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.

Ubik

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)

Beyond Lies the Wub

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!

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Some Doom Resources

I recently played the new Doom game (I wrote about it here) and I also read Masters of Doom (I wrote about it here). This got me in the mood to revisit the original games, which led to me playing all the way through Doom 2 for the first time ever. I couldn’t really say why I’d never played it all the way through before, but I can say that the first Doom means a lot more to me simply because I played it first. I downloaded the shareware episode using the 56k modem on my first computer sometime around the year 2000. Doom 2 never had a shareware episode.

Yes, I love the super shotgun. But fucking hell I *hate* the fucking arch-viles. Which bodes well for me, because despite Final Doom being the first Doom release I ever owned, I’ve never beaten either Plutonia or TNT, and will probably be playing those next.

I looked up a few levels on youtube because I got stuck, and I fell down a rabbit hole. I’ve since come across a whole bunch of interesting stuff relating to the Doom games, and wanted to link to some of it here. If I come across any more, I’ll add it. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments.

First of all, there’s Doomworld, which is the main community hub for the Doom games nowadays. Forums, .wad reviews, new releases.

Then there’s the idgames archives, where you’ll find most doom .wads.

Everything has a wiki nowadays, and Doom is no different.

I also came across a couple of websites that review doom .wads. There’s One Man Doom for example. There’s also the delightfully web 1.0 Doom Wad Station.

And here are some youtube videos I found interesting.

Some Thoughts on Doom (2016)

The new Doom game was on sale recently. I picked it up because I’d heard from a few sources that it was, contrary to everybody’s expectations, a very good game, and a very true Doom game. I was quickly enraptured and beat it in a couple of days. I wanted to write down a few of my thoughts on it, so here we are.

For context, I love the Doom games very very much. I am also very fond of the Quake games. When they announced that they were making another Doom game, I ignored it. Doom 3 was a pretty good game, and a fantastic tech demo, but it wasn’t a very good Doom game. Rage was a good tech demo, but by all accounts a very flawed game. And then John Carmack left id. The stage wasn’t exactly set for them to come good, at least not in the eyes of people like me.

But the new Doom game is absolutely fucking fantastic.

It’s fast. That’s the main thing. It’s so fucking fast. They set it up so that you can run and double jump around like crazy while you try dodge enemies that are charging at you or firing projectiles at you. You have to move, or you die. There is no taking cover, plinking at other dudes who are taking cover.

Your health does not recharge.

There are medkits, but they aren’t the main way you will regain your health.

You regain health by enacting glory kills, and you have to be in melee range to perform a glory kill.

So you run, and you jump, and you dodge. You will probably take a few hits and need to recover. But instead of running away, you are forced to stun an enemy and charge at it. The best defense is offense.

This basic gameplay loop leads to combat that feels like nothing else I’ve played. I remember hearing about the glory kills before the game came out, and thinking they were just QTEs that would get old quickly, but they’re varied enough, and have a satisfying enough gameplay outcome, that they end up gluing the whole experience together.

In fact, there is one game that combat does remind me of. I used to love playing Olaf in League of Legends. He had a mechanic where he could steal health from characters he attacked, and the lower his own health was, the faster he attacked. This lead to knife edge situations where you can see your own health going down, but your only option is to push forwards, knowing that if you stop attacking you’ll stop healing yourself; but if you keep attacking you’ll do even more damage and either sustain your health, or die trying.

Doom (2016) isn’t a story driven game, but it does do a good job of world building in a way that reminds me heavily of System Shock. You pick up data logs that you can read in your own time, or ignore completely. Ditto for the digital ghosts, that show you the history of the environments you are moving through. You are forced into none of this, but to look at even a bit of it makes the game feel a lot richer.

The soundtrack by Mick Gordon is fantastic. There’s no point me describing it, just listen.

Doom (2016) was a really fun ten or so hours. These are just some of the things about it that I think it did well. I feel bad for dismissing it before ever having played it, but when it comes to games from big studios, I increasingly feel like you should assume everything is garbage nowadays and then just be pleasantly surprised when things aren’t.

Playing Doom (2016) got me in the mood to go back to the originals. That and I recently read Masters of Doom. Would you believe I’ve never beaten Doom 2? So I’m playing that now and might move on to the Final Doom .wads soon. I’ve come across some interesting stuff on the original games and might be posting something about them soon, so watch this space/follow me if you wanna know when I post it.

A Personal Canon

I saw this personal canon on another site and thought it’d be an interesting exercise. It was very hard for me to come up with things at first, and then it was difficult to stop myself, because I guess they won’t let you take a loaded kindle. I am as annoyed as you are by the lack of women and writers of colour and am doing my best to correct it. I know this list makes me look like an asshole but I swear I am not. But then, they all do, don’t they?

Ulysses by James Joyce

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

The poems of T.S. Eliot

The (imagist) poems of Ezra Pound

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The stories of Franz Kafka

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Mrs. Dalloway by Virignia Woolf

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

The Thread in the Carpet by Henry James

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Image, Music, Text by Roland Barthes

The essays of George Orwell

The poems of P.B. Shelley

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

The short stories of Philip K. Dick

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Things I haven’t read (yet) but would take with me to a desert island

(I’ve talked before about grand reading projects)

Homer

The Bible

The Koran

The Torah

Plato

Dickens

The rest of the romantics

Tolstoy

Dostoyevsky

Chekov

The rest of Woolf

Austen

The Brontes.

 

I must stop myself, and so I stop myself.

What I Read Last Week: July 14th to 21st

Another quick reminder that I started a Patreon and that you can help support my work here.

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to in the last week, partly because I’ve been writing a lot, and partly because I am making myself read Northanger Abbey and I found (am finding) the middle third of that novel incredibly boring. It was around that part in Pride and Prejudice that I started to better understand what Austen was trying to do, and started appreciating it. No such luck so far with Northanger.

A reprieve from that novel found its way to me by chance. I toured the Emirates stadium last Saturday (it’s fantastic, you should go), and I travelled there via the Arsenal tube station. At that tube station, there is a little free library, which I couldn’t help checking out because books, and on those shelves I found a copy of David Kushner’s Masters of Doom. I love Doom and Quake, and had wanted to read that book for a long time, so I picked it up. Unfortunately I didn’t have any books on me to donate, so I’ll have to go back and leave one the next time I am there.


Masters of Doom is the story of John Romero and John Carmack; their early lives, how they meet, and the other people they worked with on games Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.


I enjoyed it thoroughly. Kushner includes enough details on the tech and the personalities that even veterans like me will learn something on every page, while moving at a pace that ploughs through the years with some of the breathlessness and excitement of being there.


 It goes a long way towards explaining why Quake feel’s like such a hodgepodge of ideas, and why Daikatana was such a fucking mess.

They really need to remove the casual transphobia from it though. It serves no purpose. 

What I Read Last Week: July 7th to 14th

A quick reminder that you can now support my work on Patreon, if you like 🙂

I started reading Strangers on a Train and got about fifty pages in. I am enjoying it, but dropped it (for a bit, I am always dropping books) because Bruno was really fucking creepy and I’d had enough of that with Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, which I had just read. I will go back to it, I am just not in the mood at the moment.

I then decided to pick up something short. I’ve had a copy of the first Maigret novel Pietr the Latvian on my nightstand for a while. I bought it knowing nothing about it except that it was a detective novel, and that Simenon claims to have slept with hundreds of women. I like using detective stories as a palette cleanser, something I’ve been doing ever since I binged on James Bond novels after finishing university. Pietr the Latvian got me immediately with its description of a dark, wet, bleak Paris. I am always up for some relentless bleakness. It struck me as being like Chandler with more of a sense of companionship, but I realise Chandler probably read Maigret before writing his stuff. Simenon intrigued me enough with the dead man in an impossible situation and also impossibly not being dead that I would have sped through this novel regardless of its quality, but its constant variation of a desolate coast, a seedy high-life, and a dark modernity made it an enjoyable couple of sittings.

And then I read Siddhartha.

I’d wanted to read Siddhartha for a long time. I found a public domain translation of it and read it in a couple of days. I probably should have read it slower but it went down so easy, like stories that have the quality of fable and lightness of style do. I haven’t really gathered my thoughts about this novel yet. My own (lack) of spiritual inclinations makes it hard for me to relate to some of its concerns, but at the same time I still felt like I was experiencing something profound. If I was a parent, this novel probably would have devastated me. I might write something longer about this soon. Or I might have to do a lot more reading to know how I feel about it. My knowledge of religion (and other spiritual pursuits) is limited and something I’d like to correct, and I think this knowledge might help me appreciated Siddhartha more. Maybe I missed the point.

I am about halfway through Northanger Abbey, which I am reading because my girlfriend has to for her work, and I like synchronising my reading with hers sometimes. I am finding it fine enough but find myself feeling the same way I did reading Pride and Prejudice, that is bemused at the triviality of many of the concerns of the novel, and yet also stung with the recognition that those trivialities are what make up our lives. I have, as always, probably missed the point.

What I Read This Week: June 30th to July 7th

Hello. There are spoilers on this page. I know it was published in 1938 but I managed to read it without knowing what was going to happen, so that might be the case for you as well. Look away now if you don’t want to know what happens.

 

! ! !

 

I didn’t read every single book I was supposed to when I was at university. I know it’s not realistic to expect everyone to read every single book on a reading list, but when there’s a seminar scheduled on it, you really should read the book. I still feel bad about the books I didn’t read, so every now and again I pick one up and give it a fair shake. Eventually I’ll not feel as bad. This week, I decided to read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and damn, do I regret not reading it when I was supposed to.

I should point out that I don’t remember a damn thing we talked about in that seminar. I knew the plot was somewhat similar to Jane Eyre (which I did read when I was supposed to, and loved), but that’s it. I knew none of the twists. It worked on me as it would have worked on someone in 1938.

And boy, did it work on me. The slow start put me off a bit, but I know that was meant to emphasise just how humdrum the narrator’s life is, and how narrow her prospects. It highlights that she has no choice but to accept Maxim’s proposal.

You know, as the narrator does, that Maxim has some dark and mysterious things in his past. You expect that some of this might become illuminated as the narrator integrates herself into life at Manderley. Not fully, of course. If you know it’s like Jane Eyre, you know there must be some apocalyptic reveals towards the end. But you expect some kind of idea. Something you can guess at.

But the narrator can’t integrate. And for the first two thirds of the book, Maxim barely speaks.

This negative space, where the reader has as little to go on as the narrator inside the text, and only a little more outside of it (shut up Derrida), leaves the reader grasping for meaning as desperately as the narrator does.

And du Maurier knows you are thinking about Jane Eyre.

The way she makes you lead yourself into thinking it’s a story about a man tormented by the loss of his life’s love is nothing short of masterful. When du Maurier floods the story with oxygen and lets the fire burn as bright as it wants, you’re just as devastated as the narrator is to find out that those people saying she was nothing like Rebecca were paying her a compliment all along. And how terrifying it becomes when you realise that it’s not some writerly trick that drew you along, it was Rebecca herself, getting revenge on the behalf of the mad woman in the attic, refusing to be reduced to a deus ex machina.

Think about it in relation to Jane Eyre, which is a novel that is about the titular character, who is allowed to have her own name at the expense of the woman who is locked away. In du Maurier’s inversion, the narrator is refused a name and the title lets us know just who the most important actor in the story is. Rebecca.

It’s just a perfect example of what leaving a void in the story and letting the reader fill it themselves (with the odd nudge) can do.

These are just some quick thoughts. It has been a while since a novel has held me in its spell like Rebecca did, and I wanted to go over some of the ways I think it did it. I’ve just started reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. (Am I on some pre-adaptation Hitchcock bender? I’ve only seen Psycho and Rear Window.) I’m in the middle of like ten other books as well. I am a serial starter.