Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Grossly Underappreciated Author

Many people poo-poo science fiction as a genre. They tend to equate it to stories of far-off planets where dragons not only exist but speak and sometimes dominate, where there are fantastical creatures, and where humans have names that invariably provide new innovations in the combinations of vowels and consonants. However, such a notion does a great disservice to the notion of science fiction (indeed, what I just described is fantasy, not science fiction, but that's for another blog). Some of the finest films of the last 50 years, ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner, from Solaris to The Man Who Fell to Earth, are based on science fiction novels that have as much, if not more, to say than these remarkable films.

Which leads us into one of the most underappreciated authors of the last 50 years. Certainly, Philip K. Dick has legions of fans within the science fiction community. Yet outside of it, he remains virtually unknown, and unfairly so. Many people (including many I've spoken with in my days in retail life at a bookstore) instantly shy away from the notion that he could be a science fiction, both without understanding what science fiction says and offers, thinking it's the domain of some stereotypical Dungeons & Dragons group of people who never date and don't move out of their parents' house. Recent film productions of his work haven't helped him much later, be it Ben Affleck's appalling "Paycheck" (based on a Dick Short Story, thus violating the rule that "a two-hour-film does not a twenty-page-story make") to this summer's under-the-radar "A Scanner Darkly."

Yet go to your local bookstore, and select any Philip K. Dick book. Give the back of it a read, or start off reading the first few pages (the first chapters of his corpus are generally short). You may notice that the publisher describes him as "our Calvino, our Borges," and while it is certainly an economically-motivated praise, it is one that is not far off base, either. Like the previous two, Dick masterfully demonstrates the popular idea that science fiction is "beach reading" is an utter falsehood. His works deal with questions of divinity, reality, freedom, drug use, the Cold War (after all, he wrote from the 1950s to his death in 1982). His works can encompass the humorous, the existential, the tragic, and the paranoid easily, from one chapter to another, and his ability to make you question not only the characters' perceived reality, but our own, with one plot twist is unrivalled. Although he draws heavily on themes risen from life in the center of nuclear competition in the Cold War, the nature of governments both in the US and elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s, and the use of psychedelics (of which he partook openly) in the 1960s, his works hold up remarkably well over time. Notions of a post-apocalyptic world do not make the subject matter he tackles dated (indeed, the more-revered "Alas Babylon" does not hold up NEARLY as well). In our current times, in which geopolitics are often riven by the war on "terror" that splits the world into dichotomies (just like the Cold War), Reagan's "war on drugs" was never terminated, and the government increasingly looks like the authoritarian governments of his work, Philip Dick's work remains incredibly relevant and useful for exploring issues like the role of states and society, what is reality, and the simple human attempt to deal with life on a daily basis. All the while, he keeps it unique enough, be it in terms of characters (human or otherwise), planets (not-earth), and means of salvation (an aerosol can that offers it) to make it as fantastical as anything Borges or Calvino or Garcia Marquez wrote.

There are numerous places you could start. If you'd like a broad study of humanity in times of trial, check out "The Man in the Castle." If you're prefer issues of personal identity, see "We Can Make You." "Radio Free Albemuth" tackles the issue of increasingly repressive governments, while "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said" and "The Man Who Japed" deal with just what reality is. If you're more interested in his satirical, perhaps begin with "The Zap Gun." And if you want to start with something that may look a little familiar, check out "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (which became Blade Runner - I think you'll find the movie is radically different from the book it was based on).

So check out some Philip Dick, and see what one of the best American authors of the last 50 years had to say, and see how germane it still is, nearly 25 years after his death.