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The Man in the High Castle

Philip K Dick was the writer behind Bladerunner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Pete Smith explores the reality behind the surface depicted in Philip K Dick stories.

I 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 telephone directory and nobody has ever heard of a blond starlet called Marilyn Monroe. Who in 1959 could have predicted the fact 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 Labour.

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 later writings, such as Divine Invasion and VALIS. This interests me since I regard religion as important irrespective of one's own religious beliefs or lack of them, Dick is my kind of science fiction writer, even when his work takes a very strange turn.

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 in 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 work is about.

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 different.

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 substantial work.

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.

November 2002