Jan 09

SF Writers: Philip K. Dick

FT3 comments • 281 views

(The start of a parallel series to that recently started on crime writing. I’ll repeat something of what I said there: I mostly read literary fiction, so I’m mostly looking for the same kind of qualities I like there in SF. I know my science reasonably well, but I really don’t care whether the author does, or whether they use it much or at all.)

Dick’s a contender to be my favourite writer ever, the only one who has remained somewhere in there since my mid-teens. I found him mind-blowing then, and still do. Oddly, the closest comparison, for me, is with comic book great Jack Kirby: the two best examples of what I think of as the genius hack. Like Kirby, Dick was immensely productive, albeit for a far shorter time – for a while he was turning out four novels and lots of short stories a year. Their brilliance and concern for their own themes shines through even in many of their most routine works. In Dick’s case, these concerns centred around the nature of reality and humanity, the idea that the consensus was not reliable, not as simple as it seemed. I guess a man who lived for years next to Disneyland while taking tons of hallucinogenic drugs would end up with an interesting slant on reality. Many of his books explode the assumptions around the ‘real world’, and he often combines this with questioning the meaning of being human. How do we tell we are not robots programmed with our memories, indeed our whole reality? This might be a slightly pointless thought experiment, but it can make a terrific story. In addition, I find him one of the most compelling writers of interior monologues I’ve ever read, particularly good on switches of mood and views.

You’ll know a number of his works from such films as Minority Report, Total Recall, Bladerunner and A Scanner Darkly. The success of these is varied – the first (like the lower profile Screamers) was based on one of my favourite short stories, but both piss away two of the best twists I’ve ever read. The second departs completely from its source after 20 minutes. The third has many great qualities, but it does leave out some important meanings from the novel. I liked the fourth very much, but that is one of his druggy late works, and not wholly characteristic.

I’ll also note that he wrote around ten mainstream literary novels. He couldn’t get them published for decades, until finally one came out just before his death – the rest appeared soon after, to considerable mainstream praise. This is a common fate for a genre writer, consigned to the pigeonhole for a long time, whatever the quality of their work.

Recommended: I think there are loads of great ones. A Scanner Darkly is the best of the mad late SF. The first literary novel, Confessions Of A Crap Artist, is wonderful. Some great prime period novels: Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Man In The High Castle, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. The short stories ‘Minority Report’ and ‘Second Variety’ are particularly brilliant too, and I assure you that the films don’t at all spoil the shocks.


  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I find it hard to do justice to someone whose writing I continue to find rich and rewarding after 30+ years of reading. What I love about PKD is how he grounds his philosophical concerns within flawed, mundane characters.
    Like Dickens I get the sense that whatever the plot of his stories he is always trying to grapple with a profound sadness and loss.
    It’s also worth mentioning how funny a lot of his work is – the success of the movie of A scanner darkly is partly because it captures this humour as well as some of the sadness.
    It’s worth reading a biography – which is as strange if not stranger than his fiction. I believe that there are advanced plans to make a movie of the latter years of his life with Paul Giamatti which could be wonderful if done well.
    All of the books mentioned above are great. I’d also recommend Galactic Pot Healer and Martian Time Slip as some of his lesser known books – despite the pulpy titles.

  2. 2
    Geoff on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I’m a big fan of his short stories especially, many of which are brief thought experiments that may not have worked in longer form. There are I think four volumes available covering the whole lot, and if anything i enjoy them more than his novels.

  3. 3
    Kat but logged out innit on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I read a couple of short story collections plus ‘The Man In The High Castle’ and ‘Do Androids…’ at college and enjoyed them up to a point – but I must say I am really, really glad I don’t have to live inside Dick’s speed-addled brain. Ouch.

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