This marks the last of the articles I am porting over from "Dickens of a Blog" before deleting it. Reading over it, it seems to suffer what a lot of my blog-style posts suffer from, a weird disjointed writing that hints that I fade in and out of focusing, and a tendency to state really questionable things as definite facts. I've cleaned it up, rewrote most of it, left some parts of it flawed, and posted it here with fond memories attached.
There seems to be two basic issues facing anyone trying to "get into" the legacy of PKD, a legacy involving 40+ novels, a smattering of non-fiction, and 100+ short stories over a 30 year period. The first, and possibly most troubling, is the way that PKD has become much like a character in his novel, a veritable Palmer Eldritch that a lot of people say things about without ever knowing the absent veracity of their statements. "Philip K. Dick", the man they talk about, is about paranoia and drug abuse and about not knowing who you are and about how crappy and depressing the world really is.
What Philip K. Dick, the man who actually lived and was described by his friends as being deep and loving, is about, well, can be hard to trace sometimes (I bring up a few of his themes below, that I am comfortable with assigning to him). Three decades is a long time for someone who constantly thought about things. To assume that he fell into some definitive truth at the age of thirty and continued it to his death would be foolish. We all change, him as much as anyone, as grow older and experiences change us.
The second problem lies in the sheer page count of his works. For a neophyte to access his usually subtle and often slightly flawed genius they must go through many novels and many short stories easily coming in at over 10,000 pages of material. Even with his average word density per page being only a moderate amount, it does not make it easy to wade in without some sort of heads up. Even people who have read a handful of Dick novels may not know where to go next.
Most people start with the movies and the stories attached to them. This works, but one of the primary frustrations that comes to any fan of PKD is the lack of honest cinematic transfers. Blade Runner, arguably the best of the transfers (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is flawed in that it takes something of a musing at the end about artificial life being akin to natural life and expands it over and above the central tenet that humanity is unique in its possession of empathy. The two most faithful adaptations, being A Scanner Darkly and Impostor, are plagued with asides or shifts in themes. The most poignant loss from Scanner is the fact that it downplays Dick's ideas on the self-devouring nature of control systems in society.
If I had to state the common themes, the nearly universals, of Dick, the list would be something like this:
- Humanity is both special but horribly troubled (these may or may not be related)
- Exchange and movement of information is existence (or is that vice versa?)
- Personal worldviews have an ontological effect. Shared personal beliefs are shared worlds. (see Karamazov Effect to some degree)
- Reality is that which exists when you stop believe in it.
- Information is an honest power and so control is based on deception
- Humane treatment of fellow humans is at the core of morality
- Drug abuse is both a disease and not at the same time
- Being trapped in overarching delusions is destructive even if apparently beneficial, including delusions of grandeur and delusions of safety
- The more limited your perception-belief universe is, the more problematic. Conversely, some schizophrenics and autistics are played as being more moral by being detached from the system. There is a pattern of people being abnormal in their mental state, yet being able to use this in a moral way. The difference seems to be whether or not the limitation is derived by an external system manipulated to back it up, or through a personal conviction
- Artifical systems are always inferior to natural ones, especially systems and artifacts designed to control
- Reality is almost always just a little too big to learn
- There is a God or gods who are "trapped" behind the scenes and are trying to reach humanity through various means
- Heroism often manifests itself in everyday men, usually by the internal action of learning the truth, whether or not they are powerless to do anything about it
- Antagonists are almost always self-centered, delusional as to their importance, strongly invested in artifical rules, systems, and governments, and strongly interested in control
Across the various stories are numerous intriguing subthemes. My absolute favorites are his idea that if you can predict something fully, and try to prevent it, then you cannot predict it (and so failure is necessary for truth) and the "joke" about the longer you have a job, the less you feel it means anything. I also agree with the concept that going insane can be a perfectly reasonable reaction to the world, but when you are insane you should eventually learn to keep quiet.
Rather than assuage the issues of the large volume of works, the consistent themes can sort of muddle and muck up the affair. Especially since character names, and especially character types, carry over for novel after novel. The stubborn ex-wife (or soon to be ex-) shows up in a large number of novels. She almost always thinks the man could make himself better and spends half her time trying to help him and half her time trying to hurt him. She almost always considers herself successful at whatever it is she does, and she almost always has dark hair. I assume that this is based on a person that PKD knew in person. She can be a moderately interesting character, but is hard to separate the handful of similar women from each other. Her counterpoint, by the way, is usually a younger female who is more sexual in nature but ultimately more self-centered.
Reading Clans of the Alphane Moon triggered this thought. With the exception of the great concept of the moon's society being divided into clans of people with the same mental problems; nearly everything else has been done before in the PKD-verse. If finding out that his novels are rarely about what pop-media says they are is hard for a new fan to overcome, then it might be equally hard to overcome an early "been there, done that" sensation as the number of novels read increases. His short stories tend to be more varied, but I would hold that his novels are more human and seem more personal in nature, and so I prefer them.
And yet there are differences, variations of characters and moments of genius throughout the whole oeuvre that are worth exploring. Dick is like P.G. Wodehouse or J.R.R. Tolkien, He delves into a small, unreal universe over and over again because it paints a steady portrait of a larger, painfully real one.
Since everyone has to start somewhere, one of the best novels that says many of the central themes and shows off many of the stereotypes, as well as being one many have heard of, is Do Android Dreams of Electric Sheep. I would also highly recommend four more: Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik and Man in the High Castle. If you start with those five, you will have had a good, central, meaty taste of the various aspects of all of his writing. Some good short stories to add after that would probably be "Minority Report", "Second Variety" and "Golden Man". If you still want more, I would say then go for any or all of these five: Confessions of a Crap Artist, Solar Lottery, Galactic Pot-Healer, Clans of the Alphane Moon and most especially VALIS. The last one there is one of his most heartbreakingly beautiful, but is also the most strangely structured and would probably give several wrong impressions about his writing if it was read right off the bat.
Others will probably have a different list, and it is a good rule of thumb to take anything written about PKD with a big old grain of salt, but that cross-section I think will illuminate a lot of the reason why it is worth making it through as many those 10,000 plus pages as you can. He is a very human writer and there is a sense of knowing him as a person through his works. Of which there are a lot. No doubt about that.