Tag Archives: Philip K. Dick


flow-my-tears-the-policeman-said-pkd-kresekJust a short review this time.

The more I read PKD and talk about him with fans, the more I get the impression that PKD is the kind of author that is especially read during one’s teens and early twenties. In that sense he is formative, but he’s often abandoned later, at least, lots of his work is, and many fans only recommended 1, 2 or 3 books while they have read lots of his novels.

Before this one, I had read Ubik, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly. I didn’t think particularly highly of any of those, but there was enough there to keep on reading Dick. Guess what: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said fits in neatly with that experience. It’s an okay novel, but it’s also muddled and bereft of any real depth. And despite Dick’s reputation, it’s not that wonky or weird either.

I’ll get to all that in a minute, but even though it fitted my previous encounters with his prose, Flow My Tears did alter my mind about PKD: I won’t actively seek out any of his novels anymore. If I happen to come across one cheap second hand, I’ll pick it up in a heartbeat, no doubt. But I’m not going to buy any of his work new again, or even look out for it in the second hand shops. And so while I’m still vaguely interested in reading The Man in the High Castle, The Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Now Wait for Last Year and Time out of Joint, it will be serendipity that will decide whether I’ll read them or not. I might still buy a best of PKD short story collection, as I hear his real strength lies there – we’ll see.

Continue reading

A SCANNER DARKLY – Philip K. Dick (1977)

A Scanner Darkly (Pepper)A Scanner Darkly isn’t really science fiction: PKD didn’t want to publish a mainstream literary novel as his previous attempts had been failures. The publisher suggested Dick to put in a few bits of strange technology (the scramble suit) and set its timeline in 1994, so that it could be marketed as science fiction.

The book is a semi-autobiographical story based on Dick’s own struggles with drugs in the early 70ies. In this troubled period, he took amphetamines full time, and stopped writing all together. He talked about it in a 1977 interview with Uwe Anton and Werner Fuchs:

“But on the drug thing, what happened was that after my wife Nancy left me in 1970, I was in a state of complete desolation and despair, and suicidally depressed because I really loved her. She took my little girl with her, who I really loved, and I didn’t see my little girl for – I saw her only once in a whole year, just for a few minutes. I got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house. She left me with a four bedroom, two-bathroom house and nobody living in it but me. So I just filled it with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs. But that was for a period of just about a year. And then I just took amphetamines. I have never ever taken hard drugs. But I was in a position to see what hard drugs did to people, what drugs did to my friends.”

The interview also specifically talks about A Scanner Darkly:

“I saw things that if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I simply wouldn’t have believed them. (…) Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw. I mean I saw even worse things than I put in A Scanner Darkly. I saw people who were reduced to a point where they couldn’t complete a sentence, they really couldn’t state a sentence. And this was permanent, this was for the rest of their lives. Young people. These were people maybe 18 and 19, and I just saw, you know, it was like a vision of Hell. And I vowed to write a novel about it sometime, and I was just…I’m just…it’s just…well, I was in love with a girl who was an addict and I didn’t know she was an addict and it was just pathetic. So I wrote A Scanner Darkly.
But, I did take amphetamines for years in order to be able to – I was able to produce 68 final pages of copy a day. But I write very slowly now and I take my time, because I don’t have any economic pressures. I was supporting, at one time, four children and a wife with very expensive tastes. Like she bought a Jaguar and so forth. I just had to write and that is the only way I could do it. And, you know, I’d like to be able to say I could have done it without the amphetamines, but I’m not sure I could have done it without the amphetamines, turn out that volume of writing. So I can’t really say that for me amphetamines were a total, negative thing.”

Remarkably, A Scanner Darkly is a book on drugs, yet it wasn’t written under influence.

“Ah, well, my writing falls into two degrees, the writing done under the influence of drugs and the writing I’ve done when I’m not under the influence of drugs. But when I’m not under the influence of drugs I write about drugs. I took amphetamines for years in order to get energy to write. I had to write so much in order to make a living because our pay rates were so low. In five years I wrote sixteen novels, which is incredible. (…) But as soon as I began to earn enough money so that I didn’t have to write so many books, I stopped taking amphetamines. So now I don’t take anything like that. And I never wrote anything under the influence of psychedelics. For instance, Palmer Eldritch I wrote without ever having even seen psychedelic drugs.”

That’s it for the background – what about the novel itself?

Continue reading

UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Ubik (Peter Rauch)When I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 5 years ago, I approached it the wrong way. That novel is full of plot holes & other inconsistencies, and while I appreciated the mood, I ended up being bothered by its mushy core. I decided to not make the same mistake for Ubik, and see if a go-with-the-flow attitude would yield another reading experience.

Being who I am, I still ended up writing down numerous inconsistencies, but indeed, they did not really bother me. Maybe that is because Ubik simply is a much better novel, I don’t know: I’d have to reread Androids, and that’s not going to happen.

A bit before I started Ubik, I read a review on Calmgrove that determined my reading experience this time. It hinted at Serious Levels of Depth, and that provided the novel with lots of my credit upfront. It made me go down another rabbit hole this time: in search for truths about life & death.

For the uninitiated: Ubik is a strange novel, in which Dick draws back the curtain numerous times, only to close it a bit later on. It involves time travel – or not?, strange temporal digressions, merged states of half-life, a conflict between two psychic mutant factions, a trip to the moon and capitalist consumerism satire. An American-made Kafka: light in calories, and with a dose of cigarettes, X-Men & half-baked religion.

Continue reading


Do Androids Dream Of Electric SheepThere are 2 main problems with this book: its philosophical themes are a mess, and the action/detective part of its plot isn’t well conceived. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun read.

One of the main themes is the question of the possible “humanity” of artificial intelligence, a classic scifi theme. It is worked out poorly, because the androids themselves and the science behind them are worked out poorly. The androids are practically full-blown biological humans, except for some minor detail in their bone marrow, at least, that’s the only way for scientists to notice they are androids. Yet the androids can’t get children? They do get drunk. They can’t control their physical, sensual passions? They lack empathy, but can sometimes love each other? They die inevitably after about 4 years, because of a cell replacement problem? If so, why bother hunting them down?

Dated notions of empathy make the mess even worse: there is talk about empathy not working for carnivores, since carnivores are hunters, and would starve if they empathize with their prey. The fact that humans do hunt, is brushed aside. PKD clearly is no philosopher nor a behavioural psychologist – as empathy is observed in all kinds of animals.

Its focus on animals makes the book very quirky, and again adds to the inconsistencies. Real, live animals are a status symbol on future earth, but this choice seems mostly made because of the word play within the title. My guess is that PKD came up with the title first, and all else followed after.

Further illustration of the inconsistency of the novel is the fact that the title is not coherent with the story itself, since androids in the story are not electric, but living, organic entities, not made of electric circuits like the fake animals in the story. Moreover, PKD also fails to ask the important question whether there truly is a difference between organic nerves transporting electric signals and inorganic circuitry transporting electric signals.

The fact that the empathy tests to determine whether an individual is an android or not rely for the most part on humans’ empathy with animals is very strange too: as if an apocalyptic world war would turn us all into vegetarians. Again, PKD doesn’t prove to be a great social thinker by making these strange choices. The different relationships between humans-androids-animals-electric animals seem forced and ill-conceived.

As a result of all this, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t a book that gives one new insights on what it means to be human at all. Diverse authors like Asimov and Banks have written much more interesting books on AI. Hell, even the Star Trek Voyager TV-series explored the humanity of AI in a much more interesting manner. PKD basically reduces it all to “the will to live” and “empathy”.

The other problem I hinted at in the beginning of this review is the plot. While this could have been an interesting thriller set in an SF-world, it also falls flat in that respect. The androids can’t point and shoot, and the protagonist is able to track down and kill all of his opponents mainly because of sheer luck.

Having said all that, I mostly enjoyed reading the book. It’s not too long (192 pages in my edition), Dick has some good ideas, the setting seems edgy, the atmosphere has a vibe and at times the language and imagery is excellent. So: this is not a content book, but something you read for mood.

All in all, I’m guessing Bladerunner‘s glow keeps this high in all kinds of lists. To me, it didn’t feel like a timeless SF classic. In dealing with questions about humanity and AI, Philip K. Dick just scratches the surface, in a messy, clumsy way. Yet that’s part of its appeal: clumsy is cute.

originally written on the 13th of January, 2015

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.