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The Philip K Dick book I love most

The sci-fi writers probing of the nature of reality seems ever more prescient. Ahead of a Blade Runner sequel and new C4 series, three novelists pick their favourite works

Puttering About in a Small Land

Chosen by Nicola Barker

You couldnt really call me a bona fide Dickhead because I havent read everything Philip K Dick wrote (60-odd books, including short story collections during a relatively short career at one point he was so prolific that he completed 11 novels in a single year). I do co-own a large selection of them, though, and in 1992 or some time thereabouts I attended a seminar at the ICA, hosted by Brian Aldiss (who else?) in which each title was read aloud and marked out of 10 (this was an approach established by Lawrence Sutin in his marvellous biography of the writer, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick), so that attendees could yell a riotous higher! or lower! according to their own personal predilections.

It would certainly be fair to say that in the 35 years since his early death in 1982 Dick has been openly acknowledged nay celebrated as one of the worlds greatest ever writers of science fiction. Sutin rightly summarises Dicks artistic drive as an exhaustive investigation into both what is real and what is human. Dick himself claimed the core of my writing is not art, but truth, and still more perplexingly: I am a fictionalising philosopher, not a novelist. To a majority of his contemporaries (even in sci-fi circles) Dick was, for the most part, considered a drug-addled nut. One of his highs (or lows) of choice was horse tranquilliser. He married five times. He was a twin his sister (who he insisted was a lesbian) died shortly after they were born. His life was illumined by a series of extraordinary spiritual visions.

When you are writing about Dick, there is so much to include, such abundance so much scandal, so much complexity, so much richness. He was plainly a highly perverse individual and at some level (a funny, clever, joyous level) an outrageous bullshitter. But deny it as he might, he is a novelist a true novelist and a novelist of rare genius. These books arent simply a series of hypotheses sparsely covered in a thin pelt of character, emotion and language. They are soft and sumptuous and twirl around the readers calves, hissing and purring. His writing celebrates art, life, ideas (as surely all the best writing must) and, perhaps most deliriously the inexpressible.

Early on in his writing career Dick wrote a series of straight novels (not that Dick was ever capable of straightness he was, by nature, intrinsically curvy). They arent among the most celebrated of his works. But my contention is that there are several true gems among them, the shiniest of which and for me, the most creatively inspirational, as a novelist are Confessions of a Crap Artist and (my marginal favourite) Puttering About in a Small Land.

Crap Artist definitely has the best opening two lines, though:

I am made out of water. You wouldnt know it because I have it bound in.

Its a little masterpiece (and for some reason slots into my consciousness hard upon John Kennedy Tooles superb A Confederacy of Dunces). It was published in 1959, but Puttering (written in 1957 when Dick was only 29) is my firm favourite. Sutin rates it rather disconcertingly at a shockingly measly five. Im not sure why this is. Because I can find little to fault in it. The bare bones of the story are certainly, on initial appearances, deliberately unshowy almost pedestrian. But this is what I love. Dick isnt making a big deal out of anything. He is finding drama in smallness, in the margins, in tiny changes of perspective. The book is slight but transformative. And because this is not an art I have refined myself (a cat may look at a king!), I deeply envy it. I suppose there is a Kitchen Sink element (the timing corresponds), but theres nothing mannered or crass about the way Dick handles his subject matter. He isnt angry or splenetic. He is quizzical and mystified. He is best of all inquisitive.

In brief, the novel details the coming together of its two protagonists, Roger and Virginia Lindahl. They meet, are kind of in love, and kind of horrified by each other. They move from Washington to LA at the end of the war. We see them find work. We see Roger open a television sales and repairs shop. The Lindahls have a son with asthma who they send to a private school in the mountains. Here they meet the Bonners Chuck and Liz. Roger and Liz commence an affair.

What I most admire about the book is the way people simply do not understand what they are doing while at the same time experiencing utter clarity. Dicks writing is like a kind of psychological washing-up-brush he carefully pushes its bristles up into his characters minds and rotates exhaustively.

The reader has total access. Its both horrifying and delirious. There are some truly demented passages. And theres a profound sense that Dick doesnt really give a damn. Hes not making any great claims for himself (or the novel), hes just turning it out. It isnt overthought or minutely considered. It is joyful and propulsive. Because this is how he writes. This is who he is. Effortlessly cool. There are ideas to spare. He throws them around like a Dame tossing Cadburys Minis into the crowd at a pantomime.

Such confidence! Such largesse!

I so aspire to be generous in this way. And fun. At one point Dick describes a high-pressure business meeting and says Beth studied him as if he had managed to fart through his nose.

Pure Dick. Come on. You gotta love it.

Philip
Philip K. Dick: when working he was barely able to distinguish a dream-state from reality. Photograph: Philippe Hupp/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Time Out of Joint

Chosen by Michael Moorcock

Time Out of Joint is not the first Philip K Dick novel to explore his now-familiar ideas, neither is it the best, but it was the first story I read of his and it made me an admirer. Without doubt, its a good introduction to Dicks increasingly complex, intelligent metaphysical obsessions.

Ragle Gumm, apparently an ordinary guy in an ordinary 1959, lives conventionally in a small town with ordinary people. The only extraordinary thing about him is his consistent ability to win a newspaper contest in which he guesses where a little green man is hiding. Regularly winning Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next? makes him a minor celebrity. He enjoys a pleasant, comfortable life with his winnings. The middle-American town has all the nostalgic safety Donald Trump supporters yearn for, but attentive readers might notice certain discordant elements. The Tucker car, for instance, has become a standard production model and no one has heard of Marilyn Monroe. Soon Gumm himself sees a food truck disappear before his eyes, to be replaced with a slip of paper reading SOFT DRINK STAND.

Gumm becomes obsessed, recruiting friends to investigate the mystery. Radios are unavailable, but, when his landladys son makes a crystal set, they pick up mysterious broadcasts. Slowly growing aware of more and more dissonances, Gumm understands that he is not in comfortable 1959 at all, but in a terrifying future where Earth suffers constant H-bomb attack from her old Lunar Colony.

But why the trickery?

The notion that bourgeois life is a comforting illusion, that American capitalism is an insane trick founded on a complex lie, is not new to SF, but Dick came to own it. He developed it into a complex personal belief system, fuelled by clinical paranoia, which heightened as he used amphetamines and LSD to write at high speed one novel after another.

As he expanded and deepened his ideas, when working he was barely able to distinguish a dream-state from reality. His racing mind disciplined by the only things it had to hang on to the story, the argument and the deadline he wrote novel after novel, all examining the same obsessions. Genre was, for him, simply the means of maintaining parameters, to frame his constantly expanding logic. His narratives would begin to spill over the walls of genre but generally he was able to pull his works out of any perception of incoherence.

I found Dick by happy coincidence. In 1959, we both appeared in the magazine New Worlds, my story Peace on Earth [written with Barrington Bayley under the joint pseudonym Michael Barrington] alongside Time Out of Joint, which was serialised over three issues. It had a pretty standard SF plot but Dicks ideas hooked me. Later, with other enthusiasts, I helped Dick find prestigious publishers such as Penguin and Cape, leading to his early literary acceptance in England long before he was widely respected in the US.

His behaviour increasingly imitated that of his pursued and confused protagonists. From The Man in the High Castle on, he used his work not only to explore sophisticated ideas of theoretical physics and metaphysics but what he experienced. Every novel somehow touches on the nature of reality and identity. Are we, in fact, who we think we are? Might we be androids on distant planets dreaming of this mundane life? Businessmen taking drugs to enter other lives, other identities, to gain an edge on rivals? Is this world the simple physical construct we think it is? What can we trust when we cant trust our own perceptions? These ideas cross the minds of many writers working at (or on) speed, but few have Dicks originality.

Dick became clinically delusional and his behaviour grew increasingly erratic. At one point he got into spiritualism. Anything to test the possibilities of breaking down the walls between one reality and another. I barely knew him but several of my close friends did much to promote his books. Some found themselves playing roles in his paranoid delusions. A few he shopped to the authorities, convinced they were spying on him. The American SF author Tom Disch founded the Philip K Dick award and only discovered after Phils death that I was under investigation by the FBI thanks to Phil. Tom resigned from the committee, nonetheless insisting Phil developed paranoid schizophrenia into an art form.

The author and journalist Charles Platt did a definitive interview with Dick three years before he died. All his work starts with the basic assumption that there cannot be one, single, objective reality, he wrote. Everything is a matter of perception.

Dicks style never improved much. Sometimes he did lose an overcomplicated plot a bit. Yet we remain fascinated by his themes. We live in a world of true facts and fake news. So maybe the insane actually do live in different realities. Could this world be a complex, evolving illusion, or series of illusions, designed to manipulate our behaviour? The older I get, the more Im convinced that PKD wasnt so crazy after all.

Harrison
Harrison Ford as replicant hunter Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. Photograph: Allstar/Wareners/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Chosen by Adam Roberts

When I was a teenager, and despite the fact that money was short, I splashed out on the collected short fiction of Philip K Dick four hefty paperback volumes, which I still have, and still read. This collection includes some of the greatest science fiction stories ever written, but it was a blurb on the back that really caught my eye and captured my imagination. It was a quotation from the Independent: Dick was a great philosophical writer who found science fiction the ideal form for the expression of his ideas.

Maybe that makes him sound a little intellectually forbidding. Nothing could be further from the truth: Phil Dick turned pulp into art, and couldnt write un-entertainingly if he tried. But the blurb captures something essential about his greatness: his extraordinary ability to interrogate the nature of reality, to make you doubt all the things you had previously taken for granted.

He was an autodidact in philosophical matters, and sometimes was clumsy, or oddball, in the arguments he developed. At the end of his life he had what he considered a religious vision and devoted years and thousands of pages of frantic writing to try to make sense of it. Selections of this home-brew theology have been published under the title The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, and they make for wild reading, equal measures bonkers and astonishing.

But at his best Dick was a focused and penetrating metaphysician. His classic mid-1960s novels manage both to be fast-paced and thrilling SF adventure and lord, I hope I dont sound pretentious when I say this (but its true!) genuinely profound interventions into the philosophy of being, what the professionals call ontology. And for my money Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) is the best of all of them.

The great French thinker Ren Descartes, trying to pin down the one thing that he could absolutely and certainly call his own, lighted upon his famous cornerstone proposition:cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. It was something he felt he could be absolutely certain about, a foundation on which he built his entire edifice of thought. Philip K Dick, though, is the anti-Descartes. He meets I think therefore I am with the brilliant, destabilising, counter-proposition: Why do you assume that the thoughts in your head areyours? In the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966) people buy fake memories of exotic holidays or exciting adventures that are indistinguishable from their real memories (this story has been made into two movies, both called Total Recall). In Dicks science fiction, sensations, memories and even thoughts can be faked; characters who genuinely believe they are people discover that they are only robots programmed to believe they are people. But if I think no longer guarantees I am, then how can we be sure anything at all is real?

Dick says: we cant. Its a brilliant and unsettling vision.

Fittingly, Do Androids Dream appeared almost exactly midway through Dicks career as a novelist: 14 years after his first published novel, Solar Lottery, was written and 14 years before his premature death in 1982. His personal life was in turmoil, he was constantly short of money, often anxious or full-on paranoid, but this novel is him at the height of his powers.

It is set in a future San Francisco. Much of the population has died in a nuclear war, and many of the survivors have left Earth for the Offworld colonies. With natural wildlife devastated, people instead own android pets and animals. The protagonist, Rick Deckard, keeps a robot sheep on the roof of his apartment, and works as an android hunter, tracking down and terminating rogue humanoid androids.

The whole novel is a brilliant exploration of the inauthenticity of existence. Deckards sheep is fake; his job is hunting down fake people; his wifes emotions are decanted into her from a machine (one of my favourite moments in the novel is at the beginning when Deckard and his wife, Iran, have an argument, which ends when Iran dials 594 on her console: pleased acknowledgement of husbands superior wisdom in all matters. Dick was often a superbly dry comedian in his writing). Even Deckards religion is bogus. He belongs to a faith called Mercerism, which uses empathy boxes that connect worshippers to a virtual reality in which their messiah, Wilbur Mercer, eternally climbs a hill while being hit with sharp stones. But, the novel reveals, Mercer is just an elderly actor, desperate for work; the religion is a confidence trick.

Ridley Scotts celebrated movie adaptation of this novel,Blade Runner (1982), omits the Mercerism, and opts for a very different vibe. Dicks characters rattle around the echoing, enormous, empty spaces of a mostly abandoned Earth; Scotts movie plays up the novels existential claustrophobia via a brilliantly cluttered cyberpunk noir, all choking streets, crowds at night-time, dark spaces and neon lights. But one way in which the movie stays true to the book is the unsettling precision with which it captures an eerie sense of the pervasiveness of artificiality. There are no open green spaces in Blade Runner: nothing natural or organic. The fake environments and fake replicants Deckard hunts (by 1982 androids was deemed too old-fashioned, and the new term was invented) are sophisticated and compelling, but fake for all that.

Later this year the greatly anticipated sequel to this movie will be released: Denis Villeneuves Blade Runner 2049. I look forward to this with an excitement mixed with equal amounts of trepidation because one of the things that makes the original movie so compelling is the unanswered question at its heart: whether Deckard himself is a fake, an android programmed to believe himself a human. It would be a shame if the new movie is too explicit when it comes to answering that question. The ambiguity is what makes it so potent.

Dicks novel is equally open-ended: Deckard himself comes to suspect that even his own consciousness, his thinking-therefore-he-is, might be as much a fake as everything else. But he finds a sort of consolation even there. At the end of the book he discovers what he believes to be a real toad potentially very valuable and brings it home. His wife discovers the toad is electric, but he is not downhearted. Electric things have their lives, too, he tells her, paltry as those lives are, and dials up 670 on his own Mood Organ: long deserved peace. Maybe I only think paltry and artificial thoughts can still precede a therefore I am. Dick, the anti-Descartes, at least suggests it mightbeso.

Philip K Dicks Electric Dreams airs on Channel 4 in September. Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas 6 October

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