was first introduced to the works of Philip K Dick just about three decades
ago by reading an interview and feature in Rolling Stone magazine.
I cannot describe myself then or now as a particular science
fiction fan. In fact, after time at school reading Isaac Asimov
I spent so much effort reading Marx, Gramsci, Trotsky, Lenin
and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all I had not had much time to read
any sort of fiction at all. Michael Moorcock and other very
readable and thoughtful writers had simply passed me by.
I dipped into Dick's work. I first read The Man in the High
Castle (first published in 1962) which was what we would now
call alternative history. The Axis Powers have won the Second
World War and America is divided between the Germans in the
East and the Japanese in the West. The Nazis are, of course,
pitylessly ideological, the Japanese mainly concerned with
acquiring American memorabilia, real or concocted, an enigmatic
ending left me wondering and looking for more.
I then moved on to Time Out of Joint, a title with a clear
reference to a quotation from Hamlet: "The time is out
of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right".
First published in 1959 it just begs for a film to be made
of it. Ragel Gumm is a gone-to-seed failed individual living
in 1950s middle class small town America. He toys with an
affair with his next door neighbour and lodges with his sister
and brother in law in a place that could be US Anywhere. He
makes a living, after a fashion, by participating in a local
newspaper competition, Where Will the Little Green Man Be
Next?, although we later discover the newspaper lets him cheat.
The banality of life in small town mid 1950s America is
brilliantly captured in the novel, but there is much, much
more. A couple
of the clues to the fact that all is not what it seems
to be is that there are no Tucker dealerships listed in the
directory and nobody has ever heard of a blond starlet
called Marilyn Monroe. Who in 1959 could have predicted the
that all of us would know of Marilyn as a twentieth century
icon and that those of us who have seen Francis Ford Coppola's
1988 film Tucker, know what all this refers to? If only I
could have got Phil to pick my lottery numbers.
In some ways, Time Out of Joint is Dick's most impressive
book. It raises all sorts of issues specific to the 1950s:
Cold War paranoia, fear of nuclear war and the conformity
of Eisenhower America. It also raises wider concerns: Ragel
lives an inauthentic life. Ice cream vendors transform into
typed slips of paper and fellow bus passengers turn out to
be cardboard cutouts. Relatives, friends and lovers are revealed
as total strangers, brainwashed into accepting their current
roles and completely convinced by their previous imagined
pasts. I am almost tempted to see here an analogy with New
The book is an essay on the inauthenticity of contemporary
life in capitalist society. Dick's odd personal relationship
with the left is irrelevant to what the books might mean at
a deeper level. One of the themes seems to be, is there a
reality which sits below and underpins the apparent or superficial
nature of society? This is, of course, an element in Marxism.
Deeper meanings in the infrastructure are not always revealed
in the superstructure. Time Out of Joint is a work about ideology,
self delusion, but also about our own doubts about the meanings
of our own lives.
Dick's religious beliefs were ambiguous and confused, but
very real. They came to the fore particularly in his
writings, such as Divine Invasion and VALIS. This interests
me since I regard religion as important irrespective
own religious beliefs or lack of them, Dick is my kind
of science fiction writer, even when his work takes a
Many of Dick's works have a post-apocalypse context or feel,
for example, in The Galactic Pot Healer. Not surprising when
he was writing in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear
stand-off between the superpowers. One of my own favourite
novels is Ubik. Of course, if you have not read it, I do not
want to spoil it for you, but let me just say that being dead
should not prevent you from living.
His best known work is probably Do Androids Dream of Electric
Sheep? turned into the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott
1982 (the year of Philip K Dick's death). An action movie,
rather like the recent Stephen Spielberg film Minority Report,
based on a Dick short story, as is the Arnie vehicle Total
Recall, based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Although
this has given Philip K Dick a wider audience and I am sure
that the success of films based loosely on his stories has
increased his readership, this is not really what Dick's
Some of Dick's work reflects the drug sodden culture of
California in the 1960s. A Scanner Darkly and We Can Build
You would not have been possible without the counter-culture
of the 1960s west coast. Dick is that odd link between the
1950s and the science fiction culture of the pulp sci-fi magazines
such as If, Galaxy and Fantastic Universe and the later world
of the hippies and love is all you need.
This was, in a sense, only possibly, because Dick was able
to survive his dysfunctional life and relationships and his
prodigious intake of all types of drugs. It is clear from
some of the later books that his recreational use of various
forms of narcotics did not improve his creative powers. As
often happens when people think that what they are taking
is improving their literacy output, the reality is often so
In his early career Dick churned out short stories for the
pulp magazines. He later re-cycled many of the ideas and stories
in his longer works and novels. There is a long tradition
of this in genre which had their roots in short story magazines.
Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett did exactly the same
things with detective stories, building them from short stories
to novels. Learning their craft by writing the wam bam, grab
them by their lapels story and then moving on to the more
Chandler though, directly involved himself in the world
of Hollywood. The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake and Farewell
My Lovely were all turned into movies. There was also Chandler's
contributions to The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on a Train.
In contrast Dick has never really been successfully transferred
to the screen, although, apparently, he was happy with Blade
Runner. This is, in a way ironic, since in many respects the
film owes more to Hammett and Chandler than it does to Dick.
It is Film Noir with replicants which is not what I get from
Dick at all. The voice over at the end is just the kind of
wry but also sentimental comment you could expect from a Chandler.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? competes with Jack
Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of science
fiction's most contemplative and thoughtful considerations
on what it means to be a human being. Science fiction allows
us to reflect on notions of alternative worlds. It is a genre
which helps us understand that the way the world is currently
organised is not the only way it could be. We could have a
better world (I hope) or we could have a worse one. The best
science fiction gives us an understanding that the way the
world is organised is not a product of divine will or unavoidable
laws of historical development. There is no fate but what
we make, or as somebody once said men make history but not
in circumstances of there own choosing.
Alienation, anomie, the commodification of so many aspects
of our lives mean that to borrow a title from Dick, life is
a novelty act.