Philip K. Dick 1928-1982
(Full name Philip Kindred Dick; also wrote under the pseudonym Richard Phillips) American short story writer, novelist, and essayist. See also Philip K. Dick Literary Criticism (Volume 10) and Philip K. Dick Literary Criticism (Volume 30).
The following entry presents an overview of Dick's short fiction career through 2002.
Dick has been hailed as one of the most original and thought-provoking writers of science fiction. He is regarded as one of the most prolific writers of the form during the mid-twentieth century. Since his death, Dick's work has been the subject of numerous critical studies and cinematic adaptations. Critics praise his short stories as innovative and provocative, contending that Dick's fiction cleverly explores scientific, social, and metaphysical issues of concern to post-World War II America.
Dick was born in Chicago on December 16, 1928, but lived most of his life in the Berkeley and San Francisco areas of California. He had a twin sister, Jane Charlotte, who died at eight weeks from an allergy to her mother's milk. Dick held his mother responsible for the death and for his own unhappiness during childhood. In 1931, Dick's father abandoned the family. At a young age, Dick began taking amphetamines to relieve asthma, an abuse that continued most of his life. Dick was an introverted student and became engrossed in the science fiction pulp magazines that were flourishing in the 1940s. He attended the University of California at Berkeley for one year in 1950, and, among other sporadic jobs, Dick managed a record store in Berkeley. Dick sold his first science fiction story in 1952, and his first novel, Solar Lottery, was published in 1955. Initially, Dick attempted to become a mainstream fiction author, but this hope languished, as four of his realistic novels failed to sell between 1955 and 1957. Dick's desire to be a serious author of mimetic fiction was posthumously realized when many of his early works saw publication for the first time during the 1980s and 1990s. Frustrated by the strictures of science fiction and his rejection from mainstream publishers, Dick set upon a massive writing course. During the 1960s, he produced voluminous works of fiction, scripting eleven novels in two years, yet much of it varying in quality. It was also at this time that Dick began to undergo a succession of anagogic visions. In 1974, he underwent a further series of visions. This was a profound occurrence in Dick's personal and professional life, and it shadowed everything he wrote subsequently; Dick spent the final portion of his life seeking an understanding of these revelations. Dick died of heart failure following a stroke on March 2, 1982, shortly before the release of the film Blade Runner, which was based on Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The film Total Recall is based remotely on Dick's short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” originally issued in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1966. His story “Impostor,” initially published in the periodical Astounding Science Fiction in 1953, and one of the first works to demonstrate Dick's preoccupation with what is essentially human, was made into a film of the same name in 2002. Futhermore, Dick's short story “The Minority Report,” first published in the magazine Fantastic Universe in 1956, was adapted for the screen and directed by Steven Spielberg in 2002.
Major Works of Short Fiction
From the sale of a story entitled “Roog” to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1952 and his first published story, “Beyond Lies the Wub,” in Planet Stories in the same year, Dick's writing career has followed a prodigious course: six short fiction collections and thirty-six novels were published during his lifetime. Of Dick's over one hundred short stories, twenty-eight were published in 1953 and another twenty-eight in 1954, but beginning with the appearance of Solar Lottery, he turned primarily to the novel. Dick often recycled leitmotivs, themes, characters, and details from short stories to novels, and from novel to novel. Some principal topics from Dick's early short stories that were later used in multiple novels and/or stories include: The difficulty of distinguishing between illusion and reality (“Second Variety,” first published in the journal Space Science Fiction in 1953); divine impotence (“Prominent Author,” originally issued in the periodical If in 1954); and the gradual mechanization of the environment and the contribution made to human alienation by this process (“Autofac,” initially published in the journal Galaxy in 1955). In “Second Variety” evolving war machines create fake people as bait to ensnare real humans. The story “Autofac,” like “Second Variety,” furthers Dick's theme of the intricate relationship between man and machine, depicting autonomous factories that design their own products and ignore their human creators.
Dick often investigates the metaphysical question “What Is Real?” in his short fiction. In his novella Faith of Our Fathers, first published in Harlan Ellison's omnibus Dangerous Visions in 1967, Mr. Tung Chien, a minor bureaucrat in a totalitarian government buys some snuff from a street peddler, goes home, and watches a speech by the leader of the government on television. He is shocked when he sees not a human talking, but a hideous mechanical construction. Thinking the snuff is a hallucinogen, he discovers that it is instead an anti-hallucinogen—the entire population has been drugged into thinking that their leader is in human form. Dick's tale “Impostor,” the short story “The Electric Ant,” first seen in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1969, the 1972 novel We Can Build You, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? all share similar spiritual dilemmas. When the narrator of “The Electric Ant,” Garson Poole, says, “What I want … is ultimate and absolute reality, for one microsecond. After that it doesn't matter, because all will be known; nothing will be left to understand or see,” a dominant leitmotiv of Dick's concerns both in fiction and life is declared. Many of Dick's novels began as shorter pieces that were later expanded upon. Novellas such as “A Glass of Darkness,” first published in Satellite Science Fiction in 1956; “Vulcan's Hammer,” first published in Future in 1956; “Time Pawn,” first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1954; and “A. Lincoln-Simulacrum,” serialized in Amazing in 1969-70, later became the novels The Cosmic Puppets (1957), Vulcan's Hammer (1960), Dr. Futurity (1960), and We Can Build You (1972), respectively. We Can Build You shares with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and much of Dick's short fiction a proclivity for androids and synthetic reality. The tale “All We Marsmen,” first seen in the pulp Worlds of Tomorrow in 1963 and later published as the novel Martian Time-Slip (1964), depicts schizophrenic, precognitive colonists on Mars. One of the Mars-dwellers is an autistic child that transposes his own subconscious world onto the reality of others. Dick frequently reused the precog and schizophrenic themes in further short stories and novels. A late tale by Dick, “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” first appeared in Playboy in 1980 under the title “Frozen Journey” and won the magazine's best short story of the year by a new contributor award. This story, along with nine others, comprises the collection I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (1985), Dick's final offering in the short story form.
Dick is one of the most critically praised and seriously examined science fiction writers of his generation. Commentators observe that Dick's writing is best perceived as a perpetual body of work, as themes, motifs, and specific terms and names are shared from stories to novels to other novels, and back again. In Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin stated: “[Dick's] work is not easy to discuss, since it does not fall neatly into a few books of exceptional achievement and a larger body of lesser works. All his books offer ideas, situations, and passages of considerable interest. None quite achieves that seamless perfection of form that constitutes one kind of literary excellence. … His strength lies in the unique vision that informs all of his fiction, and the crisp serviceable prose in which he presents the most extreme events without acknowledging that they are anything but ordinary.” Dick's oeuvre is frequently lauded and belittled, as it highlights both the virtues and limitations of the science fiction genre. Although Dick's fiction style has been deemed wooden or awkward—even heavy-handed at times—at its most distilled and honest, his work embodies an acute sapience and unique imagination. Critically, Dick's writing is sometimes charged with being slapdash, containing a potboiler, hackneyed quality, and with being inordinately didactic in later work. Still, other commentators maintain that these faults are tempered by the author's consistent themes, subthemes, and speculative concepts being superjacent to dialogue and prose technique. Whereas Dick's writing has its detractors, others judge his best fiction to contain original scientific, social, and metaphysical cogitation bound together with a profound concern for the humanity of his characters. Dick's proponents have asserted that his complex narrative structures provide the framework for the philosophical questions that he asks of his readers. Critics have further observed that Dick adroitly weaves humor with pathos while detailing his protagonists' plights with sympathy. Some judge his output to be intensely uneven, claiming that many of Dick's lesser works fall away into a tangle of irresolutions—perhaps an effect of his mode of production, which seemed to involve bursts of frenetic creativity that often dissipated before projects were fully realized. Possibly more than any science fiction author before him, Dick introduced metaphysical and philosophical questions to a literarily marginalized genre. Alexander Star writing in The New Republic said of Dick, “throughout his career he wrote with qualities that are rare in a science fiction writer, or in any writer at all. These included a sure feel for the detritus and debris, the obsolescent object-world, of postwar suburbia; a sharp historical wit; and a searching moral subtlety and concern.”
Although far less esteemed and financially successful in life than death, Dick never went wholly without critical recognition during his lifetime. Dick received the World Science Fiction Society Hugo Award for best novel in 1963 for The Man in the High Castle (1962), and in 1975 won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year for Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974).