“‘…what do you mean when you use the term science fiction?’ …I could spend the rest of my life answering that one question.”–Philip K. Dick
I first heard the name Philip K. Dick (PKD) from my gaming group while growing up in Hawaii. I was a 15-year-old teen, in a group of men and women who were in their mid-30s. One of them was an especially talented gamemaster named Nikan. He had many inventive ideas, was knowledgeable, and ran particularly deadly scenarios where players would get killed off with ease. On more than one occasion I had played a character who was obliterated in a hail of bullets or sorcerous hellfire.
One afternoon, I asked if he could suggest some great science fiction writers I ought to read. He created a list that included legends like Theodore Sturgeon, Frank Herbert, Clifford D. Simak, and Philip K. Dick. He pointed to that name and said, “Anything by PKD is worth reading.”
Curious, I went to local used book stores and couldn’t find any of his work. The selection at Borders Books, when that chain still existed, wasn’t that great, since we lived on the rather remote island of Maui. The library had an old hardcover copy of A Scanner Darkly. I tried reading it, and can clearly remember puzzling over the opening lines:
“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.“
I couldn’t get through the whole novel; it seemed beyond me. When I told Nik, he simply replied, “It’s because you’ve never been addicted to uppers.”
Later, my friends and I threw a pizza party and rented Dune and Blade Runner, watching them both for the first time. For some reason, I kept watching Blade Runner over and over. The movie stuck with me in a way that Akira and 2001 had captured my young imagination. I was in awe of the brooding future the picture depicted, and how it had been made years ago, yet still seemed newer than the present. I learned there were alternate cuts, and was able to get the theatrical version with the corny voiceover on VHS, which I enjoyed at the time because it explained certain concepts that I wouldn’t’ve otherwise have caught. When one of the members from the gaming group loaned me his copy of Future Noir by Paul Sammon, about the making of the movie, I saw the name Philip K. Dick resurface again and realized that the film was based on his work.
It wasn’t until after high school that I began to appreciate PKD’s fiction. When I turned 17, I graduated and dropped everything, moving to Brooklyn, NY. On my first trip to the library, I checked out Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and couldn’t put it down. I may’ve read it in a single sitting. The used bookstores in New York had a far better science fiction selection and I was able to get my hands on more of Dick’s work. I went onto read titles like, Maze of Death, Ubik, Time Out of Joint, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, The Man Who Japed, the Cosmic Puppets, and many more. As a matter of fact, the only SF writer I tended to read during college was PKD. I’d sit on the train during the winter, engrossed on my way to school, dates, or my internship at The Daily Show.
What I enjoy most about his writing is that it’s intensely intimate, inventive, and perception-altering. There’s a complicated wisdom to his work, and though its been decades since he died, the ideas captured within the pages of his books are just as fresh as when they were first put to paper. His work is timeless, and to me that sense of timelessness seems more and more true as I get older—his books remain the same, but my perception and understanding of the work changes as I bring more life experience to each reading.
Philip K. Dick has a way of taking the reader there. Each of his novels presents a whole new experience in of itself; a totally different world that is both new yet enticingly familiar. The reader, upon finishing the book, finds that they’re no longer the same person who started it. As I’ve said, his work is perception-altering.
By age 22, I landed my first job out of college at Marvel Entertainment—it was just as the crash of 2008 was happening, so I was relieved to find something full-time. In my department was a Japanese fellow, Teru, who also collected PKD’s work and we bonded over that, swapping books and chatting about our interpretations of his stuff. Teru suggested that I also read Alfred Bester and J.G. Ballard. Another friend and co-worker during this time was a Brooklynite named Eric. We’d met at Brooklyn College and would discuss Dick’s work and make up different word games–my personal favorite was coming up with bad titles for PKD novels (since Dick himself had some deeply strange titles for his books, such as The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, to cite just two examples.)
The more I read, the more I learned about PKD himself. Turns out, most of what he wrote was first draft material with just a bit of polishing. He’d probably laugh at how most of the universities have trained an entire generation of writers to be self conscious and to over-rewrite, probably one of the most detrimental things a writer can do. Self consciousness is the writer’s enemy, which is probably why Dick only wrote one script that saw light of day, since Hollywood is the most self-conscious place on Earth. That script was an adaptation of his novel Ubik, and he thought very highly of it. He figured it went un-filmed because it was quality. “Bad scripts have a way of forcing the good ones out,” he once mused in an interview. “If given the choice, they will make a movie out of a bad screenplay, and throw the good screenplay back at the author.” Ubik‘s screenplay was commissioned by the French director Jean-Pierre Gorin in 1974. Dick wrote it in a month, but Gorin never managed to raise the financing to get the project off the ground. Eventually it was published in 1985, and again in 2008.
Today, of course—somewhat ironically—Hollywood is obsessed with PKD. Much of this was spurred by the massive cult hit that Blade Runner became. Gradually, new fans discovered his novels, as did creative executives, who eventually green-lit projects like Total Recall, Minority Report, and Amazon’s recent adaptation of The Man in the High Castle (I sometimes wonder if the scriptwriters on the show ever consult the I Ching for new plot ideas…)
As a side note, when I first moved to Los Angeles three years ago, I went to the Fed Ex near Venice and ran into Rutger Hauer, I apologized to him for being a bother, but I just had to say that Blade Runner changed my life.
He blinked, cocked his head and asked, “How so?”
“Because it’s one of the movies that made me want to become a screenwriter. I think that science fiction is the most important genre, because we are living in an era when technology is catching up with imagination. Anyway, sorry for bugging you.”
Rutger smiled, “You didn’t bother me at all, man. It was a miracle that we were able to translate that book in the first place!”
When it comes to collecting the work of Philip K. Dick, it’s never quite been easy. Or maybe, I never want to fully complete my collection, because I like playing the game. It’s a sad truth, but many writer’s collections can be bought for very little money online and in bulk. That doesn’t apply to PKD. There’s a dedicated fandom with an unusually special attachment to his work that has created a collectors’ market where virtually every edition of his library is pricey, including recent editions. People who seriously collect PKD tend to buy each edition of the same book. The hunger for his material has made many editions scarce and expensive. New prints of his books remain plentiful, but I tend to be attracted to the cover art on older editions, which was often quite beautiful and captured the essence of the story. Booksellers know the worth of one of his titles, as do ex-collectors who are reluctant to let go of their stock. I don’t buy multiple editions of many of his books, but there are certain ones that I tend to buy again and again. One of them is The Man in the High Castle. I’ve owned several copies, and am currently eyeing the leather bound Easton Press edition.
My personal collection of PKD was rather modest for a long while, until I bought a stack of his books from a dealer in Pasadena. Then, in late 2016, I struck a vein of cosmic gold. I was at the Los Angeles Science Fiction and Fantasy Society (or, “da club” as my girlfriend jokingly calls it, though she’s never been). It’s the oldest and longest running sci-fi fan club in America, and perhaps the world. Every month, they hold an auction where they sell random items. Usually, I’m not particularly interested in the wares, but one evening, I noticed a shoebox full of books on top of a filing cabinet. I pulled it out to discover over twenty vintage PKD titles. I had to have them.
There were other members waltzing by, curiously staring at the softcovers I held so zealously. I went to the woman who collects the money to get into the meetings, “How much do you want for these?” I asked in a hushed tone.
She gave them a quick look over and flashed me a business-like gaze. “Twenty-five dollars for the lot. Don’t haggle, you’re getting a deal.” Quickly I took out my money as an ancient club member sauntered over. “Are those for sale?”
“No.” I lied.
I brought the books home, and added them to the others I’d accumulated over the years. A friend once joked “you’ve got ‘Time Enough at Last‘ in your room.” By now, I probably have over forty PKD novels and short story collections. Most recently I’ve been reading The Best of Philip K. Dick, published in 1977 by Ballantine Books. In the 70s Ballantine had printed a “Best Of” series that collected the work of the top SF talent at the time, including Frederik Pohl, Robert Bloch, Leigh Brackett, and Henry Kuttner, just to name a few. The books are great primers on some of the most influential writers in the field; I enjoy reading them to learn more about science fiction history, and have it contextualized by watershed stories that changed the genre. Even better, the tales are usually damn good and hold up, for the most part.
In terms of how we think of the field and its history today, it’s interesting to note that PKD’s work and reputation tends to overshadow so many other great science fiction writers. He was so prolific, and has become so well known, that the average reader may be content to never explore other corners of the field. That would be a shame, and an oversight that Dick himself would surely recognize, as a fan of such writers as A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Sheckley, Thomas Disch, and Norman Spinrad. At one point, he wrote to the editor of F&FS about a parody that John Sladek had written about him, titled Solar-Shoe Salesman, stating, “I have talent. Sladek is a genius.” And of course, Dick had a number of friends in the writing community, including Tim Powers and Gregory Benford. I randomly met Benford at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Writer’s Conference and had the privilege of having dinner with him—I asked him about their friendship, and he (ironically) said that Phil wrote too much.
Philip K. Dick was always a longtime advocate for the science fiction field, and took great pride in the genre. Then, as still happens now, many authors who started their careers writing SF or speculative fiction would abandon ship as soon as they gained literary fame, turning around and denying that their work was ever science fiction at all (even though it was clearly printed in speculative magazines, and that they had originally identified their work as such). PKD, however, always stuck by the genre, and during an interview with Mike Hodel on the radio series, Hour 25, he stated:
If science fiction is going down the tubes, I’ll go down the tubes with it. I think it’s unfair that if you start to get any good, you leave it…. I hope people will come into the science fiction field and write science fiction and not listen to people like Silverberg and Malzberg and Harlan Ellison and anybody else you want to name, Vonnegut, who say either they don’t write science fiction or they never did write science fiction or they will not write it in the future. I mean, science fiction is a lot of fun to write.
For those interested in going beyond PKD’s fiction and better-known works, though, it’s possible to take a deep dive into the endlessly fascinating work called the Exegesis: a 10,000-page treatise of his religious and metaphysical philosophy, thoughts, and experiences. Dick was known to write over a hundred pages of it in a single night. In 2011, a condensed and edited version containing excerpts was released, with Jonathan Lethem serving as one of the editors. It’s the kind of book that you can open to almost any passage and have your mind blown away; I’ve got a copy near my writing desk, and when I get bored, I pull it out, turn to a random page and after a few paragraphs think, “Whoa! What’d I just read?!” Meanwhile, online, there is an entire community dedicated to studying, interpreting, and commentating on this labyrinth of a work—essentially acting as Talmudic PKD scholars. It’s called Zebrapedia, an interactive research community that can be found here.
I’ve come a long way on my journey in appreciating PKD’s oeuvre, since my friend Nikan first handed me that list of authors, 15 years ago. I’ve read many of his novels and short stories, and keep up with all of the adaptations of his works for the screen. Every time I go to a used bookstore, I check to see if any of his books are lying around, and feel a small sense of victory if I can procure something I didn’t have before. Reading his work makes me a better writer, a deeper thinker, and opens up new pathways of imagination and ideas that I may not have otherwise uncovered. Ironically, though, I still haven’t read A Scanner Darkly—but I do have a copy of the novel on my bookshelf. Maybe it’s time to give it another try. After all, like Nik said, “Anything by PKD is worth reading.”
Originally from Maui, Hawaii, Joshua Sky is a multi-award winning writer who has written for Marvel, Motherboard, Omni Science Fiction and SFWA. He began his career at Marvel Entertainment and has also worked for The Walt Disney Company, Fox Television and Netflix. He is represented by Abrams Artist Agency. You can like his Facebook Page here, and read more of his work here.