Thursday, December 13, 2007

Philip K. Dick

by Steven Williams

Philip K. Dick color photographPhilip Kindred Dick aka Philip K. Dick, born in 1928, was an American author who is most frequently recognized as writer of science fiction novels and stories. PKD aspired to a career in mainstream literature but his stylistic devices and subject material prevented the quality of his writing and the importance of his ideas from being widely recognized during his lifetime and left him relegated, at least in the mind of publishers, to the ghetto of pulp-style low-paying science fiction. This did not mean that PKD did not receive some recognition. Even though Kurt Vonnegut's fictional character Kilgore Trout is based loosely on the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, a large number of readers feel that the character of Trout is actually modeled on PKD. This comparison is based in part on Trout's back-story. He was supposed to have written profusely and creatively within the science fiction genre but remained in obscure poverty in part because of the genre's low status and its publishers' corresponding low pay rates to writers. Despite this association with pulp-style science fiction, PKD is now recognized as an important American writer. This is reflected in the fact that in 2007 he became the first science fiction writer published in The Library of America series. The Library of America is a publisher established specifically to preserve America's literary heritage by keeping important American classics permanently in print. Obviously, an ongoing reassessment of the writings of Dick has been taking place over the last several decades for this to happen and there is a growing popular realization that PKD was much more than a pulp-style science fiction writer.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick front cover color illustrationThe ongoing reassessment of Philip Dick as a writer is based on part on the prescience of his main thematic ideas. Most of his stories and novels take place in socially chaotic if not actually dystopic alternative worlds or near future times where the lives of ordinary people are exploited and dominated by monopolistic corporations and authoritarian government. Within these settings, PKD's characters are usually led to question their familiar reality and then come to terms with implications this has for their sense of their selves. Questioning both reality and identity provide PKD's works with a strong flavor of surrealism at the same time that the his stories lend themselves to the greatest dilemma of late twentieth century, postindustrial society: what crucial factor or factors determine what it is to be human. Part of the attractiveness of PKD's work is that he offers no definitive answer to this question. His fiction consistently expresses an explicit distrust of heroes and heroics and seems to instead imply that it is simply the quality of character and human kindness by ordinary people that should be the standard for what it means to be human.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep cover illustrationIn addition to Dick's questioning of what is reality and what is 'human', his fiction also tends to have references and situations related to his life-long difficulties with mental instability and drug use. These experiences seem to have contributed to his tendency to place his characters in situations involved in or related to drug use, paranoia, schizophrenia, religious experience, and theology. Despite this fairly personal attitude, most frequently found in his later work, this tendency combination with his ideas about the nature of reality and humanity seem to strike a chord with growing numbers of contemporary readers and social critics. PKD's resurgence among readers was coincidently taking place at about the same time that 'cyberpunk' became widely recognizable genre label for dystopic fiction in general. Unfortunately this happened at the very end of Dick's life (he died 1982). Philip K. Dick continues to be an important literary figure though and his ability to describe and imagine postindustrial humanity's malaise and anxieties has made his fiction highly suitable, if only for its core ideas, in film adaptations. The most important films that have been produced based on Philip K. Dick stories and books currently include Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Barjo (1992), Screamers (1995), Imposter (2002), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), and Next (2007).

Blade Runner color movie posterBlade Runner (1982)
The film Blade Runner was developed from the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It was also the only significant film to be made from one of PKD's works during his lifetime. As it happened, he only saw a rough cut of the film before his death. Significantly, before he saw the film he was particularly critical of the adaptation. Ridley Scott arranged the rough-cut showing and a meeting with PKD. The result was that Dick was astonished at how closely the atmosphere of the film matched his own imaginings about his novel. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick US 1st hardcover edition front coverThough he and Scott differed on significant points in the story and character development, PKD became an overt supporter for the film. The novel is set in the near future after a world war has destroyed much of the Earth. The United Nations is actively encouraging human beings to emigrate to off-world colonies by offering a custom-built android servant to each emigrant. Most androids and emigrant humans live on Mars but there are some androids that return to the Earth in an effort to escape their slavery to humans. These androids are constructed from organic components making them very difficult to detect. Bounty hunters are used to track down and kill fugitive androids posing as humans. The plot centers around one bounty hunter and his pursuit of especially dangerous, advanced refugee androids in hiding. PKD uses his main character's applications of 'tests' on suspected androids to emphasize the inherent humanness of empathy.

Total Recall region 1 DVD color sleeveTotal Recall (1990)
The screenplay for Total Recall developed out of the PKD novella We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, originally published in the April 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction April 1966 front coverThe story is about an ordinary man, Douglas Quail, who wishes that he could afford to vacation on Mars. Because he is unable to afford such a luxury, he goes to a company that provides a service in which they implant memories of taking such a trip. The planned implant memories are available in a more exotic version in which the customer is able to pretend he is a heroic secret agent. In the process of implanting these false memories, the service discovers that Quail actually is an undercover assassin who knows a lot of dangerous secrets. Initially, he finds agents of the government pursuing him but he is able to make a deal to have the recovered memories suppressed once more. In compensation for this loss of identity, he also negotiates to have this newest set of false memories be of the heroic wish-fulfillment sort. During this second procedure, the memory implanting service discovers that the supposedly false heroic memories are already in place and are actually true.

Banjo aka Confessions d'un Barjo VHS sleeve front coverBarjo (1992)
Barjo, aka Confessions d'un Barjo, is based on Dick's non-science-fiction novel Confessions of a Crap Artist (written in 1959, published in 1975). This novel is about a socially awkward factory worker, Jack Isidore, who is obsessed with science. Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick Entwhistle Books edition front coverAs an adult, he pursues this interest by cataloging old science magazines, collecting odd bits of junk, and subscribing to odd, even crackpot scientific theories, keeping notes on it all in his 'scientific' journal of his life. His inability to function in the real world leads to his sister and her husband taking him in. They live on the farm and Isidore happily takes on household chores and helps care for the livestock. He also observes the deliberate cruelties and hurtful behaviour of his hosts. He eventually comes to terms with his own obsessions when his sister and her husband's own tendencies almost destroy them and their marriage.

Screamers region 1 DVD color sleeveScreamers (1995)
Screamers is based on the PKD short story Second Variety originally published in the May, 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction magazine. The setting of the story is Earth at some indefinite but near future in which the planet has sustained an atomic war between the West and the Soviets. Space Science Fiction May 1953 front coverThe war continues as a ground war in Europe and the Americans invent a self-replicating blade wielding robot killer that is designed to go after the Russians on the ground. These machines are very effective but then they evolve into a variant that is able to modify itself, the so called 'second variety'. After this change begins, the killing machines begin to go after anything living, not just the enemy. Their evolutionary adaptations also include the ability to mimic humans and this has also made them so difficult to detect that humans are threatened with extinction.

Imposter director’ cut region 1 DVD color sleeve
Imposter (2002)
This film is based on a PKD short story of the same name and originally published in the June, 1953 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. A scientist is working at a top-secret government project. The security services have learned that a humanoid robot has been sent in by the aliens to infiltrate the facility. The scientist ends up being accusedAstounding Science Fiction June 1953 of being the android and so he sets out to clear his name by discovering the identity of the decoy. To add to the tension, the android is also known to have a self-destruct mechanism built into it. The hunt ends up being a psychological goose chase with an unexpectedly twisted but typically phildickian ending based on the question: Am I human or am I just programmed to believe I am Human?

Minority Report color movie posterMinority Report (2002)
This film is based on the PKD short story of the same name first published in the January, 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe magazine. The main character is John Anderton, the founder of the government murder prevention department called Precrime. The basis of this department are the 'precogs', mutant humans who are deformed and retarded but whose precognitive abilities are identified, enhanced, and developed by the government. Three of them are strapped into special chairs in one room kept in perpetual half-darkness and their babbling is recorded. A computer analyzes the superficially incoherent babble producing reports or predictions. Fantastic Universe January 1956 front coverComputers compare the three reports and whenever at least two overlap, a 'majority report' is generated and the information is used to prevent a murder by capturing the potential murderer. Anderton is accused of a precrime and when he goes looking for the 'minority report' that would guide him to his alternative future, he discovers that there actually never are any majority reports, all the reports are minority reports. Anderton is accused of being the future murderer of a General who is trying to discredit the Precrime department in order to shift more funding for the Defense Department. In the end, Anderton actually ends up killing the man anyway in order to protect the existence of Precrime.

Paycheck color movie posterPaycheck (2003)
"Small and useless things, under the wise eyes of a time traveler, might signify a great deal more." Paycheck is a very loose adaptation of the PDK short story with the same name originally published in the June 1953 issue of Imagination magazine. It is about a man who wakes up to find that the past two years of his memory have been erased. Apparently he accepted this as part of the conditions for a job he took, but instead of a salary, he has apparently chosen to instead receive only a bag of what seem to be worthless objects that he apparently picked out himself before his memory was changed. It turns out that he is one of the world's most skilled electricians Imagination June 1953 front coverand he was hired for a project for which the employer required the memory erasure as a security measure. Not long after waking up with the memory blank, he finds himself being pursued by Security police and it turns out that he is caught up in a vast conspiracy involving a technology for seeing into the future. The items turn out to be critical keys to his finding out the truth and saving himself.

A Scanner Darkly color movie posterA Scanner Darkly (2006)
This film is based on the novel by the same name first published in 1977. It is about an undercover police agent, Bob Arctor, who is a narcotics agent investigating sources of a drug called 'Substance D', a powerful psychoactive drug. Eventually the effects of the drug make him useless as an agent and he ends up forced to go through a cruel group-dynamic program actually designed to exploit the effects of his drug A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick front coveruse and leave him brainwashed and living in a zombie-like state. At this point he is sent to one of the Substance D rehabilitation centers which keep the former addicts busy performing simple farm labor. It turns out that Substance D comes from little blue flowers that are grown on large farms, hidden between rows of corn, and tended and harvested by the very same former Substance D addicts suffering from gross neurocognitive deficits caused by their drug addition.

Next color movie posterNext (2007)
Next is loosely adapted from the PKD short story The Golden Man originally published in If Worlds of Science Fiction magazine in the April 1954 issue. The story is set in post-World War III The Golden Man by Philip K. Dick first hardcover printing front coverAmerica where human mutants produced in the aftermath are a source of massive public paranoia. In response to this pervading fear, a sort of government Gestapo called the DCA has been set up to maintain social order and stability by strictly controlling what most people see as menacing freaks. A young mutant named Cris Johnson is captured by the DCA and though he is obviously a mutant, he is something different because he is perfect, like a Greek god, a Golden Man. He has more than good looks though. He has the ability to see his own future and that combined with his unnaturally fast reflexes insure that not only will he survive but the DCA is unable to hold onto him.

Blade Runner movie color still photograph

Newer Article: C. J. Box, a master of the outdoor mystery


Older Article: John Updike part 1, The Rabbit Books

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Philip K. Dick, the film adaptations of a master of speculative fiction by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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