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Saturday, 10 December 2011

Kindred Spirits

Last week I pondered how the genre of postmodern literature just may be too big for its britches. The books that fall under that category are too tricky, too wild, too unpredictable, and far too unlike each other to really belong in the same company. That also holds true for one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick. His novels and stories often fall under the same genre. You know, the genre that sits at the back of the class that no one really wants to talk to because it hasn't learned to wear deodorant yet. Yes, science fiction. 

Ask 100 people what genre of books or movies they generally shy away from. I'm sure you'll get a few serious dramas, some British comedies, and one or two "old classics" but I guarantee the majority will say science fiction. Why? Well, for starters, most people base their opinion on two things: Star Wars and Star Trek. These, sadly, are the ambassadors of sci-fi to the general public, but along with them come the creepy fans, the annual conventions, the costumes, and of course, the intense obsession about every last minute detail of both the Wars and Trek universes. Yes, these stereotypes for sci-fi fans exist for a reason, but they represent the absolute nadir. Unfortunately, the entire genre of sci-fi gets the brush off from just about everyone because of a few bad eggs, but if you look just a tad deeper, you can see just how fascinating and thought provoking sci-fi novels can be. And no other author has done more to expand sci-fi to its very limits than Philip K. Dick. 

You know Philip K. Dick even if you haven't heard of him. Many of his novels have been adapted into films, but Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) and Minority Report (adapted from his short story The Minority Report) are the two most famous and well known examples. Both films were very good, as was Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, but I don't believe what makes Dick's books and stories so special can be necessarily translated into film. The movies themselves are pretty great in their own right, and are head and shoulders above some of the less memorable Dick adaptations (Next, Paycheck) but even the best can't capture the twisty, labyrinthine, poetic worlds Dick creates in his novels, often exchanging artfulness and subtlety for special effects.  Essentially, if you judge Philip K Dick solely on his contribution to cinema, then you really don't know Philip K Dick.

Okay, so where do you start? Dick has published 44 novels and over 120 short stories, so there's not exactly a dearth of material. He was, however,  never content to be confined in the genre trappings of science fiction, making his oeuvre notoriously difficult to penetrate. I would recommend Ubik as a perfect starting point. This 1969 novel encapsulates many of Dick's obsessions, namely paranoia, the questioning of reality, paranormal powers, and ultimately, faith, but wraps them in a cracking good story rich with humour and pathos. The plot is just the right amount of twisty for the novice reader, and is easy enough to follow right to its emotionally satisfying end. 

For those willing to venture further down the rabbit hole after finishing Ubik, there are many paths to take. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a horrifying acid trip of religious imagery and futuristic paranoia, The Man in the High Castle is an alternative history novel (some say the first) where President Roosevelt is assassinated and after America loses WWII, it is divided between the Germans and Japanese.  VALIS finds Dick at his most unhinged and autobiographical, diving headfirst into gnosticism, Christianity, Jungian psychoanalysis, and his own personal experiences as narrated by his doppleganger, Horselover Fat. 

As you can probably guess, Philp K. Dick was no ordinary sci-fi author. He abused amphetamines (often attributed to his seemingly non-stop publishing habits) and claimed he had visions; visions of Ancient Rome where he lived as "Thomas," a persecuted Christian. He also claimed that a pink laser beamed to him wisdom and clairvoyance, a plot point he made pivotal in VALIS. Dick's idiosyncrasies and paranoia were perfectly wed to his subject matter, elevating him to a cult figure with an intensely rabid fan base who pore over his works like, quite appropriately, religious texts. But Dick deserves a fate better than being a minor footnote in a genre held in such contempt. Philip K. Dick was a humanist above all else; no matter how hallucinogenic his stories became, they always have a human interest. There is sadness, curiosity, regret, confusion, joy, and longing suffused in his prose. It stands as a testament to this that the K. in Philip K. Dick stands for Kindred. 

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