SELECTED STORIES OF PHILIP K. DICK
By Philip K. Dick
When the American science-fiction author Philip K. Dick died in 1982 he left behind an impressive and influential legacy. This was mainly due to his gifts as a writer, but it wasn’t hurt by the success his formulas had in Hollywood. Blade Runner was an adaptation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, while at least three of the stories in this excellent new selection have also been made into movies (Total Recall was based on “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, while Minority Report came from the story of the same name). His vision of reality as something that can be artificially produced struck a chord with the movie business and the culture it has created in its image. He didn’t write The Matrix, but it would be harder to imagine the techno-metaphysical bent of that film without him.
Dick’s cultural resonance is also the result of his obsession with very basic themes. It is remarkable, reading this selection, to see how often he was able to successfully re-tell the same essential story. Considered by many to be a high priest of the paranoid style in American literature, Dick’s paranoia is in a different category than most people approaching an SF writer would expect. His main concern was with fundamental questions of being and perception. As Jonathan Lethem puts it in his Introduction, Dick’s stories repeatedly ask “What is human?” and “What is real?”
And so you have the basic Dick plot. The average guy with an average family and average job is suddenly made aware of the fact that his average reality isn’t real at all. What he thinks is real is only an illusion managed by some more intelligent force. In fact, the average guy himself may not be real. He may be an android or somebody with an entirely false identity constructed out of artificial memories. Then there is the moment of tragic recognition, expressed by Ed Fletcher in the story “The Adjustment Team”: “I saw the fabric of reality split open. I saw – behind. Underneath. I saw what was really there. And I don’t want to go back.”
The variations Dick plays on this simple formula cover an extraordinary range. It can be everything from comedy to social satire to action/thriller to religious allegory, depending on how you view the people who are in charge of managing the illusion. Are they machines bent on destroying mankind? Benevolent aliens? Cosmic forces beyond good or evil? Corporate hucksters?
The nature of the stage crew may change, but what makes Dick such a compelling writer is his understanding of how people cope. Like many others, Ed Fletcher doesn’t want to know what’s “really there” behind the fabric of reality. Most people are happier in their illusions: playing with their “Perky Pat” dolls, or being fed by machines, drugged by the government, manipulated by Martians, and brainwashed by computers. Dick’s confused and usually unwilling heroes are the ones who can’t go back to being simple herd creatures living a lie after they’ve seen the light.
There is something sad and lonely about this way of looking at the human condition. It’s interesting how the later stories in this collection take on a spiritual dimension. But even when the Master of Illusion is identified with God, or a God, faith is impossible because even God is not what he seems In the story “Faith of Our Fathers” the hero Chien sees God but the experience is so terrible he wants to retreat into belief. “A hallucination,” he says, “is merciful. I wish I had it; I want mine back.” In “Rautavaara’s Case” God is only an experiment being run by aliens on a human brain kept artificially alive, a cannibalistic plasma that is “the opposite of Christ.”
The final story, “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” takes this all to its logical conclusion, which is a skepticism so advanced it is madness. And it’s the sort of darkness that makes Dick seem more and more like our unhappy contemporary.
Review first published December 28, 2002.