Philip K. Dick

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US novelist and short-story writer.

“Philip K. Dick began his career after sf had coalesced into a self-conscious genre in which authors, to a greater or lesser extent, sought to persuade readers that their imagined worlds were real within the framework of their fiction. Dick, however, was more interested in entropy and destruction than world-building: “I like to build universes that do fall apart … I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with the problem” (Dick 1995: 262). His writing not only exposed the sheer arbitrariness of such fictional environments, but also questioned the reality of the “real” world. His stories asked “What is real?” and went on to explore the ethics of the individual’s behavior in an environment where nothing is definitely real.”

“Dick had a difficult childhood: born in Chicago, he was the survivor of a pair of twins, and his parents soon divorced. His mother raised him in Berkeley, California, then a hotbed of radical activity. Writing fiction and poetry from an early age, Dick’s first short stories were published in the sf pulps in 1951. He was initially prolific in this format – four of the five volumes of his Collected Stories (1987) feature materials dating from the 1950s – but Dick soon realized better money was to be made by writing novels, beginning with Solar Lottery (1955). He continued to write stories, but they were often dry runs for novels. He found his distinctive voice with Eye in the Sky (1957), in which tourists, caught in an explosion, wake up in an alternate world, and then pass through a series of such pocket-universes, until they think they have returned to what they take to be reality.”

“The ambiguous ending is typical of Dick’s work. Sometimes the characters begin in “reality” and then hallucinate, as in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), with no certainty that the delusion is escapable. Sometimes, as in Time out of Joint (1959) and the Hugo-Award-winning The Man in the High Castle (1962), the protagonist realizes he is in a constructed reality and escapes into what is assumed to be an authentic realm – although there is no evidence to confirm this. Ultimately, the difference between real and not real is impossible to determine; this is especially true of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) and Ubik (1969). Sequences in Lies, Inc. (1984) might be hallucinations, delusions, LSD trips, psychotic fugues, alternate histories, or even data projected from a satellite in orbit around the Earth – or then again, they might be authentic reality.”

“Just because the world is not necessarily real does not mean that the protagonist is free to act as he – and it is usually he – sees fit. Rather he finds himself ethically and morally committed to those around him. Rick Deckard, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), undergoes ethical challenges in his job as bounty hunter tracking down escaped androids. Due to technological advances, humans are only distinguishable from androids by the degree of empathy they possess – empathy requiring others to be treated as subjects rather than as usable objects. To perform his job, Deckard must repress his empathy for androids who themselves may be empathic. The point is to demonstrate compassion for the other, irrespective of their empathy. For example, in Now Wait for Last Year (1966), Eric Sweetscent elects to go back to his addicted wife because he is committed to her.”

“Dick’s representation of the working man’s alienation by corporations within a capitalist framework led to him being labeled a Marxist writer. Dick’s suspicion of the Cold War (for example, in “The Defenders” (1953) and The Penultimate Truth (1964) populations are told that a long-concluded war still continues), his depiction of corrupt corporations, his demonstration of ideological systems, his recognition of the dangers of the culture industries and the perils of commodification and consumerism (especially in Ubik), and his digs at Richard Nixon, ensured his work appealed to the counterculture of the 1960s and beyond. In Eye in the Sky, which attacks McCarthyism, Dick lists a set of left-liberal causes for which he himself had sympathy. But in his celebration of the little man there is perhaps a nostalgia-tinged valorization of the petty bourgeois who gains limited ownership of his means of production, rather than reaching for a wider social transformation. All that is solid melts, but it is the small group that coalesces in response. Whereas novels by Alfred Bester and Robert Sheckley from the period shared Dick’s metaphysical sleights of hand, they lack his appearance of a social agenda.”

“After publishing 20 novels in the 1960s, Dick’s personal life underwent major upheavals. His fourth marriage collapsed and, after a November 1971 break-in, Dick felt under attack. He fled to Canada, then moved to Fullerton, California, in 1973, close to the university where he had deposited his manuscripts. As the delayed Flow My Tears was published, Dick had a series of experiences which were to obsess him for the rest of his life. These included surreal hallucinations (possibly brought on by an overdose of vitamin C), a voice telling him his son had a hernia, visions of first-century Rome, and a radio abusing him. Dick speculated on these events in what he called his Exegesis, in turns thinking the voices were a message from God, the Prophet Elijah, the spirit of wisdom Sophia, his twin, the late James Pike (the Bishop of California), aliens, or scientists in Leningrad – or they might have been (he thought) brought on by drugs or a nervous breakdown.”

“The first public fruit of all this was the scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly (1977). Bob Arctor is the undercover identity of S.A. Fred, a narcotics agent who takes drugs so as to convince the people he has under surveillance that he is a legitimate part of their world. Not even his superiors know his identity. He cracks under the pressure of spying on himself and taking Substance D. By the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that this drug was developed by the government.”

“Dick created another divided protagonist in a fictionalization of the 1974 events, VALISystem A (completed 1976, published as Radio Free Albemuth 1987). Author Phil Dick has a friend – Nicholas – who has a series of visions which seem destined to bring down the Nixon-like President Ferris F. Fremont. Phil shares the visions, and is told by the secret police that they will write his novels if he does not cooperate. Dick’s editor wanted some rewrites, but Dick produced a new novel, VALIS (1981). Horselover Fat (Philip= lover of horses in Greek, Dick = Fat in German) becomes Dick’s alter ego, but there is the sense that he is also displaced onto the cynical Kevin and the Catholic David – characters who are also versions of Orange County writers K. W. Jeter and Tim Powers. The novel becomes an account of an extraterrestrial invasion by a child of a divine being, and includes a pocket-sized version of Dick’s Exegesis.”

“Some critics saw this as showing that Dick had finally gone mad – a conclusion Dick would sometimes share – whereas others embraced the apparent lunacy. In The Divine Invasion (1981), the story is told in more science-fictional terms, as the son of God appears in a dystopian future run by a Catholic–Communist alliance. The absurdities are less troubling in a nonrealist setting. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer rounds off what is perceived to be a thematic trilogy (although Dick planned a further related volume, The Owl in Daylight). Narrator Angel mourns the death of her husband, her husband’s father, and her husband’s father’s mistress in a roman à clef about James Pike, who had supposedly been contacted by his dead son, and who died in the Israeli desert, looking for evidence that the Gospels were covers for a mushroom cult. In the novel Pike/Archer might be reincarnated, but the ultra-rational Angel rejects this.”

“Dick died in March 1982, just before the release of the Do Androids Dream adaptation Blade Runner (Scott 1982). Despite its initial box office failure, a number of adaptations have followed, most of them substituting action for metaphysics (although see Ellis 1995 on Total Recall (Verhoeven 1990)). A Scanner Darkly (Linklater 2006) has come closest so far to capturing the spirit of the source, and original works such as Dark City (Proyas 1998) and eXistenZ (Cronenberg 1999) feel more Dickian than some of the official adaptations. The posthumous Transmigration was the first of a number of unpublished novels to appear. It was joined by two versions of the complete “The Unteleported Man” (1964, 1984; as Lies, Inc. 1985), Radio Free Albemuth, and a children’s sf novel, Nick and the Glimmung (1988). Dick’s various realist novels, deemed unpublishable in the 1950s and early 1960s (aside from Confessions of a Crap Artist (written 1959, published 1975)), also finally saw print in the 1980s, the earliest of them, Voices from the Street, eventually appearing in 2007; together, they document low-key infidelities and tragedies in television shops, radio stations, car dealerships, and jazz clubs in small-town America – a kind of Beat Death of a Salesman. Dick had reused elements of these novels, notably Voices in Dr Bloodmoney (1965) and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (1986), in The Penultimate Truth and The Simulacra (1964).”

“The 1980s also saw Dick embraced by academia – although Science Fiction Studies had devoted a special issue to his work as early as 1975 (and Dick had denounced the editors to the FBI; he also denounced Stanisław Lem, despite/because of the latter’s championing of him). Before William Gibson, he and Ursula K. Le Guin were the most discussed sf authors, and he was particularly beloved by post-modernists such as Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard. Blade Runner slowly became a cult hit and academic darling, its mise-en-scène widely copied but rarely bettered. In 1992 a supposed Director’s Cut removed the voiceover narration, added some footage, and trimmed the ending; in 2007 The Final Cut tidied some errors and cleaned up the picture and sound. Today Philip K. Dick is becoming a commodity – a tool to gain tenure in academia, a means to sell popcorn in the cinema – and although there have not yet been any Philip K. DickTM novels, K.W. Jeter has written three authorized sequels to Blade Runner. Describing the world as “being like a Philip K. Dick novel” has passed into general currency, and his many devotees continue to celebrate his fiction as the real thing.”

See also:

Isaac Asimov, Jean Baudrillard, Greg Bear, Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, William Gibson, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, L. Ron Hubbard, Gwyneth Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Michael Moorcock, C.L. Moore, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ, Steven Spielberg, Neal Stephenson, Darko Suvin, Sheri S. Tepper, James Tiptree Jr, and Gene Wolfe


  • Butler, A.M. (2007) Philip K. Dick, Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.
  • Dick, P.K. (1995) “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” in L. Sutin (ed.) The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: selected literary and philosophical writings, New York: Pantheon.
  • Ellis, R.J. (1995) “‘Are You a Fucking Mutant?’ Total Recall’s fantastic hesitations,” Foundation, 65: 81–97.
  • Freedman, C. (1984) “Towards a Theory of Paranoia: the science-fiction of Philip K. Dick,” Science Fiction Studies, 11(1): 15–24.
  • Robinson, K.S. (1987) “Afterword,” in P.K. Dick, VALIS, Worcester Park, Surrey: Kerosina.
  • Sutin, L. (1989) Divine Invasions: a life of Philip K. Dick, New York: Harmony Books.

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