Sunday, August 5, 2012


After seeing TOTAL RECALL the other day, I got to thinking about the books I've read by American science fiction author Philip K. Dick. Both film versions of TOTAL RECALL were very loosely based on a Dick short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." Both films have almost nothing in common with the original story, other than the conceit of a company with the technology to implant false memories and experiences into a subjects' consciousness. The story, unlike the films, is more of a cerebral meditation on the effects of this technology upon humans and the subjective perceptions of memory and reality. The films are action all the way. Dick was many things, but he was not a writer of great action scenes.

I would argue that he was perhaps the most non-action writer of the 20th century. Here's my summary of every Dick novel I've ever read (more details to follow): nothing happens and then it stops. 

I dimly recall reading two Dick novels in college, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH and A SCANNER DARKLY. I didn't like the first one of these I read (whichever one it was), so I have no idea why I read a second book by Dick. Maybe I figured I should give him a second chance. I was equally disappointed by the second book and decided this guy's work just wasn't for me.

About ten years ago, I decided to give him another try and read two of his most famous, widely celebrated novels. I read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (which was the basis for BLADE RUNNER, a film I really like). The book was okay up to a point but the ending, or should I say non-ending, was abrupt and left me unsatisfied. Oh well, let's try this one more time.

I next read THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, Dick's award-winning novel of an alternate history in which the Axis powers won WWII and the U.S. is controlled by Imperial Japan on the west coast, Nazi Germany on the east, with a no-man's land in-between. On paper, that's a great concept and there's much that can be done with it. Dick does nothing with it however. Nothing happens for page after page and when we finally meet the titular "man in the high castle" late in the story, nothing happens then either. And then the nothing happening stops happening. Period. End of story.

I don't want a happy ending in every book I read or film I see but I do want an ending and hopefully at least a satisfying one. Dick doesn't provide this, at least in the books I've read. The narrative simply stops running and that's it. Go home kids. The show's over.

By accounts that I've read, Philip K. Dick struggled with drug addiction throughout his life and may have suffered from some form of mental illness. He is reported to have experienced an epiphany of sorts, a near religious experience in which the true nature of reality was suddenly revealed to him in its' totality. This vision supposedly informed his work for the rest of his life.

Maybe I'm missing something but I've been completely underwhelmed by everything I've read by Dick thus far. Is there a book by him that someone out there can recommend that might make me change my mind? I'm willing to consider it but it's going to have to be a very persuasive argument. Who wants to make the case?


  1. See if you can track down his short stories, some of them are quite good.

    I was a lot more of a fan of his when I was younger and had the patience for the gobbledy-gook that some of his books end up as ("Valis"). Granted I like him immensely more than Pynchon (who I find insufferable).

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. You're the second person who suggested some of Dick's earlier shorter works. I'll definitely check them out. And I've never read Pynchon. His stuff just doesn't look like it's my cup of tea.

  3. I highly recommend all of the books written by Dick's cousin, Harry P. Ness. My favorite Ness novel is 'Revenge of the Tiger', which was written under the pseudonym Claude Bawls.

  4. I was wondering how long it would take for a comment like this to show up. Thanks for not letting me down. If you liked my comments on Philip K. Dick, wait until you see what I have to say about these other (honest-to-god) real science fiction authors: Fred Pohl, Rod Serling, Michael Stackpole and Michael Moorcock.

    1. I read one of Fred Pohl's earliest works entitled "Two Stroke", which featured protagonist Randy Pohl.