on the superficial level of entertainment and yet have been aware of dissatisfaction on deeper levels. After a year without him, Ubik crystallises the dissatisfaction; my day as a Dick fan is nearly over.
Here is the book of a man who shudders between the real and the unreal, who sees alternatives as realities and realities as a transient phase among alternatives. Alternatives and realities co-exist, and even influence each other (Ubik, Now Wait For Last Year, Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch) and through this incredibly complex universe Dick tries to trace a path. It can't be done. The human brain cannot reduce an infinite number of possibilities to a story pattern simply by selecting what appeals, particularly when one realises that effects can initiate their own causes, as in Counter-Clock World.
Many years ago Dick announced his theme in Eye in the Sky, but the depth of his involvement was not observable in that lighthearted piece of fun. Perhaps the tales featuring the Perky Pat game were the first real step into the confusion. These predicated a search for alternative reality on the part of the players; later The World Jones Made and Time Out of Joint suggested that perhaps it was the author who...
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Brian W. Aldiss
[The following excerpt was published in a special issue of Science-Fiction Studies devoted to the work of Philip K. Dick.]
The setting [of Martian Time-Slip] is Mars, which is now partly colonised. (p. 42)
This web of civilization is stretched thin over utter desolation. There is no guaranteeing that it can be maintained. Its stability is threatened by the Great Powers back on Earth. For years they have neglected Mars, concentrating dollars and man-hours on further exploration elsewhere in the system; now they may interfere actively with the balance of the colony.
Behind this web exists another, even more tenuous: the web of human relationships. Men and women, children, old men, bleekmen (the autochthonous but non-indigenous natives of Mars) all depend, however reluctantly, on one another. (pp. 42-3)
Behind these two webs lies a third, revealed only indirectly. This is the web connecting all the good and bad things in the universe. The despised Bleekmen, who tremble on the edge of greater knowledge than humanity, are acutely aware of this web and occasionally succeed in twitching a strand here and there, to their advantage; but they are as much in its toils as anyone else.
These three webs integrate at various coordinate points, the most remarkable point being AM-WEB, a complex structure which the UN may build some time in the future…. [That...
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[The following essay was published in a special issue of Science-Fiction Studies devoted to Philip K. Dick's works.]
In SF there is little room left for creative work that would aspire to deal with problems of our time without mystification, oversimplification, or facile entertainment: e.g., for work which would reflect on the place that Reason can occupy in the Universe, on the outer limits of concepts formed on Earth as instruments of cognition, or on such consequences of contacts with extraterrestrial life as find no place in the desperately primitive repertoire of SF devices (bounded by the alternative "we win"/"they win")…. Whoever brings up the heavy artillery of comparative ethnology, cultural anthropology and sociology against such devices is told that he is using a cannon to shoot sparrows, since it is merely a matter of entertainment; once he falls silent, the voices of the apologists for the culture-shaping, anticipative, predictive and mythopoeic role of SF are raised anew. (pp. 56-7)
Is creative work without mystification possible in such an environment? An answer to this question is given by the stories of Philip K. Dick. While these stand out from the background against which they have originated, it is not easy to capture the ways in which they do, since Dick employs the same materials and theatrical props as other American writers. From the warehouse which has long since become their...
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Brian Aldiss has called [Philip Dick] "one of the masters of present-day discontents", a thing readily apparent in much of his work. But one of the great fascinations his work holds for me is the effects achieved when he dumps these discontents into that special machine in his head and turns on the current. It is not simply that I consider it a form of aesthetic cheating to compare one writer with another, but I cannot think of another writer with whom to compare Philip Dick. Aldiss suggests [Luigi] Pirandello, which is not bad for the one small aspect of reality shuffling. But Pirandello's was basically a destructive machine. It was a triumph of technique over convention, possessed of but one basic message no matter what was fed into the chopper. Philip Dick's is a far more complicated program. His management of a story takes you from here to there in a God-knows-how, seemingly haphazard fashion, which, upon reflection, follows a logical line of development—but only on reflection. While you are trapped within the spell of its telling, you are in no better position than one of its invariably overwhelmed characters when it comes to seeing what will happen next.
The characters are often victims, prisoners, manipulated men and women. It is generally doubtful whether they will leave the world with less evil in it than they found there. But you never know. They try. (p. 3)
The worlds through which Philip Dick's...
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[The following essay was written in 1967 and first published in a shortened form in SF Commentary, January, 1969.]
Nobody has ever accused Dick of being stupid, unoriginal, or dull, but no reviewer I've ever seen has been able to put his finger on the ways in which Dick is intelligent, original, and fascinating. One can but try.
Part of the problem is that Philip Dick's novels have several characteristics which divide him from other sf writers, and tend to sever communication with the average sf reader. As one can point out so easily, long passages in his books, although seldom whole books, are badly written by any standards. (p. 10)
Dick also shows some of the sentimentality we generally associate with the other sf writers, but his direction usually heads away from this approach. When sentimentality does appear in full soporific splendour (Barney Mayerson and Emily Hnatt in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, for example), usually it is so undermined by the framework of the novel that it becomes necessary rather than repellent.
These complaints are quibbles, at best, but they are factors that prevent Dick from writing with the bland smoothness of a John Wyndham or an Arthur Clarke. I am not saying that other types of sf writers are masters of language or are not subject to sentimentality. However, I do think that the faults of the older professionals...
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Although it is often noted that Philip K. Dick is concerned with "the nature of reality," the assumption is usually that he is merely playing parlor tricks, that he is a clever sleight-of-hand artist whose entertainments are conjured out of thin air and exhibit little philosophy other than a fashionable nihilism or despair in the face of a universe thought too large and unregulated for comprehension. Yet Dick is far from being the unrelenting pessimist he is often considered. Rather, through his often dark vision he assumes a critical stance against the world-view that informs modern society; beyond this he presents a vision of a brighter world not beyond the reach of those informed of its possibility. But between unexamined reality and affirmed possibility lies an arduous journey: from the destruction of one world of knowledge to the creation of another. Dick's fiction is the story of this journey. (pp. 9-10)
In fiction, and increasingly in the public mind, the gods and demons of yesterday have become the aliens of today. Aliens are symbols of the intrusion of the unknown into the realm of the human—meteorites of mystery and unease buried in the collective human psyche. If the image of the alien plays so large a role in the fiction of Philip K. Dick it is because he deals always with man's fallen state; and it is the realization, often sudden and unexpected, of his condition that initiates the frightful but necessary struggle toward...
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Ursula K. Leguin
Philip K. Dick comes on without fanfare. All his novels are published as science fiction, which limits their "packaging" to purple-monster jackets, ensures but restricts their sales, and, above all, prevents their being noticed by most serious critics or reviewers. His prose is austere, sometimes hasty, always straightforward, with no Nabokovian fiddlefaddle. His characters are ordinary—extraordinarily ordinary—the inept small-businessman, the ambitious organization girl, the minor craftsman or repairman, etc. That some of them have odd talents such as precognition makes no difference, since they inhabit a world where precognition is common; they're just ordinary neurotic precognitive slobs. His humor is dry and zany…. Finally, his inventive, intricate plots move on so easily and entertainingly that the reader, guided without effort through the maze, may put the book down believing that he's read a clever sci-fi thriller and nothing more. 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 [Jorge Luis] Borges, and have had him for 30 years.
I think I'm the first to bring up Borges, but Dick has once or twice been compared with Kafka. One cannot take that very far, for Dick is not an absurdist. His moral vocabulary is Christian, though never explicitly so. The last word...
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Dick does not make easy reading. He lacks the informality of [Arthur C.] Clarke, the vocabulary of [Anthony] Burgess, the pointillism of [John] Fowles. His phrasing is often clumsy, bathetic, despairing, a tangle of moods and impressions hurled like warnings of imminent catastrophe. His characters tumble angrily past as if their appearance in the narrative were an unwelcome distraction. The first paragraphs of a Dick novel habitually plunge us into an environment so intact with images, purposes and objectives as to incline us to reconsider the accuracy of our own perceptions. The typical Dick hero is similarly in a state of confusion, seeing himself as an insignificant component in an elaborate social mechanism requiring effort, conformity and commitment for no very clear reward. The rules of the game may change at any moment, nothing is permanent, and a malignant, vaguely godlike presence monitors his every move in the expectation of failure. Dick's is the science fiction of the average citizen attempting an unremarkable survival in an environment that considers him uninteresting and expendable. Far from the bright, muscular heroic myths of Star Wars or Superman, it lurks in the dark labyrinths of paranoia.
What renders his work so absorbing is its inventiveness and its humour, dizzyingly based on a lunatic logic. Both are combined in the premise of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the 1968 novel on which...
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Patricia S. Warrick
What is the authentically human? What is the nature of the alien elements that are threatening and vitiating living, intelligent human beings? These questions are deeply rooted in Philip K. Dick's work, and to them he has provided a bizarre variety of answers, answers that are constantly being pushed aside and replaced by new possibilities. Finding an answer to the question of what is truly human and what only masquerades as human is, for Dick, the most important difficulty facing us. Some of Dick's richest metaphors stem from the profusion of electronic devices which populate his near-future wasteland landscapes—electronic constructs that in his early fiction menace the few humans surviving a nuclear holocaust; constructs that, evolving over the years toward ever more human forms, become instructors to man in the search for authenticity and wholeness.
The setting of Dick's near-future fiction is often a twilight world shrouded in smog and dust, decaying into rusty bits and useless debris. "Kipple" accumulates as the process of entropy advances. The wasteland may be a battlefield smouldering in radioactive ash, a vast "junkyard" containing the rotting remnants of West Coast suburbia, or a Martian landscape, virtually lifeless except for the Earth colonists whose electronic constructs assist in nearly fruitless gardening attempts…. How is man to survive and remain human in this desert of decay?
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