December 27, 2003


The Second Coming of Philip K. Dick: The inside-out story of how a hyper-paranoid, pulp-fiction hack conquered the movie world 20 years after his death. (Frank Rose, December 2003, Wired)

Dick's anxious surrealism all but defines contemporary Hollywood science fiction and spills over into other kinds of movies as well. His influence is pervasive in The Matrix and its sequels, which present the world we know as nothing more than an information grid; Dick articulated the concept in a 1977 speech in which he posited the existence of multiple realities overlapping the "matrix world" that most of us experience. Vanilla Sky, with its dizzying shifts between fantasy and fact, likewise ventures into a Dickian warp zone, as does Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Memento reprises Dick's memory obsession by focusing on a man whose attempts to avenge his wife's murder are complicated by his inability to remember anything. In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers the life he's living is an illusion, an idea Dick developed in his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. Next year, Carrey and Kate Winslet will play a couple who have their memories of each other erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memory, paranoia, alternate realities: Dick's themes are everywhere.

At a time when most 20th-century science fiction writers seem hopelessly dated, Dick gives us a vision of the future that captures the feel of our time. He didn't really care about robots or space travel, though they sometimes turn up in his stories. He wrote about ordinary Joes caught in a web of corporate domination and ubiquitous electronic media, of memory implants and mood dispensers and counterfeit worlds. This strikes a nerve. "People cannot put their finger anymore on what is real and what is not real," observes Paul Verhoeven, the one-time Dutch mathematician who directed Total Recall. "What we find in Dick is an absence of truth and an ambiguous interpretation of reality. Dreams that turn out to be reality, reality that turns out to be a dream. This can only sell when people recognize it, and they can only recognize it when they see it in their own lives."

Like the babbling psychics who predict future crimes in Minority Report, Dick was a precog. Lurking within his amphetamine-fueled fictions are truths that have only to be found and decoded. In a 1978 essay he wrote: "We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives. I distrust their power. It is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing."

Viewed in this context, Dick's emergence in Hollywood seems oddly inevitable. His career itself is a tale of alternate realities.

We've several reviews posted of various of his books and stories. One of the best Philip K. Dick stories though is true, and concerns him "informing" on fellow science fiction writer Thomas Disch to the FBI.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2003 7:50 AM

I prefer Buck Rogers or even E.E.Smith's lensmen series.Paranoid dystupia wears,even on us natural born dystopians.

Posted by: M. at December 27, 2003 10:32 AM

Dick's own life story is as strange as any of his novels. The biography of Dick by Lawrence Sutin is excellent reading.

He is right about all the parties that are in the "spurious reality" business. Religion was the first, and for some time only player in that business. No wonder the Puritan's resistance to the theater. What Dick gets wrong is that his characters fear that their reality is not truly real. I think people actually fear that their reality IS truly real. People crave an alternate reality.

Posted by: Robert D at December 27, 2003 1:26 PM

Just got back from watching Paycheck (new Ben Afflick vehicle) with my son. Lots of action to keep you involved, plus a few holes in the plot to keep you scratching your head.

Posted by: Mike at December 27, 2003 5:39 PM