Thursday, September 24, 2009
Book Review: The Collected Works Of Philip K. Dick
Was Philip K. Dick the greatest post-War writer of all? Not just science fiction, but fiction period. It is a lofty conceit to be sure, but one I think a case can be made for.
Hollywood is certainly still interested. Following the successes of Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly, there is now a production of his classic 1974 book Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said in the works. And these blockbusters only scratch the surface of the 36 novels published in Dick’s lifetime.
In the end, PKD’s genius was deceptively simple. His secret was that his heroes were always us. By placing the reader front and center of extraordinary events, we became intimately involved. He was able to make the stories believable because his characters reacted to bizarre situations the way most “average” people would. It was an incredible gift, and one of the many reasons his tales never felt outlandish.
The Library Of America has recently issued a landmark set of Philip Kindred Dick’s finest works. The three volume set comprises thirteen of his full-length novels.
Volume one: Four Novels of the 1960s includes The Man In The High Castle, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
Volume two: Five Novels Of The 1960s & 70s features Martian Time Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After The Bomb, Now Wait For Last Year, A Scanner Darkly, and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
Volume three: VALIS And Later Novels contains VALIS, A Maze Of Death, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer.
Where to begin with such a wealth of material? My personal preference has always been for The Man In The High Castle. Originally published in 1962, it describes a world in which Japan and Germany won World War II, and the United States is a divided land. It won the Hugo Award that year, and remains as vivid a story as ever.
The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer is another favorite. Dick’s final novel can be read on a number of levels. It works as a simple sci-fi story, it can be interpreted as a drug-fuelled dream, or even as a spiritual tale. My feeling is that the book is a lament from a man whose mind remained as sharp as ever, even as his body was failing him.
The film Blade Runner (1982) was adapted from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? originally published in 1968. To this reviewer, it remains the template for adaptations of Dick’s writing to the big screen. The film remains visually stunning, but the pathos Harrison Ford brought to his characterization really conveys the type of duality so common in PKD’s prose.
What is now Volume One of this Library Of America set was actually first published in 2007, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Blade Runner. When it became the biggest selling title in their catalog, the LOA decided to go a little further with the program.
Not to be a company shill, but the set is modestly priced, and an excellent way to introduce yourself to one of the finest writers it has ever been my privilege to read. The volumes are hard-bound, with excellent covers, and make a nice addition to the bookshelf.
Is Philip K. Dick the finest post-War writer of American fiction? You be the judge. Based on these 13 novels, I think the argument can definitely be made.
And honestly, what do you have to lose? We have all seen the movies, and most are acknowledged classics. Why not go to the source? Reading a Philip K. Dick novel is as rewarding an experience as any I can think of.