A little over a year ago, in April of 2006, I was reading a biography of Philip K. Dick on line. It told me that he had written and published around 36 books - full-on novels - in his lifetime. The calculator of obvious-yet-useless-information in my brain said, "Wow, if you read one a month, you wouldn't finish for three years."
Seeing as how I like stupid gameable systems, this seemed like an excellent idea. Similar to Snoopy's reading War and Peace one word per day because he liked to think about what he read.
Well, in May of this year I celebrated one full year of Philip K. Dick. I am proud to say that I am now fully qualified to be emotionally sensitive, paranoid, drug addicted, reality-questioning and a conspiracy theorist.
In order, I read Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Radio Free Albemuth, Our Friends from Frolix 8, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, the Zap Gun, The Cosmic Puppets, Now Wait for Last Year, Vulcan's hammer and The Penultimate Truth.
In reading PKD, one finds the first few books tedious. Phil's world is distorted and twisted, but in one sitting lacks the elegance of Kafka or Murakami. Phil's worlds have characters looking for coherence and redemption, but lack the subtlety of Vonnegut or Russo.
But in 12 readings, or even three or four, PKD starts to gel. Perhaps he didn't write 39 books, but 39 chapters in one long, utterly disjointed epic. During my reading of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I became depressed. "I am not enjoying this," I thought, "I'm not going to make the whole PKD journey."
But somewhere in Radio Free Albemuth, my fourth book, something clicked. The writing style started to work for me. The concepts became familiar. It's sort of like your first PKD book is an intro course, and with repeated exposure things obtain a certain elegance.
30,000 Feet Over Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was a troubled man. Any number of biographies of his play up his own neuroses. His exploits are legendary and very easy to find on the Internet. Since you are likely now reading this on the Internet, I will trust that you have the skills necessary to type "Philip K. Dick Biography" into the search engine of your choice (or if you are using IE 7, Microsoft's choice).
Intentionally, I have picked out a series of elements and made a bunch of PKD sliders. These sliders rank each book on its inherent PKD-ness based on a combination of repeating themes from his book and documented neuroses from his life. You can use these sliders to rank other people on their PKDness. If you do, please, for the love of god, let me know.
The Eight Sliders of Philip K. Dick
Paranoia - You won't get too far into any PKD book before you hit paranoia. It is in every one of his books. Paranoia strikes at any time, usually because people's core definitions of reality have changed or there are institutionalized needs for paranoia. In either case, there is a strong relationship between locus of self-control and self-assuredness. When one loses their feeling of control or self-determination, they become increasingly paranoid. PKD often explored where the line between comfort and discomfort actually lies.
Reality Shifting - As ones reality shifts, we diagnose our new reality. Is it healthy or unhealthy? Is it benign or malignant? Does the new reality require a shift in our actions and reactions? How familiar does the new reality seem? Does it mess with our self-control? Do we accept it or fight to get the old reality back? Reality shifting is so central to PKD books that the few without it are unsettling merely due to the absence.
Loss of Identity - Frank Zappa said, "You are what you is". Philip K. Dick would say "You are what you is, but what necessarily what you was, but you might be what you was in a minute or two." PKD's characters often question their own identity and go searching for a new one - through time, space, drugs and/or dimensions. Identity can be stolen. Identity can be replaced.
Who do you think you are? That's often a challenging question to note that you've somehow overstepped your social bounds. But in PKD books it is often a literal question. Do you exist at all? Are you someone else? Is your history what you remember? Does anyone remember you? Can you be erased from society? Loss of Identity is a fundamental violation of who we are, how we perceive ourselves, and how we justify our actions.
Corruption is not a softball topic. Here we see Webster's definition which not only describes political corruption, but also depravity, decay, and decomposition. A fine hard drive that suddenly no longer works is corrupted. PKD explores every element of corruption. My usage here reflects the moldering of institutions and relationships as they serve morally bankrupt ends.
Social Entropy - Societal collapse goes hand-in-hand with corruption. The inexorable breakdown of human systems of organization, is a staple of the PKD. His own embracing of Gnostic texts and constant searches for salvation in psychology make Social Entropy a favorite haunt of PKD musings.
PKD saw all systems as entropic. We impose order of various forms on our universe, but disorder naturally arises and supplants it. And somewhere in between individuals navigate.
External Control - In PKD, there is usually a hierarchy of puppetmasters, each pulling the strings of the rungs below us. But where he gets really interesting is in flat organizations of peer-to-peer manipulation. In the end, no one is free of external control and often has no recourse - even their brethren are controlling them. PKD himself believed, from time to time, that he was under the control of aliens, other people or the government.
Drugs - PKD said he didn't write drug books, he wrote books with drugs in them. He chafed at the insinuation that his books glorified drugs and said that his books didn't glorify drugs any more than a mystery book glorified murder. But PKD's writing came of age in the 60s and 70s, when drugs were a topic of choice. PKD was no stranger to recreational drugs and incorporated much of their elements in his writing.
In PKD books drugs can propel you to other dimensions, shift time, make you a doll a'la Second Life, alter everyone else's reality, or just mess you up really bad. Drugs always seem to be detrimental and suspicious. For PKD, they were plot device number 1.
Pre-Cognition - Psychic abilities fascinated PKD. They are everywhere in his writing - but interestingly they are most always an exploitable and flawed resource. PreCogs most often work in advertising or some other socially pointless role. Well compensated, vain, and loaded with big Achilles tendons, PreCogs are always likely to have some major ethical issues by then end of the book.
That's my list. Die-hard PKDers are going ask about the absence of many familiar themes: Sex, Christianity, Deism, Gnosticism, Fame, Time Travel, Gender, The Cold War, and so forth. I will say to them, I'd love to see another set of reviews that go for another list (or even just improve on this one). But I am but one blogger and can only go so far without a research grant.
I know the exclusion of the religious elements will certainly tick some people off.
So, I will be reviewing each book based on its treatment of these themes as I go along. The total of these will be the PKD rating for each book and at the end I'll have arrived at the most PKDish PKD book of the lot.
I'll update this post with links to the book reviews as they come about.
Blogged at Cafe Vivace in Seattle (the one by REI) with Live Writer