I haven’t been as prolific lately as I’m typically known for. This time I have a pretty good excuse, though. It would seem my former place of employment saw fit to cut me loose so I was without employment for a little while. No worries, though. I’m back at it already with a better job for more money. So fuck those fools, bro!
I’m known around these parts for being a horror guy. I was once interviewed by a local paper on the topic of horror lit and I explained to the interviewer that when it comes to the written word, I’m actually not all that into horror. Beyond the usual H.P. Lovecraft – which in a lot of ways is also science fiction – I just don’t get down with reading horror. Science fiction is more my speed. I learned today by way of Tor.com, publisher of fine science fiction and fantasy novels, that today is the 30th anniversary of the death of Philip K. Dick. Dick is a household name and an absolute monolith of sci-fi, spoken of in the same breath as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. Dick was no ordinary science fiction writer, though. He was as crazy as a shithouse rat and for a sci-fi author that’s a really advantageous thing. It takes a fractured mind to approach science fiction in a way that’s going to shake the foundations of the genre. Any joker can write half ass sci-fi about space ships and shit but like his contemporary, Frank Herbert, author of Dune, Dick’s best work could barely be classified as sci-fi in any traditional sense of the term. So here’s a primer on one of my favorite science fiction authors.
The Man In The High Castle
I once hijacked a conversation in a local book store between two dudes as one turned to the other and told his friend he always wanted to read PKD but didn’t know where to start. His buddy reaches out to the shelf and pulls a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and hands it to him. I promptly interject that everybody goes to that one because it’s the book Blade Runner is based on and most people only know that one but that I think a better starting place is The Man In The High Castle. High Castle concerns the exploits of several characters living in a post World War 2 America where the Axis powers had won the war. The Germans control the eastern United States and the Japanese control the west but not all is good between the two powers. The Germans are secretly readying a plan to nuke Japan and caught up in the intrigue are numerous characters, many of whom create or sell fabrications or authentic pieces of American antiques which the Japanese occupiers hold in high regard. All the while, one character travels to Colorado to meet the author of a book banned in America which tells the story of an American where the Axis powers lost.
The Man In The High Castle is probably the purest example of Philip K. Dick available. It contains a mind-bending narrative that never slips into pure weirdo territory, features elements of Gnosticism and eastern mysticism and features a fictional analog of the author, himself, whose story within a story, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, offers a window out of the fiction and into our real world. It’s fascinating shit and as good a starting point as any, the way I see it.
On the other hand there’s VALIS. One of Dick’s final novels, the man certainly went out on a high note. And I do mean high. VALIS, a blurring of a fictional narrative and an autobiography of Dick’s own struggles with sanity, tells the story of Horselover Fat, who PKD admits early on is actually himself, even though Philip K. Dick appears as a separate character some ways into the novel. When Fat believes himself to be struck by a pink beam of light that fills him with strange knowledge about reality, he begins a quest to get to the bottom of what is happening to him. Clearly, he’s a man who is quickly slipping away into mental oblivion but through what are either strange coincidences or actual revelations from what Fat and his friends believe to be an intelligent satellite named VALIS which orbits the planet, Fat attempts to come to terms with his deteriorating mental state. That is, until his friends take in a weirdo arthouse movie starring a David Bowie-style rock star that is loaded with hidden messages about VALIS. And that’s when shit gets real. If The Man In The High Castle is an even-keeled gateway drug to the world of Philip K. Dick, VALIS is PKD with the brakes removed. It is a harrowing look at a man struggling with the mental illness that had dogged him for much of his life not to mention a crumbling physical condition. In the end, it’s hard to even tell what VALIS is about if it’s about anything at all, but it serves more as an unfiltered look into the mid of the genius, warts and all. Like the best Dick novels, it warps reality and blurs the line between fact and fiction and it’s often hard to tell if you’re reading the diary of a madman or one of the most brilliantly twisted sci-fi novels ever written.
A Scanner Darkly
Phil was drug user. Many of the best artists are. This may have had a hand in the dissolution of his sanity but his experimentations with drugs shifted his view of the world and stimulated his imagination in ways that nothing else could have. Nobody could have written the shit that Dick did without the aid of some kind of illicit substance. A Scanner Darkly has a lot to do with that, as Dick’s own life at the time was spent mostly under the influence of speed and in the company of teenage drug addicts. The book has to do with Bob Arctor, a drug addict in Orange County, California in 1994, and a big fan of the powerful psychedeclic, Substance D. At the same time, Bob is an undercover agent with the cops, gathering evidence on users of Substance D and the distribution network. So that the two personalities never cross, Bob/Fred meet with his police bosses in a disguise that makes it impossible to tell who he is. Unfortunately, Bob/Fred is hopelessly hooked on Substance D and has a hard time distinguishing between his two personalities until they suffer a complete break and he is removed from his undercover gig and placed in a rehab facility to get clean. Even more unfortunate, Bob/Fred doesn’t realize that he’s still working for the cops as he’s supposed to find out where the money for this rehab clinic is coming from. All along he, and us the readers, wonder what the fuck is going on here? Clearly the product of a speed freak, A Scanner Darkly is Dick at his most paranoid and compelling. As is the recurring theme in Dick’s work, the entire story orbits the concept of what is real and what is not. Is anything real, for that matter? Read this and then check out Richard Linklater’s outstanding animated adaptation. It’s something.
While you’re at it, take some time to check out the exceptional Tank Riot podcast about Philip K. Dick!