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Philip K. Dick: Books & Life

Instructor: James Fleming
The science fiction author Philip K. Dick is widely considered to be among the most important and influential American novelists and short story writers of the 20th century. Learn more about his works in this lesson.

Introduction

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) is considered by many literary scholars and critics to be among the most influential American short story writers and novelists of the second half of the 20th century. While Dick wrote primarily in the genre of science fiction, his literary works have explored a wide variety of themes, including metaphysics, the global rise of capitalism and fiscal greed, mind control, political manipulations and conspiracies, artificial intelligence, altered states of consciousness and existence, drug addiction, acute paranoia, and alternate histories. Many cultural critics and philosophers have found Dick's works to be a rich source of insight into the nature of the contemporary world and our collective visions of the future, as well as the tremendous impact technology has had on our ways of existing.

Philip K. Dick

The Major Books

'The Man in the High Castle': 1962's 'The Man in the High Castle' is often considered by critics and scholars to be Dick's best novel. The novel is considered by many critics and scholars to be the definitive novel of the literary sub-genre of 'alternative history.' The novel takes place in an alternate world in which the Axis powers won World War II. The novel's plot is long and convoluted. However, its main focus is on daily life in an alternate United States under the control of a Nazi-supported, fascist government.

'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?': 1968's 'Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep' tells the story of a bounty hunter in the future who keeps watch over the planet's android (artificial human) population. The novel explores the question of what it means to be truly human and if a machine can, in fact, become 'human.' The novel is most famous for its 1982 film adaptation: 'Blade Runner.'

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

'Ubik': 1969's 'Ubik' takes place in a futuristic world in which a network of psychics is sent to investigate a group of rival psychics. The novel explores such themes as terrorism, virtual realities and the question of what is and what is not real within virtual worlds. Many critics considered this novel to be Dick's most profoundly philosophical novel and the one which predicts, in a manner, the advent of the internet and virtual worlds.

'Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said': 1974's 'Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said' is about a famous man who awakens one morning to find out that his entire identity has been erased. He must exist apart from his fame and wealth and solve the mystery of what has happened to him. Dick's major theme in this novel is the flexible nature of identity and the ways in which our identities are established not by ourselves, but by others.

'A Scanner Darkly': 1977's 'A Scanner Darkly' tells the story of an undercover police officer who loses touch with reality after becoming addicted to a powerful, hallucinatory drug that he is investigating. Many critics and scholars believe that this novel is about Dick's own struggle with drug addiction and paranoia.

'VALIS'': 1980's 'VALIS' is Dick's most studied novel and is considered by many critics and scholars to be his most autobiographical piece of writing. In the novel, VALIS stands for 'Vast Active Living Intelligence System.' The novel tells the story of a man who believes that there is an alien space probe in the Earth's orbit that reveals hidden facts about reality to him. Critics and scholars feel that this novel most fully reveals Dick's personal philosophy and conception of existence and reality.

Lesson

Dick's novels are difficult to categorize or to easily theorize or comprehend. While he writes primarily in the genre of science fiction, his stories tend to focus on exploring such complicated philosophical themes as the nature of reality and identity. His stories and novels focused more on the psychological conditions of his characters than the spectacular technological and scientific innovations in the world around them.

A number of Dick's novels and stories, particularly those described above, present characters who wrestle with the nature of their identities and the question of what constitutes reality. His characters often are unsure as to whether their memories, or their very identities, are real or artificial. In novels such as 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' some characters, including the protagonist, spend the story wondering whether or not they are, indeed, 'real' people or 'artificial' beings. In fact, Dick considered the question of what does and does not constitute an authentic human being to be the main theme he explored in his books and stories. Dick, however, never offered a definitive answer to that question in any of his works.

Within his novels and stories, Dick often presents worlds which are either virtual or controlled by computers or other artificial forms of intelligence. He imagines futuristic worlds which are strikingly similar to aspects of the world in which we live in now, particularly our common reliance upon computers, corporations and narcotics to survive. Critics and scholars still turn to Dick's work for insight into the possible future of our own world.

Some critics and scholars have speculated that Dick was both schizophrenic and addicted to narcotics and that many of his stories and novels came out of his own hallucinations and bouts with paranoia and severe mental illness. They tend not to argue that Dick's possible mental illness invalidates the quality or importance of his writing. Instead, many of these critics and scholars argue that Dick's literary work provides psychological insight into the mind of someone who is suffering from acute mental illness.

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