Back To the Future

By Bill Kohlhaase

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Posted September 28, 2007 in Arts & Culture

We have seen the future, thanks to science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and it looks like the present . . . even when it’s set in the past. No, we don’t fly around it rocket-powered hovercraft, there are no colonies on the moon let alone Mars and we don’t carry around laser tubes for zapping our enemies like they do in Dick’s novels. But the pervasive and shady marketing, corporate warfare, bum but expensive technology, reality-altering drugs, and the pervading sense that somehow all of this can’t be real, well, seems so contemporary. And there’s something else familiar about Dick’s fiction: it’s paranoid as shit.

Never mind that much of Dick’s future is now 15 years in the past. Most of the action in the recent The Library of America collection Four Novels of the 1960s is set in the 1990s. That much of the technology he imagined didn’t materialize in the roughly 25 years since the original publications doesn’t matter. Dick correctly foresaw much of the questionable materialism, the nonchalant pursuit of pleasure and the corporate dominance we see today as well as our enslavement to the technology. To borrow one of his own terms, Dick was decidedly “precog.”

But precognition wasn’t Dick’s greatest talent. What he grasped was the present. Dick understood the drug taking, the advertising and the pay-to play mind set that evolved in the 1960s–not to mention the feeling that someone was always watching–and extrapolated the future from there. In some of these tales, it costs a nickel just to open a door, even if it’s your own. And who knows who that door reports to?

Dick was a much-honored writer among sci-fi buffs in 1982, the year of his death. That was also the year Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and it ignited general interest in his work. Forget that Scott’s film took place in a rainy Los Angeles rather than Dick’s dusty San Francisco, that the replicants in the book, unlike the movie, were easily dispatched or that the blade runner himself, bounty hunter Rick Deckard, was married, adding another layer of ethical quandary to his existential problems (Harrison Ford, with a fetish for a certain replicant, played the role single in the movie). Those of us who gave up on science fiction once we left our teenage years recognized Dick as a writer who’d made hack a craft (with the exception of some of his early work from the 1950s), turning pulp genre into ethically dense, multi-layered works of genius. The movie, though brilliant, didn’t come close to the complexity of Dick’s book.

The four stories here are more William Burroughs than H.G. Wells. They reflect the author’s slow descent into paranoia and hallucinatory mindset that continued until his death. The Man In the High Castle reverses the outcome of World War II with the Germans and Japanese, in an uneasy alliance, splitting the coasts and struggling for control in the center. An illegal work of fiction has captured the former United States, a Dick-like novel that imagines what would have happened if America had won the war. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch follows turf battles on the colonized planets between rival corporate drug suppliers. Hallucinations overlap reality and sinister CEO types literally become gods. Life is cheap in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and not easily identifiable. Parallel realities exist in adjacent buildings and a real live animal, like a spider, is worth a fortune. Time reverses in Ubik, threatening the profit of an all-purpose product (and we mean all purposes) even as precogs gather the mental power to save the future.

What’s fantastic here is not the technology, which often is developed only to garner larger and wider profits, but the evolution of a world where nothing can be trusted. Inanimate objects control even the smallest acts. If you don’t have a nickel to open that door, the door speaks insults even as you beg it for credit. Science has found a way to contact the dead but it’s going to cost you plenty and, like cell-phone reception among the mountains, the signal isn’t guaranteed. Corporations employ precogs to predict the success of their products and spy on their competitors. You may think you’ve recovered from a drug-induced hallucination but have really only entered another.

The volume is edited by Jonathan Lethem, whose Fortress Of Solitude carries something of Dick’s absurdist sense of fantasy as well as some of his humor. There’s no forward but Lethem’s chronology of Dick’s life will set fans wondering if the author’s later work was even more twisted and paranoid than these four tales. Reality, as Dick knew, isn’t always what it seems.

Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick; The Library of America, hardback, 830 pages, $35.


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