Philip K. Dick’s Selected Stories And Other Things
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/19/05
Let me start by debunking three of the critical myths about Philip K. Dick: 1) He is in no way shape nor form as great a writer as Franz Kafka. 2) Like most sci fi writers his stories are long on machinations (albeit often clever) and very short on characterization, and especially realistic dialogue. 3) He is in no sense of the word a surrealist. Unlike Kafka PKD could never get inside a character. In a sense his characters are all philosophical zombies in a medium whose essence is designed to show the exact opposite of that. Kafka could, for every man is K or Josef K., while PKD’s characters are merely everymen. This is not semantics, but archetype vs. stereotype and classicism vs. genericism. As for surrealism? Given the ‘hardness’ of PKD’s sci fi tales the term simply doesn’t apply, for we are always in a crystal cut universe, and not one of the gooey DNA from which surrealism is cut.
I feel this is a necessary start to this piece because the buildup to my reading PKD’s Selected Stories was brutal. My exposure to him before reading this book was limited to the three sci fi films made from stories of his- 1982’s Blade Runner, by Ridley Scott (based upon Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?), 1990’s Total Recall, by Paul Verhoeven (based upon We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), and 2002’s Minority Report, by Steven Spielberg (based upon The Minority Report). None were great films, although all had good premises, and Total Recall was actually a fun flick, yet to read the critics one would think PKD was a genius, rather than a solid sci fi writer whose ideas outstripped his prose ability.
I defy PKD fans to find any great dialogue in this book, or any great characterizations, or any great descriptions. Now, most sci fi suffers from the inability to package a true human story with a great idea- a fact PKD acknowledged in a book culled out of his ‘philosophical writings’. I parenthesize that phrase merely because, although I am no fan of the apothegm or starchy tome model of most philosophical treatises, to reasonably call PKD’s ideas ‘philosophy’ is to conflate insanity with genius, which has all too often been done. Interestingly, although PKD could scope out such a basic lack in the genre he was incapable of injecting the same into his own tales. Yet, there were writers in that genre who could develop human characters- Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, and those who could bind a taut narrative together with memorable descriptions and turns of phrase- A.E. Van Vogt. While PKD acknowledged both as masters he seems to have had some personal conflicts with Heinlein for his opinion on his work wavers in writings through the decades.
The stories in the selection are a hit and miss bunch. I certainly hoped for far better from a Selected Stories. Some of the stories from earlier in PKD’s career are standard 1950s-Twilight Zone sort of tales with twist endings and morals- such as Beyond Lies The Wub, about a sentient pig who takes over the body of one of its eaters, or The King Of The Elves- a rather fanciful, but pointless tale about a war between Elves and Trolls. This tale is a good one to compare to the humorous short stories of Kurt Vonnegut, another writer PKD is wrongly compared to. Vonnegut’s humor is generally based upon the inanities of the everyday while PKD’s is merely based upon hypothetical situations that do not cohere to the everyday. This is why Vonnegut’s work had such relevance to his times, while PKD’s still lingers on the fringe.
There are also mediocre stories that fade from memory minutes after their reading, like The Days Of Perky Pat, where people spend their time playing with dolls who live idyllic lives Earth’s human inhabitants cannot, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, where one man’s reality may or may not be a nightmare, Autofac, a standard man vs. machine tale, or Adjustment Team, about a man who steps out of his own timeline.
The best stories, not coincidentally, are the most famous. I say not coincidentally because often the best is the most remembered- and these include the aforementioned humorous Beyond Lies The Wub, as well as the stories made into film, The Minority Report and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. That said, sci fi is the one area of writing where the nostrum that the book is better than the film is usually not true. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris (both versions) go well beyond their books by distilling the essences and implanting memorable imagery in the mind, far beyond that words can do. The story The Minority Report is a good one, about a pre-crime chief who may or may not commit a murder in the future. It’s a tale about ethics and technology, but even though the film adds in alot of extraneous matter, and is weighed down by another zomboid Tom Cruise performance, the visual festival of robo-spiders and the like, and the sight of the actual precogs, plus the intervening years’ knowledge about memory and the brain, make the film superior, even as that fails in the end. And We Can Remember It Wholesale, an exploration of what memory and reality are, while it has a funnier end to it than the film Total Recall, but it is essentially a mild Walter Mitty-like comedy of errors with another Twilight Zone like twist- one so expected that no matter what it would be its very expectation works against its possible ingenuity, and with little of the film’s action. There isn’t a memorable tale in all the others.
Not only is the reputation of PKD way out of proportion to his contributions, at least in the short story field, but it is generally wrong. PKD is in many senses, not a good writer. His descriptions of things are generally banal, and often punctuated with clichés, his dialogue is, at best, passable, and his characterizations are all, at best, archetypal. Not a single Dickian protagonist will sear into your mind like a Billy Pilgrim or Josef K. Even his plot twists can be murky, geared wholly for some epiphany, which is never as good a payoff as one would hope, given the setup.
Part of this failure, I believe, is that PKD was at his heart a personal moralist, and a quite prudish one, despite his Bohemian leanings and friendships with Left Wingers like the Beatniks. In a sense, when reading a PKD tale one is not transported to a real future, but an Eisenhoverian-Kennedian ideal of the future. This is a problem with all futurity fiction, in obvious cases where a Soviet Union still exists in the 21st Century, or where his protagonists chain-smoke like film noir heroes, and less obvious ones like his yearn for an idyllic place- a definite moralist/idealist desideratum. This fact is also a reason why the film versions of PKD tales tend to be better than their sources (other than the above stated reasons)- that is that PKD tales tend to all tackle paranoia and the pervasion that things are not what they seem. Therefore, given PKD’s limited vision of tomorrow it’s perfectly apropos that filmmakers add self-conscious posing, überbabes, and action film superchases, since the originals have been so anachronized.
What makes this moralism all the more bizarre is that a quick scan of PKD’s non-fictive works, and a review of his personal life, reveals a mentally ill drug abuser, who died of several strokes at 54, most likely exacerbated by his personal lifestyle choices. This, though, is the crux of PKD’s ascendancy- it’s such a tale, far more so than his own tales, that accounts for the ready hagiography, alongside the many Death Poets, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, etc. PKD is seen as a tragic figure, rather than just an odd little scribbler of tales. Were he still alive, and living comfortably in Daytona Beach, I doubt he would garner a lifted eyebrow outside of a few sci fi nerds. Yet, his life and work have become utterly suffused with elements that are not sustained by a close examination of the facts of his deeds and words. He has become apotheosized as a visionary or guru, even though vision is something that puts forth an achievable, albeit far-reaching goal, as well a coherent set of principles. PKDrely crafted some quirky, interesting tales. A true visionary, one whose work is suffused with ‘big ideas’, would be Arthur C. Clarke. PKD, by comparison, is a minor thinker, whose mind veered out into creative bursts, but had no sustaining vision.
Take the early tale, Roog, wherein a barking dog is the only creature that recognizes the garbage men are actually aliens casing out the earth for possible invasion. Well, this is a standard sci fi tale, easily interpolated into the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits genre of the day, yet it has been hailed as being Kafkan. How? There is no attempt to get into the psyche of either the aliens, nor the agitated dog. The analogy falls flat because Kafka was a master at allegory, whereas PKD was just tossing an idea, however cute. Many tales, especially the later, supposedly ‘essential’ PKD tales, like Upon The Dull Earth, or Faith Of Our Fathers, are hardly improvements. Whereas the earlier tales were, in a sense, Johnny One Notes of a specific point of view, the later tales become obfuscated messes where readers are easily lost in the Byzantine and often pointless plot twists.
Were PKD a songwriter he would be a master of the hook, the phrase or brief line in a song that is remembered, but not for writing anything of lasting impact. perhaps a better metaphor is he would have been a good Madison Avenue commercial director, but a pretentious film director. He had no grasp of the human, save as subservient to the idea. He is especially bad at creating female characters- all who seem little beyond pre-Playboy-era calendar pinups. They are harpies or ditzes, bedmates or mannekins. Perhaps the worst example of this comes in the tale Adjustment Team, where the lead character discovers, in typical Twilight Zone fashion, that the real world is not real, but a sort of show under the gaze of eternal watchers. He then, to save his skin, promises silence, until it’s pointed out he already blabbed to his wife, who even the guardians deem in sexist fashion as untrustworthy to keep a secret. This is the typical PKD tale- an intriguing premise, wooden caricatures, and absurdly bad dialogue. The tale ends with this, which would later be the motto for the Mary Tyler Moore Show on tv: ‘Thanks,’ he said softly, ‘I think we’ll make it- after all. Thanks a lot.’
Yet, if the earlier tales are predictable the later tales are a bunch of pseudo-mystic garbage dropped into the trappings of sci fi. Has there ever been an original sci fi tale that dealt with the idea of a divine being? If so, a hack piece like Rautavaara’s Case, where God is an alien construct, is not it. Yet, despite a more metaphysical ‘growth arc’ to his writing, the standard PKD plot is this: Average Joe finds out average life is not so average, if even real. Sinister forces are behind the irreality. Then comes epiphany, and either immolation, resign, or irrelevance. That’s it, in a nutshell. And, sorry, there needs to be a greater view of life than that to sustain greatness as a thinker. And while the variations on this basic scheme can change, and lead to philosophic pauses, it’s still a formula, however cleverly mutated from tale to tale. Furthermore, all his tales, no matter how distended by length, all seem to rise or fall on the punch the end provides. Don’t get me wrong. All tales should end well, but much of PDK’s work could do without the girthy middles, since all they do is generally set you up for the end. Cut the fat and the whack PKD wants to give you would sting more.
That said, is an author whose main purpose is to whack you anything near a great artist? Not in my book, which is why the adapted films are all better than their sources. Perhaps had PKD not needed to write and write to pay bills, and been allowed the freedom to think out the stories’ ramifications more, they would have truly been what his acolytes claim. Instead, he is not a Franz Kafka, who did precisely that, but a Josef K., turned to inside out explicate his state. Spare me the innards, and pass the wub!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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