Philip K. Dick

A Primer

Text by Sohrab Golsorkhi

Philip K. Dick was a prolific science fiction writer for more than three decades. In his lifetime he was often frustrated by the lack of mainstream critical support in America. The themes of simulacra, multiple realities and an interest in symbolism and Jungian psychoanalysis that feature in his work have mainly been celebrated late in life and posthumously. If not by literary critics, then philosophers, cultural analysts and most notably, Hollywood.

"I am weak, small, of no consequence to the universe. It does not notice me; I live on unseen. But why is that bad? Isn't it that way? Whom the gods notice they destroy. Be small […] and you will escape the jealousy of the great."

The Man in The High Castle

Six of the American novelist's short stories have been made into Hollywood movies within the past 20 years. The original works were written for '50s pulp science fiction magazines.

Second Variety (1953) was made into Screamers (1995)

It is the 1950s and the USSR are winning the war against the UN who have been forced to retreat to a base on the Moon. UN scientists develop automated robotic weapons which they send to Earth to fight back against the Soviet Union. After six years the robots have defeated the USSR, but have also evolved. They impersonate humans and exploit their emotions. At the climax of the story a human unwittingly sends a robot to the moon base and accidentally brings the human race to an end. The film is generally faithful to the original text, however, it is set in the future and takes place on planet Sirius 6B. In the end one of the robots helps the last human being on Sirius 6B escape.

Paycheck (1953) was made into a film in 2003

Jennings designs a device that can anticipate the future, but his contract with Rethrick Construction stipulates that his memory is wiped. To prevent complete memory loss he leaves himself a series of trinkets that become the breadcrumbs that lead him to successfully blackmailing Rethrick. In the short story he seeks protection from Rethrick against an authoritarian government that wants to know what he has built for Rethrick. In the film Jennings' main motivation is to bring down Rethrick and destroy the machine, because he knows it  will cause a nuclear war.

Impostor (1953) was made into a film in 2002

Spence Olham's colleague accuses him of being a "replicant" sent by aliens to undermine Earth's defences. Though Olham thinks he is innocent, he is not convinced. He manages to escape and leads his captors to the original crash site to show them the broken android that was meant to replace him. However, all he finds is the dead human body of Spence Olham. The realisation that he was the replicant all along is the trigger for a bomb that destroys the Earth. In the movie version the alien scheme is to assassinate the "chancellor of Earth", unlike the short story, the plan fails.

The Golden Man (1954) was made into Next (2007)

Cris is "the golden man" with the ability to see into the future and know the outcome of all possible actions. He is captured by a couple who work for a government agency trying to neutralise mutants who pose a threat to the rest of humanity. The couple wants to study his ability, but are unaware of all of Cris' skills. His gold skin allows him to seduce members of the opposite sex and so he manages to impregnates the fiancée who then helps him escape. In Next, Cris does not have golden skin but his ability to see into the future places him at the centre of a struggle between the FBI and a terrorist cell.

Adjustment Team (1954) was made into The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Salesman Ed Fletcher accidentally disrupts the work of an adjustment team that is making corrections to Sector T137, intended to ease Cold War tensions. He is meant to be inside the sector when adjustments are made, but arrives late and  emerges in the grey ash world of the de-activated Sector T137. Brought before the "Old Man", Fletcher is threatened to stay quiet. The concept of The Adjustment Bureau is loosely based on the original. The bureau makes sure that peoples' lives follow a predetermined plan that is created by "the chairman". The film suggests that humanity was allowed to have free will in the past, but proved unable to manage. It always resulted in disaster and each time the bureau was forced to regain control.

The Minority Report (1956) was made into a film in 2002

The pre-crime unit relies on the visions of three people with precognitive abilities to identify and capture felons before they commit their crime. The activity of each "precog" is monitored and analysed by computers, that create three reports pertaining to a future event. These are analysed for consistency and the two with the greatest similarity form the basis of the majority report. This implies the existence of a minority report containing the vision of the third precog. When pre-crime creator John Anderton is identified as a future murderer he goes in search of the minority report. He discovers that his future victim is General Leopold Kaplan. The story ends with Anderton saving the pre-crime unit by killing Kaplan because it was his intention to draw more financing to the military by discrediting pre-crime. In the movie version the ending is turned on its head, Anderton uncovers a plot to incite him to murder, and by ensuring the murder never happens Anderton reveals a flaw in the system that leads to the closure of pre-crime.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966) was made into Total Recall (1990, with a remake planned for this year)

Douglas Quail visits Rekal Inc., a company which offers memory implants. Quail wants to have memories of a visit to Mars, so the staff at Rekal plan to implant an exciting memory in which he is a secret agent. However they discover that his mind contains dangerous national secrets that show Quail to be an undercover government assassin. Quail goes on the run, but is tracked down. He makes a deal, agreeing to replace the classified information in his memory with a false memory representing his deepest personal desire - that he prevented a Martian invasion when he was a child. The story ends with the revelation that this memory may also be true. The movie version focuses on the events of Quail's memories on Mars, and ends with him on the planet.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was made into Blade Runner (1982)

The story is a day in the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard. His job is to hunt and kill fugitive androids pretending to be human. As Deckard goes from one job to another, the plot reveals a cross section of societies with androids living, working and hiding. From Rachael, a highly advanced android who offers sexual favours to bounty hunters in return for the lives of other androids - to a seemingly normal police station which is staffed by androids. In the movie version Rachael initially doesn't realise she is an android. Deckard is sent to "retire" her when she does find out and is no longer useful. However Rachael and Deckard fall in love and decide to go into hiding.

A Scanner Darkly (1977) was made into a film in 2006

Considered to be a generally faithful adaptation of the book, A Scanner Darkly is about a police officer named Agent Fred, who while posing undercover as a drug user Bob Arctor, becomes addicted to Substance D. Bob/Fred discovers his addiction is planned so that he might be admitted to the New-Path rehab centre to find out how the clinic is funded. As part of his treatment Agent Fred is forced to work on a communal farm where, in the field he is tending, he recognises the flower which is the chief ingredient of Substance D.

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Selected novels:

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Germany and Japan have won WWII, and are now engaged in a cold war that has its frontier in the United States. A fictional novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is banned by the German and Japanese governments because it tells the tale of an alternate universe where Britain and America win WWII. Throughtout the story, the Chinese classic I Ching is regularly consulted by Japanese and American characters because its hexagrams give insight into the future. Philip K. Dick himself consulted the I Ching while he was writing and so The Man in the High Castle also shows his fictional author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy doing the same thing.

Ubik (1969)

Ubik is an ambiguously defined, ubiquitously advertised substance that supposedly prolongs the lifespan of people held cryogenically in suspended animation. The narrative follows Joe Chip, a technician working for a psychic organisation. On arriving at a new job on a moon base, Chip's team is the victim of a bomb explosion. The only casualty is the company's boss Glen Runciter, who they rush back to Earth to preserve in "half-life". Reality seems to shift around the group, consumables deteriorate prematurely and the surroundings appear to shift back in time to a period resembling 1939. The only constant is the ad for Ubik. The team starts to receive messages from Runciter through the television and his face appears on coins. Joe Chip discovers that Runciter was in fact the sole survivor and that he and the rest of the group have been in "half-life" the whole time. The crumbling reality that they experience is the work of Jory Miller, another "half-lifer" who devours the life force of others to extend his existence.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974)

After a fight with his girlfriend, TV celebrity Jason Taverner wakes up to discover that nobody knows who he is. His whole identity has been erased and it is as though he never existed. When he meets Alys Buckman he discovers that he had in fact been removed from his own reality and transplanted into the drug induced reality of Buckman. When she later overdoses and the drugs wear off, Taverner is returned to the reality he knows.

VALIS (1980)

VALIS [Vast Active Living Intelligence System] is the most autobiographical novel. The two principle characters are called Philip K. Dick and Horselover Fat. Horselover derives from the Greek etymology of the name Philip, and in German the surname Dick means "fat". The major subject of these dialogues is spirituality, as Dick/ Fat is/are ostensibly obsessed with several religions and philosophies. VALIS is an attempt by Dick, and the character in the novel to understand the visions he claims to have experienced in 1974. §

 

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