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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[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 structure's] function in the novel is to provide a symbol for the aspirations and failures of mankind. The structure will be a considerable achievement when completed; which is not to say that it is not ultimately doomed; and part of that doom may be decreed by the miserable political and financial maneuverings which form one of the minor themes of this intricately designed novel….
One of the attractions of Dick's novels is that they all have points at which they inter-relate, although Dick never introduces characters from previous books. The relationship is more subtle—more web-like—than that. (p. 43)
Dick's kaleidoscope is always being shaken, new sinister colours and patterns continually emerge. The power in the Dickian universe resides in these [building] blocks, rather than in his characters; even when one of the characters has a special power (like Jones's ability to foresee the future in The World Jones Made), it rarely does him any good.
If we look at two of the most important of these building blocks and observe how they depend on each other for greatest effect, we come close to understanding one aspect of Dickian thought. These blocks are the Concern-With-Reality and the Involvement-with-the-Past.
Most of the characteristic themes of SF are materialist ones; only the concern-with-reality theme involves a quasi-metaphysical speculation, and this theme Dick has made peculiarly his own…. [In his later books], Dickian characters … [frequently] find themselves trapped in hallucinations or fake worlds of various kinds, often without knowing it or, if knowing it, without being able to do anything about it. (pp. 43-4)
And it is not only worlds that are fake. Objects, animals, people, may also be unreal in various ways. Dick's novels are littered with fakes…. Things are always talking back to humans. Doors argue, medicine bags patronize, the cab at the end of Now Wait for Last...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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;...
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