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Analysis of Philip K. Dick’s Novels

 

Philip K. Dick’s novels are, without exception, distinctive in style and theme. Their style may be characterized relatively easily: Dick writes clearly and plainly and is a master of realistic dialogue. He is, however, also a master of the art of “cutting.” Frequently a chapter or a scene will end with a short summary statement, often of doubt, bewilderment, or unease, only to be followed in the next chapter by a longish sentence introducing a new character going about his daily concerns in a manner that seems—but only seems—to have no connection with the foregoing. For all of his plainness, Dick furthermore makes considerable use of words of his own coinage—for example, “flapple,” “quibble” (a kind of vehicle), “thungly,” “gubbish,” or “kipple.” The latter has even achieved a certain currency outside its novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, to mean the morass of useless objects, such as gum wrappers or junk mail, which seems to reproduce by itself in any modern dwelling. The overall effect of Dick’s style is to give an impression of plainness and superficial normality, but to suggest strongly that beneath this surface things are going on which are ominous, disastrous, inexplicable.

philip-k-dick-hansonThis preoccupation is clearly mirrored in Dick’s characteristic themes, many of which are shared with the body of science fiction at large. He often writes of androids, simulacra, and mechanical men. He bases several plots on consciousness raising drugs. His later works in particular tend toward the dystopian, presenting visions of a future America as a vast gulag or a slave-labor state. The notions of alternate worlds and of post-Holocaust societies are often exploited. Where Dick differs from other users of these themes is in the strange insecurity that he generates while handling them. Androids are common in science fiction, and so are plots in which androids cannot be told from people. Only Dick produces plots in which the test to distinguish human from android is so deeply infected with the bureaucratic mentality that even people are likely to fail and be eliminated. Only Dick has a hero giving himself his own test, having come (for good reason) to doubt his own humanity.

Similarly, Dick is capable of writing a story that appears to be set in an alternate world but then begins to suggest that the real world never existed and is merely a drug-induced hallucination—only to switch back again, deny its own hypothesis, and leave the reader quite unsure even of the bases of judgment. Dick is fascinated by forgeries and by coincidences. In scene after scene, he presents a hero doubting even his own identity, and doing so with total rationality on the basis of all the evidence in the world around him. Most readers soon realize that the common concern that binds Dick’s repeated themes and plot elements is the very nature of reality itself and that Dick doubts common notions of reality more sincerely and more corrosively than almost any writer in any genre. Dick could be described as the poet of paranoia, yet his cool and sensible style enables him to present horrifying alienations in a way with which even the sanest reader can sympathize.

dick_450Solar Lottery
Dick’s overriding concerns are quite apparent in even his earliest novels. Solar Lottery, his first novel, presents a future society that is dedicated entirely to chance, as a result of “extrapolation,” first of the then-new phenomenon of television quiz shows, and second (as one might have expected) of the “Uncertainty Principle” as a basic rule of the universe. In this world, all authority devolves on “the Quizmaster,” but the Quizmaster may be deposed at any moment from his position by a “twitch of the bottle,” an event determined by the intrinsically unpredictable forces of submolecular physics. The bottle twitches. Reese Verrick the Quizmaster is deposed. His place goes to an unknown fanatic called Cartwright, whose only interest is the search for a (mythical?) tenth planet. Caught up in all these events is a hero who has had the colossal bad luck to swear irrevocable fealty to Verrick just before he fell from power. Already the sense of an unpredictable world where anything can go wrong is very marked.

Eye in the Sky
Even more revealing is Eye in the Sky, in which eight characters caught up in a scientific accident find themselves exploring what they slowly realize are the worlds of one another’s minds: first that of a total believer in an obscure fundamentalist sect, then that of an inhibited housewife, a borderline paranoid, a fanatical communist, and so on. The worlds themselves are presented with great verve. In the first, for example, a man going for a job asks not about pay but about credits for salvation and if he presses is told that in his position the God of this world, “Tetragrammaton,” will probably grant his prayers to the extent of four hundred (dollars?) a week. The job may be constructing a grace reservoir, or improving the wire to Heaven. There is in fact an “eye in the sky,” belonging to the unnameable (Tetragrammaton). Underlying the structure of the whole novel, though, is the notion that each person’s individual universe is not only private but unreachable; most people are mad. In view of Dick’s later development it is also interesting that the novel is strongly anti-McCarthyite, even though one of the characters (ironically a security chief) is indeed a communist agent.

Time Out of Joint
The novel that best sums up Dick’s earliest phase as a novelist, however, is Time Out of Joint. This appears for quite some time not to be science fiction at all. It reads instead as a pleasantly pastoral, perhaps rather dull, account of life in a small American town of the 1950’s. The only odd feature is that the hero, Ragle Gumm, makes his living by continually winning a newspaper contest “WhereWill the Little Green Man Be Next?” Slowly, however, this idyllic setting begins to drift by quarter-tones to nightmare. Gumm does not recognize a picture of Marilyn Monroe (something unthinkable if he were really of that time and place). An old phone book found in some ruins has his name in it, with eight phone numbers for all hours of the day and night. A boy’s crystal radio picks up voices saying in effect “That’s him down there, Ragle Gumm.” It transpires that the small town with its idealized families is a total deception, all created to shield Ragle Gumm and maintain him in his stress-free delusion while he performs his real job—using extrasensory powers to predict the fall of enemy rockets on Earth, under the fiction of the newspaper contest.

The Man in the High Castle
In Time Out of Joint, Ragle Gumm is mad at the start. When he thinks he is going mad, he is learning the truth. There is no way to prove that reality is not a perfectly rehearsed plot. This latter is a classic Dick conclusion. In The Man in the High Castle—Dick’s most famous but not most characteristic work—the reader is plunged into an alternate reality in which the Allies have lost World War II, California is occupied by the Japanese, and the inhabitants rather like the situation. The hero here, Robert Childan, is a seller of “ethnic” American curios, such as Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War handguns, for which the conquerors have an insatiable appetite. His problem is that some of the guns are fakes. The problem of the man who made the fake guns, Frank Frink, is that he is a Jew and could be deported to German-controlled areas. Nevertheless, the predictable theme of resistance, triumph, and escape to the real universe where the right side won hardly materializes. Instead, the reader is presented with a complex argument in favor of Japanese sensitivity, with strong underlying hints that even the “alternate worlds” of this “alternate world” would not be the same as our world. The novel suggests powerfully that history is chance, merely one possibility among a potential infinity of realities.

The Penultimate Truth
By 1964 Dick was at the height of his power as a writer, and almost any of the fifteen novels published between this year and 1969, including The Simulacra, Dr. Bloodmoney, Counter-Clock World, or Galactic Pot-Healer, would find admirers. Some especially significant themes emerge, however, from five novels in this group: The Penultimate Truth, Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ubik. The first of these returns to the theme of total, deliberate illusion. In the future imagined in this novel, most of the inhabitants of Earth live underground, in ant-tanks, under the conviction that World War III is still going on and that if they emerge from hiding they will die from the Bag Plague, the Stink of Shrink, Raw-Claw-Paw, or one of a multitude of human-made viruses. In reality, though, the war stopped long ago, and the earth is a park, divided up into the demesnes of the ruling classes. Like Ragle Gumm, one character digs his way out to discover the truth and to try to lead these latter-day Morlocks up to the light. The particular point that Dick wishes to rub in here, though, is that even outside science fiction, people are genuinely at the mercy of their television screens. They cannot tell whether they are watching truth or a construct. They usually have no way of telling true history from the false varieties that Dick makes up. The end of the novel declares that what is essential—and not only in the novel—is a ferocious skepticism. People are too gullible, too easily deceived.

Martian Time-Slip
There is no such overt political thesis in Martian Time-Slip, of the same year, but in this Dick creates one of his most likable sets of characters, in Jack Bohlen, the Martian repairman, and Arnie Kott, senior member of the Waterworkers’ Union—naturally a privileged body on arid Mars, though no one had previously been mundane enough to say so. Dick also brings into the novel what seems to be a personal image of the “Tomb World,” a world in which everything is rotten and decaying, with buildings sliding to ruin and bodies to corruption. This world is perceived only by an autistic child, but that child’s perceptions seem stronger than the grandiose claims of governments and land speculators. Still another route into horror is via drugs.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch moves rapidly from a protagonist who has the seemingly harmless job of guessing fashion for dolls and dollhouses to the notion of exploitation—for these “Perky Pat Layouts,” as they are called, can be experienced only by people who take the drug Can-D to let them into the doll-world—to menace and terror. Can-D is about to be superseded by Chew-Z, a drug allegedly harmless, nonaddictive, and government sponsored. This drug, however, puts its users (as in Eye in the Sky) in the world of Palmer Eldritch, a demon-figure with steel teeth, an artificial hand, and mechanical eyes. They cannot return from it. Chew-Z takes one into a variant, one might say, of the “Tomb World.”

Ubik
The hero of Ubik, Joe Chip, finds the “Tomb World” happening around him, as it were. Cigarettes he touches fall into dust; cream turns sour; mold grows on his coffee; even his coins turn out of date. Then he himself starts to age. The only thing that can cure him is a spray of “Ubik,” a material that halts the race to corruption and obsolescence. In a memorable scene near the end, Joe Chip reaches a drugstore just before it closes, to demand Ubik, only to find that the store is closing, the stock is out, and spray cans too have aged, becoming cardboard packets. What force is doing all this? Are the characters in fact already dead, now existing only in a bizarre afterlife? For whose benefit is the spectacle being played out? Once again, Dick creates a happy ending, but more strongly than usual, one believes that this ending is demanded by the conventions of the field rather than by the logic of the plot.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
For depth of paranoia, the prize should go to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This novel is best known as the original of the 1982 film Blade Runner, both book and film centering on a bounty hunter whose job is to kill androids. What the film could not do is show the depth of devotion that the characters in the book—who live in a world so radioactive that almost all unprotected creatures have died—give to their pets. Deckard the bounty hunter has a counterfeit electric sheep because he is too poor to afford a real one, but like everyone in the book he consistently consults the manual of animal prices. If he kills three more androids, could he buy a goat? If he spares one, will they give him an owl (thought to be extinct)? Would it be an artificial owl? The pitiless slaughter of androids is balanced against the extraordinary cosseting of every nonartificial creature, down to spiders. What, however, is the basis of the division? In a heartrending scene, after Deckard has wiped out his androids, another android comes and kills his goat. Before then, though, Deckard himself has been accused of being an android, been taken to the Hall of Justice, and been quite unable to prove his own identity—because, as soon becomes clear, all the authorities are themselves androids. The notions of undetectable forgery, total illusion, and unanimous conspiracy combine to make the central scenes of this novel as disorienting as any in Dick’s work.

Somewhere near this point, Dick’s development was cut off. He wrote most movingly on the subject in the author’s note to A Scanner Darkly. This novel, he says, is “about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.” They were real people, the author’s friends. They took drugs, like children playing; it was not a disease, it was an error of judgment, called a “life-style.” He then lists seven of his friends who have died, three more with permanent brain damage, two with permanent psychosis, one with permanent pancreatic damage . . . the list goes on. How deeply Dick himself was involved in late 1960’s California “drug culture,” one cannot say. He himself insists this was exaggerated. However, for whatever cause, Dick wrote less, and his mood became angrier, less playful.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
The great surprise of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is its ending. In this world—a dystopia based on Nixon-era America—students are persecuted, the “nats” and the “pols” run identification checks in the streets, a quota is taken off daily to slave camps, and civil liberties have vanished. Through the world wanders Jason Taverner, in the first chapter a rich and fantastically successful entertainer, who finds himself suddenly (in dream? psychosis? alternate reality?) in a place where everything is familiar, but no one knows him. His hunter is Police General Felix Buckman, as it were the arch-bogey of the liberal conscience, the policy maker for the police-state. However, at the end, with his sister dead and Taverner arrested, Buckman, weeping, finds himself at an all-night garage. He climbs out of his “quibble” and goes over to hug a lonely black—one of the very few black people in this world to have got through the sterilization programs. The moral is totally unexpected, as a reaction to incidents such as the Kent State University shootings. It is that even policemen can love. Even men who are systematically evil can abandon the system. The ending of this novel comes over as an extraordinarily generous gesture from an embittered man. As with the very strongly antidrug stance of A Scanner Darkly, this scene shows that Dick, for all of his liberalism, is not prepared to accept the complete “anti-Establishment” package.

Nevertheless, from this point his works grow weirder and more connected. Some of his later novels, such as the posthumously issued Radio Free Albemuth, were either not submitted or not accepted for publication. This group also includes the best of Dick’s non-science-fiction novels, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, a book most easily described as a sequel to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), recounting what happened after the “Okies” got to California: They settled down, lost their way, ran used-car lots, and became “humpty dumpties”—passive spectators of the American Dream. The central idea of the last set of Dick’s science-fiction novels, however, is form of Gnosticism, the ancient Christian heresy that insists that the world contains two forces, of good and evil, in eternal conflict, with only a remote or absent God trying occasionally to get through. Dick writes variations on this theme in Valis, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and Radio Free Albemuth, mentioned above.

Valis
Valis, at least, makes a direct assault on the reader by including the character Horselover Fat, a transparent translation of Philip K. Dick. He hears voices, very like the characters from Berkeley in Radio Free Albemuth, who believe they are being contacted by a sort of divine transmission satellite. What the voices say are variations on the view that the world is ruled by a Black Iron Empire, by secret fraternities in Rome or the United States; that the president of the United States, Ferris F. Fremont, has “the number of the beast” in his name; that true believers are exiles from another world. Is this mere madness? Horselover Fat remarks himself that the simplest explanation is that the drugs he took during the 1970’s have addled his mind during the 1980’s. Nevertheless, he has to believe his voices. One might say that Dick’s corrosive skepticism has finally developed a blind spot, or alternatively, that the novelist has become a sadder and a wiser man. Whatever the decision, Dick’s last novels could be characterized not as science fiction but as theological fiction.

Dick’s work as a whole shows clear evidence of his deep social concerns, reacting against Senator Joseph McCarthy and President Richard Nixon, first praising and then condemning drugs, testing one notion after another concerning the limits of government. However, it also remained solidly consistent in its private and personal quest for a definition of reality that will stand any trial. It could be said that Dick’s work is obsessive, introspective, even paranoid. It has also to be said that it very rarely loses gentleness, kindness, even a rather wistful humor. Dick has certainly contributed more first-class novels to science fiction than anyone else in the field, and he has convinced many also of the genre’s ability to cope with serious reflections on the nature of humanity and of perception.

Major works
Long fiction Solar Lottery, 1955 (pb. in England as World of Chance, 1956); The Man Who Japed, 1956; The World Jones Made, 1956; Eye in the Sky, 1957; Time Out of Joint, 1959; Dr. Futurity, 1960; Vulcan’s Hammer, 1960; The Man in the High Castle, 1962; The Game-Players of Titan, 1963; Clans of the Alphane Moon, 1964; Martian Time-Slip, 1964; The Penultimate Truth, 1964; The Simulacra, 1964; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, 1964; Dr. Bloodmoney: Or, How We Got Along After the Bomb, 1965; Now Wait for Last Year, 1966; The Crack in Space (Cantata 140), 1966; The Unteleported Man, 1966 (pb. In England as Lies, Inc., 1984); Counter-Clock World, 1967; The Ganymede Takeover, 1967 (with Ray Nelson); The Zap Gun, 1967; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968 (reissued as Blade Runner, 1982); Galactic Pot-Healer, 1969; Ubik, 1969; A Maze of Death, 1970; Our Friends from Frolix 8, 1970; The Philip K. Dick Omnibus, 1970; We Can Build You, 1972; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, 1974; Confessions of a Crap Artist, 1975; Deus Irae, 1976 (with Roger Zelazny); A Scanner Darkly, 1977; The Divine Invasion, 1981; Valis, 1981; The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, 1982; The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike 1984; In Milton Lumky Territory, 1985; Puttering About in a Small Land, 1985; Radio Free Albemuth, 1985; Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, 1986; Mary and the Giant, 1987; The Broken Bubble, 1988.

Short fiction: A Handful of Darkness, 1955; The Variable Man, and Other Stories, 1957; The Preserving Machine, and Other Stories, 1969; The Book of Philip K. Dick, 1973 (pb. in England as The Turning Wheel, and Other Stories, 1977); The Best of Philip K. Dick, 1977; The Golden Man, 1980; I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, 1985; Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, 1985; The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, 1987 (5 volumes); Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, 2002 (Jonathan Lethem, editor).
Nonfiction: In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis, 1991 (Lawrence Sutin, editor); The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick, 1991-1993 (Don Herron, editor); The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, 1995 (Lawrence Sutin, editor); What If Our World Is Their Heaven: The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick, 2000 (Gwen Lee and Elaine Sauter, editors).
Miscellaneous: The Dark Haired Girl, 1988.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Science Fiction

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