- Books, Literature, and Writing»
The Philip K. Dick Reader: A Book Review
Today I want to take a look at a collection of short stories by the science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). The collection is called The Philip K. Dick Reader, contains twenty-four stories, and was published in 1987 by Citadel Press, rather it is a Citadel Press book published by Kensington Publishing Corp.
Now, although I saw no indication, I do believe most, if not all, of the stories here were written and originally published in the 1950s and perhaps early 1960s. There is a way that we can tell this, albeit a subjective way. Anyway, this is a point of minor interest I will return to a bit later.
The first thing I want to say about the work of Philip K. Dick, in general is that: 1) His work is for right-brain-oriented people like myself; 2) Dick's science fiction is for people who think they do not like science fiction; and 3) Dick's science fiction is for people who know that they do not like science fiction.
I'm not making any sense yet, am I? How can the work of a science fiction writer be advertised as not only palatable, but downright enjoyable, as I am claiming, for people who either think or know that they do not like science fiction to begin with?
I think it might help if I began by saying that Dick's work does not fall under the category of what is called hard science fiction. What is hard science fiction?
I would define "hard" science fiction this way:
1. It is a good fit for left-brain-oriented people because...
2. This kind of science fiction is relatively technical; that is, we see that the writers work very hard to write works of fiction that contain technical plausibility.
3. Because the authors work very hard to create futuristic realities of technical plausibility, the futuristic/alien technology and science itself acts as a kind character in the stories.
4. As such, this futuristic scientific/technological apparatus of the invented worlds, never recedes from view in this kind of story-telling, hard science fiction.
5. This is an area of science fiction in which "the medium is the message," as they say, in addition to any moral, social, or political points the narratives want to convey.
6. The workings of the futuristic science/technology, though speculative and fictional, are, it seems to me, meant to be constantly taken into account and considered seriously by the reader.
These, in my opinion, are at least some of the elements which people who think or know that they do not like science fiction (including we of the right-brained camp like me), may find unconquerably daunting.
None of these conditions apply to the work of Philip K. Dick.
1. His work is for predominantly right-brain-oriented people because...
2. This kind of fiction is relatively non-technical; technical plausibility is not at issue
3. The point of this kind of science fiction is most emphatically not the creation of realistic alternate/futuristic worlds AS A GOAL IN AND OF ITSELF!
4. Since this is the case, what scientific/technological apparatus that is constructed most certainly does recede from view. I believe this feature to be the design of the author.
5. What I'm saying, then, is that unlike hard science fiction, in Dick's writing [Ray Bradbury's writing has these characteristics as well] the medium is NOT the message. The scientific/technological apparatus, to which we are originally exposed, is a launching point into talking about something else. Don't worry, I will solidify this point a little later because it is absolutely crucial.
What are we looking at here? The Philip K. Dick Reader.
The first thing to deal with was what I said about when these stories was written.
At the top I said that I saw no indication in the book, telling us when each story was written. I said that these stories feel like they were mostly written in the 1950s---early 1960s at the latest. I mentioned that the way the future in material terms is handled, is just like that to be found in the writing of Ray Bradbury (The Illustrated Man story collection), which we are clearly told were published in the 1950s.
The characteristic I'm talking about---with respect to the way the future is imagined in material terms---is what I will call a World's Fair euphoria about what the future will bring in material technology. My understanding of what World's Fair festivals were about, was, indeed, a euphoria about the technology of the future, the workplace of the future, the playground of the future, the home of the future, the car of the future, and so forth. In this conceptualization of the future, specifically as expressed in the writing of Dick and Bradbury, every single thing is automated. In this imagined world, even the dining room table is automated, and can, itself: prepare dinner, set itself, clear away afterward, and somehow, wash the dishes. Beds can automatically rock you to sleep while playing some soothing music for you; and they can make themselves.
The items tend to look the same as they did in the 1950s. The difference is that in this imagined world, things are "souped up," so to speak, like putting a Ferrari motor inside a riding lawnmower.
Okay, so let's get into a little bit of how the characterization I made of Dick's work, operates in practice, by looking at a handful of the stories in this collection. Sound good?
If you are a fan of the movies, you will probably recognize some of the Philip K. Dick-inspired work, even if you don't know his name. He is the author of the stories that inspired the blockbuster movies Total Recall (original story 'We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale'), Minority Report (original story of the same name), Screamers ('Second Variety'). His novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the movie Bladerunner; and another story of his, Scanner Darkly inspired another movie of the same name.
Question: What makes Philip K. Dick's writing so cinematic? Why does his stuff translate so well to the big scree? (Another writer from another genre---Elmore Leonard---puts out novels with the same big screen-friendliness).
Answer: The reason this is so, in my opinion, is the feature of Dick's writing I have been discussing. For Dick the science fiction mode of operation is a springboard into the REAL story. In contrast to hard science fiction, the medium is not the message with Dick's work. With his writing, then, not being very technically dependent, is very accessible to moviemakers; it is easy to shoot a cleanly, clearly delivered film.
The Eyes Have It
This is the shortest story in the collection. It is simply a bit of literalist fun, if you will. For example, do you remember when you were a kid and somebody said something like: 'I love fried chicken'? Then you said: 'If you love chicken so much, why don't you marry it'?
The story is in that vein. To understand the story, you might start by taking the title very literally---The EYES have it. Imagine beings from "another world" who can detach and re-attach different parts of their bodies at will. Yeah, right!
The Hanging Stranger
This one is a true horror story. There is no mention of this, but I don't see how you can say that this story is not the inspiration for the film, 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.' I would characterize this story as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Fly. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil the plot for you. Trust me, though---The Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Fly.
But notice something. The first story I alluded to, there is no science or technology involved at all. It is merely a tale of absurdist psychological fantasy. There's probably a good inspiration there for some contemporary horror art.
The second story is not dependent on science or technology either. Of course, though, science and technology is IMPLIED, since the telling of the story could not have been constructed without it. The story is about the fear of "things" not being "what they seem," and so forth.
You know a good way to think about the second story (The Hanging Stranger)? Think of that John Carpenter movie, They Live starring WWF legend, Rowdy Roddy Piper.
To Serve The Master
This story illustrates the danger of looking for past idyllic periods in history, and grasping desperately for saviors. It is about a future time when there is no robots. We find out why.
Again, I don't want to give too much away. Let me just say that this story reminds me a lot of an old Twilight Zone episode called "The Howling Man." The story, the episode, is about a man who finds himself stranded on a lonely road. He finds refuge in a monastery. There he hears bloodcurdling cries of a man---as it turns out---who is clearly in a state of torment. The brothers of the monastery are holding a man prisoner in a cell. The man, the one from whose perspective the story is related to us, disastrously disbelieves the head brother when the latter tells him that the "man" they have imprisoned is the Devil. Well, with the show being the Twilight Zone, you can probably guess what happens next.
Again, this is a story that will not, in any way, tax the left brain.
One of the things that makes science fiction so wonderful, is the way that it tries to bring mythology to life, put flesh and bone on miracles. But no, Dick was not trying to re-create the Biblical Garden of Eden in that story.
Remember the Odyssey? Remember Ulysses and his crew and all of their seaborne travels? We're talking about Greek mythology here. Remember the part where they came to this island ruled by a woman sorcerer? Ulysses's crew are put under an enchantment and turned into various animals at one point (later the spell was reversed).
Think of that when you read "Strange Eden." Of course, this being science fiction, the transmutation is not effected by "magic," per se. What happens is given a vaguely scientific/evolutionary rationale. But I think we're looking at one of those situations where "to us science and magic are one," and all that. I believe Chris Hemsworth's character, of Thor The God of Thunder, said something like that about Asgard to Natalie Portman's character in the movie, Thor.
Upon The Dull Earth
The range of Dick's speculation is impressive. This story is both a fantasy and a horror. He manages to give the fantastic a decidedly horrific edge. Think of Angels meet Vampires---not in conflict but in existential terms; vampiric angels (NOT angelic vampires).
The only other thing I'll say about this story is that it has the impressive audacity to say that the God of Adam and Eve, the one who fashioned all life in the universe, as well as the universe, has "moved on" to another plane---evolved. And this is put out there quite casually.
Because this is so, the angels are put into a position of having to do something that only that previous One had had the expertise to do. The ending of the story is truly apocalyptic. By the way, you know how you might think of this story?
Remember those Dannon Oikos yougurt commercials? Do you specifically recall the one in which two ladies at an outdoor cafe and one of them says how great it would be if all the men in the world looked like John Stamos (formerly of 'Full House')? Then it happens.
Then they said how great it would be if something that tasted good was also good for you. Then, the waiter, a man who now looks just like John Stamos, tells them that their wish is granted, presenting them with Dannon Greek-style Oikos yogurt.
Think of that Dannon yogurt commercial as you read Upon The Dull Earth. Just understand one thing: what happens in that commercial is funny; what happens in this fantasy/horror story is most certainly not. Indeed, you might find yourself being crushed with despair. By the way, to understand what you would be in for with the ending, think of the Will Smith movie, I Am Legend, which is based on a horror novel.
The Exhibit Piece
Like the story, "To Serve The Master," The Exhibit Piece is about the dangers of putting some supposedly "simpler time and place" on a pedestal. Pursuit of such fantasy might "come back to bite you."
I hope the remarks above have given you a fair picture of what you will be in for if you decide to read this collection of Philip K. Dick's short stories. That, I believe, is the primary function of "criticism''---or at least it should be. If you were looking for some cut and dried "thumbs up/thumbs down," or "two stars, three stars, four..." kind of label, I am sorry to disappoint.
I try not to comment very much on esthetics in my reviews. I look at "literary criticism" as a kind of consumer reporting. Is it worth my while to spend money watching this movie, buying this band's CD, or buying and/or reading this book?
Let me put it this way. I think I view literary criticism as something like being a building inspector. Her job is only to make sure the place is fit for human habitation. The esthetic choices that the occupants make are of no concern to the inspector because taste varies infinitely. What the inspector can and should do is make sure the floors are solid, the foundation is sturdy and built from high-quality materials, the plumbing works, and all that.
The "review" of a book should not simply regurgitate the plot. It should not render all kinds of judgments that are esthetic in nature. Is the Philip K. Dick Reader a sound habitation for the literary imagination? You betcha, in my opinion!
Another important question that follows from that is: What kind of literary imagination is the book most suited for? This question, in my view, must be answered with a delineation of the kind of reader the work will most appeal to and why this is so.
What would strictly esthetic judgments in literature entail?
My view on this is still evolving, but let me say that, for now, esthetic judgments in literature are all those things that are, let us say, decorative in nature. When I call something "decorative," what I mean is that it is a detail that is not relevant to the effectiveness of how the story is told.
Character Development. Let me give an example. One night I was watching the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. His guest at the table was one of my favorite novelists, John Grisham. For those of you who don't know him, he is a writer of legal suspense books, many of which are famous for having been transcribed to the big screen (Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Juror, etc). His books tend to be fast-paced; and his prose style is lean and stripped-down, bare "without being austere," as I like to sometimes say. In fact, that is my favorite thing about Mr. Grisham's book, the way he uses language.
Anyway, at one point in the interview, Mr. Grisham said that, in his own opinion, he does not develop characters well. Character development is not one of his strengths as a writer.
I happen to completely disagree with that. I happen to think that he has created many memorable characters. In my opinion, with his books, the characters arise from the primordiality of the writing itself.
Anyhow, what I mean by the "primordiality of the writing itself" is not important. What is important is how subjective "character development" can be. I would only comment on something like "character development" only where it might add or detract something from the meat of the story, something that critically affects what one would be looking at, as she decides whether or not the book is a suitable habitat for her literary imagination.
For example, in another review I talked about Greg Bear's book, City at the End of Time. I made no mention of "character development," which was fine. The bigger issue, for me, and which, in my view, was critical to come to grips with, as you decide whether or not the book is your cup of tea---was the depiction of the multiverse.
Anyway, let me sign off now, in the hope that you will find my review of the science fiction of Philip K. Dick, somewhat useful.
Thank you for reading.