Eric M. Van (ericmvan) wrote,
Eric M. Van

The (Secret) Philip K. Dick Reading Plan, Part I

This Monday evening, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, I gave a short introduction to their presentation of Blade Runner: The Final Cut (the first entry in their "Big Screen Classics" series for this year). That intro, which explained the influence of the film on Philip K. Dick's literary reputation, is on my Facebook page, and a longer version will appear here next. But I also promised to post a PKD reading plan that would also provide the secret to becoming a Dickhead Dickophile.

And the secret is this: the sum of all of PKD's best novels is way, way, greater than the parts. The novels talk to each other in your brain, and they do so whether you're thinking about them or not.

As a result, it's very common for folks to read three or four PKD novels, thinking, this guy is really good. (Like other really good authors they've encountered.) And then, on the fourth or fifth novel, a tipping point is crossed. The novels start that internal conversation, and suddenly you want to read them all.

I said this in the talk: I can think of no major literary figure with a broader range of characteristic styles and structures, and a wider set of major thematic concerns. PKD was asking so many big questions—what’s the nature of reality, what makes us human, why is there evil, just to start with—that you couldn’t address them all in any one book.

In fact, what is presented in the novels is a fairly complete and comprehensive worldview. But by its very nature, it is necessarily distributed across many books.

And it’s not only that so many different questions are addressed, or themes explored (e.g., the innate human capacity to deal with adversity, even on a cosmic level). Each of Dick’s major concerns is too big to cover completely in a single novel. Why is there evil in the world? And what should our response to it be? You could devote an entire literary career to exploring that theme. And indeed there are key reflections on the problem of evil in The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and A Scanner Darkly (to begin with), but no one of those contains the full argument. And a similar breakdown could be given for each of his other major concerns.

So, here's a PKD reading plan, in which I'll address the other remarkable feature of his oeuvre—the structural and stylistic variety.

There are seven novels that made his reputation, and six of them fall into three well-matched pairs. The seventh is Androids, and that has always been my choice as the best place to start.

Here are the other six, with the dates they were completed.

The Man in the High Castle (11/61)
Martian Time Slip (10/62)
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (3/64)
[Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (6/66)]
Ubik (12/66)
A Scanner Darkly (4/73)
VALIS (11/78)

The Man in the High Castle won Dick the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and was, on and off, the only PKD novel in print, other than his most recent, at the time of his death in 1982. It is being adapted by Amazon as a mini-series; the pilot is already streaming for free on Amazon Prime, and it’s terrific.

It and Martian Time Slip (which the great British sf author and major PKD-phile Brian W. Aldiss once adapted for an unproduced BBC mini-series) form a pair. Both novels were written with PKD’s preferred working method, which was to spend four to six months taking hundreds of thousands of words of notes, in ever increasing detail, until he had the entire plot of the novel in his head. (He apparently discarded them along the way; none of these notes were saved, and David G. Hartwell, PKD’s last editor, has testified that Phil sold him The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by telling him the entire story, scene by scene, in a recitation so detailed it lasted hours. Without notes).

Both novels use PKD’s favorite early-sixties structure, which many film buffs will recognize from movies like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia and Alejándro Iñárritu’s Babel. Multiple, seemingly separate story threads, each told him from the point of view of a different character, intersect in all sorts of ways, from head-on collisions to hugely ironic glancing blows, of which the characters themselves are often unaware of.

As a result of this combination—careful advance plotting, but extraordinary complication—the novels are very well written but nevertheless do not really show off Dick’s considerable prowess as a prose stylist. And that’s because PKD almost never rewrote his novels. He typed them up and sent the first drafts to his agent. (Hartwell says he received the finished manuscript of Timothy Archer ten weeks after that conversation.)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik form another pair (even though their composition was separated by a dark period in PKD’s life, in which he wrote a few of his least satisfying novels.) John Lennon wanted to film The Three Stigmata; Michel Gondry recently abandoned his effort to adapt Ubik, calling it unfilmable (by which he meant that the one screenwriter he hired to tackle it couldn’t crack it).

This pair of novels used his backup working methodology, implemented when he was desperately short of cash in the early sixties. And that was to take handfuls of amphetamines, sit down at the typewriter, and plot a novel as he typed, in the space of four or five weeks. (We know that six weeks would typically pass between the receipt of one manuscript by his agent and the next, and I’m guessing ten days to rest a bit and decide what the next book would be about, in general.)

As a result, these books have writing that’s at times so sloppy it’s hard to believe that they’re written by the same author of the earlier or (especially) later books. And yet there are flashes of startling prose in these novels. Here’s the appearance of an immense, inimical alien spaceship in Now Wait for Last Year:

It was huge enough, he thought, to feed forever; even from the spot where he stood, at the very least a mile from it, he could see that it consisted of a limitless, appetitive self that would begin any time now to gulp down everything in sight.  

Of course, they also have plots so good that it strains credulity that they were composed on the fly. Furthermore, they have an exhilarating breakneck pace, in rather jaw-dropping contrast to the measured pace of his earlier books. There aren’t many writers who have written novels that some readers will, not unfairly, find too slow to get through—and who have other novels that those readers can be pointed at with the warning that they may need to be read at a single sitting. Ubik, in particular, is a book I’ve called “The Space Mountain of literature,” in comparison to other books that are mere roller-coaster rides.

Finally, we have a third pair of novels, A Scanner Darkly, quite faithfully adapted, via rotoscoped animation, by Richard Linklater, and VALIS, turned into a quite beautiful opera by Tod Machover. Both are to some degrees autobiographical (the first half of VALIS almost completely so), dealing respectively with PKD’s experience in the 70’s drug culture, and the strange, quasi-religious experiences he had in February and March of 1974 and which obsessed him until the end of his life. And they contain his very best writing, again, accomplished in a single draft. I actually discovered the handwritten draft of most of the opening chapter of VALIS in the PKD papers stored in (literary estate executor) Paul Williams’ garage; a comparison to the published text revealed a single changed preposition.

The wild card in the plan is the existence of Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (2/63), which has a reputation nearly as great as these seven, and is a third great novel in the style of High Castle and Martian Time-Slip, written immediately after those two (something I correctly divined despite the publication dates suggesting otherwise. Paul had always planned to someday go to the offices of Dick’s agents and check the dates of receipts of all the manuscripts, but my suggestion that doing so would make much better sense of PKD’s career prompted him to make it a priority. Paul published the findings in his book on PKD, Only Apparently Real, but he sent me the results right away as a reward for my correct guess.)

In my next post, I’ll outline the specific reading plan.
Tags: sf

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