Philip Kindred Dick is the greatest science fiction writer of all time. That’s just an established fact, like stones are hard, water is wet, and John Scalzi is a rapist*.
He was also a crazy man who took enough drugs to kill an entire herd of elephants (or three Charlie Sheens, if we’re going by the Tiger Blood scale), and believed, among other things, that three-eyed alien time travellers were beaming into his bedroom via a flash of pink light.
Why should you read the books of a raving madman who thought Richard Milhaus Nixon was secretly the Emperor of Rome? Because they’re brilliant.
Let’s start with the characterisation. Nobody in science fiction – before or since – writes believable, relatable, interesting characters the way Dick did. That’s because most science fiction authors are autists, nerds, or outright sex perverts. They’re not interested in people, they’re interested in spaceship fantasies or speculative engineering, or maybe libertarian/atheist/feminist/whatever message fiction.
Isaac Asimov couldn’t write a realistic human being to save his life. Arthur C. Clarke’s characters are all forgettable cardboard cutouts. Even Robert Heinlein – probably the least spergy of the Golden Age authors – couldn’t pen convincing adult characters, they were all either breezily 2D Spaceman Spiff types or weird-sex-enthusiast Gary Stus.
Dick, on the other hand, populated his stories with actual characters, usually downtrodden everyman types thrust into bizarre situations. People with their own unique motivations and voices who seem real enough to walk off the page.
Take Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, for example. Unlike in the movie Blade Runner, which was artistically brilliant but emotionally hollow, the book version of Rick Deckard is a sympathetic character with recognisable motivations and flaws. He bickers with his wife, he frets about his job, and – amidst the poisoned ruins of a future where most life on the planet has been driven to extinction – he yearns for a real, live animal to care for.
Contra the glib Hollywood adaption, DADOES isn’t about androids, or space travel, or cyberpunky technological vistas. It’s about empathy, about our fundamental need to make real emotional connections, to love and be loved, to transcend the miseries and pain of the material world by sharing another person’s burden. The laser tubes and flying cars and whatnot are mere props to help tell a more important story about what it means to be human. And that story is unforgettable.
Dick’s keen eye for emotional truth elevates him above the rest of the science fiction field. As does his gentle humour.
The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. “I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”
“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”
In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
“You discover I’m right,” the door said. It sounded smug.
From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.
“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.
Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”
And, in a way, wasn’t he right about the future? We don’t have lunar colonies, flapdoodles or psychics, but Dick understood – in a way few SF writers did – that the future was going to be neither a technological utopia of superintelligent geniuses or a hellish, killbot-ridden dystopia. It was going to be, well… a bit crappy. Being nickel-and-dimed by sarcastic home appliances isn’t a million miles away from Alexa listening to your conversations and trying to sell you cheap Chinese plastic geegaws.
Even the bleakest of Dickian futurescapes are leavened with verisimilitude. The Man In The High Castle isn’t, unlike the Amazon adaption, about Nazi porn and gay #Resistance wish fulfilment. Life in the Japanese-occupied Pacific states is somewhat grim, but it is life, the people we meet there are neither one-note baddies or saintly good guys, and even unsympathetic characters like Bob Childan and Nobusuke Tagomi have relatable motivations.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is set in a different paranoid authoritarian regime, but here, too, Philip K Dick’s understanding of human nature works its literary alchemy on what might’ve been a silly story about drug-induced parallel dimensions. Yes, the police state is bad, but the cops are still people, even when they’re doing terrible things. We find ourselves wanting the protagonist, Jason Taverner, to win, even though he’s a selfish prick, and there is real pathos in the character of Felix Buckman, the eponymous crying cop.
The mature realism of his characters provides an anchor to some of the craziest and most wonderfully imaginative plots ever typed.
Ubik is a gloriously paranoid psychedelic time-travelling whodunnit involving exploding robot doppelgangers and duelling psychics, yet its best and most thrillingly tense scene is about a man trying to walk up a flight of stairs.
Now Wait for Last Year might be about evil alien overlords and a war against space wasps, but it’s the hypochondriac dictator Gino Molinari – who is somehow heroic and pathetic at the same time – who grabs your sympathy.
Even the drug-peddling, coconut-headed freak Leo Bulero in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch has more amiably gruff humanity in him than whole series of novels by lesser writers.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”, the movie version of Roy Batty told us.
So had Philip K Dick, and when you read his stories, so will you.
*According to this book