27 February 2007

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Philip K. Dick

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, August 2006

Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick Vintage PKD, Philip K. Dick (Vintage 1-400-09607-3, $11.95, 208pp, pb) June 2006.

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick (Putnam, 240pp, hc) 1962. (Vintage 0-679-74067-8, $12.00, 272pp, pb) 1992; (Penguin Classics 0-14-118667-4, £8.99, 249pp, pb) 2001.

Time Out of Joint, Philip K. Dick (Lippincott, 222pp, hc) 1959. Cover by Arthur Hawkins; (Vintage 0-375-71927-X, $13.95, 256pp, pb) 2002; (Gollancz 0-575-07458-2, £6.99, 220pp, pb) 2003.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick (Doubleday, 278pp, hc) 1965. (Vintage 0679736662, $12.95, 240pp, pb) 1991; (Gollancz 0-575-07458-2, £6.99, 231pp, pb) 2003.

A Scanner Darkly (Doubleday, 220pp, hc) 1977. Cover by the Quays; (Vintage 0-679-73665-4, $12.95, 288pp, pb) 1991; (Millennium 1-85798-847-7, £6.99, 220pp, pb) 1999.

VALIS, Philip K. Dick (Bantam, 230pp, pb) 1981; (Vintage 0-679-73446-5, $12.00, 240pp, pb) 1991; (Gollancz 1-85798-339-4, £6.99, 271pp, pb) 2001.

No author in SF, not even James Tiptree, Jr, is as impossible to "just read" as Philip K. Dick. As much as reviewers or readers might like to think that they assess books on what's between the covers and nothing else, you can't be in SF's culture and not know some of the facts of Dick's life, or speculate about how they bore on his fiction. Even the bare bones are suggestive: born 1928, twin sister died in infancy, apprenticeship selling stories to the SF magazines of the '50s, creative peak from say 1959 to 1970, the poverty, the many marriages, the drugs, the paranoia, the 1974 "revelation" of otherworldly communication directed at him, the sparse and madness-infested late novels, the early death in 1982, and the posthumous elevation of his reputation making him arguably the most widely admired SF author of the 20th century. Then there are the movies. Just thinking of the high-profile ones, there's Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report, each taking the virus of a Dick story and injecting it into the body of some Hollywood genre template to see which antibodies will win out. (The first words of Dick's story "The Minority Report" are, "The first thought Anderton had when he saw the young man was: I'm getting bald. Bald and fat and old." I wonder how many picoseconds they lasted when Tom Cruise's people saw them?) This summer, we get Richard Linklater's film of A Scanner Darkly (1977), which I've not seen but which has promising material in the shape of Dick's extraordinarily savage and mournful late mea culpa about drugs. On the back of that, and anticipating an influx of new readers, Vintage have released a new one-volume PKD primer.

There's no editor credited on the Vintage PKD, which may be house style, but it also frustrates the reviewer looking for someone to hold accountable. Of course, a thought-through selection from Dick's work is very welcome, and there's evidence that whoever put this book together lavished care and consideration on it. But it winds up as a dreadfully skewed introduction to what he was good at, for reasons which are to do with his peculiar strengths and weaknesses. It contains extracts from five novels: The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Ubik (1969), A Scanner Darkly (1977), and VALIS (1981) — in all cases, one or both of the first two chapters. There are also three stories, "The Days of Perky Pat" (1963), "A Little Something for Us Temponauts" (1974), and "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon" (1980), and two pieces of non-fiction, "The Lucky Dog Pet Store" (1979) and "The Zebra Paper" (1977).

Looking at that list, the question you wind up asking is: if you're going to use extracts from Dick's novels, why only pick the first couple of chapters? The answer, I think, is that you're constrained to do so by the cumulative way he writes. He's extraordinarily good at establishing character and situation but once he's done so doesn't bother to recap that X is married to Y or lives in Z's basement. So anything other than early chapters would leave you floundering without context. But Dick is also an architectural writer, one whose most characteristic effects are long-term. In order to warp reality, as he does, you have to have a settled reality quite well-established.

So reading the extracts from The Man in the High Castle is like watching a grandmaster play a standard chess opening, drumming his fingers and waiting to get to the good stuff in the middle game. We're introduced to Robert Childan, dealer in American cultural artefacts in an alternate world where Japan and Germany won World War II. Childan lives in San Francisco, running a business selling American artefacts to the Japanese conquerors. One's first reaction to meeting him is how well and how often Dick conveys the sense of failure. Childan has failed to obtain for a client, Mr. Tagomi, a much-desired Civil War recruiting poster. When it doesn't turn up, Childan has to grovel to Tagomi. But then we follow Tagomi to his home where he also reflects on the failure to obtain the gift — intended for a visiting dignitary. Both Childan and Tagomi, it turns out, use the Chinese oracle, the I Ching, to make sense of their lives. Both of them are acutely conscious of where they sit in society and how vulnerable their positions are. Even though almost the first scene of the book is a confrontation between them, Dick extends his sympathy to both of them — as he does, in due course, to the dignitary Tagomi wanted to impress. So a situation which, in the hands of another author, could be merely a vehicle for expressing irony that both Childan and Tagomi are bound to the same wheel without knowing it, becomes something else: a humane, broad view of a society.

This pattern — being introduced to a small group of characters, their setting, and the common intellectual structure they use to make sense of it — is repeated in many of Dick's other works. Unfortunately, not many of the novel extracts in Vintage PKD get much beyond that. As I said, it's what Dick does next that's most characteristic. In the case of The Man in the High Castle, as more characters are introduced, we move towards a questioning how this world got to be the way it is, and how real it might be — especially for Tagomi. The central element here is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel written in Dick's world by one Hawthorne Abendsen, depicting a history where the Nazis and Japanese lost World War II. Crucially, Grasshopper's alternate history is not our own. Had it been — and in many respects that's the obvious choice to take — Dick's novel would have ended up as just a meta-fiction that safely located our reality as the "right" one. But instead, Abendsen's samizdat book describes a world where America's post-war attention is on Asia, not Europe: a kind of Marshall Aid programme has converted much of the Pacific Rim to American consumer capitalism. Through this example, "in the USA the colour problem had by 1950 been solved."

The action of the book heads towards a confrontation between Juliana Frink, one of the characters who has read Grasshopper, and Abendsen himself, in his redoubt in Wyoming. There is a devastating final scene where Abendsen reveals that his choices in writing the book were dictated by the I Ching — that, in effect, the oracle wrote the book. Juliana and Abendsen ask the I Ching why it did so, and receive a very clear hexagram in response:

"It's Chung Fu," Juliana said. "Inner Truth. I know without using the chart, too. And I know what it means."

Raising his head, Hawthorne scrutinized her. He had now an almost savage expression. "It means, does it, that my book is true?"

"Yes," she said.

With anger he said, "Germany and Japan lost the war?"


Hawthorne, then, closed the two volumes and rose to his feet; he said nothing.

"Even you don't face it," Juliana said.

So Juliana and Abendsen must face the idea that their reality is somehow fake — as Childan had to earlier in the novel when presented with the accusation that he was selling forgeries rather than authentic antiques. But if the I Ching is telling the truth, then our reality is no more secure than Juliana's, because it is not that depicted in Grasshopper. We are refused the consolation of being told that we live in the "right" world and are reading a story which is a mere counterfactual guess. It's all guesses, Dick seems to be saying.

Rereading it now, many decades further from the horrors of Nazism, The Man in the High Castle makes a couple of striking impressions. Firstly, Dick's sense of how people and culture interact is extraordinarily nuanced. Secondly, he is willing to tell his story in prose almost entirely without pyrotechnics — neither the deliberately beautiful sentences which the mainstream prizes or the fireworks of, say, a Bester or a Sturgeon. Thirdly, that approach is very appropriate to his subject: ordinary people who will never walk the corridors of power, living quiet and often unsuccessful lives. All of these were a long way from the concerns of SF at the time, and it's easy to see how Dick came to be so unrewarded in his lifetime. Perhaps because we're too far from World War II — not only I, but my parents were born after it ended — the book doesn't have quite the charge of strangeness which it must have had when it was published. But there are plenty of other Dick novels one can go to for that.

Not represented in the Vintage PKD is Time Out of Joint (1959), Dick's first great novel and the single volume I would press into the hands of someone unacquainted with his work. Its initial premise is innocuous enough: Ragle Gumm lives a quiet suburban life, devotedly filling in a newspaper competition every day to "Find the Little Green Man". Only slowly does it become apparent that Gumm's world is an illusion created to have him at the heart of it. The revelation of the illusion's nature is somewhat pulpish and generic, but the scenes of paranoia that lead to it are not. Many people suspect, at times, that the world is arranging things for their benefit or the opposite. What would happen if you started to see evidence that suggested this was the objective reality? Would you be going crazy? Should you follow the evidence or ignore it? Dick knows, far too intimately for comfort, what it would feel like to ask these questions.

The abyss, in other words, is always present in his work: the abyss of mental illness and, at the same time, epistemological insecurity. Truth is occluded and unstable, but his characters are bound to pursue it in some flawed way. Time Out of Joint disappoints only when it starts providing answers: madness is being stuck in the maze and knowing that your failure to find answers is your own weakness made manifest. (It's in this sense that the movie The Truman Show (1998), playing with a similar scenario to Time Out of Joint, made the right structural decision: as soon as its protagonist stepped out of his virtual world to the real one, the film ended.) But it also makes clear Dick's greatest strength apart from his humanity and skill in characterisation: his ability to embed in fiction the largest philosophical issues. Moreover, he managed to do so in a way that poses questions for the reader. How would you react in this situation? Is Gumm going crazy when, famously, he sees a soft-drink stand evanesce to be replaced by a slip of paper saying SOFT-DRINK STAND? He generalises his concerns, even when he's describing them in very specific ways: and for that reason his books, even with their cartoonish genre trappings, feel remarkably undated.

Time Out of Joint is one of about a dozen Dick novels reprinted in the Millennium (later Gollancz) SF Masterworks series in the UK. Even though they've lately taken to filling the series with less-good PKD (The Simulacra, The Penultimate Truth, Now Wait for Last Year), they've also got most of the good ones too. None of these ranks higher, for me, than The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the drug-centred novel whose premises were also explored in "The Days of Perky Pat". (The Vintage PKD's decision to include both the story and the opening of the novel is, therefore, baffling duplication.) In this novel, the 21st century is so dire that the population — and especially Mars colonists — live out a vicarious existence through miniature "layouts" of the world and the drug Can-D which allows a shared experience through the layouts. The action of the book concerns Palmer Eldritch, injured in a crash in the Proxima system and now returning home with a new drug, Chew-Z. Chew-Z is more powerful than Can-D, more addictive, and — crucially — solipsistic. The illusory world it creates is that of the inside of the skull, controlled by Eldritch.

Many of the props of the novel seem dated or arbitrary: the truffle-skin money, for instance, or the glaciers whose advance is measured in Grables. But the figure of Eldritch is uniquely terrifying:

Of course the pics were ten years out of date, but this was still the man. Gray and bony, well over six feet tall, with swinging arms and a peculiarly rapid gait. And his face. It had a ravaged quality, eaten away; as if, Barney conjectured, the fat-layer had been consumed, as if Eldritch at some time or other had fed off himself, devoured perhaps with gusto the superfluous portions of his own body.

Dick was never an elaborate prose stylist: his journalistic directness, I'd suggest, is one of the good lessons he learned in his pulp apprenticeship. But "with gusto" is a truly brilliant stroke. It suggests that Eldritch has wanted nothing in his life but to approach this point where, dehumanised, he controls humans' dreams. Stigmata is, then, not just a novel about the costs of leaving behind consensus reality for an imagined or wished-for one; it's also about the terror of other realities not being one's own. The difficulty in parsing Stigmata, in saying what's "real" and what isn't, gives it a nightmarish flavour distinctive even in Dick's haunted work.

A Scanner Darkly, published nearly fifteen years later, returns to the subject of drugs and addiction. One's first impression of this book is how much more obviously personal it is: its setting is Dick's home patch of California, and there's a heartbreaking Author's Note at the end listing a dozen of his friends dead or crippled through drug use. (As he says, "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.") In the novel Bob Arctor, undercover cop, is assigned to track down those using the deadly Substance D; but Arctor-the-cop and Arctor-the-fake-addict both discover the savage costs it has. Early on in the book, he reflects that he had once had a "normal" life: a wife, children, "a stable household that got swept and cleaned and emptied out daily." Something snapped at some point, though, and he "entered, by degrees, a new and somber life, lacking all that." One senses that Dick, too, sees another version of himself far off, living a "normal" life. The title, with its reference to 1 Corinthians 13, hints at another strand in Dick's work: his desire to patch his philosophical obsessions ever more prominently into his fiction. Particular favourites were the New Testament, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and Gnostic thought. The miracle is that the novels don't feel particularly lumpy or didactic as a result. Dick the fiction-writer always managed to impose some kind of aesthetic order on his works, and in any case there are plenty of other obsessions swimming round in them too. Bob Arctor's relationship with the young addict Donna in A Scanner Darkly can stand as representative of all the older-man-younger-woman dynamics in his work.

Whether or not there is an alternate-world PKD, living a normal life and reaching a great old age, in this world there's no such mutability. By the time of Valis (an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System) all his cards are on the table. The protagonist, Horselover Fat, is a transparent PKD-surrogate, and his revelations tally with those that the author reported in, for instance, the Vintage PKD's non-fiction. Reading Valis now, one's first impression is not particularly of the intricate metaphysical structure built up in Fat's "Exegesis", but of the fight to remain sane. Fat has spent time in mental hospitals — there's a hilarious riff about how patients there game the system and try to manipulate none-too-smart-nurses and the drug regimen — and he clearly has a sense of how great an abyss madness would be. The book too, one senses, teeters on the edge of falling apart. It both believes in VALIS's revelations and somehow manages to stand outside them. Even with the fictionalising devices Dick uses, it reads as a devastatingly honest book, reviewing his past life and work unsparingly. At times, reading Valis felt almost voyeuristic in its intimacy. The counterculture Dick describes has gone its own way, to be replaced by other countercultures, and to be told about how it felt in such detail is like reading a postcard from Atlantis.

So Dick's body of work is one of those that tries to make sense of the life because, rather than despite of, the author's intentions. His pulp-SF origins are sometimes evident in his choice of props and scenery. But in a curious way, that doesn't matter: it emphasises the unreality of what he describes and makes it easier to believe when the world starts to shimmer and vanish. As I've said, although I think many of his novels would be a better introduction to Dick's work than the Vintage PKD, "The Lucky Dog Pet Store" is a very smart selection. It's an autobiographical piece covering a lot of ground in a short space, and would certainly help the novice reader to fit the life and the work together. But there are at least as many fine PKD novels which I haven't had chance to discuss here: Dr. Bloodmoney; Martian Time-Slip; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; The Divine Invasion. You have to get used to his obsessions, to be sure, and the more first-person he gets, the more his work feels like a historical evocation. But even if you can't follow all the contours of thought in a work like Valis — I know I can't — you feel you know the person who is talking to you. You sense his courage and fragility, and you wish you could hear more.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of the ten Locus reviewers. Every issue, we cover over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

What do you think about these works by Philip K. Dick? Submit your comments...


At Sunday, March 04, 2007 8:11:00 AM, Clay Evans said...


I sure do enjoy reading your "Yesterday's Tomorrows" pieces. I find myself eagerly awaiting their publication online so I can comment (especially, at present, the one about Asimov).

I think you get all of these Dick classics just right (which is saying something, since I tend to be a contrary person). I just finished reading "VALIS" last week, which means I've read all the entries (plus many of the other good ones you list at the bottom, but NONE of the lesser Dick; in that I've been choosy).

"Time Out of Joint" should be more widely read. One of my favorite Dick titles.

Here's a question for you: Can/should "A Scanner Darkly" and "VALIS" (wow; what a strange reading experience) even be read as SF?

Keep up the good work.

Clay Evans

At Wednesday, March 07, 2007 8:16:00 AM, A.R.Yngve said...

I can recommend A MAZE OF DEATH (1970), one of Dick's lesser-known novels.

Great essay, by the way; looking forward to more of them.

At Saturday, March 10, 2007 12:12:00 AM, Graham Sleight said...

Thanks, both. Clay, in my own view, both A Scanner Darkly and Valis are readable as sf, but I agree that the latter pushes the envelope.


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