We can download all of Brahms, Shostakovich, Nat King Cole and the Beau Brummels onto a single microchip and pick up Barcelona weather reports on our cellphones during an Orioles game. But shrink-wrapping ourselves in digital cocoons threatens to leave big blank patches in our intimate knowledge of the world and its history. We can find water on another planet’s moon, but we don’t know where to begin shedding indulgences to save our own glaciers–and ourselves. DNA is supposed to help us recognize and embrace individual difference. But we insist on abasing ourselves with sweeping generalities about race, gender, sexuality and class.
In short: These may indeed be the days of miracle and wonder, but we’re still just as fucked-up-and-full-of-it as we always were. Whether we’re ready to make that leap of judgment or not, it’s always been science fiction that figures it out before we do. The wide open spaces between technological possibility and human limitation have provided fertile ground for inspired imaginative speculation going back almost 200 years to Frankenstein. It feels safe to say that no one has moved through those spaces with as much loony abandon and frenzied inventiveness as Philip Kindred Dick.
Somehow, it figures that someone as deeply, profoundly fucked-up-and-full-of-it as Dick has become, at millennium’s turn, the most influential and prophetic of late-twentieth-century science fiction writers. Even a peer such as Thomas Disch, who could write far better sentences in succession than Dick, has been moved to proclaim him “a science fiction writer’s science fiction writer” and go on in the same piece to quote other, similarly gifted stylists of the genre such as John Brunner, Norman Spinrad (“the greatest American novelist of the second half of the twentieth century”) and Harlan Ellison (science fiction’s “Pirandello, its Beckett and its Pinter”). Ursula K. Le Guin’s anointment of Dick as “our own homegrown Borges” still adorns slick paperback editions of Dick’s novels. Polish science fiction novelist Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), one of the few writers in the genre to be taken seriously by mainstream literary critics, considered Dick the only American science fiction writer who mattered, “a visionary among charlatans.”
Dick’s cause has largely been carried into “mainstream fiction” by younger writers for whom genres aren’t redlined literary precincts for corralling the rabble. Most notable among these true believers is Jonathan Lethem, who wrote such mood-inflected Dickian fantasias as Girl in Landscape before moving on to the street-level realism of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. Lethem’s advocacy has reached its apotheosis with his editing of the Library of America’s collection of four Dick novels from the 1960s: The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) and Ubik (1969). These were but a fragment of the thirty-plus novels and dozens of short stories Dick cranked out during his melancholy, tumultuous life. But they’ll do nicely for a representative sample of the man at his most desperately ingenious.
Dick’s death in 1982 at age 53 from heart failure (and the cumulative effect of several strokes) came just as his fame was poised to become wholly commensurate with his legend. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s atmospheric, hard-boiled adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, came out later that year, the first in an ongoing stream of movies drawn from or inspired by Dick’s twitching, wild-eyed literary corpus. (The movie’s perpetually sodden skies and rococo grittiness helped set the mood for the “Cyberpunk” movement in science fiction writing that emerged in the mid-1980s.) The succeeding Dick movie adaptations have gone from 1990’s Total Recall to this year’s Next, with Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) and Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006) more or less redeeming such relative underachievers as Imposter (2002) and Paycheck (2003). Most of these movies came from Dick’s short stories, where, as with most fantasy stories, concept can trump or overpower content. (And Hollywood gorges on “high” concepts as if they were sausage biscuits at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.) The Dickian trope of living in worlds that turn out to be, to borrow a title from a Dick biography, “only apparently real” has proved so compelling to contemporary audiences that a Dick-inspired movie like 1999’s The Matrix became a pop-cultural phenomenon powerful enough to–almost–withstand two overblown sequels.