The continuing stooooooory of how the Grand Vizier puts his feet up and lets other writers talk some sense for a change. This week: Adrian McKinty (right) on Philip K. Dick.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – A Metaphysical Detective Story
Like his near contemporary, the poet Philip Larkin, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick predicted his own death, dreamed about his death and of course wrote about his death. Dick wondered what being alive really felt like and whether death would kill that state of consciousness; sometimes he believed that death was merely a transition between states and other times that it was the final destination. Perhaps he hoped it was the former but knew it was the latter. “I’d rather be a living dog, than a dead science fiction writer,” he once said.
DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (DADES) is one of his best known novels and it was here that he explored in some depth notions of dying and consciousness and why a good, decent man was trying to track down and murder sentient creatures who just wanted to be left alone.
Dick’s death obsession began early. Born in Chicago in 1928, his twin sister Jane Charlotte Dick died when he was only a few weeks old. All his life Dick felt Jane’s absence and her loss is frequently referenced in his fiction. Jane was buried in a lonely grave in the bleak Colorado plains town of Fort Morgan with, morbidly, a space left on the headstone for baby Phil. The grave awaited Dick for five decades and when he died in 1982 sure enough the twins were reunited in death. In middle age, after years of amphetamine abuse, Dick even flirted with the idea that in a parallel universe he was the one that had died and Jane had survived – he was already buried in the grim Fort Morgan cemetery, next to Interstate 76, and Jane was the science fiction writer living in California.
In our universe, after Jane’s death, Dick and his family migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area. He went to the same high school as Ursula Le Guin and after a brief period at UC Berkeley he dropped out and quickly began selling science fiction stories to magazines and newspapers.
Dick’s adult life was fragmented to say the least. He moved often, he was married five times and even though he wrote constantly he was not good at keeping money. His default paranoia was exacerbated by his experiments with drugs, his dealings with local street thugs, and his anti-government activities during the Nixon era.
DADES was written during the period 1966-1968, probably the two most turbulent years America has experienced since World War II. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, hippies, drugs, counter-culture, scandals and the Cold War were the context for Dick to write his novel, which is actually a pretty straightforward detective story set in a nightmare future.
Dick (left) had read Dashiell Hammett and admired his style and it’s not a big stretch to compare DADES with THE MALTESE FALCON. The McGuffins are different but we’re in the same world: missing people, a shot partner, a femme fatale, trouble with the local cops and a bleak cynical universe from which no hope is expected and none is given. Perhaps it’s not even that big of a coincidence that when the movie version of DADES was filmed – as Blade Runner – the cameras rolled on the same set where they shot the Maltese Falcon forty years earlier. Both novels take place in San Francisco and both movies were filmed on the New York streets of Warner Brothers’ Burbank lot.
The plot of DADES is complex but basically we follow the story of Rick Deckard in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco as he tracks down runaway androids, deals with his Virtual Reality-addicted wife, and keeps up the pretence that his electric sheep is in fact real. The latter storyline is the most interesting thematic element of the novel. After World War Terminus, real animals are rare and caring for and protecting any kind of a real creature gives one incredible status. For someone with low self esteem in a job he hates, Deckard hopes to fool everyone, including ultimately himself, about the sheep; perhaps if he pretends hard enough that his sheep is real and that he is a good man these things might actually come true.
Deckard meets up with the beautiful and deceitful Rachael, who turns out to be an android and later in one extraordinary scene he is taken to a police station where he either has a mental breakdown or else he sees the world for what it really is: everyone in this precinct appears to be an android – it’s the humans that are unusual and in this place it’s Deckard himself who is the fake like his sheep.
Shaking off this strange vision he pursues the final runaways, becoming more disillusioned than ever as he realizes that cracking this case will bring not happiness but only further existential crises. Where is he going? What is he doing with his life? What are any of us doing with any of our lives? Like Sam Spade at the end of THE MALTESE FALCON, Deckard has no solutions. He wonders what all of it means and comes up with nothing. Following Hammett, Philip K Dick doesn’t give us any answers either except for the vague but possibly deep idea that the meaning of life is to be found in the search for the meaning of life. The best we can do is to strive for the truth, although we are constantly reminded to be wary, for falsity is everywhere: the Maltese Falcon is a fake, the electric sheep is a fake, Deckard is a fake and maybe even brash, confident, hardnosed Sam Spade is a fake.
Many of Philip K Dick’s books were written hastily under the influence of speed and are of dubious quality, but the books that he took trouble over – DADES, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, A SCANNER DARKLY, FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID – are all well-crafted mystery stories usually with a cop protagonist. Yes, he was a science fiction writer, but also a genre-busting detective novelist too.
Unfortunately (and unlike Hammett) Dick did not live long enough to see the critics lionize him as an American original. His final years were spent in an increasingly eccentric investigation of the true nature of God and the cosmos. In a March 02 1980 diary entry, Dick predicted that because he was close to uncovering the secrets of the universe, God would pull the plug on this version of Philip K Dick; two years later, on March 02 1982, the plug was literally pulled on a brain-dead Dick as he lay in a hospital in Santa Ana, California.
Dick’s obituary in the New York Times was a brief three paragraphs long but since then his reputation has grown, first in France, then the UK, and then, belatedly, in the US. Almost a dozen Dick stories and books have become films and Blade Runner is regularly voted the greatest science fiction movie of all time. However, Philip K. Dick still gets a bad rap as a writer. A recent New Yorker piece described his characters as hollow and poorly crafted and his prose as pedestrian at best.
No one would argue that Dick was a great stylist or an inventor of an American idiom, like Hammett, but he was the purveyor of brilliant concepts and his talent was exceptional. Students of American noir will enjoy Dick’s better novels and will judge him not by his prose but by his gift for originality and his ability to convey extraordinary ideas in even more extraordinary worlds. – Adrian McKinty
“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.