Sunday, July 12, 2015

Me and PKD


I've read probably three quarters of Philip K. Dick's novels and a fair number of his short stories and even some critical pieces about him. He isn't someone I read in my youth--I was more into early twentieth-century pulp, people like HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. But in my twenties I knew someone who was doing his dissertation on PKD, so I decided to read along so he's have someone to bounce ideas off of.

That turned out to be a fateful decision. I was sort of reluctant at first--my friend was feeding me a bunch of old, lurid, browning pulp novels, the kind I'd found I almost never liked--usually they were space operas of some sort. And I was more than a little snobbish about reading pulp fiction, I think.

But Man in the High Castle really caught my imagination. Not just the alternative history with Nazis(!), but also the struggles of the schlemiel protagonist, the aesthetic discussions, the vision of everyday life that he creates. It all really worked for me.

But there was something a bit ironic about learning to love PKD through Man in the High Castle, though. In spite of the fact the High Castle won Dick a Hugo Award and put him on a higher plane in the pulp fiction universe, it was generally looked upon by his modern fans as a compromised book: as a book that was far too much influenced by Dick's ambitions for mainstream recognition.

Most of what I'd come to appreciate in Dick was something that most of his celebrants couldn't care less about. What they loved were his concepts and his veritable phantasmagoria of plot elements. His "trippiness" in short.

While I love some of Dick's concepts--psychedelic drugs used to keep Martian colonists going; policing the border between human and android when that border is questionably meaningful; being under deep cover and the corrosive effects this might have on identity; newsclowns; reality television. While I love these concepts, what I see them as is devices to explore cultural, sociological and psychological issues. Not as ends in themselves.

Part of the reason a lot of readers overemphasize the "trippy" aspect of Dick's work is down to Dick himself. Many of his novels prominently feature powerful psychedelic drugs. And toward the end of his career he really reached a point himself where everyday reality was of secondary importance to some higher plane of truth to which he thought he had access (in short, he went crazy). The writings of his out-and-out crazy/religious period is definitive of his entire ouvre for a lot of people. For me, almost everything after Scanner Darkly is nothing but an unfortunate diversion.

Did the crazy PKD live inside the 1963 PKD as some sort of unrealized potential?
Sure, I'd have to say he did--some of Dick's Platonic fixations I'd say always tended toward the pathological. But his early work was always fixed in one way or another in a quotidian reality that he did seem to care quite a bit about.

Later he seemed to care about it only as something to be transcended. Which is where he loses his interest for me.

A lot of PKD fans out there similarly don't care very much about everyday reality. They care about seeming to transcend it. They care about pretentious, empty BS like Spike Jonze movies. They care nothing about something like Kant's aesthetics, which was a big piece of the puzzle for early Dick.

What bought all this on was how completely Dickian I found J. Robert Lennon's Familiar to be and how few other readers seem to have made this connection. Mainly, I suspect, because Lennon is obviously pretty serious about the everyday domestic issues his alternative reality sets in relief for us.

So, if you are a fan of THAT PKD--the one who actually cares about this life after a fashion--let me strongly recommend Familar. A great novel in the best Dick tradition, I think.