I've been going through my old writings on Philip K. Dick lately, preparing for a larger project. I dug up this old review for the Village Voice's VLS that I did in 1989, a year out of college, where I wrote my senior thesis on Dick. I don't agree with all of it now, but it holds up, and I am not so often ahead of the curve.
When Philip K. Dick died after a stroke in 1982, he left behind almost forty science fiction novels, over a hundred short stories, a few remarkable essays, and the “Exegesis,” a crazed document that attempted to interpret the divine intelligence that he claimed invaded his mind in 1974. Thought Dick remains partially buried in the mildewed heap of yesterday’s pop trash (best known as “the guy who wrote the book they based Blade Runner on”), his dedicated following has grown since his death. Some of his best books are out of print in the States, but a steady trickle of unpublished (and mostly non-SF) work has been released in the last few years. Whether or not Dick hacked out the most brilliant American science fiction ever is debatable; that his work remains the most brilliantly fucked-up SF is beyond doubt.
Though he uses generic devices like androids, spaceships, Martians, and moon colonies, Dick’s worlds are usually bummers just around the corner, near-futures characterized by rampant overpopulation, surveillance, urban decay, repressive state apparatuses, ubiquitous ads, and invasive technology. As far back as the ‘50s, Dick saw the dark, paranoid side of McLuhan’s global village. The animism that primitive humankind projected onto Nature was for him reborn in our technological environment, where ominous spiritual forces merged with the instruments of late capitalism. Dick’s machines are black jokes rather than believable imaginings: the portable computerized psychiatrist, Dr. Smile, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; the empathy machine in “The Little Black Box,” which fuses the users’ consciousness with a televised savior; The Divine Invasion’s holographic multicolored Bible.
Driven by what he called “divine discontent,” Dick howled in his dystopic wilderness against the powers that be. His characters are ordinary schlemiels, bumbling Joes and Janes struggling with small moral dilemmas, poverty, politics, and psychic breakdowns in worlds where entropy reigns and communication breakdowns are inevitable. Unlike Pynchon—whose obsessions resemble his in many ways—Dick maintained little ironic distance from his characters, and his empathy for them and their hopeless struggles is palpable as well as odd. Not that Dick didn’t undercut the pathos with comic gags. In A Scanner Darkly, Charles Freck tries to kill himself by consuming wine and a handful of reds: “However, he had been burned. The capsules were not barbiturates, as represented. They were some kind of kinky psychedelics…Well, he thought philosophically, this is the story of my life. Always ripped off…The next thing he knew, a creature from between dimensions was standing beside his bed looking down on him disapprovingly.”
Dick’s characters battle not only themselves, but also the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is a major trope in SF, but in Dick’s hands it’s a dark god. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? features the semi-retarded Jack Isidore living
alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical…buried under the ubiquity of the dust. By then, naturally, he himself would be dead, another interesting event to anticipate as he stood here alone with the lungless, penetrating, masterful world-silence…Better, perhaps, to turn the TV back on.
This move towards the TV was characteristic, because Dick was obsessed with communications technology—radio, records, tapes, television, phones, computers—using it as a metaphor for the social web people build from their individual signals to keep entropy at bay. Technology only reinscribed for Dick the signals, noise, distortion, and overlapping frequencies that we are already simultaneously trapped in and estranged from.
He usually wrote in the subjective third person, jumping among the variable perspectives of the characters that made up his narratives. By switching viewpoints, Dick formalized and toyed with his contention that objective reality is both synthetic and fragile, a “hypothetical universalization of a multitude of subjective realities.” Most of his tales contain false worlds, spurious environments simulated and controlled by nefarious powers using drugs, technology, and psychic power. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
, the eponymous figures returns from space and markets Chew-Z, a drug which projects users into a world he controls. As Dick’s creations discover off-kilter clues in their environment, their paranoia and sense of irreality grow, until their suspicions are not only fulfilled but often grossly exceeded. Dick was a narrative trickster, a master mindfucker. He pulled the whodunit inside out: Decoding small meaningful details doesn’t put the picture together so much as rip it apart. By twisting the page-turning groove of pulp into a Möbius strip, Dick attempted to undermine the political, social, technological, and psychic structures of “reality.” He wanted a pulp guerilla ontology that deconstructed everyone’s power trip—Nixon’s, IBM’s, God’s, the author’s.
Dick’s fully fake world appeared in Time Out of Joint
(1959), which shivered with the Cold War. In it, Ragle Gumm spends his days drinking beer in ‘50s suburbia, supporting himself through his unusual skill at playing a newspaper puzzled called “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?” Strange slippages in normal reality occur—he finds a phone book with unfamiliar exchanges, picks up unlisted programs on his ham radio—and Gumm becomes increasingly paranoid, convinced his world is spurious. We eventually find out that it’s 1996, the Earth is at war with lunar colonists, and the puzzle takes advantage of Gumm’s uncanny ability to predict the next hostile bombing. It turns out that Gumm had become sympathetic with the colonists and refused to continue aiding Earth, so the military-industrial complex created the false environment and drugged him into useful forgetfulness.
Dick engaged the mutant logic of late capitalism and the technological simulacrum before Baudrillard knew a megabyte from a baguette, coming to the conclusion that only an antagonistic relationship with reality—even to the point of madness—is sane. In a world of crystal-clear transmission, Dick tuned to the static between channels, turned up the volume, and listened for hidden messages. His skepticism constitutes an increasingly fervent metaphysics. He was obsessed with the Gnostic concept of a demiurge, a false god who obscured the true world with illusory time and space. Part of the authorial fragmentation that pervades Dick’s work arises because, though he clearly identified with his flailing characters and their metaphysical morality plays, he remained the demiurge of his own narratives.
, Dick made the provocative statement that “the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.” While the fragments of schizo vision scattered through Dicks work may not have been holy, he certainly got the trash part right. By almost every conventional standard of literary quality, Philip K. Dick was a hack. Most of his work is clunky, uneven, and occasionally awful. Having first published SF in 1951, he never lost touch with the gaudy mechanics of earlier SF pulpsters like A.E. van Vogt. Though one develops an affection for his characters, their dialogue is sometimes forced and obvious. Both the science and the plots strain credulity. The hasty feel of many of his books is no accident. Driven by poverty, obsession, and frequently by amphetamines, he wrote like the madman he probably was. In 1965, he published four novels; two a year, plus numerous short stories, was his standard rate.
Dick’s schizophrenic quality turns him into many authors: a poor man’s Pynchon, an oracular postmodern, a rich product of the changing counterculture, a lunatic. As Thomas Disch said, he was a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer,” respected in the SF community even though his U.S. sales were mostly mediocre (he was much more popular in Britain and France). He’s a particular favorite among scuzzy underground rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Reverb Motherfuckers, as well as scuzzy underground rock critics like Byron Coley. Diehards chronicle and compare his every word and deed, blurring the distinction between literary love and cult. And some academics of the leftist post-structuralist bent, most notably Fredric Jameson, love his political met fictions, his gaudy feel for the process of reification, his hack Kafka humor. On the other hand, Harold Bloom—an eternal advocate of imagination over reality—finds Dick vastly overrated, but that’s probably because, as anyone who’s read Bloom’s Flight to Lucifer
knows, Dick can write Gnostic science fiction and Bloom can’t.
Part of the appeal of Dick’s oeuvre
is that, despite its futuristic setting and outlands events, it functions as autobiography. Most of the recent reissues of his novels feature his bearded visage on the cover, in part because his fans recognize that the real subject of his texts was his own frail, intense, and fragmented self. Because he didn’t distance himself from his novels, they read as both Freudian confessions and Jungian dream journals. Dick himself had numerous wives and young girlfriends, and the relationships he described are invariably screwed up, sad affairs of misunderstandings, adulteries, and recriminations. But Dick’s psychological obsessions go beyond the erotic and personal into the archetypal. Patterns and motifs reappear throughout his novels with the archaic and gaudy power of symbols: broken pots, the Black Iron Prison, policemen, toys, jewelry, books that are read randomly (based on the I Ching
), miniature figures, simulacra. These two confessional aspects of Dick are well represented in The Dark Haired Girl, a collection of letters and dreams about the teenage girls he was obsessed with. One letter will sound depressingly naïve and pathetically sentimental; the next will describe some fascinating overloaded dream, then and equally strange interpretation of the symbolism involved.
Dick’s most overblown reading of an event occurred in 1974, when the sight of a delivery woman’s Christian fish necklace triggered his psychic contact with the “divine intelligence” he sometimes called VALIS, of Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Among other things, he communicated with a persecuted Christian living in ancient Rome, who warned him through a Beatles songs that his son Christopher would die unless he was taken to a hospital. Dick also became convinced that the universe was a hologram and that VALIS was a camouflaged parasite that entered human beings through subliminal messages. The information lurked everywhere, especially in trashy artifacts of pop culture, so that in the end Dick must have believed himself to be less a writer than a pulp contagion, a pirate transmitter in a world jammed with increasingly vivid and increasingly delirious signals.