Philip K. Dick was a science fiction author who wrote short stories and dystopian novels in the 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80s. Like most science fiction writers of the time, he was paid by the word, so putting food on the table depended on how quickly he could type. Undoubtedly, many of his stories were quickly plotted, lightly edited, and reportedly written while on speed. Regardless, quite a few of his 47 novels and 127 short stories are critically acclaimed.
I have read all of his short stories and every novel except a few published after his death. You may not have heard of this writer who has a cult following, but you have probably have been exposed unknowingly to some of his stories. Dick died in 1982, the same year that the first movie based on his work, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” came out. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott, was called “Blade Runner.” If you haven’t seen “Blade Runner,” you may have seen one the other most popular action movies based on his work: “Total Recall” and “Minority Report.” I liked these three movies although they left out the philosophical subtext that made the books so interesting. There have been other lesser known movies and a TV show or two based on his work.
Dick briefly attended the University of California at Berkeley where he took a philosophy course or two. When he wasn’t writing novels, he was studying philosophy and religion on his own and writing constantly in his diary trying to understand his unusual experiences.
Many people see him as a visionary. His view of the future, our present, is somewhat pessimistic, although his works reflect a faith in the goodness of the ordinary, everyday person.
One of the major themes of his work, not always given enough weight in the movies, is the distinction between appearance and reality. What, he asks in the book, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” makes someone human? Dick’s answer is that only humans have the capacity for empathy. The protagonist, a bounty hunter, tracks and kills androids who look and act just like humans, until he falls in love with one. He is unable to kill her. She seems capable of empathy, but we never know for sure. The novel, unlike the movie, has another major element. Animals in this world are largely extinct, but treasured replicas are created to replace them. You see, people yearn for the reality they once had. They find ways to substitute for what’s been lost, but they know deep down they are living a life that lacks substance.
In many of Dick’s novels, characters experience an “artificial” reality that differs from what is commonly accepted. They enter these worlds through cracks in space, by taking drugs or on the whim of powerful, Godlike figures. In one book, Dick’s main character takes a drug and enters a scary alternate reality, but later learns that the drug he took was not a hallucinogenic but was a drug that counteracted the effects of a hallucinogenic drug that everyone, unknowingly, was taking. Dick loves turning things upside down. The characters’ quests often involve sorting out the real from the artificial. Making this distinction, however, requires the protagonists to figure out what makes them authentic human beings.
Their philosophical reflections occur in worlds dominated by powerful, heartless corporations or governments that have no empathy for their employees or citizens. Interestingly, Dick’s work proposes a view of reality that’s dependent upon a socially shared consensus. The protagonists must therefore break through the accepted view of the world to see things in other ways. Doing so, unfortunately, does not grant them any power, only knowledge.
There was some humor in Dick’s bleak view of the future. He had the ability to extrapolate trends he observed years ago and push them to absurd conclusions. For example, he wrote about a robot that would knock on your door, ask to give a demonstration of how it could serve you, then start its work unbidden as your servant. It would refuse to leave, providing you with unwanted help while constantly pushing you until you finally signed the contract. These robots remind me of the growing number of targeted ads that keep popping up as I browse the Internet, finding new ways to be more intrusive every month. In one of his short stories, armies of robots fight each other. They are no longer under human control. The robots independently build the factories that produce the armies of robots and gather the raw materials needed to keep the factories running. All the humans can do is watch as the earth’s raw materials are used up. Did I say dark humor?
What makes Dick’s work relevant today is the themes he wrote about years ago address some of the most important issues we face today. First, distinguishing between appearance and reality is increasingly challenging. We have greater access to information than at any time in history. By a long shot. But, we can also access disinformation just as easily. In addition, a good part of our lives takes place in an alternate reality called the Internet. We are increasingly connected. The Internet of Things connects the devices around us. Virtual Reality will have a dramatic impact in the years to come. What happens to us, I wonder, when we are far less connected to our biological and social roots. Second, human are being replaced by robots in the workplace. Our factories are increasingly automated. Robots work 24/7. They don’t get sick, arrive late, take vacations, or ask for raises. The problem is that if everyone loses their job to automation, there won’t be anyone to buy the cars and other goods the factory produces. Third, people in positions of power have little empathy for the everyday person. The middle class has been shrinking, and no one seems to care about the lower class at all anymore. Most of human existence occurred in times when there wasn’t much of a middle class, but democracy depends upon it. Fourth, the earth is losing species of animals at an alarming rate, far beyond the natural extinction rate. The natural world is being destroyed by greed and short-sighted thinking. We need to make climate change our number one priority, but denial is easier. Dying may be easier too.
Dick’s novels provide no solutions. The everyday person is outmatched. However, the characters in his books use their brains to momentarily escape persecution, thus avoiding being steamrolled. They seek the truth–they do their best to distinguish fact from fiction. These humble heroes come to understand why they are powerless, they win a few battles, and they remain true to themselves. The protagonists reject the values of their oppressors. They help others. Although their lives are turned upside down when they accidentally bump up against those who control how the world is perceived, they act bravely, fight when possible, and live their lives without illusion.
Is that pessimism, optimism or realism?