In his afterword to a 1977 paperback collection called The Best of Philip K. Dick, PKD writes about the notion of questioning reality. At one point, Dick says the world made “sense” to him:
“I used to dig in the garden, and there isn’t anything fantastic or ultradimensional about crab grass…unless you are a sf writer, in which case, pretty soon you’re viewing crabgrass with suspicion. What are its real motives? And who sent it in the first place? The question I always found myself asking was, What is it really?”
Looking back on his work today, on the 86th anniversary of Dick’s birthday, the escape from the conspiracy of the mundane is a concept that certainly dominates the oeuvre of perhaps the most famous science fiction author ever. And why not? Don’t we all wish our lives were a little more interesting, a little more fantastic than perhaps they are?
Dick takes this notion one step further in his fiction by having his characters frequently wrapped up in an oppressively mundane society. In the famous story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” a bored, lonely man wants exciting memories of having been to Mars. Luckily, in this future, the technology to insert such memories like this is totally possible. There’s just one catch: they can’t place a false memory in your head if you already possess a previously existing one based in actual experience. This is exactly what happens to Douglas Quail; he’s already been to Mars. And been a secret agent. And saved the world from an alien invasion.
Dick’s brilliant novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? plays with the problem of defining the limits of humanity and raises the question of whether artificial life forms can be truly human. Would it even be possible for a replicant to truly know and understand themselves? This idea of having a secret true identity, hidden even from ourselves, is part of what makes Philip K. Dick so popular. The fantastical underpinnings of life are hidden in plain sight. We might have saved the world from aliens. Your girlfriend or boyfriend might be a robot. This all may be only happening in your mind. In his awesome short story “The Preserving Machine,” a kind of mad scientist tries to physically transform beautiful pieces of music into tactile, vicious creatures that will survive any sort of cataclysm.
And the work of Philip K. Dick is just like that: beautiful ideas crafted into hard-hitting, enduring stories which will continue to survive, probably well beyond the day in which all of his futuristic dreams of more-human-than-human robots and reality generators become a part of our everyday, mundane existence.
This post originally ran on December 16, 2012