Glamourous Rags

A Profile Of Philip K. Dick

Twenty years dead and as fresh as tomorrow's headline, the sf writer Philip K. Dick is as popular with movie makers looking for handy plot hooks as he is with pop culture academics looking for a thesis topic. 'Blade Runner' - based on his 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' - is a classic of movie noir; the Schwarzenegger/Sharon Stone vehicle 'Total Recall' takes its basic situation from one of his short stories. More recently, both 'Impostor' and Spielberg's forthcoming 'Minority Report' are based on Dick material - what is there about this little-known figure which makes him so surprisingly central to popular culture?

Phil Dick came of age in the sf of the 50s in the aftermath of Joe McCarthy and with atomic holocaust seemingly just around the corner. His work was always uncomfortable, obsessed with appearances and reality, with paranoia and compassion, fascinated with the little people who get crushed in the gears of even the justest society. An early short story 'Foster, You're Dead' shows us the corruption of a whole society from the fact that a child is bullied at school because his parents cannot afford to update their bomb shelter. Part of his enduring appeal is just this - he is one of the best sf writers of ordinary unheroic life.

Both 'Minority Report' and 'Blade Runner' deal with one of Dick's stock figures - the loyal servant of a system on whom the system arbitrarily turns. Deckard - the Harrison Ford character in 'Blade Runner' - is an investigator who administers the tests that detect artificial human beings through their limited emotional register; Tom Cruise's character in 'Minority Report' is a policeman who arrests murderers before they can kill anyone - which is fine by him, until he finds himself accused of potential crime. Dick was less interested in the naturally rebellious than in that classic American figure the man forced by circumstances to make a stand.

This was very much how he saw himself - as a radio DJ of moderately liberal opinions he came to believe that his house was being watched and his phone tapped. Many of even his close friends assumed this to be an example of the paranoia his fiction dealt in and which he courted by the consumption of lots of speed; after the revelations of Watergate, his claims became more plausible. His sense of the untrustworthiness of those in authority always seems a suspiciousness learned from experience and is part of a more general scepticism about the whole of reality; he makes most fiction based in conspiracy theory look superficial - he writes about people who maintain their sense of self as everything else gives way under their feet.

He always believed that it is possible to make a difference; in his 'The Axis Won' novel, 'The Man in the High Castle', it is the quiet integrity of a Japanese antique dealer in San Francisco that saves the world from Nazi H-bombs. In other novels, a bumbling alien slime mould and a chatty robot cab are crucial moral agents. If there is sentimentality to some of this, it is better than the 'realistic' cynicism that is sometimes opposed to it.

Dick needed to believe in happy endings, because he was naturally drawn to the nightmarish. The hero of 'Impostor' - described by veteran British sf writer Brian Aldiss as being ' the first Philip Dick story I ever read and one of the stories I have never forgotten' - is accused of being a robot bomb likely to explode if he says or hears the wrong sentence. Many of the novels deal with afterlives indistinguishable from the deepest depression except that they go on forever. Novels like 'Ubik' and 'A Scanner Darkly' - his prescient novel about the war on drugs - are, among their other real merits, among the best descriptions known of a bad trip.

One of Dick's main strengths was this hallucinatory quality; his plots are compelling because they have the logic of dreams. His characters escape from drab reality into sharing the experiences of a virtual reality messiah, or by collecting robot pets of extinct species, and it all seems sensible to us and them at the time. One of the things that is most disturbing and radical about his work is that, in his non-sf realist novels, the characters are equally driven by the strange and seemingly trivial - cruelty and love are real, but most actual desires are figments.

In 1974, quite suddenly, and well after he had stopped using drugs, Phil Dick had a religious revelation and spent the last eight years of his life trying to communicate it in novels like 'Valis' and 'The Divine Invasions'. After years of uncertainty about the nature of the real, Dick suddenly knew what it was. Perhaps the finest of his non-sf novels, 'The Transmigration of Timothy Archer' combines this sense of mystic certainty with a fine portrait of his dead friend, the Episcopalian Bishop Pike; its elegiac tone was a prelude to Dick's own death from neglected medical problems.

A plump bearded difficult man, who claimed to have talent-spotted Linda Ronstadt, Dick was much loved and highly regarded not only in the closed sf field, but also by figures as varied as eccentric dramaturge Ken Campbell and the cutting-edge mathematician Ian Stewart. The opening out of his world to a larger audience is at once welcome and scary - what is it about the world of Posh and Becks, Osama bin Laden, Madonna and Tony Blair that makes seem so insightful a writer to whom all humans were only provisionally humane, the world itself only provisionally real?

This page was printed out from Roz Kaveney's website at If you have further questions, please visit that website for more information.