Reality is a bubble: The sci-fi of Philip K Dick, the fictionalising philosopher

Gautham Shenoy July 15, 2016 8 min


Do androids dream of electric sheep? If it rings a bell, great! If not, here’s something you will definitely be familiar with.

Yes. Blade Runner, the enduring cult classic directed by Ridley Scott. Arguably one of the most popular and influential science fiction movies ever made. And it was based on this book.

Philip Kindred Dick or simply PKD – who in his short career as a writer, having died at the age of 53 in 1982 – wrote over 40 novels and more than 120 short stories, is a man you can safely say is amongst the most influential science fiction authors in the modern era and by far Hollywood’s favourite sci-fi writer. Just take a look at some of the other movies that have been based on his stories.

Paycheck, Next, Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau, Impostor, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall (the one with Arnold Schwarzenegger), Total Recall (the one with Colin Farell) and the Tom Cruise-starrer Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Adapting PKD for the screen, big or small, almost seems like a cottage industry in Hollywood. There’s a sequel to Blade Runner in the works with Ryan Gosling, and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is all set to produce and star in a sci-fi anthology series, Electric Dreams: The World of Philip K. Dick that will adapt 10 more of his stories, this time for TV. And speaking of TV, how can we not mention the highly-acclaimed Man in the High Castle, based on PKD’s Hugo Award-winning novel of the same name, which depicts an alternative history of the world in which the Axis powers won World War II. I would say, watch them all. You won’t regret it.

Wait. Actually, you can skip Screamers and the second Total Recall.

The sad part is that he never lived to see a single one of them, or enjoy the fame he would come to him after his death. And the biggest irony is that he – or rather his books – started earning money only after his death, with PKD having lived his whole life in near-poverty.

Prescient. Drug-addled. Prolific. Five times married. PKD was all of this. But never rich, never mainstream, never acknowledged as a serious writer while he lived. With his name known only among science fiction readers.

While he wrote science fiction, and there’s no debating that, for PKD, alien worlds, androids and futuristic technology were just a means to an end. His stories rise above ordinary science fiction by focusing not so much on technology, but on the toll that technological advances often take on human values — and on our soul itself. As he himself said about his work, ‘I am a fictionalizing philosopher. Not a novelist.’ Science fiction, as a genre, gave PKD the freedom of trying to find an answer to the question of ‘What is Real?’, of trying to fathom what it means to be really human and for finding a way to assuage his metaphysical anxiety about the nature of identity itself. People are still debating whether he was a madman or a genius.

If you look at just the movies adapted from his work, you’ll see that it is infused with paranoia, truth that turns out not to be and where reality constantly keeps shifting; where the unreal becomes real before switching back, with dreams within dreams, and it’s a given that memory is an unreliable ally. It is so with all of his stories and their large corporate empires, intrusive high-technology and oppressive dystopian societies. Mind-bending is a term often used to describe his stories. And while reading them, it is always a good idea to start it – as PKD did – with ‘the basic assumption that there cannot be one, single, objective reality’ as sci-fi author Charles Platt put it.

Prescient. Drug-addled. Prolific. Five times married. PKD was all of this. But never rich, never mainstream, never acknowledged as a serious writer while he lived. With his name known only among science fiction readers.

Look around and you’ll see these phildickian themes in movies he’s influenced that keep his legacy alive, such as Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, 12 Monkeys, Dark City, Donnie Darko, Fight Club, Inception and even A Nightmare on Elm Street (all must-watch movies!). And of course, The Matrix trilogy by the Wachowski brothers, siblings, sisters.

If a science fiction writer’s mandate is to peep into the future and into the nature of our own self, and give us a glimpse of it through his or her work, then PKD is a sci-fi writer par excellence. This quote I think sums it up quite well – and remember PKD said this in the 70s, “Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.” I wonder if he was talking about his present or ours?

Coming to the books themselves, which ones are the best? In true PKD fashion, I will reply that there is no single objective answer. That said, I would highly recommended Do Androids…, A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. But since the on-screen adaptations have been fairly faithful, you can choose to watch them instead of reading them, though the full flavour of the themes and finer details are only in the book, as with any adaptation. As they say, ‘Never judge a book by its cover movie’.

From those not already adapted, here’s just three:

Ubik – one of PKD’s most acclaimed novels, chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923. Set in a world where travelling to the moon is common and which involves corporate intrigue, shifts in reality, time travel, and telepathy.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Set in a futuristic dystopia and about a famous celebrity who wakes one day up in a world where no one has heard of him before and where he has never existed.
Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: Set in a time when human kind has colonised the solar system, featuring colonists who take drugs that enables users to inhabit a shared illusory world, till an even better drug arrives that threatens to plunge the world into a permanent state of drugged illusion.

And speaking of books, let it not be said that New Worlds Weekly on FactorDaily (NWWonFD) didn’t do its bit in playing a small role in ensuring there are more Dickheads in this world, because the world can use more of us! So, here’s what we’re doing. We’re giving away this great book – The Philip K. Dick Collection.

The Phillip K Dick Collection
The Phillip K Dick Collection

It’s simple. Just slip into a phildickian frame of mind, if you will, with all of its weirdness and distorted reality and answer this simple question, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’. Leave your answers as comments below or tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD before August 1, 2016 and you could see this awesome book delivered to wherever it is that you are.

Until next week then, when we shall go travelling – time travelling! – I wish you ‘Peace and Long Life’.

A few minor (but very interesting) details:

1. The lead image features an artwork by Chris Moore, a British illustrator noted for his book covers, especially science fiction books. The image here was used in the cover of the SF masterworks edition of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.
2. How did Do Androids…? the title, turn into Blade Runner? Well, Ridley Scott found the original title a little too cumbersome, plus the movie didn’t feature any sheep unlike the book (which is why you should read it, even if you’ve seen the movie). Meanwhile the person who wrote the screenplay, Hampton Fancer, stumbled upon a novella by the Beat author, William S. Burroughs called Blade Runner (A Movie), which in turn began life as Burroughs’ treatment notes for the film adaptation of yet another science fiction novel called The Bladerunner (one word!), in which a ‘blade runner’ was a smuggler of medical supplies such as scalpels. When Fancher told Scott Scott about the novella, he liked the name enough to buy rights for it, just so he could use the title for the movie.
3. No history of Philip K. Dick would be complete without speaking of what he called ‘2-3-74’, the religious experiences and visions he had in the months of February and March 1974, including hallucinatory experiences and the famous beam of pink light he thought to be god, referred to as VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System). But this wasn’t so much a history of PKD, but a quick look at his contributions to sci-fi and literature. That said, perhaps in some future date, we shall return to PKD and speak of his Exegesis. Never say never.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.