Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

You Don’t Know Dick

The Odd Cult of Philip K. Dick

It’s hard to escape the growing cult surrounding Philip K. Dick; articles about the author are appearing everywhere these days. This probably would never have happened if Hollywood hadn’t discovered Dick’s literary canon. Three major films based on his books have already been made and another is in the works. Of course, as it always does, Hollywood picks what it can use from his work and discards everything else. Thus even the best of the films made from his work, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, is a mere adventure movie from which the typical voice of Philip K. Dick is absent. And this is a good thing because, let’s face it, Dick was a terrible writer.

Dick wrote many science fiction novels—too many, and far too fast. This was typical of SF writers during the mid-twentieth century, pressed by economic realities and the low paycheques of the least prestigious genre in literature (not forgetting westerns and romances, not forgetting even pornography). Some of Dick’s books were written in as little as two weeks. Once he hit his stride, so to speak, he was able to simply churn out one potboiler after another. That he was only one of dozens of American writers doing this—and the situation doesn’t seem to have changed—is the reason science fiction was and still is so derided. The genre is obviously low-grade escapism written for simpleminded adults or, at best, clever kids. Never mind any claims its writers may make for legitimacy, no matter on what grounds or with what evidence. Simply look at the reams of crap flowing through the bookstores like so many Big Macs—Billions Served!—and the truth becomes obvious. Or just look at the book covers.


It may be partly because of this blanket of garbage that a handful of intelligent writers were able to sneak in undercover and deliver some work of real value. The commercial machine that was science fiction was so busy meeting publication schedules that anything that fit between covers was deemed publishable—even something that made sense.

But Philip K. Dick rarely made sense. His paranoid delusions about his own life transposed easily into his baroque space operas. He’s becoming a hero in hindsight only because his work coincidentally seems to presage the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture. On the evidence of what’s on his pages, people are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about.

Jonathan Lethem declares his debt to Dick in the introduction to Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick , and Emmanuel Carrère acknowledges Dick’s influence in his newly translated biography, I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. Carrère, known as a literary writer in France, is the author of a book called The Mustache, which he says was written under the spell of Dick’s work. Of course, literary critics in France know little if anything of American science fiction, so Dick was never mentioned in any of the reviews. Instead, Carrère tells us, his novel was compared to Kafka. Fair enough. Anyone who’s read both Dick and Kafka can see the loose parallels. It’s the paranoia.

Carrère’s book is remarkable. It is not an objective description of a life, but, as its subtitle declares, more a description of what was actually going on in Dick’s head. You’d think this would be impossible, that access to a dead man’s brain would be closed—outside of the pages of science fiction, at least. But Carrère draws on earlier biographies for the outside forces, the landscape of Dick’s life, and on Dick’s own work for the workings of his mind. The result is startlingly faithful to Dick’s fiction and very, very twisted (pathetic, really, but fascinating).

Dick’s reputation is that of the troubled outsider, the mentally deranged genius. “Troubled outsider” fits, but “genius” is a little strong. Dick was one of those SF writers who seemed totally unconscious of what he was really putting down on the page, or perhaps was just too rushed to pay attention. I’ll grant that some of the things that came out of his bizarre life and work habits are on occasion not just entertaining, but brilliant even. And also that, as is true of all really great writers, he had an individual vision of reality that informed everything he wrote.

But real writing takes real time, and Dick wrote everything on fast-forward. Even the unpublished (in his lifetime) mainstream novels—the ones he wanted to be remembered for, that he considered his real work—were pretty much slapped out as fast as he could type. And let’s remember that Dick lived on a diet of prescription pills. He was not a pot-smoking acidhead; rather, like one of his own characters, he took pills to calm down, pills to stay awake—sometimes for weeks at a time in order to dash out yet another potboiler—and pills to counter the side effects of the aforementioned pills. Dick may have been emotionally troubled, but his work is not that of a visionary genius out of step with the blinkered society around him. It is the product of chemical psychosis.

It’s worth noting that early in the twentieth century a group of writers consciously investigating the value of the uncontrolled subconscious in breaking away from traditional narrative also wrote in marathon heats, intentionally working as fast as possible so as to inhibit personal control over their creative work. This group was the Surrealists, and they called their work “automatic writing.” Like Dick, they produced some remarkable results. But they never tried to make a living at it, so they were able to eschew commercial considerations such as plot and continuity. Dick, by contrast, was forced to bend his neurotic fantasies to the formulas of pulp fiction.

An exception to this is The Man in the High Castle, Dick’s best novel, and his most famous after Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner). Unlike most of his work, this Hugo Award–winning novel can be read without too much allowance for Dick’s drugged-out mental state or for the stress of poverty-induced deadlines. Perhaps this is because Dick consulted the I Ching for this plotline instead of relying on pulp conventions or intuition. Handing over control of his characters’ stories resulted in a book that reads remarkably like a mainstream novel. Which is to say, remarkably like a realistic and believable novel. Still present are Dick’s trademarks—no one really knows what’s going on and reality can never be counted on—but by abandoning his own unbalanced view of life without falling back on simple pulp formula, Dick stumbled upon a mode that allowed his very real talent to emerge, resulting in a startling book, easily his most readable and rewarding effort.

The Man in the High Castle is unlikely, however, to appeal to Hollywood moviemakers, as there is little room for action in the book.

Proponents of Philip K. Dick as a writer who is worthy of attention are loath to wrestle with the real problems that keep his work from approaching the status of literature. His prose was at best competent and never conscious of itself as a tool for creating art. At its worst, and it’s frequently at its worst, the writing was not just clumsy, but embarrassing in a professional author. His complete lack of empathy for female characters means they’re not just wooden props hauled out to satisfy plot problems or conventions, but again an embarrassment that reveals the author’s neurotic immaturity. Time and again in his books, the villain turns out to be the protagonist’s wife, usually an overbearing and emasculating harridan who’s been betraying him all along. In Clans of the Alphane Moon, the protagonist schemes to spy on his wife through the agency of a robot and then attempts to use it to kill her. Somehow this seems easier than divorce. In Eye In the Sky, the climax of the storyline comes when the hero punches his wife in the face. Of course, she deserved it: she was a government spy informing on him.

Yet Dick’s work continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. Granted, many of his best novels are enjoyable for what they are—fast-paced and inventive space operas. Granted, too, that his complete distrust of everyone and everything in the world, coupled with his sense that reality is mutable, seems eerily to have predicted present-day America. Still, none of this was really new then and by now it’s old news.

So why the cult status, when other writers before and after him have truly been more original, more skilled, more talented? (Even, dare I say it, more subversive?) Stanislaw Lem, my candidate for the one science fiction author indisputably worthy of literary canonization, titled one of his essays, “Philip K. Dick: Visionary Among the Charlatans.” While it remains probably the best assessment of Dick yet, it’s as much a condemnation of all other American science fiction writers as it is a defence of a ghettoized genius. I prefer to think of Dick not as a visionary, but as an idiot savant: there are flashes of brilliance among his stupidities.

For anyone unfamiliar with Dick’s work, Carrère’s brilliant book is not just a terrific introduction, it may be the perfect simulacrum. Dick himself would either be terrified by it, or convinced it was after all his own work, the book he’s always wanted to write.

Michel Basilières, a novelist and new father based in Toronto, is the author of Black Bird. Read his recollection of meeting William S. Burroughs, "One Blowjob Away" (Issue 10), on newsstands now. Basilières' column on alternative literature, The Outer Edge, appears monthly.