Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contibuting this article to Read some of his own essays at Frank Views.

The Real Ideas of Philip K. Dick

by Michael Moorcock

Vector, No. 39, April, 1966, pp. 7-14]

            The demands of the science fiction field have been, until comparatively recently at any rate, somewhat detrimental to an author wishing to develop his work in any ‘serious’ or ‘artistic’ way.  Primarily, this detrimental influence is due to the fact that any individual author is never expected to repeat his ideas.  He must write a story speculating in biological and social developments one month and a story about the problems relating to an experimental space-drive the next.  He is praised for this butterfly-ability in much the same way as a magician who never repeats a trick is praised and he is as often as not attacked if he uses the same theme, or ‘trick’, twice.  He can use the same backgrounds, however, time after time and never come in for strong criticism – he can even use the same basic plot formula repeatedly without being attacked very much.

            A typical formula is the one involving an Exploration Team landing on a new planet, discovering some mystery regarding the behaviour of the inhabitants, becoming involved in some action stemming from their attempts to unravel the mystery and finally solving the problem and blasting off again.  Another involves the space war (usually between Earth and Aliens from another system or group of systems) in which a decisive point has been reached (usually, Earth is up against it) and a device has been invented which can, once certain problems have been solved, swing the balance in Earth’s favour.  You can probably think of several more basic formulae involving psi-powers, time paradoxes, collapsed civilisations and so on.

            The formula, the usually cardboard characters and the familiar backgrounds are acceptable in most SF circles so long as the ‘idea’ is different – the social set-up on the New Planet or the device which will win the war for Earth.  These are what many people in science fiction mean when they talk about ‘Ideas’, but this is not really what the term means in mainstream fiction and there is sometimes confusion aroused when it is discovered that what some SF readers would call an ‘idea’ is not the same thing as what others would call an ‘idea’.

            To the reader of good mainstream literature the ‘idea’ of the average SF story is nothing much more than a ‘notion’ or ‘story gimmick’ for ringing the changes on an old theme – in much the same way as a mystery writer rings the changes on the locked room murder mystery by coming up with yet another ingenious explanation of how the corpse came to be alone in the room locked on the inside.  This notion can be inventive, startling, highly entertaining or merely dull depending on the skill and invention of the particular author, but it remains merely an ingenious gimmick.

            An ‘idea’ in literature is usually considered to mean something different and much more general.  Briefly, it is taken to mean the essential outlook and obsession which dominates a particular work.  Albert Camus’s stories and plays, for instance, are stories and plays of ideas.  In the early play CALIGULA, the idea, or primary theme, involves an analysis of the nature of power (inspired, in this case, by the sudden rise of the Dictators in Europe at the time Camus was writing).  In the novel THE PLAGUE, he investigates the nature of fear.  In THE OUTSIDER, it is the nature of reality which interests him.  Camus’s work tends to be allegorical (as is most fiction and drama concerned not so much with social observation as with the fundamental issues of human behaviour throughout history) but the allegory is only made specific where it does not intrude on the ‘reality’ of the particular drama, background and characters he has built up – where it doesn’t hamper the ‘suspension of disbelief’ in the particular work of fiction (whether prose or play) in question.  Thus, in CALIGULA, the mad emperor behaves and speaks in the terms and manner of his own age; only at the end of the play, just before the curtain falls, when his assassins ring him, stabbing him to death, does he throw up his hands and laugh: “I still live!”, meaning that what he represents still lives and making the link quite plain between himself, as seen by the playwright, and the European dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

            The reason I’ve spent so much space describing this play is in order to show that to be a successful piece of fiction, the allegory must never dominate the story and, even if this results in a puzzling end to the superficial storyline, the rule must be observed.  If the end of the story is puzzling, this, as often as not, gives the reader (or playgoer) an incentive to go over the story and find its underlying theme or ‘idea’.  There’s even a case to be made out for deliberately making a story apparently obscure if this end is reached – the ‘suspension of disbelief’ in the superficial narrative is retained right up to the last possible moment so that the reader has become completely involved in it until it cuts off quite suddenly leaving him bewildered.  Only when he goes back over the story (which has become ‘real’ to him by this time) does he realise the underlying theme is there and, having come to believe completely in the characters, etc., in the book or play, is able to do what the author has meant him to do – relate the theme to his own life and the life he sees around him.  This is a technique used by William Golding in all his novels which are also novels of ideas.  One can read at least three of them entirely on the superficial level only to get to the last page, turn over, find nothing there and go back over them to realise what his underlying themes were.

            Whether this technique is successful or not depends, of course, on the talent of the writer.  And there are writers of limited talent, too, who will use this technique quite unsuccessfully for a number of reasons – i.e. lack of ability to suspend disbelief in the first place, lack of intellectual grasp of their subject matter, even lack of understanding about what this particular kind of technique is meant to do!

            Authors who have used this technique in science fiction with varying degrees of success include Brian Aldiss, Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.  All but the last have found respect for their work outside the science fiction field, and deservedly so; yet it is Dick who has in many ways been most successful in that he has used the conventional SF plot to tell an entertaining superficial story which at the same time relates in every way to his underlying theme.  He is lucky in that his great obsession and the way he looks at things blend easily with conventional SF backgrounds and plots whereas Aldiss, Vonnegut and Ballard need to create much more personal backgrounds and plots before they can get to work – Ballard in particular.

            When I say that Dick has been more successful than the other writers, I am in no way making a comparison of the quality of their work – I am simply stating that Dick has successfully managed to entertain the average reader without, on the whole, puzzling him.  To a large extent this ability has cut him off from the success enjoyed by the other writers outside the limited world of science fiction because his work has, until recently at least, not been obviously allegorical and people who have seen his work have accepted him as a good SF craftsman rather than a ‘serious’ writer working in the medium of SF.  Also, by not puzzling the average reader (at least, not very much), by producing a well-rounded superficial plot, he has failed to some extent to show the reader the way through to his underlying themes.

            Earlier I explained how the demands of the science fiction market have hitherto hampered writers from developing their work in the accepted literary ways by forcing them to flit from theme to theme, from ‘idea’ to ‘idea’, without ever developing whatever literary obsessions they may have.

            With a writer like Graham Greene, for instance, it is perfectly acceptable for him to develop one dominant theme through all his novels, from his first to his last, returning time after time to a single obsession or group of obsessions to probe, re-investigate, look at from a fresh angle and so on.  Such a writer is respected for doing this rather than denigrated and he is judged not by whether his ‘idea’ is new for him, but by how successful he is at creating a fictitious ‘reality’ – whether his backgrounds come ‘alive’, whether his characters convince and ‘live’, and so on.

            Even a non-intellectual writer like Dickens could return to a theme (the persecution of the innocent, for instance) time and time again and escape criticism of repetition because he was able to give reality to his situations and vary the circumstances of his characters sufficiently to give the theme fresh power and insight.

            Where a science fiction writer refuses to give in to the narrow demands of the field, he tends to come under attack.  J.G. Ballard, for instance, is subjected to a great deal of intolerant and unintelligent criticism of his ‘repetitiveness’ of theme and background – and characters, for that matter – primarily by people who demand sensation alone from literature and are either incapable of understanding the essential themes of his work or too impatient to bother to look for them.  Yet outside the science fiction field, as I have shown, it is expected of an author that he returns to the same themes over and over again, so long as he looks at these themes from a fresh angle, as Ballard does in his three books DROWNED, BURNING and CRYSTAL WORLD.  Part of Ballard’s obsession involves questioning the nature of reality and wondering if the yardsticks by which we judge ‘reality’ are necessarily the best ones.

            This is the dominant theme in the work of Philip K. Dick who deals with the theme much more specifically and without the highly individualistic vision of Ballard – substituting for it, however, almost as remarkable an ability to manipulate standard SF trappings to produce wholly fresh, superficially entertaining stories with abstract, intellectually underlying themes.  Dick, perhaps because he is working with more conventional backgrounds, has on the whole escaped the kind of criticism leveled at Ballard.

            Like Ballard, Dick works without pretension.  He is not out to impress; there is no virtuoso display in Dick’s work, none of the literary posturing which so mars the work of Vonnegut, who manages to state the obvious so brilliantly that one is very often fazed by it for a while.  What is so admirable and agreeable about books like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, THE GAME-PLAYERS OF TITAN or DR. BLOODMONEY is the solid, skilful craftsmanship with which they are written.  His characterisation is never brilliant, he does not create great, bizarre characters that live in the mind long after the books are finished (Bunny Jingadangelow in GREYBEARD, Strangman in THE DROWNED WORLD or Gully Foyle in THE STARS MY DESTINATION), but his characters are exceptionally easy to identify with and they are convincing.  They are almost always ‘ordinary’ people, even if they possess psi-powers as many of them do, and while their personalities do not impress us, they are exactly the right kind of characters needed to convince us of the ‘reality’ of their existence.  Their problems are ordinary problems to do with sex, money and prestige and it is these problems that tend to lead them into the bigger issues involving the fate of many.

            In virtually all his novels Dick is interested primarily in the workings of the human mind and how these relate to the world in general.  In an early novel, EYE IN THE SKY, he takes a group of ‘ordinary’ people and gives them the ability to create their ideal worlds.  These worlds are then shown up in all their many defects – they are the worlds of various sorts of American Dream and one by one Dick picks them to pieces and reveals them for what they are.

            The element of satire in Dick runs through almost all his work, often in the form of little cameos as in DR. BLOODMONEY where, in the early part of the book and with quiet amusement, he shows us various representatives of the world about to be blown up – the American Liberal boasting of his liberalism is one of many such cameos.

            In some ways Dick seems an innocent, looking calmly and seriously at the world and saying “But that just isn’t true,” or “Are you sure that’s necessarily the case?”  Dick’s clarity of vision and his accuracy of observation can be seen at their most impressive in the Hugo-winning THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.  Here is an America occupied in the North-East by the Nazis and in the South-West by the Japanese.  The plot does not hinge, as one might expect from standard science fiction, on an underground resistance organisation out to overthrow the conquerors, but on the subtle difference in national character between the conquered Americans, the occupying Japanese and the Nazis.  Dick’s Japanese and Germans are not so much ‘real’ Japanese and Germans as the popular idea of what Japanese and Germans are, except that Dick’s admiration for the Japanese tends to make them much more sympathetic than the Germans, perhaps fairly so.  This doesn’t matter, for it emerges that the world Dick has built up so successfully and with such excellent detail is probably not the real world at all – a world where the Japanese and Germans were beaten is probably the real one, though even that is not the same as ours!  This information comes from the I CHING, the Chinese Book of Changes which many, including Dick, I understand, believe capable of prophecy and communicating advice to those who consult it.

            What is ‘reality’? is the question we are left asking in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.  In THE GAME-PLAYERS OF TITAN the question is asked again as well as such questions as “Is the hallucination of the schizophrenic as real as, less real or more real than, the ‘normal’ world?”; “Can ‘reality’ be created, and if created, can it be controlled?”.  In this book Dick’s interest in games theory forms an important part of the novel’s development.  This interest was seen earlier in SOLAR LOTTERY (or WORLD OF CHANCE).  To what extent are events random and to what extent are they controlled?  At its most obvious, and perhaps most neurotic, this theme takes the form, in science fiction, of the story where it is discovered that humanity is being manipulated by alien powers (THE PUPPET MASTERS, Heinlein; “Come and Go Mad”, Brown; “You’re All Alone”, Leiber and perhaps the most successful of all, if not the best written – FEAR by Hubbard).  Some of Dick’s books do use this theme, and they are his least successful.  They are at their best where they leave the question open.

            It would be impossible to deal with all the books Dick has written – there are nearly twenty of them – and I’d like to concentrate now on his latest, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (Doubleday in US, due from Cape here this year).

            It is in this novel that Dick makes use of his technique I described of leaving the reader apparently in the air on the last page.  Here it is not for specific purposes of allegory so much as to make the reader wonder just what the nature of reality is.

            Palmer Eldritch himself is one of Dick’s few bizarre characters.  The stigmata referred to are his artificial eyes, artificial hand and steel teeth.  These blemishes seem to have some sort of symbolic significance to do with sin and redemption, but I must admit to not being able to relate this element to the rest of the book.

            A very brief resume of the plot:

            Leo Bulero is a 21st century tycoon catering to the drafted colonists of the near-uninhabitable worlds of the solar system.  They lead utterly miserable lives and their only escape is into a fantasy world of the Perky Pat layouts – a doll called Pat with a boyfriend called Walt, a doll’s house full of the latest luxuries, cars, even a doll psychiatrist – in fact, all the material comforts of the modern world.  By chewing an outlawed drug, which Bulero also markets, Can-D, the colonists can transfer completely into these worlds and for a short time live the pleasant, idle lives of Perky Pat and Walt – the men transfer to Walt and the women to Pat.  Many believe that Perky Pat’s world is ‘real’ and that they ‘go’ there when they chew Can-D.  Thus, by this escape, they manage to survive the hardships of their existence.

            Down on Earth, Bulero discovers that a new company is starting up in competition and his chief ‘pre-cog’, Barney Mayerson, gives him information that makes him believe that Palmer Eldritch, recently returned from Proxima Centauri, is behind the new organisation which, it eventually emerges, has UN sanction for marketing a rival drug called Chew-Z.

            Bulero also gets information that he is destined to kill Eldritch.  Finally he gets to meet Eldritch on the moon and is administered a dose of Chew-Z.

            From this point on the plot becomes quite deliberately confused – with no lack of enjoyment, I might add – because Bulero finds himself in a world that seems to him as real as the world he left.  But as Eldritch explains, when he makes an appearance in this world, this is the world Eldritch has created.  Bulero is at that moment in a drugged sleep – which only lasts a matter of seconds, but in one of these fantasy worlds centuries can pass in a split second of ‘real’ time.  The taker of Chew-Z can create any world he chooses and live in it virtually as long as he likes.

            Eventually, Bulero is allowed to leave Eldritch’s world – or is he?  From now on we can’t be sure if the rest of the action takes place in Eldritch’s world, a world Bulero has created, a world created by his pre-cog Barney Mayerson, a world that is the fantasy of a native of Proxima Centauri, or any one of a near infinite series of possibilities.

            There are three separate descriptions of Eldritch’s final encounter with Bulero, some traveling in time which could be into the ‘real’ future or into an ‘unreal’ one, a suggestion that Eldritch is actually God, another one that he is actually the Devil, another that he is both.  Eldritch might not even exist, we might not exist, the book might not exist.  Dick is doing his best to help us go insane – or, at any rate, experience the same sort of schizoid hallucinations that can be achieved with drugs like LSD 25 or even autohypnotism.  And if one concentrated on the book, became completely absorbed by it, doubtless a partial experience of this kind could be obtained.

            The plot is never resolved in the formal sense and the reality of the events which have taken place is left in question, but nonetheless the novel is complete once it becomes clear that it is Dick’s intention to leave you guessing.

            It may sound easy to write a book like this, once the initial idea has been worked out, but it says a great deal for Dick’s craftsmanship that the story, even at its most confusing, never loses its pace and never loses its ability to keep disbelief suspended until the last possible moment.  The reader expects some kind of ingenious denouement – as in a van Vogt novel, for instance – but it never comes.  The only explanation is implicit in the novel itself.

            There is also a certain interest in religion running through THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH and most of the central characters are seeking to redeem themselves in some way or another, though the particular nature of the guilt they feel is not clearly specified.  Also one wonders if the fact that the temperature of the Earth (as in THE DROWNED WORLD) is rising, has any symbolic meaning – Hell, for instance.  Perhaps Dick is hinting at some sort of moral implication concerning the use and selling of the drugs, but I think not.

            Dick’s work is not profound in comparison with established philosophical literature like Goethe’s FAUST and so on, neither does it have the sense of depth found in contemporaries like Borges.  It lacks the intensity of vision and powerful symbolism of Ballard and the elegance and ability to create mood of Aldiss.  What it does have is a seriousness of purpose, an unfaltering intention to get at the truth as Dick sees it, the power to create everyday environments which gradually shift in perspective until every aspect of the particular environment is held in question; the same is done with character – a man may begin by feeling that he knows himself, but gradually Dick will whittle away at that belief, leaving the man totally unsure even that he exists.  Dick uses all the skill of an excellent science fiction craftsman to produce books which are more than just craftsmanly pieces of escapism.  He is not toying with half-baked, half-understood notions like so many contemporaries who have managed to impress so many readers with their oversimplified social and ‘philosophical’ gimmickry and who are so dull, so far away from making any sort of true observation about anything that one is bewildered by their lack of even the simplest insights.

            Dick is quietly producing serious fiction in a popular form and there can be no greater praise.  It’s time he got the critical attention he deserves.

                                                                                                                        Michael Moorcock



THE COSMIC PUPPETS                                         THE SIMULACRA

DR. BLOODMONEY                                           SOLAR LOTTERY

DR. FUTURITY                                                                  (aka WORLD OF CHANCE)

EYE IN THE SKY                                                    THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER

THE GAME-PLAYERS OF TITAN                                                       ELDRITCH

A HANDFUL OF DARKNESS                          TIME OUT OF JOINT


THE MAN WHO JAPED                                                VULCAN’S HAMMER

MARTIAN TIME-SLIP                                         THE WORLD JONES MADE