Following the recent Man In The High Castle mini-debate surely it’s time that we debated the merits of the man who is possibly the most influential writer in Hollywood, even if he’s been dead for thirty years. As a card-carrying Phil fan I’m keen to get the Massive’s thoughts on his literary output, and perhaps persuade a few of you to venture forth into the great man’s considerable oeuvre. His enormous influence on current sci-fi, especially in the movies, is perhaps not as borne out in mega book sales as you would expect.
Here’s my ten-point guide to the man’s formidable body of work – at almost fifty novels and hundreds of short stories he wrote a lot – as sci-fi writers had to in those days to live. Quality varies widely, and he dabbled in mainstream fiction and even children’s stories as well as science fiction.
1. Yes the short stories are better than the novels. He’s not the only sci-fi great for whom this is true. Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and many others writing, let’s say, before 1970 also follow this rule. They were paid by the word and this led to novels being expansions of short stories and rushed off rather than being seen as the artistically superior expressions of literary talent that they are seen as today.
2. Religion. Late period Dick is absolutely not where to start. PKD had a kind of religious/mystic experience in the early seventies in which he became convinced cosmic truths were being revealed to him in a pink light. All of his novels from VALIS to Radio Free Albemuth deal with his attempts to understand gnosticism and are dominated by explorations of religious experience.
3. Drugs. He took a lot of drugs. He lived in Berkeley in the sixties for gods sake. As correctly divined in the Man In… discussion, this did not always make for well-structured novels. But just as Jimi Hendrix rewrote rock, so Dick rewrote sci-fi and drugs are a part of it. In many of the novels of his ‘peak period’ (I would say from Man In.. onwards) the protagonists take drugs, are fed drugs or otherwise fall into a state of altered consciousness that causes them to question the reality around them, and discover that what they thought is real is just a stage-set behind which something else entirely lurks.
4. He’s not really about spaceships. Or alien worlds. Or aliens. For those you need ‘hard’ sci-fi and space opera. Dick’s spaceships are really just updates of Ford Focuses, his worlds (for example Mars in Martian Time Slip) run-down versions of earth, and his aliens more persecuted and misunderstood minorities.
5. He is all about robots. Indeed only Asimov has explored the ideas behind artificial intelligence so acutely. From Deckard and the replicants of Do Androids to the knackered automata of We Can Build You there are surprising, unreliable and threatening robots at every turn.
6. The non-sci-fi. For the determined reader only. His evocations of joyless marriages, dreary suburbs and frustrated middle-aged men in mindless jobs ground his sci-fi but in the ‘non-sci-fi’ of Milton Lumky, Oakland etc they take over. And, as previously discussed, his prose is servicable at best.
7. The early novels are enjoyable but trashy. In books like Solar Lottery, Eye In The Sky and The World Jones Made you can see the man gearing up for the great leaps to come but they’re horribly dated.
8. The great novels to read I would say:
We Can build You – robots
Martian Time Slip – drugs
Dr Bloodmoney…. – post-atomic war America
The Man In the High Castle – alternate history
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – drugs, religion
Ubik – drugs
Do Androids Dream…. – robots
Flow My Tears, – police states
A Scanner Darkly – drugs
9. Don’t fancy the five volumes of the collected short stories? There are a plethora of best ofs and this may be the best place to start for any reader completely new to PKD.
10. Interested in the man? Laurence Sutin’s biography Divine Invasions is very readable and doubles as a great critical introduction to the work too. There is a lot of music involved, and record shops feature in several of his works, but it’s as much classical as rock.
11. Over to you…..