Friday, September 24, 2010

Challenging Reality: The Philip K. Dick Reader

If you haven't discovered it already, someone needs to tell you a scary truth about the world. Come closer and I'll whisper it to you.

It's weird. And nobody really knows what's wrong with it, or how it got this way, or who's in charge.

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer who embraced that weirdness and took the opportunity it offered to examine the assumptions we make about the nature of our reality. Perhaps the dominant theme in many of his books and short stories is that we are living an imaginary existence...and there's no way of telling just who is doing the imagining for us.

For that reason and many others, Philip K. Dick is a wonderful writer for younger folks. All his life, he resisted the pull of middle-class expectations. He refused to "sell out," to compromise, to "go along to get along." He paid a heavy price for pursuing his own vision, struggling in poverty and paranoia for many of his years. Dick was the real thing, a visionary, a person who saw the real behind the real. He was also only questionably sane, and the work he leaves behind lets us be crazy in small doses.

Many of his novels are masterpieces of cognitive displacement, philosophical horror tales that leave you wondering just what in your life is real, or even if being "real" is good. They can be dense and difficult to approach without some patience, however, and I'd recommend starting your career of challenging the assumptions of society with his shorter works.

It wouldn't do to jump into total perception and madness too early.

The Philip K. Dick Reader, though sometimes hard to find, is an excellent introduction to his work and contains many of his best stories. Included in this collection are "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the basis of the film Total Recall, and "The Minority Report," the basis of the film of the same name. But those aren't even the best ones.

This collection is at its best when Dick's protagonists learn terrible truths about the world.

  • In "The Father-Thing," Charles Walton discovers that something is now sitting at the head of the table wearing his father's skin. has replaced his father.

  • In "Tony and the Beetles," a young man living in a far-flung Earth colony learns what happens when it is the humans who become the conquered.

  • In "The Crawlers" and "The Golden Man," bureaucrats find that the next evolutionary step of the human race is to leave behind the human race.

  • In "The Hanging Stranger," Ed Loyce (a television salesman, a purveyor of mass perception) sees a dead body hanging from a street lamp that nobody else seems to notice.

These are stories from early in his career, when Dick was circling the ideas that would make him one of the most extraordinary writers of the twentieth century. By reading those ideas one at a time, we can ease into lives of advanced perception just as he did.

Will reading Philip K. Dick make you smarter? He has a better chance than most writers, that's for sure, and at the very least you'll learn new ways of examining the world by reading his work. His work makes everything seem new and strange, and he had a talent for asking questions most of us never think of. Those are often more important than the answers.

If you want mind-bending stories that leave you blinking in amazement and stick with you a long time after reading them, Philip K. Dick is your man and The Philip K. Dick Reader is your book. These are stories that make things different, both you and the world.


Shalanna said...

I believe that Phil's work is one long metanovel. Recurring characters and themes mean that you'll gain more by reading ALL of the books. If I were new to Phil, I would start by reading _Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep_ (the basis of BLADE RUNNER the film), _Ubik_, and _The Man in the High Castle_. Those are probably tne most accessible. _Now Wait for Last Year_ and _Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said_, along with _The Zap Gun_ (which isn't really about a zap gun) or _The World Jones Made_, would be good next. Then you'll be prepped for some of the odder ones, the later works. Save the _Exegesis_ for last. (grin) That's a book of excerpts from his journal, basically.

SO MANY films have stolen from Phil. Everyone has made a lot of money out of his ideas (except him and his estate). But the films don't completely get it right. You have to read him to really know him. And even then . . . y'know.

Best bio is by Paul Williams (not the blonde "Rainbow Connection" songwriter--another PW.)

You know, though . . . some people will not click with Phil. He considers questions such as "what is reality?" and "what lies beneath?" and "which is the dream?" very seriously, and asks the interesting questions. Readers like my husband just like the "weird stuff" and special effects, but those are just the bells and whistles, not the basic themes. He's not for everybody. (Neither am I, though.)

Will Ludwigsen said...

What's great about this particular selection of stories is that they're gentle introductions to many of the concepts that PKD explores more arcanely later on. If someone doesn't like one, there's another weird idea just around the corner!