Why you should read Philip K Dick in 2020

You should read Philip K Dick in 2020 because Philip K Dick invented Animal Crossing in 1965.

image via @NEOSIM_ on Twitter

As you can tell this is not my usual work-related guff, something for a change and for fun.

The thing that prompted me to write this blog, is this recent observation from Penny Arcade, in a blog post about the almost suspiciously well-timed “Animal Crossing x 2020 The Apocalypse” crossover collab we’ve recently experienced:

“Philip K. Dick wrote a book called The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch about an Earth so Doomed that people get drafted to leave it, but the place they’re going is also bad, so they’re given these dollhouses and weird drugs that let them project themselves inside there.  I mention it for no particular reason.” (link)

(Animal Crossing, for those of you who don’t know is a video game for the Nintendo Switch that sold phenomenally well in the early days of the Covid19 pandemic. It’s very easy going, kind of doll-house in nature, something like The Sims)

There’s more to sci-fi and fiction in general than just “Wow, they predicted hoverboards LMAO” of course, but I feel PKD is a master at tying in the social, economic, cultural realities of this sort of speculation – it’s not just whizz bang techno craziness. The people at the centre of the stories DO live in the future with amazing robots and spaceships, BUT they are usually the average shmucks slaving away to make ends meet rather than on the bridge of the Enterprise.

There’s a Terry Gilliam quote on the back of several PKD paperbacks:

“For everyone lost in the endlessly multiplicating (sic) realities of the modern world, remember: Philip K Dick got their first”

PKD probably is my favourite fiction writer, at least in sheer terms of books I own, books I’ve read and re-read and the overall enjoyment I’ve got out of them. I’ve re-read a few during the great doom of 2020 and here is why I think you should give them a go. (No major spoilers)

And don’t just read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ! That’s a freebie, of course you should read that.

The Man in the High Castle

“….takes place fifteen years after a different end to World War II, and depicts intrigues between the victorious Axis Powers—primarily, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—as they rule over the former United States, as well as daily life under totalitarian rule.” (link)

Here’s the big obvious one, of course: ‘Nazis? In America? Surely not!’

It’s nowhere near as on the nose as that (something like Iron Sky or the newer Wolfenstein games) although perhaps thinking about the time it was written, maybe it was equivalently ‘gauche’. It does effectively show the day to day life of various people, struggling along in various ways, primarily in Japanese-occupied America, though we hear various things about post-war atrocities going on in other parts of the world. The US is split between Japan and Germany with a sort of free-er, poor-er no-mans land in the middle.

Multiple characters viewpoints is fairly common for PKD, but very well used here; the main characters really have very little in common but the challenges and themes and the rest of the world all seem to tie them together in compelling ways. It’s all fairly realistic, by its own rules. If you were worried, it’s not a ‘war’ story or an apocalypse story, it’s a post-war or post-apocalypse story. There is quite a bit of history from around the relevant times in there, but it’s a bonus if you care about that stuff, not really essential to enjoying it. There’s a reasonable bit of action, more of the espionage and double-agent variety than anything else.

Probably my favourite theme is of the value of art, heritage and originality – (Not a massive spoiler, it happens quite early on) you have the perspective of an antique dealer, concerned with authenticity, trying to bluff his way into a foreign high(er) society – as well as the perspective of a craftsmen who forges antiques, wanting to break out and produce something original. This is all set in a world where the wider socio-economic cultures of both the occupying and occupied forces seem to be evolving out of stagnation.

There is a book within the book – a book which tells of a alternate history in which the Allies won World War 2, but this is not a straight copy of OUR real history either. To think whether this version of the end of WW2 is “better” than either our reality or the one in the book, is kind of besides the point; it is more there to reinforce how variable and unpredictable these things are. Our reality and the two realities in this book all seem equally plausible. Fate and fortune are present throughout.

There is definitely a touch of self-parody of speculative fiction writers: what does it matter to imagine a better world while being powerless to change the real one? Why not just draw some random cards, throw some yarrow stalks, or roll a dice to decide? A little along the lines of how Stephen King includes self-insert writer or artist characters into so many of his books.

This is his most critically well received book, winning a Hugo award, from early in his career. If I wanted to recommend one book that I think ‘serious’ fiction readers who look down on sci-fi would enjoy, this would be it. But plebs like me can enjoy it too, it’s not too long, the plot maybe takes a little while to get moving but there are interesting turns and perspectives along the way. There is the Amazon produced TV series as well, only watched a few episodes, it seemed pretty good but sufficiently different to warrant reading the book too (or if you didn’t like the show, the book might be more your style).

A Scanner Darkly

“The protagonist is Bob Arctor, member of a household of drug users, who is also living a double life as an undercover police agent assigned to spy on Arctor’s household.” (link)

It’s the ker-azy DrUgS one!

Saying that a PKD story is a drug story is like saying this or that episode of Star Trek is ‘the one with a spaceship in it’. Most of his stories have got some casual drug use thrown in, or if it’s not recognizable modern chemical drugs it’s some sort of electronic empathy box that ends up forming a technology-based religion.

Surface reading aside, this probably is his most drugs related work (of the ones I’ve read) and one of the most personal and autobiographical. Put it up there with Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as far as great drugs-related fiction goes. It navigates the line between po-faced puritanism nor consequence-free hedonism. Actually compared to Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing it’s much less glamorous, there’s no early 90’s heroin chic or late 70’s great wave of psychedelic optimism.

As mentioned earlier, this might be PKDs most autobiographical work (not the Exegesis, that’s cheating) and if you didn’t already know, the man had fairly infamous drug problems at times in his life; and the setting for this book is quite clearly from a period when he lived in his own flophouse with a bunch of relatively younger druggies.

Despite this, the book is not just a fly on the sink study of this colourful, darkly funny and self-destructive environment. The central themes are of alienation, schizophrenia and paranoia, which are in fact aided by PKDs often mundane, kitchen sink descriptive prose.  You the reader get a sense of the protagonists perpetual, sweaty-palmed second guessing, without it ever quite coming off the rails… the suspense is better than the release.

There are a couple of cool sci-fi gadgets/contrivances involved of course but nowhere near the degree of into the more fantastic way some of his other work does. The “scramble suit” is a perfect expression of our multiplying concerns around anonymity, authenticity and social media. Have you seen how good Deepfakes are getting? (Scramble suits constantly generate an ever-changing human disguise for the wearer, your face, voice and body are continually altered while wearing them so no one can tell who you are.)

Again, the issue of alienation. Bob Arctor is a police agent but the tensions could be expanded to any job: are you your LinkedIn profile or your Tweets? Are you better off being anonymous to the degree that you become a stranger to your friends, your job and eventually yourself? It’s pretty melancholy overall, there’s no ‘big sci-fi idea’ at stake, it’s all on a very personal level.

I have a further soft spot for this book as I went to see the film adaptation in the cinema. I think it really justifies the visual medium and the bonkers animation style; really plays into the underlying themes. Being able to see the scramble suit in action is worthwhile, probably given the human propensity for being able to identify faces. Although if you said it made you feel ill and you gave up, I could see that being the case too. It’s pretty much accurate to the book as far as I can remember, good cast. (And apparently the Ur-Conspiracy Theorist himself Alex ‘Gay Frogs’ Jones makes a cameo in it, guess I had no idea who he was… I’m not entirely sure how to feel about that overall but it seems so suitably bizarre that I guess I’ll give it a pass.)

EDIT: And hilariously enough my tweet about this blog was immediately re-tweeted by a bot looking for cliched blog titles: https://twitter.com/thesetimes2 oh, boy, Phil, I hope you’re getting a chuckle out of this.

Ubik

“The story is set in a future 1992 where psychic powers are utilized in corporate espionage, while intricate technologies allow recently deceased people to be maintained in a lengthy state of hibernation.” (link)

I really wanted to write more about this one but I haven’t read it that recently.  Also it is pretty hard to discuss without spoilers.

Here’s some bullet points.

– In other work, PKD has telepaths and precogs (clairvoyants) and here we also have ‘inertials’; people who can block out the powers of other psychics.
– Generally wealthy people are kept in a state of half-life, cryonically frozen (cold pac) and with a limited consciousness, but living for much longer.

From another review: “If anyone has a coherent summary that wraps up all the conflict in the novel, I’d love to hear it, but I suspect the task is impossible. Not, I should stress, through any fault on the author’s part. This is a book that gives real meaning to the cliche “defies explanation”.

In a world with artificially extended lifespans and psychic corporate espionage, hi-jinks ensue with a surprising amount of forward momentum that would make you wonder why it hasn’t been adapted into TV/film yet. The man himself was commissioned to write a screenplay although it was never (yet) made. Including ideas such as the film changing from colour to black and white at points before melting off the screen entirely. Other people were doing these sort of fourth-wall breaks around the same time so I won’t say he’s entirely original but still must have been a special kind of weirdness adapting your own work.

What does it tell us about 2020? It is a tough one to pin down and like the reviewer above, I suspect that is kind of the point. Still an enjoyable journey and hey; I suppose I’d rather have one solid, uncertain ending than however many bloody Final Directors’ Extended Cut versions of Blade Runner there now are.

VALIS

“In March, 1974, Horselover Fat experiences visions of a pink beam of light that he calls Zebra and interprets as a theophany [the appearance of a deity] exposing hidden facts about the reality of our universe, and a group of others join him in researching these matters.” (link)

In a classic PKD-esque twist I *don’t* actually recommend you read this one!

But you should know that it exists at least. Possibly just reading about it and the events surrounding it was more entertaining than the book itself; but it’s definitely of its time, spiritual incoherence and all.

I suppose I would rather have this difficult to parse artefact than some cliché tie-dye flower power done to death vibe. You want consciousness expansion? This part of an officially never completed trilogy of books is so obtuse I think you pretty much have to read a whole other book (basically his actual dream journal of the time) to figure it out. Nice to see Sci-fi squarely addressing more religious and spiritual questions for a change, I suppose.

Sounds like a bad time, right? Well, I don’t think it is as darkly funny as something like Scanner Darkly but there’s definitely lightness and humanity on display at times. People dealing with fairly grim stuff in fairly relatable ways. I remember enjoying snapshots and moments of it, but not much forward momentum.

Without major spoilers, it probably doesn’t help if your main viewpoint character is divided between separate things. I imagine you the reader are supposed to be discovering and having revelations about things in the same way as the character but it quickly got hard to sustain. Other reviews also say it falls apart after the first half, or perhaps that is when the typical reader just loses the stamina and focus to continue.

So is it relevant to 2020? Perhaps in the age of interconnected cinematic universes and the all-encompassing, life-swallowing mediasphere, maybe it’s a useful insight into how much a single brain can really take, fiction-wise and putting it down in a coherent, emotionally compelling story. Where are you supposed to go after Infinity War? How many realities can you threaten before it starts to lose its dramatic tension? But this is much more of me projecting on to the book than anything in it.

Maybe it’s like The Invisibles but for boomers? No, no it isn’t at all. But that made me chuckle.

Bonus entry: Minority Report

“What if police bad?”

Sorry that’s too easy of a joke to not make.

Both the film and the book really take more of a shot at the system, the ‘higher ups’, it’s not so much the average cops that are targeted. Bottom line: There are no perfect systems.

Meanwhile here’s a cool consipiracy murder-mystery with sort of clairvoyance powers going on, unless you find out about it, and decide to do something else, and then I don’t know what happens or do I?

This is only a short story, it can be a bit hard to find on it’s own (cough dodgy pdfs on the internet cough) Been a while since I read it but I remember the final twist-iness of the short story being much harder to follow than the film; and lets face it, it’s a pretty high concept already to get a Steven Spielberg / Tom Cruise blockbuster around to begin with.

But I’d rather see Minority Report 2: The Quest for Burgess’s Hidden Gold than Transformers 48.

The end

To wrap things up and going back to the start, I haven’t actually read Three Stigmata but had come across the dollhouse (‘Perky Pat’) concept in an earlier short story, “The Days of Perky Pat”, here’s a short summary from Wikipedia:

“The survivors’ shared enthusiasm for the Perky Pat doll and the creation of her accessories from vital supplies is a sort of mass delusion that prevents meaningful re-building of the shattered society. In stark contrast, the children of the survivors show absolutely no interest in the delusion and have begun adapting to their new life.”(link)

It’s a neat parallel to things like Animal Crossing or video games in general but you could easily transpose any media, leisure or entertainment activity into its place. Why not include work, politics, family as their own ‘games’ to be played?. How do you tell meaningful, well-earned, therapeutic, entertaining distractions from the self-indulgent, self-destructive and anti-social ones?

So far so A-level media studies essay. So far, so Adorno, right?

For all the conspiracies, double-crossing and paranoia in PKDs books there always seems to be hope too – there’s always another side, another world, another reality – the man clearly had a sense for the limits of human perception and consciousness. Whatever the status-quo is at this current time it always just starts sliding off laterally in some unpredictable, entropic way.

It’s hard to avoid the word Apocalypse nowadays (or crisis, unprecedented times, cliff-edge, tipping point etc).

However, surely we are already living in someone else’s idea of the post-apocalypse? Just ask a Roman Centurion the next time you see one.

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”

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