Monday, 20 June 2011

The writing of Philip K Dick

Philip K.Dick is perhaps the wildest, most erratic and yet most original Speculative/Science Fiction writer of them all. For those of you who are more inclined to follow film/cinema than books, you might be interested to know that films such as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Total Recall’, ‘Minority Report’, ‘Paycheck’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ amongst others are based upon his writings, and more of Philip K Dick’s fiction is likely to be adapted to film in the future. Some more loosely than others, of course. There are always difficulties in adapting written fiction for the screen, no less illustrated when considering the clunky nature of some of Dick’s titles: “Blade Runner” is based on the novel titled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” while the original title of the short story that ‘Total Recall’ is based on was “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’. The movie title comes from the name of the company ‘Recall’ in the original story, which uses technology to implant false memories in people’s minds.

There are few Speculative Fiction writers that have the ability to be as humorous, thought-provoking and unsettling across the breadth of their work as Philip Kindred Dick. Many of his original ideas and concepts have been hugely influential both in SF fiction and the mainstream. It can be argued that recent films as diverse as ‘Twelve Monkeys’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Truman Show’, ‘Memento’, ‘Vanilla Sky’ and ‘Inception’ owe a lot to his ideas.

When I wrote two of my first science fiction short stories, ‘Epiphany’ and ‘Garden of Illusion’ (one of which is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have developed psychic abilities through science or evolved psi powers; the other which is about a traumatised woman who is in virtual reality therapy) I hadn’t read much Philip K. Dick. After I had read half a dozen of his novels and many of his short stories, I realised that I owed a huge debt to his influence, which had pervaded into the creative consciousness and themes of other writers of fantasy and SF that I had read, and who had then influenced and inspired me.

I’ve not read all of his works but my personal favourites of what I have read are ‘Martian Time-Slip’, ‘Now Wait for Last Year’, ‘Our Friends from Frolix 8’ and most of all, ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’.

These books are quite difficult to describe and a plot summary only hints at their imaginative power. Briefly-

‘Martian Time-Slip’ is set on a Mars colony in the distant future. The three central characters are Jack Bohlen, a schizophrenic repairman; Arnie Kott, the governor who controls the planet’s limited water supply and Manfred Steiner: an autistic boy whose condition is a result of the fact his mind and consciousness can exist in a different phase of time to the present. He can see into the past and future, and possesses supernatural powers that disturb the consciousness and reality of those around him, particularly the unstable Jack Bohlen. The conflict occurs when Jack Bohlen’s father wishes to buy land on Mars that will be turned into condominiums by the UN and will sell at a high price; Kott also has an eye on the land and wishes to travel back in time to buy the land before Jack Bohlen’s father can. I won’t reveal any more, only to say that there are some very creepy passages in this book, particularly when Kott starts to see the past through Manfred’s eyes and the ending when an aged Manfred travels back in time physically to revisit his mother in the past.

‘Our Friends From Frolix 8’ is set on an Earth of the future, where humankind is divided into three groups: New Men, Old Men and Unusuals. Old Men are normal, average everyday humans. New Men are super-intelligent highly evolved humans with enhanced craniums, and they are the new rulers of mankind. Unusuals are humans with psychic abilities such as telepathy or telekinesis. Earth is ruled by Willis Gram, an Unusual who maintains the hegemony between the power of the New Men and the masses of Old Men. However, there is a revolution brewing led by the ideas of Eric Cordon and the figurehead of Thors Provoni, who has travelled out into deep space to look for help to save Old Mankind. Eventually he returns, with a dangerous and powerful alien lifeform for company…

‘Now Wait for Last Year’ is set during a war in a galactic future between the Starmen (inhabitants of a planet called Lilistar) and the Reegs. The central character is a man from Earth called Eric Sweetscent. He works for a man named Virgil Ackerman who introduces him to Gino Molinari, the elected leader of Earth who can apparently return from the dead. Meanwhile the Starmen locate Eric’s wife Kathy and addict her to JJ-180, a hallucinogenic drug which is both toxic and highly addictive. The Starmen know Eric is working for Molinari and believe Molinari has defected to the side of the Reegs. They want Kathy to spy on her husband, in return for providing her with more of the addictive drug.

‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’ reads like an insane rollercoaster ride. It’s set in a future where the entire Solar System has been explored and colonised by humans. For their own entertainment people take drugs to enter shared dream worlds created by the PP Layouts Company (if you thought some of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ ideas were original, or that there was frankly anything original about that film at all, it’s worth noting that Dick wrote this novel in 1965). Palmer Eldritch, returning from a journey into deep space, is rumoured to have discovered an alien hallucinogenic drug which he plans to market as ‘Chew-Z’ and which will put the PP Layouts out of business. Leo Bulero, head of PP Layouts, attempts to contact Eldritch but he is kidnapped and forced to take Chew-Z. He enters real or unreal realities which are seemingly controlled by himself and Eldritch. The three stigmata, by the way, are: artificial eyes, an artificial metal right hand and metal teeth.

‘Three Stigmata…’ is perhaps most representative of the key themes in Philip K.Dick’s work: mental disturbance and states of paranoia; altered consciousness and altered perceptions of reality (via the supernatural, advanced technology or by drugs); human nature and human desires; political control and leadership of society and particularly in his later work, religion and theology.

As for Philip K.Dick himself, he worked as a repairman and salesman in the 1950s before he became a professional writer. He suffered from anxiety and obsessive character traits throughout his life. In the 1960s when he produced his best, most structured and inventive work (in my opinion) he used amphetamines in order to be more prolific and productive. He claimed that when he was on speed, he could produce ’68 pages of copy a day’. I can manage between 20-25 pages on a good day (about 12,000 words) with the aid of coffee and Red Bull!

In 1970 he divorced his wife and became an addict. He opened his house up to hippies and street-people. In 1974 he had some kind of breakdown which influenced his later, more inaccessible and esoteric writing (it’s possible that he suffered amphetamine psychosis) Overall, his output was much reduced from his 1960s work. The novel ‘A Scanner Darkly’ was written in this later period, and he admitted that the novel (which describes an undercover police officer who infiltrates a drugs den to catch dealers but then himself becomes an addict to a highly dangerous fictional drug called Substance-D) was semi-autobiographical and that the characters were based on many of the people that he had come into contact with in the early 1970s.

The noted, great SF and Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock has criticised Philip K Dick for his ‘cardboard cut-out characters’ and ‘hack writing’

Moorcock has a good point (particularly about Dick’s later work following his breakdown) but there are many intriguing and original ideas in Dick’s work despite his erratic style. (I was thinking about subtitling this section ‘Moorcock on Dick’ but then I noticed an alarming double entendre) I think Philip K Dick has great value as an imaginative writer and the fact that so many of his works have been adapted to film shows his enduring appeal and the fascination of his ideas in our modern age. I found that his stories get under your skin and leave you with a sense of unease, but his work can also be witty and amusing too. If you want to know more about Philip K Dick and his writing, there are some useful links here (including the Michael Moorcock review):

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