Since the release of Blade Runner in 1982, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the writings of Philip K. Dick have been instrumental in defining modern science fiction movies. From Total Recall to Minority Report, his stories have prompted some of the most visually and conceptually imaginative forays into both the future and the mind to have come out of Hollywood – shame, then, that Dick died shortly before the release of Blade Runner and never got to see his works reimagined for the big screen (although that said, at least he was spared from some of the less satisfactory adaptations such as Paycheck and Next …).
Reading through the complete five volume set of Dick’s short stories and the evolution and maturation of his thoughts becomes apparent. From his early beginnings as a writer struggling to find publishers for his short tales, a unique take on the world begins to emerge, one defined by an ever-expanding diversity of themes in which he explores the implications of the cutting edge of scientific research, dealing with quantum physics, time manipulation and distortion, the creation of artificial intelligence and the question of man-made sentient beings’ capacity for emotion, post-apocalyptic mutations, human colonization of other star systems, examining with a critical eye the obvious parallels with post-war imperialism and the Cold War, and much more.
But what makes his vision unique is the way in which Dick’s stories of future technologies and advances in science deal with these developments from the perspective of their impact on the human mind, individually and collectively – in that respect, Dick is one of the most notably psychological and, often, philosophical science fiction writers of the twentieth century. From the well-known examples of Blade Runner raising questions of identity and memory, and the short story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale (filmed as Total Recall) which also deals with the impermanence and fallibility of memory against a backdrop of corporate intrigue and corruption (ideal for Paul Verhoeven’s cinematic brand of science fiction satire), Dick’s prolific output has left virtually no conceptual stone unturned. Dick sometimes referred to himself as a “fictionalizing philosopher”, and in other works the themes run even deeper into the human mind, beyond questions of sense perception towards probing the true nature of reality, a shift in emphasis which stems from a moment in his life in which he experienced strange visions after encountering a delivery woman wearing a pendant with a symbol of, as Dick described it, a “vesicle pisces”. “I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane.”
Carl Jung was a perennial influence on Dick’s exploration of psychological concerns, and Dick openly spoke of Jung’s influence on the use of archetypes throughout his work, frequently utilizing Jungian constructs and models, where dramatic devices such as the malfunctioning particle accelerator in Eye in the Sky leads the protagonists into a succession of abstract parallel universes constructed from their subconscious minds. Beyond these broader concepts, Dick’s own ongoing battle with paranoia is clearly reflected in much of his work, perhaps most notably in A Scanner Darkly, a labyrinthine story of drug users, dealers and undercover agents, reflecting Dick’s own tribulations with amphetamine-induced paranoia, psychosis and disassociation. Rolling Stone magazine dubbed his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich as “the classic LSD novel of all time,” despite the fact that Dick had yet to try the drug, and Dick’s popular image as something of a psychonaut is in fact largely a self-perpetuated myth – Dick rarely took hallucinogens and was first and foremost an habitual amphetamine user, but relished the reputation he’d earned through his writing in the counterculture milieu of the late 60s and early 70s.
His later works took on a more metaphysical tone: while he still wrote fiction which dealt with his former preoccupations on the nature of reality and the identification of the self, his “transcendentally rational mind” began to delve further into religio-spiritual concerns. These were explored most effectively in his VALIS trilogy (The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and VALIS), culminating in the publication of his experiences with faith in Exegesis. As is so often the case with writers, his reputation has been firmly established posthumously. Taken seriously only by the science fiction community during his lifetime, he is now fully and deservedly recognized not just as one of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th century but as one of the most unique, thought-provoking and articulate voices to emerge from the American literary scene.
Arena: Philip K. Dick