the essential philip k dick

The Essential Philip K. Dick


The K stands for “Kindred.” It was a family name, but if there’s anyone who can forgive a fanciful imputation of significance, it is Philip K. Dick. How lovely that a poet of alienation would come into existence bearing that word.

Perhaps you’ve nurtured a suspicion that you have the makings of a Dick fan. The writer’s influence is everywhere, though mainstream acknowledgment of his talents arrived belatedly. (His obituary in this newspaper is under 200 words and lists his age of death incorrectly. He was 53, not 54.)

The question is where to start. Dick’s published output — at least 35 novels and countless short stories — ranges from sublime to inscrutable, which is partly a result of volume. His book advances were skimpy and there was a family to support, so he wrote quickly, often fueled by amphetamine tablets. (Dick’s typing speed: 120 words per minute.) If you’re a stickler for prose style and hold a zero-tolerance policy toward the word “boobies,” this is not your fellow.

The best of his work is fueled by nuclear-strength imagination, grand metaphysical and theological explorations, and prescience in matters of technology, marketing, consumerism, media and ecological catastrophe. Dick picked up on sinister cultural undercurrents the way a cat senses a can of tuna being opened six rooms away.

In an excellent biography, “Divine Invasions,” Lawrence Sutin characterized Dick’s style as “wayward and sprawling, in the spirit of a new Orange County shopping mall.” Indeed. Dick’s endings tend toward ambiguity. Sometimes you wonder whether he mashed his hands across the typewriter for the last 10 pages of a manuscript, dropped it off at the post office and went for a beer.

Stanislaw Lem considered Dick’s ambiguity — when it was successful — to be a strategy for generating rapture. Insisting on precise conclusions from the author, Lem wrote, would be like demanding that Kafka produce an entomological justification in “The Metamorphosis” stating when and under what circumstances a guy might wake up as a bug.

You’ve been warned. See you on the other side!

If you like political thrillers but are sci-fi-curious, “The Man in the High Castle” (1962) is an appropriate launchpad. In it, Dick imagines a scenario in which the Allies have lost World War II and the United States has been conquered and divided into two regions, one governed by Japan and the other by Nazis. It takes place in the 1960s with the United States in deep dystopia mode.

The book focuses on a handful of characters who cope with tyranny in diverse ways: spying, rebelling, embarking on quests for truth, tangling with quandaries about art and authenticity, and so forth. This novel has the distinction of winning the Hugo Award for science fiction in 1963. It also features the most passive-aggressive dedication in all of literary history: “To my wife Anne, without whose silence this book would never have been written.”

Do you feel paranoid and distracted? Do you suspect that death is nibbling away at your form, even as you walk and breathe? Try “Ubik.”

In this 1969 book, my favorite of Dick’s novels, a group of co-workers is sent on a mission to another planet. But the assignment is a setup. As soon as they arrive, a bomb explodes. The co-workers narrowly escape and return to Earth, which is suddenly (and mysteriously) decomposing. When a character orders coffee, the cream has gone sour. A cigarette crumbles between his fingers. His money is obsolete. Objects fade into prior “versions” of themselves: an audio system reverts to a gramophone and a TV becomes an AM radio. Why?

The novel’s themes of entropy and delusion will swirl in your subconscious like a malevolent cone of soft serve. If I could propose two essential qualities of Dick as a human, they would be cosmic bafflement and heroic hopefulness, both present in “Ubik.” This is a novel with a long half-life. You may not clock the full effects until you find yourself thinking about it six or 60 months later.

If you hate authority so much, why are you reading an article in which someone tells you what to do? Wait, don’t leave! Dick loathed authority, too, and since much of his work was “palpably autobiographical” (his words), you, my disobedient friend, can select anything on this list. But for uncut rage against the machine, try “A Scanner Darkly” (1977).

One of the main characters is an undercover narcotics agent who wears a “scramble suit” that transforms him into an unidentifiable blur. His task is to eradicate a drug known as “Substance D” from the neon hellscape of a near-future Orange County. The job is complicated when he gets addicted to the drug and is then assigned to narc on himself.

Dick wrote this one in a period of (even greater than usual) psychological disarray. His fourth marriage was over. Someone had broken into his house and blown up a file cabinet with plastic explosives. He contracted double pneumonia and landed in the hospital. The bleakness of “A Scanner Darkly” is therefore unsurprising. But you know what else is bleak? Unremitting surveillance and top-down social control. Tone and topic are in perfect alignment here.

Aliens have invaded Earth. The government is conscripting people to live on Martian colonies. A drug named “Can-D” allows users to briefly occupy a fantasy world. A competing drug named “Chew-Z” promises eternal life. The globe has warmed to the degree that a May afternoon in New York City is hot enough to cook a Thanksgiving turkey to F.D.A.-approved internal temperatures. And at the center of it all is a regular-ish dude named Barney, just trying to get back together with his wife.

The above covers about 1 percent of the plot of “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” (1965), which would resemble the Knossos labyrinth if you tried to diagram it. For density of ideas and sheer trippiness, this one is hard to beat.

What does it mean to be a human? Philip K. Dick is glad you asked, and he has written hundreds of thousands of words on the topic. The clearest distillation can be found in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968), the novel that spawned Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” (Too bad they changed the name. If there were a hall of fame for titles, Dick’s entries would be abundant. Among them: “The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike” and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”)

A third world war has blanketed Earth in nuclear waste. Most of the surviving population has gone to outer space, where they live in colonies and enslave androids. Like cars, the androids vary in price and quality. Some are rudimentary; others are barely distinguishable from people. (Contained within “barely” is the entire metaphysics of this novel.)

The more sophisticated androids have gained the ability to overtake their masters and return to Earth, where the novel’s hero, Rick Deckard, is tasked with hunting and “retiring” (killing) them. Harrison Ford played him in the movie.

Try “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” (1974). A celebrity named Jason Taverner draws 30 million viewers on his TV show. He has a hot girlfriend who tells him how beautiful he is and a heavily perspiring agent who tells him how powerful he is — what more could a guy want?

But then, the thinkable happens (nothing is “unthinkable” in Dick’s world): Jason wakes up one day in a crummy hotel room without an identity. There is nary a birth certificate in his name; the girlfriend and agent have never heard of him. His life has been wiped away. Something is amiss — but is it a clerical error or an ontological riddle? How about both?

You’ll still need to get comfortable with the sensation of your head spinning, but “Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick” (2002) will allow you to build up a tolerance.

Distortions and derangements of the mind are to Dick what the Roadrunner is to Wile E. Coyote: an elusive object of obsession. Any of the novels listed here can be mined for insights about how it feels to move through the world with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex. The one that best replicates the feeling of lunacy is “Martian Time-Slip” (1964).

As the title suggests, we are on Mars. Territory is disputed. Cows are sickly. Water is scarce. World-building is also scarce — Dick is less concerned with the operational aspects of a space colony than with his all-too-human ensemble cast, which includes an “ex-schizophrenic” repairman, a phenobarbital-addled housewife, an autistic child, a bumbling psychiatrist and the time-traveling president of a local union.

The novel is both disorienting and addictive; you’ll be left with the sense that something terrifying has wandered into your mind, looked around and set up permanent camp.

A moon has been designated as a processing station for patients ejected from Earth for their psychiatric deficiencies. Due to planetary circumstances, what was meant to be a pit stop becomes a society of its own, divided into a caste system roughly corresponding to clinical diagnoses. The Ob-Coms (obsessive-compulsives) are clerks and bureaucrats, the Pares (paranoiacs) rule the government, the Skitzes (schizophrenics) form the poets class, and so forth.

The question Dick sets up in “Clans of the Alphane Moon” (1964) is this: If everyone is insane, does that mean nobody is insane? Then he immediately dives into a plot that is both corny and confusing, like a flash mob. It’s not exactly that he has bitten off more than he can chew, but that he has taken a bite of something, disgorged it, and decided to chew on an unrelated and less interesting substance.

Don’t prioritize this one if you’re only beginning your Dick voyage, but keep it on standby for when you’ve exhausted his Tier 1 novels.

One of Dick’s go-to characters is the Relatable Everyman: a guy who has the goods but not the guts, or vice versa. In “VALIS” (1981), we get a man with neither goods nor guts. Horselover Fat (great character name) is a science-fiction writer who dwells in California and sees the world as a river of mournfulness interrupted by frothing rapids of terror. He is spurred by a friend’s suicide to get to the bottom of the universe’s mysteries, narrating his journey in the third person with occasional first-person remarks.

It is later revealed that “Horselover Fat” is an alias for Philip Dick; apparently “Philip” means “horse lover” in Greek and “fat” a (loose) translation of the German word “Dick.” The novel is autobiography gone mad, with a version of Dick narrating an alternative version of Dick.

Be sure to notify loved ones before starting the book so they can initiate a rescue effort in case you get lost in there.