On the occasion of the late Philip K. Dick's eightieth birthday

>> Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I saw a few days ago that today would have been Philip K. Dick's eightieth birthday if he hadn't died in 1982, and that seemed worth noting here since PKD has been one of my favorite writers for a long time.

Not just my favorite SF writer, if he's that, but one of my favorite writers in general, up there with Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace or T.C. Boyle. He wasn't a perfect writer, by any means, didn't necessarily have the literary firepower of those other guys I just mentioned (DeLillo, for instance, can write a passage about riding the subway that makes your teeth ache and your tongue taste steel and ozone, words that connect right below your sternum and knock the wind right out of you). But the kind of humanity that PKD bled out onto the page counts for something even with his stylistic limitations and sometimes-predictable tics. DFW, whose suicide earlier this year wounded me, was always a compassionate writer, but PKD--is it silly to say that I love PKD partly because he clearly loved me and every other person who walks has walked will ever walk the face of the Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter)?

Love isn't always easy. PKD wrote like a man who didn't always like individuals (and who on Earth likes everybody?) but loved each and every human being. It's a familial thing--you mostly love or ought to love your relatives even when one of them does something terrible or is basically a rotten person; the fact that someone is rotten doesn't stop them from being blood, and that's something essential about PKD, that he understood there's a human family and we're all blood.

I said something a moment ago, what was it?--ah yes: "Not just my favorite SF writer, if he's that...." PKD was proud of being a genre writer and his work was published almost entirely in SF magazines or by SF imprints, and most of his writer friends were SF writers and PKD loved being an SF writer, unlike, for instance, the late Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote quite a lot of science fiction but tended to chafe when he was accused of doing it. And I'm happy to call PKD a SF writer because I happen to love SF, myself, and PKD's books frequently have robots and other planets and rayguns and other trappings of science fiction. But the funny thing about all that is that PKD had a hard go trying to be a genre writer--not with the technical side of it: PKD could churn out the words (fueled partly by a speed habit that wrecked his mental and physical health) and recycle plots or concepts like anyone trying to make a living being paid by the word. But in spite of being prolific, frequently at the expense not just of his stories but of his own life (he was unsuccessfully married five times, had sometimes-difficult relationships with his kids, and, as mentioned, a notorious drug problem centered around things that would keep him upright at his typewriter), PKD didn't write the kinds of optimistic or technical or sparkly SF that would get quick approval from John W. Campbell and his ilk. Things got better when the SF New Wave came along in the mid-'60s (PKD's work fits nicely with writers like Ellison and Brunner), but by the time Dangerous Visions came out, PKD was in the final decade-and-a-half of his life.

The other thing about PKD as a science fiction writer is that if he came along today, he probably wouldn't be published as SF. Writers like DFW, Boyle, DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, et al. have published "mainstream" novels with just as many "science fiction" elements as PKD's best work--books with alternate histories and doubled realities and weird technologies that are just sort of present but aren't really what the book is about. Some of this is because PKD had more influence outside his field than any of his peers--Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon may write a "mainstream" story or novel with a "phildickian" vibe, but only SF writers write something Heinleinesque or Asimovian. But part of this is that PKD didn't write science fiction, at least in a classical sense, at all.

That's not a knock on SF--I love SF, remember? And the distinctions that are frequently made between genre and mainstream lit are often bogus. And, to be honest, I'm happy to call some of the "mainstream" books by Pynchon or Vonnegut or DeLillo "science fiction novels."

But PKD didn't write "science fiction" that was ever about science. I'm not sure, off the top of my head, that he ever touched any of the classic themes of science fiction: technology will save humanity, technology will doom humanity, aliens sure are different from humans, aliens sure are just like humans (in an allegorical way to illustrate some larger point about humans), wow this planet is awesome, eek this planet is scary, the future is cool, the future is just awful. I don't think I left any of the big ones out, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a pre-New Wave SF novel or story by anyone other than PKD that didn't slot itself into one of those (I'm not saying there isn't one, just that it would be hard to find).

Consider, as an illustration, this contrast: Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov both wrote a lot of novels and stories with robots in them. (Asimov probably wrote more, but then Asimov wrote more of almost everything than anybody else, and apparently without resorting to methamphetamine. Asimov was a machine. Possibly a robot.) But none of PKD's novels and stories with robots are actually about robots, and pretty much all of Asimov's are: nearly all of Asimov's robot stories could be described as logic problems about AI and computing--if a robot must follow this set of instructions, how will a robot interpret those instructions under this set of environmental conditions and stimuli?

PKD, on the other hand? Not so much. I don't think he ever wrote a novel about robots that was about robots.

But if PKD's stories about robots aren't really about robots, what are they about? They're about what it means to be human, with the "robot" being a sort of philosophical framework for the questions PKD had about what that means, if anything (and PKD, like me, is sure it ought to mean something). It doesn't actually matter, in a PKD story, how robots work or where they're made or what they're made of; what matters is they have this state of robotness, of being not-human or artificial. PKD's robots are otherwise human-like in varying degrees, depending on whether PKD is trying to understand empathy or spirituality; but then some of PKD's humans are inevitably otherwise robot-like as he pokes around in that same sandbox. Is artificiality determinative of whether a creature has a soul? That might be the big question embedded in every single story PKD wrote that happens to have an artificial person in it.

Of course, having said all this, it's typically vexing of Dick that he perversely won his Hugo--as much SF street cred as a man could ever hope for--for a novel with practically no science fiction elements to it whatsoever. Take from that what you will.

Science fiction or not, he was one of the most humane writers of any generation, and in the end I think it's that quality more than the mystery and paranoia and mindfuckery of so much of his work that makes it really compelling. I mean, yes, a man floating to the ceiling in the middle of a conversation and exploding does make a compelling and unforgettable image, but in the end it's really about how much we empathize with the ordinary losers who populate those stories, people who are really very much like us but we love them anyway.

Happy eightieth, PKD, and thank you for everything.

POSTSCRIPT: if you're looking for a way to celebrate PKD's life, might I suggest you see if you can find a copy of "Roog," a classic short story that's been anthologized here and here, and elsewhere; "Roog" is a strangely funny and sad horror story about a dog and the morning garbage pickup that captures a lot of what really made PKD brilliant--that empathy and compassion, that ability to shift perspectives and to understand what a subjective reality might look and feel like. Wander down to the library, or pick up an anthology with it down at your bookstore. Or, as I plan to do this evening, pull it off your shelf and re-read it. Seriously, check it out.


OneTenderBranson Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 3:59:00 PM EST  

Great tribute. It is incredible how so many elements of science fiction are found in current publications. Your mention of Chabon brings to mind his statements regarding "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", a novel which, aside from the alternate history, would not be considered science fiction. Indeed, it was published as general fiction despite the protest of the author.

Kathy Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at 9:12:00 PM EST  

I don't know how I've missed out on reading PKD, especially since I like my sci-fi light on the science. I'm going to the library today!

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