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The Best Philip K. Dick Books
One of my favorite science-fiction writers
For those who haven't read this great science-fiction author yet, I will present some of the best Philip K. Dick books here. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was one of the most influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century. His novels and short stories count among the dystopian cyberpunk genre and inspired many blockbusting movies of the past decades, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Matrix.
He is also the patron of the Philip K. Dick award, which was created in his honor shortly after his death in 1982. The works of Philip K. Dick comprise about 120 short stories and more than 40 novels. Apart from classic science-fiction themes like technology, space- and time travel etc., Dick also often writes about consciousness-altering drugs, consumerism, surveillance and police states, and alternate historical realities.
I stumbled over one of Dick's books more or less by accident a couple of years ago, and since then I have become a huge fan of his writing and read many of his works. I will present the best Philip K. Dick books from my library here.
Image credit: Pete Welsch
Minimum Spoiler Policy
I will try to spoil as little of the books' contents in my reviews as possible. Personally, I even gave up reading back covers of books I am going to read. They just give away too much of the book's content!
For this reason I will keep the resumes of the books I present here as short as reasonably possible. If you need more information, feel free to follow the links provided to Amazon.
Instead of resuming contents, I will be focusing more on my opinion of each book, and why I chose to include it among my favorites.
Paycheck - Best Introduction To Philip K. Dick's Books
Computer engineer Jennings wakes up to find that the last two years of his life have been erased from his memory, a routine operation after doing sensitive contract work for Rethrick corporation. To his surprise, he finds out that apparently he agreed to forfeit his payment in exchange for a bag of seven seemingly random objects.
When he is apprehended by the all-powerful security police soon afterwards, he realizes that only with the help of these objects does he stand any chance of surviving in freedom. His past self was obviously able to look across time... and Jennings must embark on a quest to rediscover his past, in order to secure his future.
This collection of short stories was the first Philip K. Dick book I ever read. When I bought this book at an airport shop as reading material for a long flight, the author's name wasn't even familiar to me yet. Little did I know at the time that I was about to discover one of my all-time favorite science-fiction authors!
This book makes for great casual reading for whenever you don't feel like reading an entire novel, or just want an introduction to this author.
Ubik - Many Say It's Dick's Best Novel
A fascinating and fantastic story about psychics, anti-psychics, corporate espionage, time travel, doors that demand to be paid a nickel before they will open, and protagonists dreaming away in cold-pac (a kind of medically induced limbo halfway between life and death).
When Glenn Runciter, boss of a company offering protection against psychic espionage, gets a bid to counteract his fiercest opponent, he sends out a dozen of his best anti-psychics to get the job done. However, once they arrive on Luna where the operation is supposed to take place, they find out that nothing is as it seems to be. Time travel and differing subjective realities make for several unexpected plot twists, while the eerie reality only dawns on the reader ever so slowly.
This is one of Dick's most well-rounded novels. I especially enjoyed the very down-to-earth characters, each with their own personal peculiarities.
Ubik starts out as enjoyable light fiction, with humorous elements such as Joe Chip's permanent problems with household appliances that won't work for him unless he pays them cash, which he can't because he is chronically broke. As the plot folds out however, an uncanny feeling begins to dawn on the reader until he learns the sinister truth about what really happened on Luna.
The Man in the High Castle - Easily One Of Philip K. Dick's Best Books
Imagine an alternate reality, in which Hitler won WW II. The victorious axis powers have divided the USA between themselves. The states west of the Rocky Mountains (now called Pacific States of America) are governed by Japan, while the lands to the east are still called USA and are now under German control. In between, there is a neutral buffer zone called the Rocky Mountain States.
In 1962, Hitler is terminally sick, his successor Martin Bormann has died and a fight between rivaling power factions in Germany ensues for leadership of the Reich. The Nazi regime rules ruthlessly in the Reich section of America, while the Japanese, though authoritarian, are comparatively liberal. Conflicts between the two empires are frequent, and there are rumors of Germany planning a surprise nuclear attack on Japan in order to gain total control of the North American continent.
With this political background, Dick describes the lives of several protagonists, businessmen and political agents, living in the Pacific and buffer states, whose stories are interconnected for private or work reasons. Some of them are supporters of the Nazi empire or indifferent, but most value their freedom and try to defend what liberties they have.
Alternate historical realities can be highly fascinating, especially if we imagine what could have happened if Hitler had indeed won the second World War. What would it be like if we had born in a totalitarian, fascist regime? Would we even be aware of what we are missing out on, or would we just accept life in a dictatorship as something completely normal?
While this is hard to answer, I think it is obvious that no one living outside of a totalitarian society would want to give up their freedom to such a large extent. Therefore I think Dick made a wise choice by letting his characters live in the comparatively liberal Japanese occupied parts of America. One of his characters is actually a racist and a glowing follower of the Nazis, but most of them abhor the oppressive regime and fight to protect their freedom by resisting the imminent German threat.
A detail I loved within the novel is a "book within the book", outlawed in the German territories, but a bestseller in Japan. This fictional book describes an alternate reality inside the alternate reality, namely a world in which the allies won the war! The story differs from our "real" reality though, as in that the Soviet Union does not play such a big role after WW II. Instead, a cold war between Great Britain and the US ensues...
A Scanner Darkly - Much Better Than The Movie Of The Same Title
This partly autobiographic novel revolves largely around drug consumption and the resulting alterations of consciousness. The main protagonist Bob Arctor is an undercover narcotics agent, code named Fred. As part of his assignment, Bob deals with a fictional synthetical drug called "Substance D" (for "Death"), also consuming increasing quantities of the drug himself.
For their own protection, the police is unaware of the undercover agents' identities. Through a glitch in the system, Fred gets tasked to monitor Bob Arctor, i.e. himself. Surveillance cameras are installed in Bob's house, and Bob as Fred has to watch his own life on the screens.
As one of the side effects of substance D which he consumes is the splitting of one's consciousness, Fred doesn't realize that he is observing himself. As he drifts deeper and deeper into addiction, he loses control of his two identities up to the point where he cannot cope with the burden of maintaining them any longer.
What I particularly like about this novel are the descriptions of a drug addict's never-ending struggle with his or her inner demons. Philip K. Dick experimented with drugs himself throughout a period of his life, so he speaks out of personal experience.
In an afterword to the book, he lists a number of dear friends that have died or suffered permanent damage from drug misuse. Quoting from the note:
"Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgement."
However Dick also makes a point that rather than judging people for their decision to use drugs, he is merely describing the consequences of that decision as he witnessed them.
More Great Philip K. Dick Books
A great collection of some of Dick's most important works, including:
The Man in the High Castle - The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Ubik - Martian Time-Slip - Dr. Bloodmoney - Now Wait for Last Year - Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said - A Scanner Darkly - A Maze of Death - VALIS - The Divine Invasion - The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
The book behind the blockbusting movie, Blade Runner!
A beam of pink light gives the main protagonist a vision of an alternate Earth where the Roman Empire still rules
Which of Dick's novels and short stories do you like best?