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Where to start with the writings of Philip K. Dick

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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: The novels and short stories of Philip K. Dick

Why it’s daunting: Science fiction and fantasy get a lot of mileage out of taking their readers to new worlds, but most classic genre fiction is really about making new worlds seem like home. The Lord Of The Rings would lose a lot of its appeal if the hobbits had no Shire to return to, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the heroes weren’t bent on protecting a sane, prosperous status quo. Philip K. Dick doesn’t play by the same rules. While his work has clear genre roots, using such familiar tropes as androids, time travel, precognition, and space travel, he operates by a surreal common sense that’s simultaneously lucid and fever-dream absurd. In 36 novels and more than 120 stories, he used fiction to work out his own particular philosophy, and the results aren’t always immediately accessible. Or, to put it better: Anyone can read anything by PKD, but approaching him with the wrong expectations—as in, expecting a traditional narrative when he offers something far more bizarre and mind-warping—could lead to disgruntlement.


And then there are the adaptations. Dick’s novels and short fiction have inspired a handful of cult films, including Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall and, most famously, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. As usual in the process of adaptation, however, the filmmaker’s vision ends up as the final word, so “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”’s trippy comedy turns into a series of excuses for Verhoeven’s hyper-stylized action setpieces, and the philosophical questing in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is dumbed down in favor of Scott’s poetic imagery. The disconnect between source and screen is sharp enough to cause whiplash.


Possible gateway: “The Minority Report,” a short story first published in 1956

Why: Of course, disconnection isn’t always a bad thing. Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film version of Dick’s story isn’t bad; the special effects hold up nicely, and the dark subtext and performances (particularly Samantha Morton’s) are a trip. But it’s far from perfect, and the movie’s compromised mixture of sharp topical criticism and popular sentiment don’t always work. Thankfully, the plot is compelling enough to make the original version worth seeking out. Dick’s short fiction is by and large more pulpy and accessible than his novels, and “The Minority Report” is no exception. It’s a fast, exciting read where the weirder undercurrents don’t really become obvious till the end.


Movie and story share the same basic hook: In the future, police are able to use a trio of psychic mutants to predict the future and arrest potential murderers before any crime is committed. Things seem to be running smoothly until the head of the Pre-Crime unit, Anderton, gets a slip from the precogs stating that he’s going to murder someone he’s never met. Anderton goes on the run, believing himself innocent of even the potential of wrongdoing, and desperate to prove the system wrong, even though he’s spent a large part of his career championing it.

It’s impossible to get into the differences between the two versions without spoiling the plot of either, but suffice to say, they go in different directions, and PKD’s story isn’t driven by Spielberg’s essentially humanist, free-choice perspective. Which isn’t to say that Dick is entirely down on humans; more that his concept of what makes a person isn’t as easy to pin down in blockbuster terms. “Minority Report” takes the concept of precognitive insight to its natural conclusions, and the end result is satisfying intellectually and emotionally, and unsettling in a way that can’t be exactly described.


Next steps: While “The Minority Report” was published on its own in a nifty-looking special edition, it’s also collected in Selected Stories Of Philip K. Dick, which has a terrific cross-section of Dick’s shorter fiction, and is essential for new fans. But great as the stories are, Dick’s novels really mark his place in literary history. Generally only a couple hundred pages each, they bring the oddities hiding in the background of something like “Paycheck” right up to the surface. The Man In The High Castle is easier to describe than most: It’s a parallel-history novel that has the successful assassination of President Roosevelt bringing about a Nazi victory. Narratives follow a handful of characters trying to survive in the former United States, now split between Japan and Germany. Even with its generally straightforward concept, High Castle still features Dick’s obsessions with divine intervention (characters try and interpret their fate using the I Ching, a classical Chinese text) and displaced realities.

Dick’s protagonists (and his characters in general) can sometimes be difficult to relate to, given the way their motivations and actions are obscured to the point of apparent randomness; there’s a logic to the choices people make in his work, but it’s the kind of logic that resists easy identification. That said, A Scanner Darkly (adapted into a not-terrible movie by Richard Linklater in 2006) is easily his most personal, most emotionally accessible novel. Dick takes a series of anecdotes about his and his friends’ experiences in drug culture and cloaks them in a mild science-fiction spin, charting the gradual dissolution of Bob Arctor, Substance D addict and federal narcotics agent. Scanner isn’t as driving as Dick’s other work, but it has a cumulative, mournful power, and it serves as a brief glimpse into the sadness that haunts the rest of his writing.


Past those two, everything’s fair game. It only gets weirder, though. Books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, Valis, and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said are down-the-rabbit-hole madness, jam-packed with religious imagery, sudden left turns, and protagonists who aren’t so much heroes as the only lunatics in the asylum with the right meds. They’re also a blast, because no matter how dense the symbolism gets, Dick never loses his sense of humor or pacing, and even when the surprises become expected, they never lose their power.

Where not to start: Valis and The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch are essential—and extremely bizarre. It helps to have a good grounding in PKD’s major themes before wading into either.


Column note: Gateways To Geekery is taking a vacation for a few weeks to make room for our Best Of The Decade special features, which begins next Monday. Look for it to return soon.