So, You Want to Be a Dick-head: or, Where to Start Reading Philip K. Dick
You can’t avoid Philip K. Dick these days. A sequel to Blade Runner just came out, the TV show Electric Dreams focuses on dramatising his short stories, and The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon Prime series. You might have watched one of these, or watched one of the other adaptations of his work, like Total Recall or Minority Report, and been interested in engaging directly with the man who came up with these ideas. But maybe you didn’t know where to start? Dick wrote more than thirty novels, and over a hundred short stories. Where should you begin? I’m no expert, but I have read most of what are considered his major works. So, here’s where I’d start if I was getting in to Philip K. Dick today.
Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?
The quintessential Dick novel that asks the quintessential Dick question: what does it mean to be human? It turns out the answer to that question is pretty complicated, but it boils down to being able to feel empathy; putting yourself in someone or something else’s shoes and imagining how they feel. This is a detective novel that happens to take place in a future where there are artificial humans, called replicants. They are so human, in fact, that all that distinguishes them from “real” humans is their lack of empathy. This novel got made into the film Blade Runner, which is very very good, and you should probably watch anyway. So, if you enjoyed that film, then you’ll probably enjoy Dick, and you should definitely read the novel. I can’t speak for Blade Runner 2049 because I haven’t seen it yet.
The Man in the High Castle
An alternative future novel that explores what might have happened to the world if the Axis powers had won World War Two. Dick tells the story from multiple points of view and cuts a good cross section of society, a fantastic feat of world building. This novel includes one of my favourite mind-bending elements in all of Dick’s work; a large part of the plot is the search for the writer of an alternative history novel in which the Allied powers won World War Two. This is one of the novels he spent the most time and work writing, and in terms of quality, it really shows. If the idea of SF puts you off, but you still want to read some Dick, this is a good place to start. I don’t know how it stack up to the Amazon series, because I haven’t seen it, but if you’ve been enjoying that then why haven’t you read this book already?
A Scanner Darkly
Another science fiction novel in the shell of a detective novel. This time, the protagonist is an undercover police officer trying to infiltrate a drug ring. The drug in question, Substance D, causes the hemispheres of the brain to separate, eventually leading to an entirely split personality. The protagonist’s addiction to this drug causes him to forget his two roles, and he ends up spying on and informing on himself. The way Dick handles this gradual breakdown of a personality is beautiful in a very sad way, and the cast is littered with funny people getting high and getting up to no good. Funny and tragic by turns, a lot of this is drawn from Dick’s own experiences with drugs and drug users, to the point where the epilogue is a list of people Dick knew whose lives had been damaged or lost because of their drug use. Dick’s name is on it. This is probably my favourite Dick novel. It was made into a film by Richard Linklater, and it has a tone and style that I can’t do justice by description, but if you’ve seen it and liked it, then yes, read the book.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
A novel about people on a Martian colony who escape the humdrum of their lives by taking a drug that allows them to project their personality into meticulously crafted dollhouses that offer a pleasant earthly experience. To be honest, it’s been a while since I read it, but I remember thoroughly enjoying it, and it was one of the first Dick novels I read. I went on to read a lot more of them. This is often considered his LSD novel, but oddly enough, he didn’t try LSD until after writing it. Other people’s experiences informed his fictionalisation of it, and when he did try LSD, he didn’t like it and never did it again. If you enjoyed other famous “drug” novels like Fear and Loathing, Naked Lunch, or as mentioned above, A Scanner Darkly, you will enjoy this.
God exists, and he comes in a spray can. A real mindfuck of a novel that romps between alternate realities and between life and death. I can’t do this justice by describing it. I wouldn’t make this the first Dick novel I read, but it does bring you around to the second central question in Dick’s work; what is real? If you’ve read a bit of Dick and you’re digging it, then definitely read this.
The Short Stories
If you’ve been enjoying Electric Dreams on Channel 4, then this would be a good place to start. Also worth considering if you’re not sure whether you’d enjoy as singular a writer as Dick and don’t want to commit to a whole novel.
Except, there’s like, loads of them. Collected in five volumes.
Well, if it’s Electric Dreams that’s piqued you’re interest, then you’re in luck, because Gollancz have published a collection of the stories that were adapted into the TV series. These are just the start, though. Here are some of the Dick short stories that I recommend:
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (filmed as Total Recall)
Paycheck (filmed as Paycheck)
The Minority Report (filmed as Minority Report)
Second Variety (pretty much filmed as The Terminator but he wasn’t credited)
Faith of our Fathers
You can generally find most of the stories that have been filmed in collections like this, which bring together some of Dick’s more popular short stories. If you’re just starting with Dick, something like this is a good place to start. Some of Dick’s work is also in the public domain, in which case, you may as well check it out for the low low price of free!