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Old 17th May 2006, 9:38   #1
gil
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Default Philip K Dick

It's about time Philip K Dick got a topic to himself. He is frequently quoted as one of the luminaries of science fiction, and, though his output is wildly variable in character and quality, he undoubtedly qualifies.

Yes, some of his books are surreal, apparently deliberately obscure, even perverse, but most are excellent.

On a more sombre note, I am alarmed to discover that Sean Wright quotes Dick as one of his inspirational sources
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His (sean Wright's) writing has been compared by fans and critics with three legendary figures in the fantasy/sci-fi genre: Michael Moorcock, Mervyn Peake, and Philip K Dick. (source - self-publicising Wikipedia article)
This should not put you off. The perspicacious reader would add
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and found wanting
to the above sentence.
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Old 17th May 2006, 9:47   #2
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

Where would be the best place to start, gil? Dick is someone I've been aware of for years and years but never checked out.
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Old 17th May 2006, 9:58   #3
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

You'll find out soon enough, amner, with The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which is the book group read in a couple of months' time. I believe it's considered one of his best, along with The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. I mention those three particularly as I've read them all and enjoyed them. Also with Ubik, which I've reviewed on Amazon:

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I have long been a fan of the writer with the name most likely to amuse schoolboys (after Fanny Burney) and I chose this one to read next because - as you can see below - it's widely spoken of as one of his best.


What I found was neither first-rate nor second-rate Dick - sort of A- or B+. The marks off are because the premise of the plot is too singular to allow true empathy with the characters' predicament, and also for the tricksy switchback ending on the very last page, in a book which had quite enough hairpins and U-turns up to that point. However, these quibbles aside, it's a fine piece of "hard" SF and, although basic in its prose, not at all badly written as even some of the most defensive reviews here and on the American site suggest.

The book, written in 1969, is set in 1992 on an Earth where psychic powers of telepathy and precognition have been discovered in some people. They are used mainly for corporate sabotage and industrial espionage (one of Dick's favourite themes is that however grand our science and abilities may become, people will always be ultimately greedy and corruptible), and consequently, a further species of people with counter-psychic powers has evolved to remedy these abuses. As Dick puts it, "Clams developed hard shells to protect them; therefore, birds learn to fly the clam up high in the air and drop him on a rock."

The central character, Glen Runciter, operates a "prudence organisation" which hires out counter-psychics to protect businesses or individuals who fall prey to "telepaths" and "precogs." Unfortunately the psychics have been disappearing and most of his staff are redundant. He is presented with a business proposition which will use almost all his idle "counter-psis" in one operation - which seems to good to be true. It is. It's a plan set by the rival head of the world's largest psychic organisation, and a bomb goes off at the meeting, killing Runciter but leaving his counter-psis alive. Or, as the booming voice in the trailer for the film of the book might say, does it? Because this is where the story really begins, and the twists and turns referred to earlier. There's a bit of The Others here, a bit of The Sixth Sense, and a large amount of Open Your Eyes/Vanilla Sky. Except of course that Ubik was first.

So we are left to wonder who is dead and who is alive, what reality is what, why food keeps decaying and inanimate objects keep regressing back to more primitive forms, and what this all has to do with the ubiquitous Ubik, a universal food preparation aid, digestif, scouring cleaner and financial institution...
To say more would of course detract from the point of reading the book. Of interest too, though, is Dick's awareness of the clich├ęs of SF and playfulness with them - where he fills the opening chapters with a blizzard of neologisms for new technologies in his 1992, and goes to great lengths to describe all the hideous outfits that everyone in "the future" is wearing (at least I think this was deliberate ... it was written in 1969 after all). Although it's not the point of the book, as with all SF it's also interesting to see what inventions of Dick's actually stand a cat in hell's chance of making it in the real future. Well, the jury's still out on videophones ("vidphones," originally enough), and email of one sort or another is with us (" 'stant mail," rather clumsily), as too - albeit online and not in print -are newspapers that tailor themselves to your interests ("homeopapes"!), but why did no SF writer apparently see music being transmitted in the future on anything other than LPs and tapes? I suppose a little silver disc played with a laser just seemed too far-out even for 1969. Man.
The biggie I haven't read is Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for Bladerunner.
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Old 17th May 2006, 10:07   #4
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Default Re: Philip K Dick



The Man in the High Castle is probably Dick's best book.

Set in a 1960s California in which Japan and Germany have won ww2, it covers themes such as:
  • the nature of history
  • the nature of antiques and memorabilia
  • the Japanese honour system
  • the I'Ching divination system
It is told through the eyes of various characters:
  • an antique dealer
  • a Jewish metal worker
  • a Japanese trade mission chief
  • two different German secret agents
  • a hispanic woman

Dick draws out the parallel universe of conquered America very casually. There is no formal description of conditions, every detail just adds a little to the picture. There are stories - the quest to find the author of a book which describes a parallel universe in which the Allies won the war; the attempt to re-establish original American art; the German plot to increase its empire; an American's attempt to join Japanese society; assassination attempts. But the stories are somehow incidental. The book has a conclusion, but the journey is the important factor.

The I'Ching is an important plot element. I first heard about the Great Book in this novel, and now possess three translations of it! It is a fortune telling method originating in China.

While The Man in the High Castle is an important book in the output of an important science fiction author, it is not really an sf novel. It is a novel, an entertaining novel, not a polemic, and if I say any more I will spoil it for you.
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Old 17th May 2006, 10:20   #5
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

You have to admit, the man had an ear for a great title...
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Old 17th May 2006, 10:50   #6
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self
The biggie I haven't read is Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for Bladerunner.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Inspiration was a good word to use, because the atmosphere of the book in no way resembles that of Bladerunner the movie.

OK, the protagonist - Rick Deckard - is a bounty hunter, tracking down androids who are becoming harder and harder to distinguish from the real thing, and he falls in love with a woman who may be an android. But the basic starting premise of the book is that non-human animals are so rare in this future world that it is a fine thing to possess one, and nearly as fine to own an electric replica.

It's a great book, a lot of fun, as distinct from the sombre tone of the movie, and an excellent introduction to the singular imagination of Philip K. Dick.
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Old 17th May 2006, 10:57   #7
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

I've read the short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, which was the inspiration for A.I. That was very good.
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Old 17th May 2006, 11:15   #8
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

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Originally Posted by amner
Where would be the best place to start, gil? Dick is someone I've been aware of for years and years but never checked out.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is excellent. I have to say that The Man in the High Castle is pretty good too. Neither book will frighten the horses, whereas some of his later work is a little hard to chew.
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Old 17th May 2006, 11:42   #9
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

I've tried to read Martian Time Slip for a book group. Didn't finish it - I was bored senseless. Not a true sci-fi novel - yes, it happens on Mars, but it's all about politics really; it's just that the setting is another planet.
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Old 17th May 2006, 11:48   #10
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Default Re: Philip K Dick

Col, Super-Toys was by Brian Aldiss, I am almost certain. Other Dick stories have of course inspired movies, like We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall) and Minority Report (er, the same).

Gil says some of his later work can be hard to chew. Such as Valis, one of his last novels and in my view a self-indulgent mess, mostly inspired by Dick's mixed drug use. The main character is called Horselover Fat (Horselover = original meaning of Philip; Fat = Dick in German). Say no more.

In Waterstone's this morning I saw a few others of his which have been mentioned as worthy examples of his work, including A Scanner Darkly, Martian Time-Slip and Now Wait for Last Year.

For the bibliophiles among us, the covers of most of his books are awful, airbrushed paintings in the standard SF style. An exception is the wonderful Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Man in the High Castle.

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