Might as well start at the end. Just where is the best place to begin with Philip K. Dick? There’s a huge amount of lists online that will run through a countdown of his best books, some more comprehensive than others, with the general consensus tending towards the (hard to argue with) holy trinity of 1968’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Ubik (1969) and A Scanner Darkly (1977) and his solitary piece of what you could call accepted mainstream ‘classic literature’, the novel The Man In The High Castle (1962)….
|Pre-Agent Rob & 2005’s ‘best of PKD’ copied from a newspaper article.|
Having read in the region of 15 PKD books – I was fortunate enough that 2 winters ago the Glasgog FOPP stores had a run of laughably affordable SF Masterworks, with far too many PKD titles on the shelves to be ignored a moment longer – I would actually suggest that the curious begin, well, at the very beginning. Like Agent Johnny‘s beloved Pink Floyd – if you exclude the initial LSD spike of the Barrett-induced The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – there’s a definite sense of the band’s progression from album to album as with PKD’s growth from book to book, similar themes are explored and the weaker discarded (or cleverly reworked) as the ideas coalesce and the creative vision consolidates….
If you opt to read the novels in order – you might prefer to ease yourself in via the short story anthologies, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale being a fairly astonishing collection, far beefier and better than the readily available Minority Report tie-in – then you can see PKD’s core themes evolve, making it far easier to get to grips with the more complex novels. Time Out Of Joint (1959) is considered to be the first book that really gets to grips with the concept of the nature of and our perception of reality and is therefore the ideal place to start. I began with The Penultimate Truth (1964), a more traditional sci-fi storyline of sorts, dealing with the manipulation of people and truth as opposed to the endless complications of shifting and/or overlapping realities and one’s effect thereon….
PKD’s novels are generally populated by ‘everyman’ characters, those John Shmoes and Joe Does; the menial job employee (until he loses it), the put-upon husband (or recently divorced/separated) seemingly trapped in their lot, striving for a meaningful, fulfilling existence, drawn to bad relationships, powerless to affect the overarching circumstances of their collapsing world (which might explain why I enjoy them so much). PKD tends to set up a few story arcs in tandem which he’ll steadily and cunningly weave together over the course of a novel, the bewildered everyman unwittingly drawn into a situation he struggles to grasp, tumbling deeper and deeper into the network of shifting realities and perceived truths over which he has no influence (or does he?). And all the while there’ll be an ‘official’ further up the chain, just as troubled under the skin no matter the bold front, who we assume – as he assumes/assures himself – to be in complete control. Of course, as reality unravels he will more than likely discover his situation is no different, being just another small piece (to be placed if not jammed) in the vast puzzle. Atop this fragile ‘house of cards’ we’re likely to find the ultimate authority figure, the bloated leader, safe but panicked in his self-imposed isolation, surrounded by toadying, plotting bureaucRats. Who is really pulling the puppet’s strings? Is he real, or is he slipping between realities and spinning the plates of fate accordingly…?
Ferris F. Fremont….
It’s interesting to note that PKD does not spend a huge amount of time on explaining the ‘science’ of his fiction, the setting of his novels can be refreshingly pedestrian and familiar (in this respect he brings to my mind J.G. Ballard, a favourite for merging his present self and reality into his wildly imaginative and disturbing fiction) – if cars do indeed fly or planets are colonised then no time is wasted embellishing the simple fact – with the geopolitics far more likely to take priority in order to establish a (winding) narrative path. He seems much more concerned with the human element and its desire to be understood, its desire to be free (as well as the doomed desire to peer behind the facade, however terrifying and destructive that might be – curiosity almost always kills the cat!). It’s no great secret that PKD pushed his personal life as far out as his novels – even a feverish Dicolyte like Agent Johnny cannot claim to suspect himself of burgling his own house whilst under the influence of drugs….
And the Brawcommended titles? Hmm, I’d consider A Scanner Darkly (1977) to be amongst the very best – strange as it sounds part of this is the impression created by the book itself, the text is noticeably denser than other novels, the story seems to have been long laboured over and it feels razor sharp and precise – and it certainly would justify garnering the same ‘classic literature’ tag that has (unfortunately) seen The Man In The High Castle quarantined away from the rest of his tacky oeuvre (or vice versa, depending on your POV). Chronologically if you were to tackle Time Out Of Joint before High Castle following that with Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Now Wait For Last Year (1966), Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep (1968) Ubik (1969) Our Friends From Frolix 8 and A Scanner Darkly then you’d be getting a very decent headbang for your buck. 1981’s oft-mentioned VALIS is not for the faint of heart, the trial run that is Radio Free Albemuth (1976/1985), though slighter, is much more easily digested. From my age-old list – itself a relic salvaged from another alternative existence altogether – Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer (1982) and Confessions Of A Crap Artist (1959/1975) are yet to be explored. If the latter’s about an emaciated, unemployable loser who willingly feeds his precious lifeforce into an ambivalent ‘electronic brain machine’ while meshing with a healthier, saner and more success full other reality then maybe, just maybe, we’re all on to something….