Criticism and analysis - Philip K Dick Back To Main Page

DISCovering Authors Modules Copyright © 1996, Gale Research

Philip K(indred) Dick 1928 - 1982

SOURCE: DISCovering Authors, Gale Research Inc., 1996.

[Overview of Author’s Works and Career.]

The central problem in much of the late Philip K. Dick’s science fiction is how to distinguish the real from the unreal. He once told Contemporary Authors: "My major preoccupation is the question, ‘What is reality?’" In novel after novel, Dick’s characters find that their familiar world is in fact an illusion, either self-created or imposed on them by others. Dick "liked to begin a novel," Patricia Warrick wrote in Science-Fiction Studies, "with a commonplace world and then have his characters fall through the floor of this normal world into a strange new reality." Drug-induced hallucinations, robots and androids, mystical visions, paranoic elusions, and alternate or artificial worlds are the stuff of which Dick’s flexible universe is made. "All of his work," Charles Platt wrote in Dream Makers: The Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, "starts with the basic assumption that there cannot be one, single, objective reality. Everything is a matter of perception. The ground is liable to shift under your feet. A protagonist may find himself living out another person’s dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that actually makes better sense than the real world, or he may cross into a different universe completely."

Despite the mutable and often dangerous nature of Dick’s fictional worlds, his characters retain at least a faint hope for the future, and manage to survive and comfort one another. Dick’s characters are usually ordinary people—repairmen, housewives, students, salesmen—caught up in overwhelming situations that call into questiontheir basic beliefs about themselves and their world. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, powerful drugs create such believable hallucinations that users find it difficult to know when the hallucination has ended and the real world has returned. A character in Time Out of Joint discovers that he does not really live in a mid-twentieth-century American town as he had believed. He lives in an artificial replica of an American town built by a government of the future for its own purposes. In Eye in the Sky, eight people at a research facility are pushed by a freak accident into a state of consciousness where each one’s subjective reality becomes real for the entire group for a time. They experience worlds where the ideas of a religious cult member, a communist, a puritan, and a paranoid are literally true. The ability of Dick’s characters to survive these situations, preserving their sanity and humanity in the process, is what Dick celebrated. His novels presented a "world where ordinary people do the best they can against death-driven, malevolent forces," Tom Whalenwrote in the American Book Review.

In many books Dick stressed the importance of emotion, "which in his view made men human," Steven Kosek wrote in the Chicago Tribune Book World. In Now Wait for Last Year, it is the ability to feel for others that distinguishes the aliens from the Earthlings, while in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a similar ability separates the androids from human beings. This emphasis on human emotions is usually contrasted with the technological environment in which Dick’s characters find themselves. The typical Dick novel is set in a technologically advanced, near-future America which is falling apart in some way. Caught in the accelerating chaos, his characters need all of their humanity to survive. "There are no heroics in Dick’s books," Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in New Republic, "but there are heroes. One is reminded of [Charles] Dickens: what counts is the honesty, constancy, kindness and patience of ordinary people."

Dick had, John Clute maintained in the Washington Post Book World , a "self-lacerating, feverish, deeply argued refusal to believe that the diseased prison of a world we all live in could possibly be the ‘real’ world." As Dick himself explained it in his introduction to the story collection The Golden Man: "I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards." In the afterword to that same collection, Dick explained why he chose to write science fiction: "SF is a field of rebellion: against accepted ideas, institutions, against all that is. In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real."

This questioning of reality was often accomplished through the use of "two basic narrative situations...," Patrick G. Hogan, Jr. wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "One favorite plot device is that of alternate universes or parallel worlds.... [Dick] is also fascinated by what he characteristically calls simulacra, devices ranging from merely complex mechanical and electronic constructs to androids, and by the paradoxes created by their relationships to organic life, especially that of human beings." Many critics consider the best of Dick’s novels about alternate universes to be The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is probably his best known novel about simulacra.

The Man in the High Castle, winner of the Hugo Award and generally considered Dick’s best novel, is set in a world in which America lost the Second World War. The nation has been divided in two and occupied by the Germans and Japanese. Most of the novel takes place on the Japanese-occupied West Coast and revolves around a group of Americans who are trying to cope with their status as subject people. Concerned primarily with creating a believable alternate society, the novel reveals in the process "how easily this nation would have surrendered its own culture under a Japanese occupation and how compatible American fears, prejudices, and desires were with Nazism," as Hogan remarked. The novel’s "man in the high castle" is the author of an underground bestseller about an alternate world where America won the war. "I did seven years of research for The Man in the High Castle," Dick said in an interview for the Missouri Review. "I had prime-source material at the Berkeley-Cal library right from the gestapo’s mouth—stuff that had been seized after World War II.... That’s ... why I’ve never written a sequel to it: it’s too horrible, too awful. I started several times to write a sequel, but I [would have] had to go back and read about Nazis again, so I couldn’t do it." Dick used the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divining system, to plot The Man in the High Castle. At each critical juncture in the narrative, Dick consulted the I Ching to determine the proper course of the plot.

The alternate universes in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are created by powerful hallucinogenic drugs. The novel is set in the near-future when the increasing heat of the sun is making life on Earth impossible. The United Nations is forcing people to immigrate to Mars, an inhospitable desert waste where colonists must live in underground hovels. Because of the boredom of colony life, a drug-induced fantasy world has been devised which uses small dolls and miniature settings. When a colonist takes the drug Can-D, he becomes one of the dolls and lives for a brief time in an Earth-like setting. The manufacturer of the dolls and settings—a company named Perky Pat Layouts, after the female doll—also sells Can-D. When Palmer Eldritch returns from a deep-space exploration, he brings with him a supply of the new and more powerful drug Chew-Z. Eldritch has also acquired three "stigmata"—an artificial metallic arm, enormous steel teeth, and artificial eyes. His Chew-Z is cheaper and longer-lasting than Can-D and he soon is selling it to the Martian colonists. But Chew-Z doesn’t seem to wear off. The user is moved into a world that seems like his own but with the important difference that Palmer Eldritch has god-like powers. Bruce Gillespie, writing in Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, called Palmer Eldritch "one of the few masterpieces of recent science fiction."

Dick received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, a near-future novel in which popular television talk show host Jason Taverner wakes up one morning in a world where he is unknown. No record even exists of his having been born, an awkward situation in the records-conscious police state that Taverner’s California has become. The explanation for this impossibility is that Taverner is living within the drug hallucination of Alys Buckner, and in that hallucination there is no place for him. The powerful drug, able to impose Alys’s hallucination on reality itself, eventually kills her, and Taverner is set free. "Dick skillfully explores the psychological ramifications of this nightmare," Gerald Jonas commented in the New York Times Book Review, "but he is even more interested in the reaction of a ruthlessly efficient computerized police state to the existence of a man, who, according to the computers, should not exist."

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Dick’s most celebrated novel about simulacra, mechanical objects which simulate life. In this novel Dick posits a world in which androids are so highly developed that it is only by the most rigid testing that one can distinguish them from human beings. The key difference is the quality of empathy which humans have for other living things. When some androids escape from a work colony and make their way to Earth, bounty hunter Rick Deckard must find them. But Deckard gradually comes to feel compassion for the androids, realizing that the tests he gives measure only a subtle difference between androids and humans. In contrast to this officially-sanctioned tracking and killing of androids, this near-future society accepts artificial animals of all kinds—everything from sheep to spiders. With most real animals extinct, replicas are fashionable to own. One of the rarest animals is the toad, and when Deckard discovers one in the desert he believes he has made an important find. But even in the desert there are no real animals. Deckard notices a small control panel in the toad’s abdomen. Nonetheless, he takes the toad home and cares for him. His wife, touched by his concern for the "creature," buys some electric flies for the toad to eat. "Against this bizarre background of pervasive fakery," Philip Strick wrote in Sight and Sound, "the erosion of authentic humanity by undetectable android imitations has all the plausibility of a new and lethal plague whereby evolution would become substitution and nobody would notice the difference." Writing in Philip K. Dick , Patricia S. Warrick called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? "one of Dick’s finest novels," citing its "complexity of structure and idea." Androids was loosely adapted as the film Blade Runner in 1982.

Several critics have commented on the structure of Dick’s fiction, pointing out that many novels end inconclusively and are often filled with deliberate paradoxes and inconsistencies. Angus Taylor, writing in his Philip K. Dick and the Umbrella of Light, explained that Dick "undermines the plot in its superficial aspect by throwing roadblocks in the way of the smooth succession of events, and asks us to divert our attention, to search out and accept the poetic core of the work; he tries to focus our attention on the plot as a ‘net’ for catching something strange and otherworldly." In similar terms, Roger Zelazny noted in Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd that "the subjective response, ... when a Philip Dick book has been finished and put aside is that, upon reflection, it does not seem so much that one holds the memory of a story; rather, it is the after effects of a poem rich in metaphor that seem to remain." Writing in Extrapolation, Mary Kay Bray saw Dick’s novels as using a "mandalic" structure. "The key to mandalic structure," Bray wrote, "is that it radiates from a center and must suggest that center in all its patterns and images. In point of view and details of landscape and character, Dick’s novels manage just that." Also writing in Extrapolation , Warrick argued that in Dick’s novels, he creates a "bi-polar construction" of reality. This construction presents both sides of a question simultaneously, expecting a synthesis from the reader. This synthesis results in the reader seeing "from opposite directions simultaneously. He is rewarded with a fleeting epiphany—Dick’s vision of ‘process reality,"’ Warrick wrote. "Ultimately, however, one intuits, not analyzes, Dick’s meaning."

In writing several novels, Dick drew upon his own life experiences. A Scanner Darkly, for example, is dedicated to a list of Dick’s friends who died or suffered permanent health damage because of drugs. The novel concerns undercover narcotics agent Bob Arctor, who is assigned to investigate himself. His superiors are unaware of his undercover identity and Arctor cannot afford to reveal it. He investigates himself to avoid suspicion. While conducting the investigation, however, Arctor is taking the drug Substance D. The drug splits his personality until he no longer recognizes himself in surveillance videotapes. Arctor’s condition worsens until he is finally put into a drug rehabilitation program. "The novel," Patrick Parrinder wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "is a frightening allegory of the process of drug abuse, in which some of the alternative realities experienced are revealed as the hallucinations of terminal addicts." "Drug misuse is not a disease," Dick wrote in an author’s note to the novel, "it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car." Dick himself suffered pancreatic damage from his involvement with drugs. His use of amphetamines resulted in the high blood pressure which eventually ended in his fatal stroke. Dick told Platt that he had "regarded drugs as dangerous and potentially lethal, but I had a cat’s curiosity. It was my interest in the human mind that made me curious.... These were essentially religious trivings that were appearing in me."

This interest in religion crystallized in 1974 in a mystical experience which changed the course of Dick’s career. "I experienced an invasion of my mind," Dick explained to Platt, "by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane." For several months, this presence took over Dick’s mind and directed his actions. He claimed that it straightened out his health and finances and put his business affairs in order. Despite numerous efforts to rationalize the experience, Dick was unable to come to any conclusions about it. In VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Dick wrote of theological paradoxes and seekers after truth, exploring various religious concepts for possible answers. Dick realized the disturbing appearance of his claims. In VALIS, he questioned his own sanity through two characters who are aspects of himself. Horselover Fat is a half-mad mystic who hears God’s voice in his head. The other character, Phil Dick, is a writer who tries to understand Horselover, although he regards him in a bemused manner. It is revealed in the course of the novel that Horselover is actually a psychological projection of Phil. He has been created as a way to deal with the death of Phil’s loved ones, to act as a shield against accepting those deaths. With this revelation, Clute observed, "we begin to see the artfulness in the way Dick has chosen to handle (like a magician, or a writer) material too nutty to accept, too admonitory to forget, too haunting to abandon." After asking the question "Was Phil Dick sane?," Peter Nicholls wrote in Science Fiction Review that "the question has no absolute answer.... Phil thought that God had reached into his mind. To this day I am not sure whether he meant this literally or metaphorically."

At his best, Dick is generally regarded as one of the finest science fiction writers of his time. Nicholls believed him to be "one of the greatest science fiction writers in history, and one of this century’s most important writers in any field." He was, Whalen maintained, "one of America’s best writers.... He was a great science fiction writer, so much so, that one is reluctant to apply the SF label, with its undeserved stigma, to his writing." Similarly, Clute held that Dick was the "greatest of science fiction writers—though he’s by no means the best writer of science fiction" to clarify that what Dick wrote was concerned with the human condition, not with the technological progress of the future. Kosek believed Dick had a "very intense and morally significant vision of life" which he made evident in "a long string of compelling, idiosyncratic novels..., most of which embodied a single urgent message: Things are not what they seem to be." In her evaluation of Dick’s work, LeGuin stressed that it was easy to misinterpret him. A reader "may put the book down believing that he’s read a clever sci-fi thriller and nothing more," LeGuin wrote. "The fact that what Dick is entertaining us about is reality and madness, time and death, sin and salvation—this has escaped most readers and critics. Nobody notices; nobody notices that we have our own homegrown [Jorge Luis] Borges, and have had him for 30 years."

Copyright © 1996, Gale Research

DISCovering Authors Modules Copyright © 1996, Gale Research

Philip K(indred) Dick 1928 - 1982

SOURCE: Carl Freedman, "Towards a Theory of Paranoia: The Science

Fiction of Philip K. Dick," in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1,

March, 1984, pp. 15-24.

[In the following excerpt, Carl Freedman examines Dick’s works from the perspective of economic and psychoanalytic theory.]

"The ultimate in paranoia," writes Philip K. Dick,

is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’ Objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own anyhow, to the normal mind; they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they get in the way, they show an unnatural resistance to change.

This comment on the early short story, "Colony," has a direct and obvious relevance to representations that appear throughout the Dick canon. Examples include the Lovecraftian house-creature in Eye in the Sky, the assassination machine which masquerades as a television set in The Penultimate Truth, the comically insolent and litigious door in Ubik, and the occasionally murderous car-repair factory in Deus Irae. Rarely for Dick are objects what common sense would suppose them to be, and the will with which they are invested can even constitute a precise mimicry of such quintessentially "human" types as the benignly authoritative father (Kindly Dad in Martian Time-Slip) or the irresistible and dangerous sexpot (Rachel Rosen in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the major theme of which is the practical difficulty of distinguishing between human beings and one variety of objects).

That objects have a will, and a quasi-human will, of their own is, of course, also an idea long familiar to historical materialism. Capital itself opens with the intricate analysis of the fetishism of commodities—definable as the process whereby "the definite social relation between men themselves ... assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things"—and some of the metaphors which Marx employs in explaining how products of human labor appear to be "endowed with a life of their own" have what one may be tempted to call a Dickian ring:

The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, with relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

Since Capital, commodity fetishism has become a central category in many versions of Marxist cultural theory, and has been developed and reformulated in various ways—as reification, for instance, by Lukacs, and as counter-finality by Sartre. Yet Philip Dick, when writing discursively of quasi-living "things," chooses a term not directly related to Marxism at all but one drawn from the different science of psychoanalysis: paranoia.This apparent displacement, I suggest, is not necessarily a vulgar psychologistic reduction, but a potentially fruitful hint which may shed some light on the historical status of certain psychoanalytic categories, on the nature of signification under monopoly capitalism, and on the materialist reading of SF. In what follows I will outline a Marxist theory of paranoia and will then suggest its relevance to SF in general and to the work of Dick in particular, reserving my main critical emphasis for the novel which I take to be Dick’s finest, Ubik.

For Freud, the ideational structure of paranoia is that of a ruthless hermeneutic. In one essay, indeed, he defines the disease as "the hypercathexis of the interpretations of someone else’s unconscious." The point here is that the paranoiac has an abnormally high investment in the hermeneutic practice which he or she performs on the symptomatic actions of other people. Somewhat similarly, in the Schreber case-history Freud conceptualizes the alleged homoerotic basis of paranoia by means of a semantic decoding of the various possible contradictions of the sentence, "I love him": each contradiction constitutes one mode of interpretation of worldly phenomena, and corresponds to one variety of paranoia. But not only is the paranoiac an interpreter: he or she is one of an especially systematic and ambitious type. In the essay "On Narcissism," Freud explicitly links paranoia with the formation of speculative systems, and in the reading of Schreber he notes a profound affinity between paranoia and megalomaniacal delusions of world catastrophe. The paranoiac is not only someone for whom every detail is meaningful—for whom nothing can be left uninterpreted or taken for granted—but someone who holds a conception of meaning that is both totalizing and hermeneutic. The paranoiac is the most rigorous of metaphysicians. The typical paranoid outlook is thoroughgoing, internally logical, never trivializing, and capable of explaining the multitude of observed phenomena as aspects of a symmetrical and expressive totality. No particular of empirical reality is so contingent or heterogeneous that the paranoiac cannot, by a straightforward process of point-for-point correspondence, interpret its meaning within the framework of his or her own grand system. The totalizing closure of paranoia is, in fact, noted as lucidly by Dick as by Freud: in "Shell Game" (one of Dick’s finest stories and the germ of Clans of the Alphane Moon), the massive frustration of attempting to break down such closure is powerfully recorded, and the basic problem is clearly stated. "The paranoid is totally rigid," says one of the characters. "He logically weaves all events, all persons, all chance remarks and happenings, into his system."

Freud is similarly baffled. One can detect an unusual tone of weary exasperation when he reports his experience in treating jealousy (always closely related to paranoia and, beyond a certain point of delusionality, one of its varieties): "one must refrain from disputing with [the jealous patient] the material on which he bases his suspicions; one can only aim at bringing him to regard the matter in a different light." On the other hand, though Freud never considers paranoia as other than a sickness, it is a sickness for which he seems to have an unaccustomed intellectual respect. Not only does he associate paranoia with philosophy; he suggests that there may be "more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to believe," and as early as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life he concedes a "partial justification" to paranoiac interpretations. Or, as the paranoiac Horselover Fat says of himself in Dick’s Valis, "What he did not know then is that it is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane."

Jacques Lacan, however, goes one step further. What Freud regards as an especially interesting disease Lacan situates as crucial to the "normal" human psyche. The rationalizing interpretations of paranoia, elaborated into a system at the center of which stands the "I" of the paranoiac, are for Lacan paradigmatic of human psychic development as inaugurated by the "mirror stage" of objectifying identification, when distinctions and links are first established between an alienated "I" and an alienating not-"I." It is in this way that, in such early essays as "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis" and "The Freudian Thing," Lacan maintains that the ego is structured on a paranoiac basis and that human knowledge operates according to a paranoiac principle. But the largest significance of these well-known formulations becomes evident only in the context of Lacan’s later attempt, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, to provide a materialist historicization of the major psychoanalytic categories. He argues that the subject known to Freudian analysis—which seems to itself to be centered and autonomous but which analytic theory and practice show to be divided or "de-centered" between the Imaginary (or specular and dualistic) and Symbolic (or linguistic and structural) Orders—is by no means an eternal, ahistorical phenomenon. On the contrary, Lacan repeatedly links its emergence with such cultural products of the period of nascent bourgeois hegemony as perspectival optics and the Cartesian cogito: the Freudian subject and the subject of capitalism are inextricably related.

Again, paranoia plays a crucial role in Lacan’s formulations. "At the basis of paranoia itself," he says, "there reigns the phenomenon of the Unglauben," which is in turn defined as "the absence of one of the terms of belief, of the term in which is designated the division of the subject." But the designation of the division of the subject is, of course, precisely what the bourgeois ego constitutively and necessarily forecloses; and, again, there is no basis for a sharp distinction between the paranoiac and the "normal" subject of capitalist society.

It is in a Lacanian framework, then, that we can draw the most radical conclusions from Freud’s descriptions of paranoia, which Freud himself was prevented from drawing by his ahistoricism and by his decisive clinical dichotomy between disease and health. Paranoia, we can conclude, is no mere aberration but is structurally crucial to the way that we, as ordinary subjects of bourgeois hegemony, represent ourselves to ourselves and embark on the Cartesian project of acquiring empiricist knowledge. In this sense, we can accept Freud’s urgency when he insists of certain paranoiac delusions that "There is in fact some truth in them."

But what is it in the workings of capitalism that interpellates individuals as paranoid subjects? If, as we have seen, paranoia operates by a hermeneutic logic, what is it in bourgeois society that we are compelled to interpret? Capitalism is definable as generalized commodity production, which, as Marx shows, necessarily encompasses generalized commodity fetishism. But the secret of the commodity itself—the basic distinction between the commodity and the noncommodified object of traditional societies—is its dual aspect, its status as both a use-value that satisfies some human need and an exchange-value that renders it an interchangeable atom in the total system of exchange and that mystifies its origin in human labor. Furthermore, use-value, though indispensable to the commodity, is also, paradoxically, irrelevant to its status qua commodity: capitalism constitutes the hegemony of exchange-value (or simply "value," as Marx more often calls it). I suggest, then, that the commodity as bearer of value—both the basic economic "cell" of capitalism and a mystifying signifier—is the ultimate object of paranoid hermeneutic by the historical subjects of bourgeois society. If we are economically constituted as capitalists and workers who must buy and sell human labor that is commodified into labor-power, then we are psychically constituted as paranoid subjects who must seek to interpret the signification of the objects—commodities—which define us and which, in a quasi-living manner, mystify the way that they and we are defined. "Value," says Marx, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as is their language.

From a Lacanian perspective, it is easy to see that there is nothing accidental in the collocation of language and value: both are signifying orders which demand interpretation. In addition, it is, I think, also arguable that what is generally true of capitalism is particularly true of 20th-century monopoly capitalism. "Consumerism"—that is, the increased importance of individual as distinct from productive consumption and the organized stimulation of the former by techniques such as advertising—saturates the social field with hieroglyphics to an extent unprecedented in all of human history. Virtually no aspect of life is left untouched: if our sexual lives are as dependent on over-the-counter contraceptive devices as our political awareness is on televised representations of the "news," yet all of these components of what has been called "the society of the spectacle" are first and last mystifying bearers of exchange-value. When writing discursively, Dick may speak merely of "objects," but in his novels the commodification of these objects is made evident.

The androids manufactured by the Rosen Association are primarily for sale, while in Ubik the ordinary accouterments of Joe Chip’s middle-class life (his coffee-pot, his door, his shower, his bathroom, his refrigerator, et alia) actually foreground their role as exchange-values by verbally (and not too politely) demanding money before each act of use. If, as has often been noted, Dick is a paranoid writer, this is true not only because, on the level of character representation, his protagonists tend to be fearful and harassed men who strive to interpret and deal with alienating forces beyond their control. Even more importantly, the logic of Dick’s paranoia is constituted by his representation of those forces themselves as commodities. In The Unteleported Man, even a nightmare vision of German totalitarianism is based on a popular consumer-oriented business. In The Zap Gun, even the world-wide arms race resolves into the production and marketing of consumer goods. Commodities for Dick are frequently "alive" in a more than metaphorical sense, for they are shown to participate in the paradigmatically "human" exchanges of linguistic and sexual intercourse. Like Joe Chip, one can argue with them, plead with them, scold them. Like Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, one can even go to bed with them. It is, to put the matter mildly, unlikely that Philip Dick ever intended to represent the subjective or ideological state that a Marxist-Lacanian theory, which co-ordinates paranoia with commodity fetishism, would lead one to expect as paradigmatic for the bourgeois ego. But, objectively, this formulation seems to me a valid description of one major aspect of his work. Marx illustrates commodity fetishism through the metaphor of the acrobatic, thinking, dancing table. Lacan, in "The Freudian Thing," illustrates the paranoiac structure of the ego through the metaphor of the speaking desk. Dick accepts this kind of metaphoric structure and novelisticallyliteralizes it.

But it is not only commodity fetishism which, as Dick’s texts also suggest, can be co-ordinated with paranoia. Second only to this economic category is a more specifically political category whose pressure is also felt in Dick’s paranoid texts: conspiracy. Conspiracy (in sharp contrast to commodity fetishism) is a woefully under-theorized term in the Marxist tradition, which has, indeed, tended to be extremely wary of it. Marxists have suspected, often justly, that to invoke conspiracy in political discourse is to replace structural analysis with merely ethical finger-pointing. Yet it can also be argued that in a monopoly-capitalist state like modern America—intensely centralized and militarized but still governed according to bourgeois-democratic forms—conspiracy is no voluntaristic aberration but a structural necessity for ruling-class politics. When actual political power is largely concentrated in a relatively compact network of corporate, military, and governmental bureaucracies—and yet when it is unfeasible to exercise this power in despotic ways that too openly flout popular sentiment or legislative and judicial sanctions—then the ruling elite may have only two choices. It can curtail the enforcement of its perceived interests out of prudence or (ethical) respect for republican parliamentarianism; or it can adopt conspiratorial methods. There is, I think, substantial evidence that the latter course has frequently been taken, from the still murky affairs at Dealey Plaza and the Watergate, to the open expressions of contempt for and evasion of democratic sanctions that Noam Chomsky and others have repeatedly documented in publications of elite groups like the Trilateral Commission. But a fully rigorous Marxist theorization of conspiracy has yet to be undertaken. Though I can hardly develop such a theory here, I will suggest that it is at least provisionally plausible to regard conspiracy as crucial to a theoretical description of the political level of society under certain varieties of monopoly capitalism.

Such a theory would, in any case, tend to explain the representations of conspiracy in Dick’s fiction, where conspiracy is often as powerful as commodity fetishism and where the hermeneutic of paranoia works to decipher signs of conspiracy as well as exchange-values. In Dr Bloodmoney the ultimate conspiracy of nuclear war (one of Dick’s recurring obsessions) is metaphorically located in the brain of one right-wing military scientist, but usually Dick’s treatment is more literal. In Time Out of Joint, for example, Ragle Gumm’s paranoid delusion of being the object of an immense governmental conspiracy and the most consequential person in the world turns out to be the precise, unproblematic truth. Similarly, in A Scanner Darkly, Robert Arctor is finally destroyed by the conspiratorial collusion between the state authorities which employ him and the criminal drug syndicate which he is employed to fight. In Ubik, the plot structure itself is based on the interpretative attempts of Joe Chip and his colleagues to discover the nature and perpetrator of the horrifying conspiracy that has enveloped them—questions which, after several apparent answers, the novel finally leaves in permanent suspense. If Dick’s protagonists tend to be paranoid, there is always much for them to be paranoid about. For they live in a world dominated by commodities and conspiracies; which is to say, a world not wholly unlike our own. I will later discuss whether paranoia can finally be considered "true." But it is normally the truth for Philip Dick.

And not only for him. There is, I suggest, a privileged relationship between paranoiac ideology and the genre of SF in general. For SF, far more than mundane fiction, requires what seems to be the fictional creation of a new world, one whose assumptions are radically at variance with those of everyday life. Yet (unless we are willing to invoke a theological concept of poetic inspiration or imagination) creation in this context can only mean an ideological interpretation of the actual world. The radical novelty of SF interpretations—which helps to produce what Darko Suvin has termed the "cognitive estrangement" of the genre—tends to require a rather thorough and totalizing presentation; for little can be taken for granted or left to the reader’s common sense. It is in this way that Dr Schreber, with his estranging, self-consistent, paranoid world-vision, is himself very nearly an SF author. Furthermore, the great majority of SF inherits certain basic formal properties from the realist, as distinct from the modernist or post-modernist, novel: the typical SF text has a smoothly diachronic narrative line and offers its characters as mimetic representations of human beings. Such formal tendencies work to reinforce the pressure toward logical coherence and expressive totalization. In both estranging "content" and realist "form," then, SF closely corresponds to the weird and coherent interpretative systems of the paranoiac.

One could, I think, write a history of the genre in these terms—from the pioneering efforts of H. G. Wells (the negative utopias of The Time Machine [1895] and When the Sleeper Wakes [1899], the nightmare representation of extraterrestrial imperialism in The War of the Worlds [1898]), to such more recent and sophisticated efforts as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), where the luxury commodities of A-Io have an always ominous and finally sinister aura, or Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 (1966), where language itself is reified into a conspiratorial weapon of war. If Philip Dick, however, is, as some have claimed, the greatest of all SF authors—"the Shakespeare of science fiction," as Fredric Jameson has called him—then I suggest that his stature can be at least partly explained by his pre-eminence in the production of paranoiac ideology, his uniquely rigorous and consistent representations of human subjects caught in the web of commodities and conspiracies. These two paranoid themes are perhaps most fully worked out and combined in Ubik, which, however, may also imply a certain critique of paranoia itself.

The world of Ubik is thoroughly saturated by commodities that foreground their status as quasi-living, mystifying signifiers. Not only do doors threaten to sue and coffee-pots demand money for services rendered; creditor robots dun free-spending debtors like Joe Chip, and animate homeopapes read the news for a specified fee. Telephones and TV sets occasionally adopt a will of their own and, much to Joe Chip’s confusion, transmit their messages in a way only very dubiously related to any human agency. One of the first clear indications in the plot that things have gone desperately wrong, that the characters may have been killed, is that money—the universal equivalent of all exchange-values—begins to alter its form. Later, the time-regression which the characters experience is charted primarily by the backward technological march of commodities, as when an ultra-modern TV set regresses into an old-fashioned radio. Furthermore, it is not only that commodities make their presence insistently felt, sometimes comically, sometimes nightmarishly, but always in an estranging manner which invites interpretation; the world of Ubik is also one in which virtually everything is in one way or another commodified. Pat Conley, perhaps the most frightening femme fatale in the Dick canon, becomes Joe Chip’s mistress by paying a straightforward cash sum, and appropriately wears the tattoo caveat emptor (which Joe is unable to decipher). Expensive moratoriums maintain the dead in a state of "half-life," the commodity structure having produced the technology to deconstruct even the distinction between life and death. An important role in the capitalist economy of 1992 is played by Ray Hollis’s firm of hired "precogs" and telepaths, and also by the prudence organizations like Runciter Associates, which, on a strictly commercial basis, will provide "inertials" to neutralize unwanted eavesdropping and prognostication.

It is not accidental that the most intimate and valued human relationship represented in the novel is that between Joe Chip and Glen Runciter: that is, between employee and employer (as both are frequently noting), between seller and buyer of the commodity called labor-power. Finally, the entire text is semantically dominated by Ubik itself, the ultimate and universal commodity and the symbol of the ubiquity of the commodity structure. Introduced in the small commercials that serve as epigraphs to each chapter (where it is in turn presented as a make of car, a brand of beer, a brand of instant coffee, et alia), Ubik finally enters the narrative itself as a mysterious spray in an aerosol can that seems to be the most powerful "reality support" available, the only force capable of at least temporarily reversing the processes of regression and death. In the end, this strange but paradigmatic commodity is identified with theological mystery: "I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am.... I am. I shall always be."

From every direction, then, the characters of Ubik, who become increasingly paranoid as the narrative progresses, are dominated by—indeed constituted by—the commodity structure. But their paranoia is also, and even more directly, determined by the terrifying conspiracy or conspiracies that trap them. That they and their (commodified) surroundings should be made to regress, to go backward in time and be drained of vital energy, is itself a conspiracy worthy of Kafka or Pynchon. But even more powerful is the extreme importance and difficulty of deciphering the conspiracy. First, it seems to be the effect of the bomb blast arranged by Ray Hollis; later, it appears that it may possibly be a weird practical joke by Glen Runciter; for some time, Joe Chip and his friends are convinced that the psionic powers of Pat Conley are responsible; finally, the childish half-lifer Jory is found to be the perpetrator. Yet even this hard-won knowledge is problematized in the novel’s last lines, where Glen Runciter (whom we had assumed not to be conspiratorially trapped) is left holding a Joe Chip coin, as Joe and the other characters had earlier found Runciter’s face on their money. "This was just the beginning," the novel concludes, and the definitive explanation of the conspiracy is indefinitely postponed.

Likewise, of course, the mystical veil finally thrown over Ubik precludes any final explanation of the commodity structure. This indeterminacy, this textually explicit failure of closure, is rare in Dick’s fiction, and can, I think, be read as hinting at the conceptual limits of paranoia itself. For this fissuring of the text, this refusal to provide any unproblematic narrative resolution, constitutes precisely the kind of epistemological disjunction that paranoia cannot allow. The novel may thus suggest that paranoia—and no Dick character is more paranoid and most justly paranoid than Joe Chip—is in the last instance not an adequate response to the structures of commodification and conspiracy, however inevitably and "naturally" it is produced by them.

In this case, then, Ubik marks in the Dick canon a theoretical high point in relation to the Marxist-Lacanian problematic which I outlined earlier. For paranoia, with its easy hermeneutic passages from appearance to essence, and its assumption of a totality that is symmetrical and expressive rather than structural and de-centered, is an ideology in the strictest Althusserian sense: a "‘repre-sentation’ of the Imaginary relationship of individuals to their Real conditions of existence." Like any ideology, paranoia is finally based on a refusal of any complex theoretical structure of differentials, remaining instead within the specular or dualistic reductionism proper to the Imaginary. Only thus can its unswervingly hermeneutic logic operate. It can no more be identified with theoretical knowledge than commodity fetishism can be identified with Marx’s discovery of the basis of generalized commodity production, or the paranoiac structure of the ego with Lacan’s concept of the de-centering of the subject.

Yet paranoia remains, I think, of all ideologies perhaps the most "reasonable" and the most nearly approximating to knowledge of capitalist society. If, as Ubik suggests, the hermeneutic of paranoia is finally doomed to failure, yet our social and psychic constitution as bourgeois subjects makes the temptation to such hermeneutic irresistible. If paranoia is an ideology, it nonetheless remains a stubbornly privileged one. And no modern writer—certainly none since Kafka—has fictionally produced that ideology more rigorously than Philip K. Dick.


Copyright © 1996, Gale Research

DISCovering Authors Modules Copyright © 1996, Gale Research

Philip K(indred) Dick 1928 - 1982

SOURCE: John Huntington, "Philip K. Dick: Authenticity and Insincerity,"

in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, July, 1988, pp. 152-60.

[In the excerpt below, John Huntington discusses the themes of authenticity and insincerity in the Dick’s works.]

In Sincerity and Authenticity, one of his last works, Lionel Trilling traced the growth of sincerity as a value in the late 18thcentury and its gradual replacement in the 20th century with the idea of authenticity. The sense of divided consciousness that the great social and psychological thinkers of the last century have explicated renders the older idea of sincerity—most neatly stated in Polonius’s "to thine own self be true"—problematic and untenable. What more recently has been called "post-modernism" can be seen as a cluster of strategies to deal with this perception of the impossibility of sincerity.

Philip K. Dick’s work belongs in some ways to this new tradition. I would propose that Dick’s work is special because it has so thoroughly embraced insincerity, especially by its thorough dependence on the mechanical creative formulas of pulp fiction, and has thus become "authentic" at a new level. Dick’s insincerity is not qualified by irony (though there is plenty of irony in his work). His work is not like Roy Lichtenstein’s massive, isolated moments from newspaper comics which render pathos and excitement from a consciousness outside the experience itself. Dick, whatever sophistications he achieves, builds his art out of the techniques of the pulps. He is an "authentic" "SF writer." Of course, the moment that posture becomes comfortable, it too becomes problematic. SF writers and fans are a notoriously evasive lot when it comes to understanding and defining their art. As Stanislaw Lem observes, they play a contradictory game. They claim that the work is "important," but then, as soon as people raise any kind of objection to its ideas, they say indignantly that these people are taking too seriously something that was written only to "entertain." Then, later, at other tables, in other rooms, we find these same enthusiasts again announcing the deep importance of SF.

Dick can play just such a double game: ‘Important’ is a rule from another game that I am not playing. I did not begin to read or to write sf for reasons dealing with importance. When I sat in high school geometry class secretly reading a copy of Astounding hidden within a textbook, I was not seeking importance. I was seeking, probably, intellectual excitement. Mental stimulation.

Dick’s terms—"important," "intellectual excitement," and "mental stimulation"—are slippery. While we can recognize the vague and broad distinction Dick wants to make here—geometry is "important," SF is "exciting"—his language allows him to reclaim the importance that he has just rejected; for what is more "important" intellectually than "intellectual excitement" and "mental stimulation"?

We may suspect that the motive for such a statement is more psychological than philosophical or critical. One reason for seeing this passage in psychological terms is that it seems made up: in the late ’30s or early ’40s, when Dick would have been studying geometry, the textbooks were usually too small to have hidden a copy of Astounding. Dick’s image is a conventional one, lifted perhaps from a film, of the slightly rebellious, secret reader who stands for something imaginative in the face of the pedantry of authoritarian "importance." Dick’s reason for assuming this posture may be that he does not want to be held to a standard that he is not sure he can meet. Yet, when Dick made this statement in 1980, he had recently finished VALIS, a book which certainly aspires to "importance" even if it also undercuts it. This double standard, by which the writer or fan demands recognition and denies responsibility, is duplicitous and insincere as a strategy of defense, but it is also the main enabling device of Dick’s imagination.

Despite Dick’s own disclaimer that this is not the "game" he is playing, the critic who engages his work always finds that things of "importance" are being said. But if the critic tries to criticize the categorical values that Dick frequently invoked—such as rationality, sanity, naturalness, or goodness—Dick will evade the issue by saying that all he is after is "mental stimulation." But then, next page, next chapter, next book, he is philosophizing again.

Of all his works, VALIS is the most disconcerting this way. The lengthy appeals to gnostic ideas of hidden truth, even if they are called into question within the text itself, sanction a way of reading that would disregard the mechanisms of disavowal. VALIS is full of images (such as "lamination"), references to specific texts (such as Hermes Trismegistus or the Secret Gospels), and to genres (such as the parable) which authorize our reading two ways and treating one reading as the "real" one and the other as the veil to keep the true reading from the eyes of the uninitiated. Even if this process is parodied, it may be that we, if we are true initiates, will be able to read the truth even in its parody. Within the novel the same puzzle confronts us: the reading of the film "VALIS," like the interpretations of the cover of Abbey Road in the late ’60s, feels like a deciphering of a hidden truth but may well be a foolish construction of meaning out of nothing.

In VALIS, having indulged one interpretation for a while, Dick will simply reverse himself and indulge another. Sometimes it is a book of wisdom, and sometimes it is just the case-history of a wordy madman. Much of the readers’ problem in VALIS is generated, not by philosophical complexity as such, but by the mechanisms of narration that Dick has learned from popular SF. The important figure for Dick, as has long been recognized, is A. E. van Vogt, known for his confusingly intricate plots. But it is not the model of the plots themselves that we need to be aware of so much as the rule by which he generated them. Van Vogt advised young writers that in order to keep their readers’ interest they should introduce a new idea every 800 words. For van Vogt this is not a "philosophical" rule, but simply a practical technique to make a story interesting, on the level with the rule which requires that the first paragraph of a story make mention of each of the five senses. In van Vogt’s own work one is aware of a disorienting series of changes which may be exhilarating as long as one is able to hold on. Often the change at word 800 involves a blatant reversing of the values some character or thing has represented: a friend turns out to be an enemy, an enemy a friend, what we thought was useful is useless, an escape is a trap, etc. Often the reversals are given some coherence by the continuity offered by the hero (as in Slan ) or by a fixed deep structure (such as the truth in "The Weapon Shop" that the armed strangers are liberators, while the familiar authorities are oppressors). What is remarkable about these fairly mechanical and hasty exercises is how profound they can seem. The van Vogt rule of a new idea every 800 words is a way of generating complexity and of enforcing at least the illusion of a relentless dialectic.

What I am calling the 800-word rule is an explicitly acknowledged device for van Vogt. I do not know of any such explicit acknowledgment on Dick’s part. Yet the central importance of van Vogt’s practice for Dick’s sense of SF is easily documented. In his interview with Charles Platt, Dick twice points to The World of Null-A as a central text which "absolutely fascinated" him. "A lot of what I wrote, which looks like taking acid, is really the result of taking van Vogt very seriously." To state this from a different angle, Dick, like van Vogt, and like other popular SF writers such as Heinlein or Herbert, has learned how to give the impression of deep understanding simply by contradicting himself. The more clearly one side is affirmed, the more profound it seems later to find its opposite unexpectedly affirmed with equal unambiguousness. This process is not the same as what we usually think of as ironic reversal. In Dick there is no telegraphing of impending change. There is no implication that the alert, understanding reader will see the correct reading and discard the false one. There is no period in which the reader must balance two antithetical possible readings and then choose which is the moral or true one. In this van Vogtian system the reader is simply yanked from understanding to understanding.

Frequently the reader is returned to understandings that seem to have been superseded. Thus, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? we can at one point be led to see the androids as anti-social, pathological creatures preying on society, at another to see them as pathetic victims exploited by society, but then at a later time to see them again as simply cruel "killers." By moving without mediation from one moral perspective to the other, the novel gives the feeling of moral three-dimensionality, of depth. At other times, as in the whirligig of exchanges at the end of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or in the baffling regressions and exhaustions in Ubik, the van Vogtian technique generates more perspectives than a reader can absorb, and the effect is not so much of depth as of a suggestive complexity.

Van Vogt himself seems to enjoy the surface disarray and instability because he trusts to a few deep and unchanging principles. In this respect, he is in the same company as a conservative like G. K. Chesterton, who in The Man Who Was Thursday can indulge in any new complexity because all surface phenomena are layers concealing and at the same time revealing the fundamental and unchanging reality of divine presence. Dick, on the contrary, allows that the surface disarray may disrupt the deepest structure. Thus, whether or not VALIS is a seriously religious, ontological book, by its reversals it poses the possibility that Horselover Fat’s insight into the bases of reality may be just a form of insanity. For a writer like Dick, who has a strong streak of Horselover Fat in him and could, one imagines, happily treat us to hundreds of pages of deep, repetitive, and vague philosophy about the nature of reality, the very arbitrariness of van Vogt’s mechanical 800-word technique prevents the domination of a single idea. Like the I Ching, which figures prominently in The Man in the High Castle, the procedure enforces randomness. Writing under the constraints of such a method must be somewhat like working in a difficult verse form: the change is dictated by the mechanics of the form; the creative moment comes when the author finds a way to link form and content. The episode of the pseudo-police station in Androids feels like such a moment, and the pleasure towards the end of it, when the crazy, unaccountable event finds an explanation, is like the discovery of a brilliant, unexpected final rhyme.

For van Vogt the device of a change after 800 words is simply a machine that produces "interesting text" and "mental stimulation," but for Dick the device itself is both liberating and thematically expressive. The "insincerity" of the van Vogtian mechanism has permitted Dick to engage "authentic" issues that, for reasons that can be traced back to the fashions and politics of popular fiction and to the psychology of the author, he would not have been able to deal with otherwise. In Dick’s situation the evasion that Lem complains of becomes an important device that will allow the writer and the reader to undertake briefly issues that the author and the SF readership have difficulty bringing to consciousness.

We can readily observe that Dick differs very much from van Vogt and from most SF writers of the ’50s and early ’60s in the US in his explicit use of intensely personal material. Even the reader who knows nothing of Dick’s biography will be aware of the repeated motifs that suggest deep personal investment: the difficult or broken marriages; the high expectation for the effect of art and holy books; the ambiguous, authoritarian father figures who most often appear as corporation executives; the harried everyman figures trapped in compromises; entropic decline; and—everywhere—imitations, fakes, people or things which are not what they seem. These themes and images, important to Dick for reasons quite apart from the needs of the immediate plot, are turned and turned by the van Vogtian method until every realistic and absurd possibility that Dick’s ingenious and tireless mind can discover has been examined. Mr Tagomi can be our model for this ruminative procedure as he subjects the triangular pin to all the perceptive texts he can think of as he tries to uncover its wu. Quite apart from the access it gives to elements of Dick’s own life, the 800-word device is of general thematic importance to Dick because it mirrors the arbitrariness that he sees in the universe itself. And we who read this confusion are, again, like Mr Tagomi, this time putting a seashell to his ear and "[h]earing in its blabber the wisdom of the sea."

Dick is fascinated by the incompatibility of absolute and relative value systems, and by means of the van Vogtian device he is able to give full attention to both. The van Vogtian method allows Dick to dramatize tensions that tend to get clotted when he becomes simply expository. We can see the advantages the device gives him if we begin by looking at a passage that attempts to make a "philosophical" statement. In the following passage from VALIS, Dick moves from an absolute position, to a relative one, and then back to an absolute one:

The single most striking realization that Fat had come to was his concept of the universe as irrational and governed by an irrational mind, the creator deity. If the universe were taken to be rational, not irrational, then something breaking into it might seem irrational, since it would not belong. But Fat, having reversed everything, saw the rational breaking into the irrational. The immortal plasmate had invaded our world and the plasmate was totally rational, whereas our world is not. This structure forms the basis of Fat’s world-view. It is the bottom line.

The dichotomy of rational/irrational, like the one of sane/insane that also dominates this novel, tends to be more polemic than it is analytical. What interests us here is the way that, towards the end of the passage, rationality becomes absolute: "the plasmate was totally rational, whereas our world is not." The sentence is, in itself, ambiguous about what it claims the world is—it can be totally irrational or simply not totally rational—but the main line of the argument of the paragraph would seem to suggest the former. And not only is Fat’s analysis committed to a single, absolute, defining concept, the "totally rational"; but the narrator’s analysis of Fat’s analysis seeks this same defining unity: this is "the single most striking realization." It "forms the basis of Fat’s world-view. It is the bottom line." The complication that the narrator is himself Fat does not diminish the absoluteness that is reinforced at a second level here.

In the middle of the paragraph, however, we find a moment of a different kind of reasoning: Dick here uses subjunctives and allows for a relativistic and structural reading of rationality: "If the universe were taken to be rational, not irrational, then something breaking into it would seem irrational, since it would not belong." Rationality here is posed not as an absolute category, but as that mode of thought by which we define ourselves. In this statement, the irrational is simply the Other.

When he reverses this statement, Fat not only reverses the values of rationality and irrationality, but he also turns a statement of structural opposition into a statement of absolute value. One opposite of the hypothetical premise could be an equally hypothetical statement in which the "rational" is the "other" and, somehow, the irrational is us. But the opposite that is generated is a non-hypothetical statement in which the rational becomes the "totally rational." Such a moment asks to be criticized, and we will cry out with Lem, "unfair!" if the response we receive is the evasion: "the passage is not trying to say something important, it is only trying to entertain."

It is in his dramatizations of the problem of the real that Dick most successfully renders the absolute/relative conflict. Throughout his work Dick pays obsessive attention to imitations, whether of antiques from the pre-war US, as in High Castle, or of animals, as in Androids, or of experience itself, as in the Perky Pat layouts in Palmer Eldritch. And, as any reader of Dick knows well, the issue of imitation goes beyond the explicit thematics of his work. Again and again he indulges in the game of the ersatz for the sake of the game itself. In an early story, "Nanny," there will be the gratuitous image of "artificial goldfish" in the pool near which robot nannies fight to the death. In High Castle Joe will buy Juliana a fancy coat made with synthetic German fiber.

At one level this concern with the artificial can be read as part of a pervasive, angry satire on the false values of a capitalist, consumerist culture. There is, however, a profound contradiction at the core of this satire. If the search for the "authentic" is at once a bourgeois folly, it is also the primal search in Dick, the search for "reality" in place of hallucination, for the authentic in place of imitation. And yet, if the authentic is the one worthy goal, it is at the same time a vain pursuit, for the authentic can never be unambiguously established. And though the artificial is a fraud, it nevertheless can suffice.

This enigma of authenticity is rendered by Deckard’s Mercerist epiphany at the end of Androids. Deckard finds a living toad in the desert, but when his wife reveals that it is electric it seems clear that, while Deckard would prefer that the toad be real, he will make do with the artificial one. The repetition of such a moment in other novels, and the gratuitous gestures in its direction, suggest that the motif is a crucial one for Dick: it allows him to inhabit two antithetical value systems at once. Significantly for our present considerations, it is the van Vogtian 800-word method that forces him to move between them. He must be both the playful skeptic who makes do with what there is and the sincere seeker for the authentic and absolute reality. He must be both the entertainer and the novelist of important themes. Perhaps the quintessential episode in which authenticity is debated occurs in High Castle. When he finds the "aura" of authenticity of historical artifacts undependable, Robert Childan, the San Francisco shopkeeper, starts selling Edfrank jewelry, which he is told radiates wu, a quality of balanced alignment with the universe. Aura belongs to history and is liable to imitation and fraud; u is an absolute aesthetic value, a universal outside of history, an intrinsic quality that cannot be imitated. If, as Childan discovers, the historical artifact’s value fluctuates according to the dependability of the

assurances of authenticity, the value of the artifact with wu exists absolutely and needs no certification. In one sense, it is gold in a world of paper money. But this easy opposition then undergoes a narrative inquiry. When Paul Kasouras, who has explained wu to Childan, urges him to make a profit on the jewelry, Childan goes through a series of van Vogtian reversals that rapidly touch on various contradictory implications of the situation. If the piece has wu, why not mass-produce it? But what if you cannot reproduce wu mechanically? What if it is, in this respect, just like aura ? And Kasouras implies there may even be a sort of violation involved in such manufacture: he calls the jewel "something truly authentic. Not a model or replica.... Not something cast by tens of thousands." And finally Childan decides the hole idea of profiting from wu is itself despicable and that Kasouras has insulted him by suggesting he do such a thing. The complexity of the relations of absolute and relative values is here elaborately traced, though hardly resolved, by a set of arbitrary shifts in the narration. It may be worth emphasizing at this point that the inquiry into the nature of wu and its relation to aura is not systematic. The questions that are raised do not follow one another logically, nor do they lead towards a new insight. While the skepticism about aura results in a debunking of the mystery of the "authentic" piece, there seems to be a counter-urge at work which will replace the commercial mystery of historical authenticity with an equally mysterious and even less empirically certifiable absolute, wu. Thus the inquiry, rather than working its way to a new level of clarity, moves sideways, as it were: as it exposes the relativity of aura it constructs an absolute to take its place.

In Androids the van Vogtian mode reaches a crescendo when Deckard, fully aware of the Christ-figure Mercer’s bogus reality, meets Mercer, who tells him that the difference between himself and the androids is, "I am a fraud.... They’re sincere." At this point we value fraud over sincerity. The opposition here has some of the outrageousness of the irrational/rational opposition in VALIS. However, unlike the passage we looked at earlier with its claim to have found a philosophical "bottom line," Mercer’s self-cancelling assertion of his own paradoxical value never permits logical rest. Like the Cretan’s statement, "All Cretans are liars," it disqualifies its authority in the very act of making its statement of authoritative paradox.

It is after this moment that Androids seems to make gestures away from the skeptical mode implied by the van Vogtian technique and to seek, for a moment, absolute insights. Deckard will declare, to himself:

For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I’ve done, he thought; that’s become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural: I’ve become an unnatural self. Here again a self/other dichotomy underlies the distinction, and here too the paradox arises from the identification of value with the other. And here again, for a moment, by the word unnatural, the dialectic of alienness is converted to a statement of non-dialectical, categorical value. At this moment in the novel, one might argue, Androids has reached the place where VALIS begins.

Such a moment of spiritual alienation, that point of most profound failure at which the rebirth into true knowledge and faith can commence, is a familiar one in the Christian spiritual progress. Throughout Androids there are intimations of this moment of absolute despair when the possibilities of the dialogic are denied. At the beginning (and at the end) of the novel, Deckard’s wife, Iran, is so depressed that she cannot even dial the number on her mood-synthesizer that will stimulate her to want to dial. This same spiritual nadir is experienced by J. R. Isidore as he deals with the androids. It is a state of mind which disgusts Deckard when he sees it in androids—a collapse, a refusal to fight to the very end—because it gives up hope. And Deckard in the wilderness finds himself "too tired to fly back out." But then, thanks to the arbitrary imperative of the van Vogtian 800-word rule, the mood of despair leads to the major epiphany of the novel. Deckard telephones his secretary. As he is about to telephone his wife, he sees the toad. The toad may turn out to be electric, and the novel may end on a note of satiric comedy as Iran, herself reinvigorated, orders artificial flies for the electric toad; but the re-engagement with a relative reality, however bogus, while a confession of the failure to achieve absolute reality, is also a lively escape from the black hole of absolute despair. It is an escape made possible, not by psychology, not by philosophy, not even by political insight, but by a mechanical narrative device.

Dick’s work poses a problem for evaluative criticism: its contradictions are as often as not the result of arbitrary and random reversals as of any conscious critique of bourgeois culture. But the absence of conscious intent does not thereby render the thought of the narrative trivial. In fact, it may well be argued that it is precisely this freedom from controlling rational structures—especially insofar as such structures are really ideologically-weighted conventions—that gives Dick’s writings their value. This is not to say that the arbitrary is free: free association is enlightening because it subtly responds to deep necessities of the author’s psyche and of the culture. It reveals unknown structures not because it is free, but precisely because it is determined.

Dick’s approach to narrative renders conventional modes of evaluating art and thought problematic. It would be inadequate simply to celebrate him as a hack and therefore to promote him as authentic. By the same token, we cannot just denounce him as a fraud. Like something in one of his novels, he is always on the other side of whatever posture of value we choose. Seeking wisdom, we find a wiseguy; but just when we are ready to treat his novels as only a game, they radiate profundity. As with the straw toy which, after you have inserted your finger in it, clamps onto your finger when you try to escape, the dilemma is given its energy not by the strength of the device itself, but by the victim’s own urgency to get free. In reading Dick we trap ourselves. It is because we invoke categories with weighty consequences that Dick becomes a problem for us. He is an innocent, profoundly askew from mainstream values, but wanting to succeed, wanting even to cooperate. His mechanical version of wisdom creates a picture of reality to which we have to respond and thereby pose for ourselves difficult puzzles about the nature of reality and will.


Copyright © 1996, Gale Research

DISCovering Authors Modules Copyright © 1996, Gale Research

Philip K(indred) Dick 1928 - 1982

SOURCE: Norman Spinrad, "The Transmogrification of Philip K. Dick," in

Science Fiction in the Real World, Southern Illinois University Press,

1990, pp. 198-216.

[In the following excerpt, Norman Spinrad discusses the themes of Dick’s six major novels.]

That The Transmigration of Timothy Archer was Philip K. Dick’s last novel is a tragedy and a triumph. It is a tragedy because it broke bold new literary ground, in terms of form, viewpoint, clarity, and control, for a writer who already had many great works behind him and was only in his fifties when he died. Where would Philip K. Dick have gone from here?

It is a triumph because it is a fitting final testament for Philip K. Dick the writer and Phil the man—a return to the height of his literary powers at the untimely end of his career, a return to the true metaphysical vision and human insight of Ubik and The Man in the High Castle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and The Martian Time-Slip after a long period of secondary work. And it is also somehow the purest statement of the spiritual center of Phil Dick’s work as a writer and his being as a man, as if Phil, like one of his own characters, knew somehow that the end was near, and left us this piece of clarity to give the lie to the obfuscatory cult he somehow knew was to come.

The story, though directly metaphysical and even straightforwardly religious, is, quite unlike Valis or The Divine Invasion, simple, clear, and direct. Angel, the narrator, is the wife of Bishop Archer’s son, Jeff. She introduces Tim Archer to Kirsten Lundborg, and Kirsten and the bishop become lovers. Archer becomes obsessed with the scrolls that have been found in Israel and identified with the Zadokites, a sect that predated the birth of Christ by some two hundred years. As the translations proceed, it becomes apparent that the writings of the Zadokites were the template for the parables of Jesus, and the bishops’s faith in the divinity of Christ begins to erode.

Jeffery Archer commits suicide. Bishop Archer learns that the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist derives from the Zadokite practice of consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms, that is, that the mystical communion between Christians and Jesus engendered by the eating of the wafer and the drinking of the wine is nothing more than a ritual derived from a preexisting mystical mushroom cult where an actual psychedelic experience of the godhead was delivered, and this destroys his faith. Kirsten dies. Bishop Archer goes off into the Negev desert in a rented car in search of the mystical mushroom and his own lost faith, guided only by a gas station roadmap. The map is faulty, the car fails, and he dies in the wilderness. Later his spirit returns, its faith reborn, via the person of Kirsten’s schizophrenic son, Bill, thereby restoring Angel Archer’s spiritual center, after a fashion.

Needless to say, such a plot summary does not convey the full depth and power of the book. Dick throws almost as much metaphysical speculation and biblical, kabbalistic, and even Hindu scholarship into The Transmigration of Timothy Archer as he does into Valis or The Divine Invasion, and a lot of arcane material about Wallenstein and the Thirty Years War to boot, as well as other esoterica—nowhere else has he displayed the full range of his sheer intellectual breadth and depth as he does here. But there is nothing pretentious or boring or didactic about it, for it is all conveyed in the realistic dialogue of characters, particularly the narrator, Angel, who are products of a Berkeley milieu in which all this is quite natural, a milieu in which Phil himself lived and worked for many years, and that he never portrayed with this detail, depth, and humor until this final work. Then too, all of this metaphysical speculation, all of this high-falutin’ table talk, is perfectly balanced by an equal attention to the details of daily life and popular culture. Angel, Jeff, Kirsten, even the bishop, segue from heavy intellectual rapping into questions of popular music, down-and-dirty politics, and their problems with their cars (which seem, like Phil’s, to have been endless), within the same sentence. And this is not mere balancing technique. There is something behind it that is at the mystical core of the novel. Bill Lundborg, Kirsten’s schizoid son, is a character critical to the denouement of the novel; in order for Timothy Archer’s spirit to speak credibly through him at the end, in order for the reader to believe in this as a spiritual reality and a peak moment, the reader must first have been convinced that this simple man, this victim of shock therapy and the psychiatric establishment, this mere auto mechanic, has been a kind of innocent saint all along.

How does Dick bring this off? By a bravura piece of writing that is at once thematically central to the novel and quite impossible to paraphrase or explain, that one must quite literally read to believe. He does it through a long conversation between Archer and others in which the bishop discusses Christian theology while Bill discusses the merits and flaws of various makes of cars. And makes it work. If there is such a thing as literary magic, this surely is it....

The Man in the High Castle, published in 1962, was the novel that made Dick’s reputation, and with the possible exception of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (courtesy of the film Blade Runner), is still probably his best-known book, and, with its alternate present of a Nazi-and Japanese-occupied America, certainly his most imitated.

In a certain sense, that is. For while there have been many novels and stories in which the Nazis have won World War II, there has been nothing like Dick’s vision.

In most of Dick’s previous short stories and novels, he made comparatively little attempt at genuine extrapolative verisimilitude. Solar Lottery posits a political system based on chance, Eye in the Sky takes its characters through a bizarre series of ersatz realities, Dr. Futurity is a time-paradox novel, and so forth; while many of these earlier works are metaphysically interesting indeed and contain well-rounded characters, they all make full self-conscious use of the tropes, imagery, gimmicks, jargon, and schtick of SF; in Alexei Panshin’s phrase, they are "science fiction that knows it’s science fiction."

The Man in the High Castle is something quite different. Here Dick posits a single assumption—that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won World War II and split America down the middle—and proceeds to write a realistic, characterologically based novel in the quite believable world he has created.

The novel jettisons all the familiar SF paraphernalia, centers on the lives of relatively ordinary people, concentrates on their human stories more than the macropolitics (in the manner of mainstream fiction), and yet remains science fiction, albeit a science fiction that anyone could pick up and read without familiarity with the genre. It was something that Dick had not done previously, and would not really do again until the very end with The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

And yet most of the themes and virtues of the work to come, the work that was to make Dick one of the premier science fiction writers of the twentieth century and one of the premier metaphysical novelists of all time, are present in The Man in the High Castle and in rather fully developed form.

The dichotomy between the spiritless ersatz and the humanly real, as epitomized in the macrocosm by the anomie of the Nazis versus the more spiritually centered Japanese conquerors, and in the microcosm by Frank Frink’s drive to create authentically new American jewelry instead of phony antiques.

Ordinary people like Frink and Mr. Tagomi as genuine heroes. Larger figures seen in the distance or in glimpses, like Abensend, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the alternate-world novel within the alternate-world novel in which the Nazis and the Japanese lost the war. Characters, who, for the most part have real workaday jobs, and ordinary work as something that can have spiritual and personal meaning.

A blending of passionately political themes (in this case an utterly convincing portrait of two Americas as molded by two very different occupying powers) with the metaphysical and mystical (here the I Ching and the Sino-Japanese concept of wu) in a manner that demonstrates the one arising out of the other. A sense of the author’s genuine love for his characters. The multiplex subjectivity of reality—in this alternate America, a writer has written a book about another alternate America, and Mr. Tagomi’s small moment of heroism is triggered by a fugue state in which he finds himself briefly in our America.

This is not to suggest that The Man in the High Castle laid out all of Dick’s future obsessions and concerns and that all else was repetition or even that it is necessarily his best novel. But it certainly was a great writer finding his true voice, creating his first truly mature work, presenting us with the broad outline of the scope of his vision and the style and spirit of what was to come, and in that, much older, medieval sense, The Man in the High Castle can literally be said to be his "masterpiece."

What followed in the next decade was an enormous burst of creativity, in which Dick explored, exfoliated, and deepened the thematic concerns he had opened up in about half a dozen major novels and even more minor ones, though no two critics are likely to agree on complete lists of which was which.

Indeed Phil himself made it quite clear, publicly and privately, that some of these novels were hacked out at top speed for quick money, that some of them he took more seriously, that others were like Graham Greene’s "entertainments," and a few didn’t even make sense to him in retrospect, though he could be cagy and contradictory about which he thought were which.

While we can all argue the relative importance of novels like Clans of the Alphane Moon, Dr. Bloodmoney, A Maze of Death, Galactic Pot-Healer, The Simulacra, and Now Wait for Last Year, and few would contend that The Zap Gun or The Unteleported Man or Our Friends from Frolix-8 or Counter-Clock World or The Crack in Space are major works, few critics or readers of Dick will deny that Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik are unquestionably at the core of Dick’s oeuvre, whichever of his many, many, other works they may choose to rank with them.

While these are four very different novels with four quite different settings, they have many things in common with each other and with many of the other Dick novels of this enormously creative period.

All of them have viewpoint characters, which is to say the viewpoint character through whose consciousness we experience the largest portion of the novel, who are not really movers and shapers but find themselves placed in a central role that requires from them heroism of one kind or another. And they are all real people with real jobs that mean something to them and with real and troubled personal lives and relationships of one kind or another.

All of these novels but Martian Time-Slip have a larger-than-life, reality-altering, charismatic figure at the center of what is happening in the macrocosm but not really quite central to the actual events in the story, though their relative importance to the plot and the set-up vary from book to book. Mercer, the TV messiah expiating the guilts of the ruined world, is fairly incidental to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Runciter is quite central to Ubik, and Palmer Eldritch at the end is virtually the deity of The Three Stigmata. Even Martian Time-Slip contains such a figure in a peculiar way, functionally split between the worldly powerful union leader Arnie Kott and his reality-altering autistic son Manfred.

We see such figures in other Dick novels—in Dr. Bloodmoney, Now Wait for Last Year, Galactic Pot-Healer, and in some of the earlier novels as well—and while all of them are highly individuated and finely drawn, they do have more in common than their functional ability to create, in one way or another, alternate realities.

Even though they are not central to the plotline in terms of their time on stage in the novel, they are rendered as viewpoint characters with real and understandable inner lives more often than not, rather than as cardboard figures, stock villains, or unmoved movers. Arnie Kott may be rough and tough and ruthless, but he is not really a bad sort. Glen Runciter, even in the semi-death of half-life, is trying to do good by his people. Even Palmer Eldritch is to some degree the victim of his own screwed-up good intentions.

Finally, the thread that runs strongly through these books, and indeed through most of Dick’s work in one form or another, is his central theme with its many well-explored corollaries, which put one way is the distinction between the authentic and the ersatz—humans versus androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, realities themselves in Ubik, Palmer Eldritch and to an extent Martian Time-Slip—and put another way is the Dickian concept of the multiplexity of reality, and, in that sense at least, of the lack of hard and clear-cut distinction between "reality" and "illusion," "authentic" and "ersatz."

This is the great theme of Dick’s oeuvre, of the core novels of his most productive period and the minor works too, of what leads up to the burst of creativity that began with The Man in the High Castle, as well as his later works; it is an enormously vast theme, bottomlessly deep, endlessly complicated. Small wonder then that Dick often seems to contradict himself on these matters from novel to novel, indeed often within the same book, for what he is wrestling with is the nature(s) of reality(ies) it(them)self, and the overall wisdom that one takes away from a reading of his work as a whole is that reality itself is multiplex, non-objective, and indeed internally self-contradictory.

Martian Time-Slip seems to take place in the single reality of a future colonized Mars, and Manfred’s autism seems to be merely a mental disease. But by the time the novel is over we are left with the perception that the autistic boy is living in a kind of precog vision of a future decaying into "gubbish," into a dead simulacrum from which all animating spirit has been leached (a key Dickian concept), as real or more so in some sense than the consensus reality of the other characters.

The realities of Ubik take place inside a subjective universe created by Runciter, who is himself trapped in the subjective reality of half-life, but what Joe Chip, the main protagonist does inside them affects the "real" world and vice versa.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is perhaps Dick’s fullest and grandest and most humane statement of his enormous central theme. Via the drug Chew-Z, brought back from Centauris by Eldritch, the characters’ subjective realities fold into each other like nested boxes along a Moebus strip, Eldritch himself the god of many of them, but Eldritch himself occupying a reality in which he is far from an unmoved mover.

What allows Dick to explore such material without lapsing into mere babblement? Indeed, such is the nature of his thematic core that sometimes, when he attempts to knock out a quick minor work along these lines, such as The Zap Gun or Counter-Clock World or Our Friends from Frolix-8, he does go over the edge.

But when he’s got it right, as he certainly has in Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and elsewhere, he is able to give us, out of this very multiplex and self-contradictory metaphysical confusion, a true vision, a genuine clarity that illumines our lives on the deepest spiritual level.

He does this in two ways :

The first is technical. Dick is the master of the multiple-viewpoint narrative. He may not have invented the technique, but he did more to introduce it to science fiction than anyone else, he uses it in almost all of his novels, he never breaks form, and the form he has chosen is ideally suited to his material.

There is no auctorial overview in novels like Martian-Slip, Palmer Eldritch, Androids, etc., no Philip K. Dick telling the reader what is real and what is not. These novels are mosaics of realities, the realities of the viewpoint characters, not of the author; in this sense, there is no overall base reality to any of these novels, only the interfacing of a multiplexity of subjective realities.

And that is what "reality" is really like, Dick is not so much saying as demonstrating—consensus reality, to the extent that there is such a thing, is the interfacing of our subjective realities with those of other consciousnesses, not an overall matrix in which we all live. What is, is real.

Much has been made of Phil Dick’s involvement with drugs and the prevalence of consciousness-altering drugs as central elements in his work, at least in the 1960s, and to lapse into memoir, it is certainly true that no one I ever met, including Timothy Leary, knew as much about psychopharmacology as Phil or had pondered more deeply the metaphysics of consciousness-altering drugs and the relationship of that metaphysics to the metaphysics of mental illness, particularly various forms of schizophrenia.

For Phil Dick, consciousness-altering drugs like Chew-Z in Palmer Eldritch, mental states like Manfred’s autism in Martian Time Slip, and ersatz subjective realities as in Ubik or A Maze of Death or Eye in the Sky serve the same function, literarily and metaphysically. Namely, to demonstrate that altered mental states, however they may be created, create altered realities that are as "real" as what we individually think of as "base reality," since each of our individual "base realities," far from being the absolute we like to pretend it is, is itself a unique subjective reality, arising as it does in our own unique biophysical matrix. In this perception lies either the solipsistic madness of total psychic relativity or transcendent wisdom, and the greatness of Dick as a writer, what makes him by far the greatest metaphysical novelist of all time, is that, having opened the door to this ultimate spiritual, perceptual, and metaphysical chaos, he leads us through it to true wisdom along a moral vector.

What ultimately makes the androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? less than human is not their synthetic origin, but, like the Nazis in The Man in the High Castle, their lack of caritas, their inability to empathize with the existential plight of other life caught in the same multiverse. What raises the android Roy Batty to human status in Blade Runner (the film version of Androids) is that, on the brink of his own death, he is able to empathize with Decard.

What makes Joe Chip, Rick Decard, Mr. Tagomi, Joe Bohlen, Barney Mayerson, and Leo Bulero true heroes is that ultimately, on one level or another, whatever reality mazes they may be caught in, they realize that the true base reality is not absolute or perceptual or metaphysical, but moral and empathetic, and they act accordingly when push comes to shove.

What is really real is what is felt on both sides when two subjective realities intersect; what is really real is the spiritual connection between isolated subjectivities, the caritas, the empathy, the love, without which we are all lost, like the Nazis and the androids and poor Palmer Eldritch, in our own solipsistic subjective universes.

Copyright © 1996, Gale Research


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