The Virtual Realist

The Virtual Realist

Philip K. Dick has become the most influential and prophetic of late-twentieth-century science fiction writers.


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.

In his lifetime, Dick’s renown didn’t scrape the stars, but it did achieve a kind of semi-outlaw cult status nurtured by mid-1970s profiles in such magazines as The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. By that time, Dick’s private life had collapsed into a welter of psychic trauma and physical hardship. His mental health had been fragile for decades. He’d been seized by visions; some of them spiritual in nature, some of them summoned by psychedelic drugs he’d taken even as he was abusing prescription amphetamines. The early 1970s were especially rough for Dick, who’d spent time in psychiatric clinics, attempted suicide (in 1972) and was in a heightened state of paranoia aggravated by a violent 1971 break-in at his Marin County home with windows and doors smashed, private papers stolen and file cabinets apparently blown up. Who did it? Could have been anyone, Dick believed, from the Feds to the Black Panthers to religious fanatics, maybe even himself in a delusional state. His red-zone paranoia swung in so many directions, had assumed such grotesque dimensions, that he wrote letters to the FBI (wait, didn’t he think they were after him, too?) implicating those he thought were left-wing conspirators, including his advocate Lem. (The bureau, from the available evidence, did little with this information beyond sending Dick a thank-you note.) The Dick novel that may best sum up this period of his life is A Scanner Darkly (1977), whose protagonist is a narcotics agent who is, at best, only dimly aware that he’s his own main quarry.

Dick’s erratic behavior alienated many friends and supporters. But it also contributed to his legend as an artist who lived out his vision of modern life as an infinite warehouse of alternate, collapsible realities. As far as Dick is concerned, not only is nothing what it appears to be but even one’s own capacity to perceive this notion is suspect–and constantly under siege.

When poring over the chronology of Dick’s life story in the rear of the Library of America’s omnibus, you wonder if you aren’t reading yet another Philip K. Dick story about a highly sensitive and deeply disturbed man at the mercy of both otherworldly visions and unseen malevolent forces. He’d been writing such stories even before he’d dedicated himself fully to science fiction. His “realistic” novels–the earliest of which, Voices From the Street, was written sometime in the early 1950s but was published for the first time this year by the sci-fi imprint Tor–were grim psychological portraits of Eisenhower-era, petit-bourgeois, quasi-bohemian life in Dick’s home terrain of Northern California. These books share with the science fiction novels the same heedless rush of colliding emotions and shifting points of view, the awkward, sideswiping sentences and a looming, unnameable dread making their jumpy characters more frantic and desperate. Lethem has elsewhere characterized these dry, often inscrutable novels as being “something like Richard Yates meets Charles Willeford.” One also sees elements of John O’Hara, an undervalued but prevalent influence on post-World War II professional writers, in Dick’s accumulation of raw detail, only with a more bent perspective on the middle-class struggle for social acceptance and financial solvency.

Science fiction jolted these mundane elements literally and figuratively into several dimensions of time and space. Some insist that Dick fell into the genre by default; the faster he could spin yarns about robots, spaceships and such, the easier money he could make compared with the lack of success he was having with conventional fiction. It’s probably more accurate to say that Dick found his true voice by bringing the psychological edginess of his realist sensibility into the purely phantasmagorical. Pure conceptual invention, for its own sake, wouldn’t be enough for Dick’s kind of science fiction. His subconscious, having reached escape velocity toward new versions of heaven and hell, wouldn’t allow it.

“Suppose I want to construct my own universe,” Leo said. “Maybe there’s something evil in me, too, some aspect of my personality I don’t know about. That would cause me to produce a thing even more ugly than what you’ve brought into being.” At least with the Perky Pat layouts one was limited to what one had provided in advance, as Eldritch himself had pointed out. And–there was a certain safety in this.
 ”Whatever it was could be abolished,” the child said indifferently. “If you found you didn’t like it. And if you did like it–” She shrugged. “Keep it, then. Why not? Who’s hurt? You’re alone in your–” Instantly, she broke off, clapping her hand to her mouth.
 ”Alone,” Leo said. “You mean each person goes to a different subjective world? It’s not like the layouts, then, because everyone in the group who takes Can-D goes to the layout, the men to Walt, the women into Perky Pat. But that means you’re not here.” Or, he thought, I’m not here. But in that case–
   –The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Try to keep up because, as I’ve suggested, this stuff tends to come at you in a rush. Leo is Leo Bulero, a wealthy industrialist with an overly developed frontal lobe. This does him next to no good in dealing with the threat posed by his eponymous rival, Palmer Eldritch, who’s apparently developed some super-hallucinogen called Chew-Z, which will make the aforementioned Can-D an obsolete means for Mars colonists to entertain themselves with virtual reality. (Walt and Perky Pat are dolls to help the fantasies along.) Leo may (or may not) be having a Chew-Z vision right now with the little girl being the mutilated, manipulative Eldritch in another form. Some have prophesied that Leo will kill Palmer. Only it may not be Palmer he kills but a virtual version of himself. But what if everything Leo’s been going through is a Chew-Z mind-fuck?

Meanwhile, Barney Mayerson, a “pre-cog” (as in precognitive, or psychic) formerly employed by Leo, has been “drafted” to leave Earth for Mars with his portable therapist, Dr. Smile, in tow. (Dr. Smile, by the way, is in a suitcase. Or maybe he is a suitcase. Dick wrote this stuff so fast that he later admitted even he couldn’t understand The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, much less read it.) Mayerson knows he’s in for a drab, colorless life on the Red Planet. But that may still be preferable to staying in New York, where it’s always 180 degrees because of the greenhouse effect, though it isn’t called that in the book…

A permanent climate crisis? People debilitating themselves with artificial distraction? All of it happening near the dawn of the twenty-first century? In Ubik, there’s even something called a “‘pape machine,” which allows its user to consume only whatever news he or she wants to hear on any given day. It’s easy, when encountering such details, to get too hung up on the prophetic aspects of science fiction in general and Philip K. Dick’s in particular. Anyone who keeps pounding against the wall of plausibility as relentlessly as Dick is bound to conjure Stuff That Really Happens. (And, as four out of five misanthropes will testify, if you habitually expect the worst, people will swear you’re clairvoyant.) But it’s not the raw details of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch you retain so much as the nightmarish swirl of imagery and the runaway outrageousness of its conceits.

And besides, any science fiction worth one’s emotional investment is less concerned with predicting the future than with intensely re-imagining the present with all its attendant neuroses, pressures and yearnings. The odds are good that most of them will still be with us fifty to 100 years from now, with or without an ozone layer. So it’s possible to read both The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, published four years later, as screwball improvisations on living in a wired-up, plugged-in and stressed-out-with-excess civilization such as the 1960s–or any decade thereafter. Ubik rattles and zooms along with the same wacky momentum, dense clutter and disorienting plot twists. This is another one of those books by Dick that you have to read almost as fast as he was making it up.

The Man in the High Castle came forth with almost as much speed as the other books. But you can tell Dick took his time with this somber, mordant tour of life in a United States more than two decades after it lost World War II to the Axis powers. The Nazis control the Eastern Seaboard, while the Japanese have all but colonized the Pacific Rim. Only the Rockies provide refuge for people like Hawthorne Abendsen, the reclusive author of a bestselling novel in which America defeated Germany and Japan. The book is so vivid that it can spook a baleful Reich enforcer: “How that man can write, he thought. Completely carried me away. Real. Fall of Berlin to the British, as vivid as if it had actually taken place. Brrr. He shivered. Amazing, the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke. No wonder it’s banned within Reich territory; I’d ban it myself. Sorry I started it. But too late; must finish, now.”

Dick used the I Ching to plot High Castle, and its characters likewise toss coins throughout the novel to assess the situations and decide what to do next. This would seem like a gimmick within a gimmick if it weren’t for Dick’s intense rendering of a plausibly ominous, emotionally arid alternative universe. He is just as vivid in evoking the tangled thought processes of characters who have aged within this nightmarish time frame, whether it’s a Japanese businessman who fears his empire is next on the Nazi’s to-do list or a judo instructor so moved by Abendsen’s book that she risks her life to seek him out in his “high castle.” Dick slips in the possibility that Abendsen’s version of reality is more documentary than speculation and that it’s everyone else who’s trapped in their dark, contorted dream of real life. It is that impulsive daring, along with the aforementioned psychological intensity that, in my mind, elevates The Man in the High Castle above Philip Roth’s more elegant experiment in alternative history, The Plot Against America. Not that such comparisons would matter to the book-chat crowd who think Roth soiled himself by venturing into fantasy motifs.

Dick’s subsequent work only intermittently displayed High Castle‘s narrative composure. Martian Time-Slip (1964), one of the best and most haunting of Dick’s novels from the period covered in the Library of America omnibus, isn’t included here, probably because Three Stigmata covers the Dickian motif of ennui on the Red Planet. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep displays both the relative calm of Dick’s realist prose and the antic pace of his more extravagant fantasies. Those who know the story only through Blade Runner may be surprised to see how much of the original novel was omitted. The Rick Deckard who hunts down and kills rogue androids is less a Hammett-esque tough guy than a married-and-harried bill payer (Think Gene Wilder more than Harrison Ford) struggling to achieve a normal life after most of the world’s been destroyed and most of what’s left of humanity has emigrated “off-world.”

Among those left behind to wander among the ruins is John Isidore, a “chickenhead” with only a few mechanized objects for comfort, trying to keep the “kipple” at bay–“kipple” being the accumulation of junk mail, used match covers and other clutter that seems to reproduce itself when no one’s around. Isidore is not supposed to be mentally advanced enough to know how bad off he is, but in one of the most startlingly evocative passages Dick ever wrote, the void stares back at him:

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision as if it–the silence–meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came to burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.

There’s little that’s graceful about such writing, but it’s likely that no one other than Dick could have pulled it off. As much as any paragraph in Dick’s vast output could, this one encompasses the unholy dread, the exhaustive observation (both from within and without), the aggrieved sense of enveloping evil and, even if it’s only a glimmer here, the sense that, in the face of overpowering emptiness and chaos, being human still somehow matters.

Dick was the great tragic-comedian of what we’ve come to know as “future shock,” our collective inability to cope with the miracles and malevolence that come at us in new forms every day. He seemed even less capable than most of coping, and as the years passed, he would develop ever more elaborate spiritual and emotional rationales to go on living. But as fucked-up-and-full-of-it as he was, as intimidating as technological society could be, he knew that even the frailest among us deserve better than to be crushed by the world. If Hollywood doesn’t quite get that part of him right, maybe the rest of us will someday.

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