Phillip K. Dick: A Man Before His Time

Browse By

With a career spanning more than thirty novels, one hundred and twenty-one short stories and five wives, it would be easy to assume American science-fiction author, Phillip K. Dick’s success. Even without having read any of his work, his ideas and stories have become accessible through several film and TV adaptations, the most recent of which include Amazon Prime’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ as well as Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 spin-off of P.K.D.’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, Bladerunner 2049. These releases are testament to the ideas of a man who boldly reinvented science-fiction, even if he was not recognised for it in his own time. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Philip K. Dick was not appreciated for his contributions in the United States, both with regard to his sales and as a writer. For many, mainly overseas in Europe and particularly from Paris, P.K.D. was an outspoken master of his craft who was both painfully honest and inspired. Polish author Stanislaw Lem described P.K.D. as a ‘visionary among charlatans’

Sci-Fi book “Planet Stories” published Phillip K. Dick’s first work in 1952

The charlatans Lem was describing wrote in the ironically named Golden Age of Science-Fiction, which had taken hold of America. In 1953 alone, thirty genre magazines were published a month. These were fantastical tales of optimistic space exploration, of intergalactic conflict and alien invasions. Popular that they were, it cannot be claimed that these stories were as close in complexity to its siblings in Europe, with peers such as Huxley predicting the dangers of genetic modifications in his novel ‘Brave New World’. Save a select few such as Issac Asimov, America’s sci-fi stories were held back by a lack of imagination and the pursuit of redoing what had already been done at the expense of progressing the genre. To put it shortly, pulp science-fiction was popular, so there was no incentive to take a bold step forward. This, of course, was in stark contrast to Phillip K. Dick, who tried to be popular by emboldening his ideas, believing that his popularity would be found in a brave idea, not hidden among what had been done before.

In many ways, P.K.D. was an inverse of the writers who had come in the golden age, with his protagonists usually taking the shape of anti-heroes, such as Rick Deckard in ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, who suffers from doubts of his own humanity, or Frank Frink in ‘The Man In the High Castle’, an assuredly powerless character against the regime he lives under. Compare this to perhaps the most famous hero of classical sci-fi stories; Flash Gordon- a handsome astronaut who saves the earth as often as he wears spandex. Bland character traits and character development do not go hand in hand. Even the antagonists of old – the evil scientists, the Martians and the alien invaders – pale in comparison to the more abstract obstacles and distractions our heroes face, such as in Ubik, even if they are set off by human intervention. P.K.D.’s characters are real characters, unlike the emotionally unengaging heroes and villains of the past. While in classic sci-fi storytelling, women were still playing the ‘damsel in distress’ character trope, in P.K.D.’s novels they were more central to the narrative (even if his main protagonists are predominantly male). These old stories did not lack vibrancy or optimism, but it seems unfair that they were so popular, unlike Phillip K. Dick’s truly imaginative works.

Bladerunner 2049 (2017), a sequel to the 1982 adaptation of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’

The key to the believability of his books is down to the atmosphere P.K.D. creates in both his themes and atmosphere. Rarely do I find a book which engages me on two levels; on one level, I am absorbed by the book whilst I am reading it and, on another, I endlessly turn the book over in my head after finishing it. Books which fulfil the first instance will have well-constructed atmospheres and those that accomplish the second have interesting themes. I have found that only a few books can do both. Although in the majority of cases Phillip K. Dick’s books only apply to the second instance for me, the most refined of his works match both criteria.

P.K.D. creates an atmosphere mostly through his world-building, which is part of what makes P.K.D.’s work so engaging. His ability to constantly stimulate the reader using minute details that he throws away, all in the name of helping to build up the fantastical worlds his characters inhabit is very effective. A good writer knows when it is best to allow the reader to fill the gaps in the world they have created with their imagination, a technique which P.K.D. frequents. So throughout his work, Phillip K. Dick consistently teases the reader with interesting ideas which could be the subject of their very own stories. It is this abundance of creativity which helps to make P.K.D.’s worlds feel so alive. This is most prominent in what is largely regarded as his most refined novel: The Man In The High Castle. Here, P.K.D. reenvisions world war two and examines the effects of an Axis victory on life in America. This gives him a chance to use his creative abilities to maximum effect by nurturing thousands of small ‘what if’ scenarios in the background of the main narrative. These include the Nazi colonisation of Mars, the imprisonment of Hitler in a psychiatric ward and the splitting of America into 3 zones as well as so many more. They all help to ground the world by giving us the big picture, whilst at the same time not infringing on the main story that P.K.D. wants to focus on; a benefit of these bit-sized details is that exposition is short and not noticeably obvious. In many ways, this is the defining characteristic of his stories, which make it impossible to imagine P.K.D. writing for any other genre. Phillip K. Dick is constrained by the conventions of normal life, and so science-fiction allows him to show off his innovatory ideas, giving him entire worlds to fill.

The second side of P.K.D.’s books are the themes which inhabit them. In many ways, sci-fi allowed P.K.D. to amplify themes which, in his time at least, were hard to envisage in an everyday setting. Science-fiction is, by its very nature, an exaggeration of the present day so the themes Phillip K. Dick wrestled with over a number of stories are reflections on his predicament and insight into humanity as he saw it as much as they were predictions. In one of his most famous novels, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, P.K.D. explores empathy and what it is to be valued as a living being. This theme is interesting and well-integrated because the core ideas are built around it, meaning the way replicants function in the novel and the conflict of identifying them (which is also the job of the protagonist) all service the theme. More interesting, however, is the way in which the theme evolves as the story plays out. At the beginning of the novel, Rick Deckard, who works as a ‘Bladerunner’ (a replicant assassin) has little emotion regarding his AI counterparts as he believes something only constitutes alive if it is able to feel love; therefore, he has no empathy for them. This faith is shaken though when Deckard grows to believe that humans are incapable of empathy, not the other way around. This idea is subtly presented with the empathy box, a device which allows humans to feel certain emotions on cue and can be timed to schedule happiness and sadness amongst others. After all, is scheduled emotion real emotion?

There is no doubt that P.K.D. struggled in his life; he struggled to become successful, struggled against the status quo and struggled against his inner demons. No doubt that some of the claustrophobia in his books was translated from his own experiences. Phillip K. Dick saw himself as someone who was trying to tell a truth but knew he had to wrestle against society and convention to get his ideas accepted by the general public. P.K.D was Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ in ‘The Man in the High Castle’, a man who wrote an alternate history of the world as if the allies had won the war. It is a clever trick that P.K.D pulls by making us view this author from the alternative history as, knowing that the Allies won the war, in reality, we know that Abendsen is correct. P.D.K. deliberately compares himself to this character, to ask us to take a leap of faith with him to go to his reality.

It is a shame that we did not go sooner.