Philip K. Dick: The Face of Science Fiction in the 21st Century

When you look at some of the great science fiction authors of the twentieth century, their vision of the future is utopic. It is a vision of  humanity which overcomes the troubles of technology, or man, and everyone lives happily ever after. However, as the world has become more and populated and the pace of technological change is ever increasing, there is one author who fits this current dystopic reality. That author is Philip K. Dick.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Dick’s vision of reality is quite different from other authors of his time period, namely, Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury. Dick saw the future as something to fear. To him, there were forces at work which aimed to control the reality of the everyday individual. Be it through drugs, mass manipulation, the media, business and enterprise, or technology, man to him was becoming more and more less human through mass consumption, war, government, and the rapidity of change.

Dick wrote many short stories and was very prolific, not because of what he had to say, but rather because he had to make a living doing it. In the 1960s, he churned out novel after novel dealing with false realities, false governments, and false technology. He won a few awards for The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

However, Dick’s greatest influence has not been on science fiction literature per se, but rather on movies. In it is in the movies where his vision of the future is being realized. Be it through my favorite movie, Blade Runner, or many other adaptations of his works – Total Recall, Screamers, or The Minority Report. Three of his works are now in pre-production including King of the Elves, The Electric Ant, and The Adjustment Team. But when you really get a grasp of his influence is when you look at other works. From The Matrix to Lost to The Truman Show and Fight Club, all are movies where reality is not what it seems.

To understand Dick you must understand the context of the culture in which he wrote and lived – Berkeley, California in the the 1950s and 1960s. To live in Berkeley is not just to live in California but it is almost to live in another universe compared to the rest of America. In the 1950s, the Cold War and its paranoia permeates Dick’s books. The counter culture drug movement of Berkeley in the 1960s is an ever constant. In almost every novel, there is a drug for everything, including immortality, albeit in an aerosol spray. Robots, space travel, and all the things that made up the world are in his books. But that is no different from other authors. What Dick did was to transport these fringe elements and make them the mainstream elements of society in his novels. The Cold War paranoia exists in almost every novel. The fascism of conformity is ever present and the weight of the conformity destroys many characters in the stories.

For Dick, his greatest acclaim from the press came in the wake of three novels: The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, The Divine Invasion, and Valis.  His works are now being taught on many college campuses throughout the country. I even use four of his short stories with my students (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, The Adjustment Team, The Minority Report, and Something for Us Tempunauts).

Some discard Dick because of events of his later life in which he claims to have been in contact with something beyond our own world. These have been written about by him  in Valis, Radio Free Albemuth, The Divine Ivasion, and his own journal/meaning of life, Exegesis.  R. Crumb even did a spread of the experience in Weirdo magazine…

No matter whether you like Dick or not, his stories are still capturing the imagination of the public, much more now than when he was alive. As I have sat and read many Philip K. Dick novels over the years, I must say that I have highly enjoyed Time Out of Joint, The Penultimate Truth, and The Man in the High Castle. Separately, they are all fine works. But when one begins to look at the enormity and totality of the work left behind by Dick, one can see why he is now being read and discussed more than ever. Over 40 novels, 100+ short stories, and a legion of letters, correspondence, and journals for scholars to sift through for years to come. Not only do we catch a glimpse of what history could have been with Dick, we catch a glimpse of what history could be still, and how humanity might deal with its own reality in the future.

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4 comments

  1. I’m glad that readers like you find my husband’s work still relevant in these troubled times. He was trying to warn people about the dangers of big government, big corporations and trading your liberty for a false sense of security.

    I haven’t read everything that he wrote, but I’m working on it.

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