Philip K Dick, Introduction

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PHILIP K. DICK - An Introduction

In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, a portion of the science fiction field underwent a major change, with a significant group of authors moving away from extrapolating developments in "hard science" to addressing, in speculative fiction, the most fundamental philosophical questions. Such writers as Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula LeGuin, and Ray Bradbury -- all of them now considered important "mainstream" writers -- were a part of this movement. No SF writer, however, was more involved in this shift than Philip K. Dick.

Dick began publishing in the pulp science fiction magazines of the early Fifties, and he was a prolific writer: in one month in 1953, he had stories in five separate pulps, and on many other occasions he had more than one appearing simultaneously. When he began writing books, he often came out with more than one a year. Mostly, at first, his books were published as paperback originals, and his reputation grew to the point that a major science fiction award was later named after him -- the Philip K. Dick Award, given out each year for the best novel first published as a paperback.

Dick's first hardcover publication in this country, Time Out of Joint, came in 1959, and in 1962 he won science fiction's most coveted award, the Hugo, for his novel The Man in the High Castle. This was a realistic contemporary novel which explored significant social and moral issues by using one of the conventions of the SF genre, the "alternate world": in Dick's novel, which was set in 1962, Germany and Japan had won the Second World War and all events and situations in the book are filtered through that extraordinary reversal of history and of conventional assumptions.

In the Sixties, Dick began seriously experimenting with drugs, and he took science fiction's standard skeptical view of the future and darkened it into a nightmare vision of chaos and decay, with human activity monitored and controlled by powerful unseen forces -- Orwell's 1984 taken a step beyond totalitarianism into a demonic netherworld of technology running amok as the moral fabric of human society frays beyond repair. Dick's mid-Sixties classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, articulated this vision with horrific clarity. Its plot of human "replicants" roaming society may seem far-fetched but its description of twenty-first century urban America -- bleak, filthy, chaotic, run by thugs and mobs and overseen by heavily armed cops cruising the skies -- seems all too prescient; indeed, much of his view has been realized thirty years earlier than he imagined. If Dick's political sensibilities frequently bordered on paranoia, they nonetheless reflected accurately and compellingly the popular views of the timethe sense of social chaos and decay and the conviction that government represented a conspiracy against the individual. The vision was so convincing that it not only gave birth to an entire movement within the SF field, the "cyberpunk" movement, it has also become the default science fiction idea of the future. In this, Dick is linked to such counterculture and Beat-related writers as William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and J.G. Ballard -- avant-garde literary figures whose social commentary and criticism are filtered through the prism of narcotics and psychedelics and bring the hidden dark side of the human psyche into the examination of the social realm.

Dick continued his prolific output through the Sixties and into the Seventies. In SF editor and critic David Pringle's book, Science Fiction - The 100 Best Novels, Dick is the only author with five entries and Pringle indicates that he could have added more but that "one has to draw the line somewhere." Part of the reason, no doubt, is that Dick's writings continually dealt with the most fundamental questions of the human condition and were only secondarily about alien civilizations or space travel; more than anything else, his novels are metaphysical peregrinations which strive to "break into the palace where the most sublime thoughts of human history are stored," as Stanislaw Lem has put it. As Dick's career progressed, this became even more true, until his final novels manifest themselves as ongoing philosophical speculation about the nature of the universe itself, and appear to be on the verge of unhinging from the novelistic conventions of plot, sequence and character altogether and ascending to the realm of the purely mystical and visionary.

Dick has long had a cult following in this country, but in France he is considered in the very top tier of American fantasy writers -- Poe, Lovecraft, Dick; his novel Ubik was considered a masterpiece of pataphysics and his work was proposed by a French critic for the Nobel Prize. In Japan he is considered not only one of the most important American science fiction authors but one of the most important American writers, period. Posthumously, his reputation has slowly grown in this country to the point where it now transcends the genre and he is widely considered a serious mainstream writer, a recognition he longed for but which largely eluded him during his life. His dark, paranoid vision of the future is revealed in the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall, which were based on his books and reveal both a scorching social critique as well as an open, exploratory view of the possibilities of human consciousness. Indeed, he is seen as one of the few important chroniclers of drug-induced altered states and as a writer who strived to describe what author Terence McKenna has called the "invisible landscape." McKenna, a psychedelic advocate who has been captioned the "Copernicus of consciousness" by one publication, believes that Dick's writings anticipated the current explorations into the nature of reality that are taking place in the realms of fractal mathematics and chaos theory.

Dick's crowning achievement is the three volume Valis sequence -- "Valis" being an acronym for "Vast Active Living Intelligence System." Writing for three decades about the illusory nature of reality and the larger system or intelligence behind appearances, Dick explored realms familiar to readers of such writers as Borges and Burroughs. His contribution to our literary heritage is increasingly recognized as both valuable and unique, the work of an extraordinary mind grappling with the largest questions that we can face.

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