Philip K Dick: Paranoia, Speculation & Mind-Bending Thinking

What do the films and tv series Blade Runner, Total Recall, The Man in the High Castle, Electric Dreams, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report all have in common? They are all based on the work of little-known author Philip K Dick.

His writing has attracted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars over the past 40 years, including Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. And yet, he remains relatively obscure, which is a shame as he deserves credit as one of the greatest generators of original concepts there has ever been.

His legacy is all about his ideas – a mixture of paranoia, speculation and mind-bending thinking that continues to fascinate readers. For years he had been attempting to get one of his stories adapted before he, unfortunately, died in early 1982. This would be just weeks before “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, better known as “Blade Runner”, was released. He never got to see any of the aforementioned adaptations or receive the praise that has poured forth ever since.

Here are just 3 of his greatest works:

What If?

The Man In The High Castle is an alternate future set in San Francisco where Germany & Japan have won WW2. Inspired by Bring The Jubilee by Ward Moore, itself an alternative history imaging the US civil war was won by the Confederacy, Philip K Dick employed the use of I Ching, an ancient Chinese text that was used to help determine the future. It helped him devise the plot and was actually in it as a number of the characters also use the book for guidance. Further to this is his use of a book within a book “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, which imagines that the Allied forces did indeed win the war.

Dick’s use of all these sources and the way in which he constructs this novel demonstrate some top-level elastic thinking. His use of I Ching alone meant that at each stage he was writing, he wouldn’t have known where it was headed and yet still manages for it all to weave together and make sense – genius. It is probably the book which has delivered him the most literary acclaim as it won the Hugo award for best science fiction novel of 1963.

What is Human?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a dystopian future again set in San Francisco, where this time there has been a nuclear war leaving the Earth and its resources greatly damaged. Androids or “replicants” have been developed to allow for greater off-world exploration of badly needed resources. Within the novel, he explores what it is to be human, and in 1972, he gave a somewhat famous speech, “The Android and the Human”, which included:

“Our environment – and I mean our man-made world of machines, artificial constructs, computers, electronic systems, interlinking homeostatic components – all of this is, in fact, beginning more and more to possess what the earnest psychologists fear the primitive sees in his environment: animation. In a very real sense, our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves… Rather than learning about ourselves by studying our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to.” 

Ridley Scott, fresh off his success with another science fiction masterpiece Alien, took on this adaptation renaming it “Blade Runner”. This being the first novel to be adapted proved incredibly difficult to produce and inspired a few books written about the troubled making of this film. Time well spent as this often features in critical top 10 lists of greatest films ever made.

What is Reality?

One of his lesser-known works, “Time out of Joint”, looks at what might be the first, or one of the first, constructed reality stories. The central suburban character plays a contest in his local newspaper called “Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next” and keeps winning – what he doesn’t realise is that he is actually a pawn in a much larger effort to help win a war. His entire reality is not real and has been constructed to assist with his ability to make accurate predictions. The contest is a cover to disguise what are actual military tactics. It includes one of his often used themes of the nature of reality and what happens if all is not what it seems.

His mind-bending ideas are truly elastic and explore many avenues not considered before. This often began right from the start with even the titles of his stories – here are just a few more to illustrate: The Man Who Japed, Now Wait For Last Year, Flow My Tears The Policeman Said and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which invite the reader to wonder about what this could all possibly mean and is part of why Philip K Dick and his contribution to storytelling will live on for generations to come.

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