Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Human Is? -- A Philip K. Dick Reader
Philip K. Dick
Gollancz, 560 pages

Human Is? - A Philip K Dick Reader
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928. While attending UC at Berkeley, he dropped out rather than take ROTC training. He went on to write some 36 novels and 5 short story collections. He won the 1962 Hugo for The Man in the High Castle and the 1974 John W. Campbell Award for Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He died of heart failure caused by a stroke in 1982.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
SF Site Review: The Zap Gun
SF Site Review: The Simulacra
SF Site Review: Lies, Inc.
SF Site Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
SF Site Review: Time Out Of Joint
SF Site Review: The Game-Players of Titan
SF Site Review: Minority Report
SF Site Review: Now Wait For Last Year
SF Site Review: Dr. Bloodmoney
SF Site Review: Beyond Lies the Wub and The Father-Thing
SF Site Review: Second Variety
SF Site Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Martian Time-Slip and A Scanner Darkly
SF Site Reading List: Philip K. Dick

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Raven

It's not difficult to get hold of the short stories of Philip K. Dick, if you're of a mind to do so. However, doing so usually involves unearthing anthologies old and new in which his work has appeared, or going instead to the Complete Works -- four hefty volumes, which allegedly contain a fair amount of filler in between the killers.

So it should come as no surprise that Gollancz have decided to package a selection of Dick's "greatest hits" into a single paperback volume -- especially considering the increasing number of films being made from his work, and his gradual absorption into the canon of "literature proper," whatever that is. This is the sort of book that literature teachers won't feel too ashamed to issue to a class, for example. But what might that class discover between its covers?

First, I must state my own shortcomings. I'm a relative late-comer to SF, and I came to it through novels first. Hence, much of the rich history of short-form SF is still unexplored territory for me. Dick is one author whose influence is inescapable, however; an author continuously referred to and acknowledged, either explicitly in introductions or critical works, or implicitly with post-modern nods buried in works of fiction. Dick is everywhere in SF, and I have been constantly reminded of him as a blindspot in my knowledge of the genre.

Hence Human Is? was an ideal book for me to read -- but I am unable to approach in the manner a better-read critic might do. For example, I cannot comment on the choice of stories, cannot praise inclusions or excoriate omissions. I cannot even say with certainty how definitive a selection the stories here should be considered to be. Instead, I must take it as it comes, so to speak.

One comment I feel I am qualified to make, however, is that I'm astonished by the lack of any introduction or analysis in the collection. None at all -- index, then stories, straight through. While I imagine Gollancz were keen to keep costs down (what publisher isn't, in this day and age?), surely it wouldn't have cost them too dear to include a few pages from an author or critic of note, or an explanation of the thinking behind the story selection? But there is no such thing -- which at least enabled me to approach the book with my mind tabula rasa.

Or so I thought. That's the thing; like I say, Dick is everywhere, saturated into the blood and cells of modern science fiction and (to an alarming extent) the world beyond the pages of books as well. To come to Dick's work as a truly blank slate would require you to have arrived on this planet comparatively recently, with a full command of idiomatic American English, while having never read a novel or seen a modern movie. In other words, to read Dick with no preconceptions would take a set of preconditions that are alarmingly like the sort of scenarios he peppered his plots with. I'm sorry if that seems a little circuitous -- that's just the way Dick's work makes you think.

So, stepping back and trying again, what's the first impression a new reader gets of Dick's stories? Well, to be blunt, he was a terrible writer of prose, at the words-and-sentences level at least. Now, I understand that the prose standard of genre fiction was not exactly sky-high in Dick's era, but nor was everyone a pay-per-hundred-words hack, either. But it's been said by many before me, and I have to concede the point -- Dick's prose is dreadful. Clunky clichéd description, wooden dialogue... critics of the state of the modern genre short story should at least take heart from the fact that the mechanics of writing are deployed far more effectively by contemporary writers.

However, Human Is? contains some amount of evidence that the ability of modern writers to come up with genuinely innovative plot ideas is in decline. As mentioned above, I'd read only two of these stories before, and seen films (loosely) based on another two. But almost invariably I found the plots incredibly familiar, to the extent that I could foretell the denouements after reading only a third of the tale. This isn't the fault of Dick's writing, though -- it's because his ideas have been raked over, rehashed, remixed and reused so many times since he wrote the originals.

This is why context is useful (and why I think there should have been at least some short introduction to act as guidance for someone without any historical knowledge of Dick). Without being aware of the world Dick was writing in, a newcomer might be forgiven for thinking that he was indeed little more than a pulp-mag hack of the most unoriginal stripe.

But look again; see his works from the 50s, a rare voice in the wilderness decrying the horrible paranoia of the Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, willing to question the inherent superiority of Western consumerism and might-makes-right. "The Defenders" (1953) is a work of naked wish-fulfillment for a rapprochement between the warring superpowers; the indistinguishable autonomous combat robots of "The Second Variety" (1953) demonstrate a nervous what-if to the otherwise unquestioned notion of technological military superiority being a laudable and safe means to an end; the creepily prescient "The Mold Of Yancy" (1955), a tale about a gestalt political identity that resonates scarily in our era of internet-distributed political astroturfing.

Then see his works of the early 60s, prefiguring the hippie intellectual revolution by questioning the hegemony of conformity and the oppressive mechanics of an Orwellian surveillance state. "The Days Of Perky Pat" (1963) describes the nauseating notion of a post-apocalyptic civilisation clinging desperately to talismans of the consumer lifestyle it remembers from before the bombs dropped; "Oh, To Be A Blobel!" (1964), despite its slightly over-egged comedy trappings, is weirdly prescient of the issues faced by veterans of Vietnam and the wars that have followed it, and the fates of children born between the two sides of such a conflict, even after it has ended.

And see his later works, questioning the very sanctity of identity, experience and reality itself, pushing at the boundaries of what is and is not, smudging the line for the thrill of the horrifying implications or playfully straddling it to see how long he could hold together. This where it seems to the outside observer that the membrane between Dick's fiction and his reality started to become permeable in both directions. "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (1966), so different in all but the most basic point to the film based upon it, questioning memory and reality and the difference in between them, if any; "The Electric Ant" (1969), a kind of philosophical horror story that rips up reality and stamps on the bits. These are standard riffs in modern SF, in the same way that Chuck Berry solos are a knowing nod in modern rock music. What was once innovative becomes the new bedrock, a foundation for further building, a ladder to the stars.

But what is most surprising is that, as a writer who arguably did the most to introduce post-modern ideas into science fiction short stories, it is almost impossible for someone with any knowledge about Dick's life to avoid the modernist analytical approach of projecting the author onto his work. Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising, and perhaps it is unfair (if not an outright mistake) -- but it's hard not to read the span of Dick's career as a meta-narrative, a story about Dick himself and his descent into paranoia and mental illness, a story that mirrors the movement of our society into a situation that is as rife with contradictions and unrealities as Dick's own work. But therein lies the key to Dick's success -- because, by writing his own fears, he was writing from the heart as well as the head.

But perhaps this isn't just a critical exercise; perhaps we project Dick onto his work because that's what we're supposed to do. It has often been remarked that Dick wrote the world we live in now, with its daily paranoia and ubiquitous autonomous technologies, with its fear of impending global doom and destruction. Perhaps that's because he did. Maybe when I finish writing this review, I will cease to exist in any tangible fashion for those of you who read it. Maybe I never existed at all, and my entire life's output has been written by a homeostatic machine buried deep beneath a ruined city ("If There Were No Benny Cimoli" (1963))...

But that's just crazy, right? Of course it is.

But you can't prove it's not true, can you?

Copyright © 2007 Paul Raven

Paul Raven is a dishevelled library assistant from the south coast of the UK. He likes poetry, science fiction stories, music with guitars and girls with tattoos. His friends play a game that involves them buying him drinks and then steering the conversation round to space colonisation or neural prosthetics. Drop by his web site at the Velcro City Tourist Board

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide