Creator / Philip K. Dick

Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.
VALIS by Philip K Dick

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was an American Science Fiction author who wrote many influential novels. Throughout his life, he suffered from severe hallucinations and a distorted view of reality. His novels reflect this, and his writing made him one of the most beloved and most critically acclaimed writers in the sci-fi genre.

Dick's characters typically spend much of his work wondering who they are, and whether their memories are real or fake. His stories often dealt with reality as illusion, Gnosticism, crazy people, drugged up people, people who seem crazy but are in fact drugged up, people who seem drugged up who are in fact crazy, Mad Oracles, drugged up oracles, reality going crazy, reality going on drugs, government conspiracies, evil corporations, simulacra, Cosmic Entities, Eldritch Abominations, and enough combinations of the above that a permanent state of Mind-Screwed-ness becomes an occupational hazard for his readers. Twist endings and world-shattering revelations are also characteristic of his work, reflecting what can only be described as his rich inner life. Similarly a common theme in his works is a comparison between an objective "Real" reality and a subjective "Perceived" reality, debating the dividing line between the two and whether it is even worth contemplating the difference; a theme that reflected his own mental state.

He is known for writing some of the first Grey Goo stories and for writing about Post Modernism before it caught on in the academic world. He wrote serious existential and theological treatises within the context of futuristic science-fiction stories, when science-fiction novels were still in their infancy and considered as childish and peripheral by the majority of the literary world. He was one of the first authors to use fantasy and science-fiction to discuss taboo and socially risqué subjects, contemplating ideas that wouldn't be discussed in mainstream academia for decades. He mixed, deconstructed, and reconstructed philosophical and psychological ideology from everything from Carl Jung and his theories on collective consciousness through to Jean-Paul Sartre and his theories on individualism, constantly searching to define and challenge reality and the human mind. Some of his stories have been cited by big-name philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek.

He wasn't particularly popular in the United States during most of his lifetime, but he gained a following in France among the intellectual set; his bizarre works meshed nicely with the postmodern philosophy then current in French academia.

Around 1974, Dick began to have odd revelations/hallucinations, culminating with direct contact with the entity formerly known as God. Many think he suffered from schizophrenia, a possibility Dick himself acknowledged and wrestled with. He became increasingly paranoid, at one point alleging that the KGB or the FBI stole documents from his house (he did, in fact, come home one night to find one of his filing cabinets forced open); later, he suggested that he might have broken into his own house and then forgotten about it. Many suspect his later novels are so confusing because he was trying to work out these problems in his writing.

He has a strong cult-following pan-globally which has been growing since his death in the early 1980s, encouraged by the relevance that a lot of his works have to modern day society. A lot of his more thought-provoking works continue to be the subject of analysis today.

Many of his stories have been adapted into movies. Some turned out good (A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner, Total Recall (1990), Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau') and some received a more mixed reception (Next, Paycheck, Impostor, as well as the TV series The Man in the High Castle). His largest work is to date unpublished save a few excerpts - over 7000 pages of notes speculating on Greek philosophy, early Christianity, theology, mental illness, and the implicate structure of the universe itself. This work, titled the "Exegesis," spans thousands of years of metaphysics and occult literature. Written during the final few years of his life, it is either his greatest triumph of skeptical empiricism or a deep descent into incomprehensible insanity.

Works with their own pages:

For the newly prospective or particularly insane reader, as a lot of PKD's works were guided by the Reality Subtext of his life, reading his works in the order they were published (or written) from oldest to most recent gives probably the best overall understanding of the development of his mind and ideas over time note . However, be warned that trying to read them all in progressive succession may break your mind. Literally.note  A note from disgruntled philosopher 

This author's works provide examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Any film based on his short stories:
    • The Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story ("Adjustment Team") that was only a few pages long.
    • Screamers is based on the short story Second Variety, changes the plot's setting to a remote planet (instead of WWIII Earth) and heavily expands the plot itself.
    • Total Recall (1990) is based on We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. The short story's plot is basically the first 20 minutes of the movie.
    • Minority Report is based on a short story with the same name. The main antagonist is changed, and Precrime is shown to be able to be manipulated into ignoring an actual crime if the perpetrator has knowledge of how the system works.
    • The Man in the High Castle is based on a 250-page novel. The TV series contains ten episodes that tend to run fifty minutes or longer; it adds several characters and subplots that aren't found in the novel, and gives others development that they didn't receive in the novel. Other aspects of the story are changed, such as Juliana and Frank being an unmarried couple instead of divorced. The ending leaves open the possibility for a second season, as well.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Other than Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (in which fame—suddenly and inexplicably lost—is a major plot element), there are few Philip K. Dick novels whose protagonists aren't overworked Everyman schlubs, the kind of character for whom Hollywood casts "character actors", not "leading men". Generally producers shy away from risking their millions while giving an average-looking person the most screen time.
    • In a glaring example, the very first line of "The Minority Report" has Anderton think "I'm getting old. Old and fat and bald." In the movie, he's played by Tom Cruise.
    • You could also add A Scanner Darkly. In the book, Bob Arctor storms out of his platonic girlfriend's apartment after she refuses to sleep with him because she says he is too ugly. This is strangely not mentioned to Keanu Reeves' character in the film...
  • After the End: "Captive Market" dealt with survivors of a nuclear war, trying to build an escape rocket, and buying supplies from a modern day general store owner.
    • Dick just loved post-apocalyptic scenarios. In "Autofac," a community of people is trying to wrest control of automated production facilities from the machines that run them in the aftermath of a nuclear war. In "The Days of Perky Pat," post-nuclear communities of adults sustained by CARE packages from the Martians obsessively play a "Life"-like game with elaborate to-scale game boards and a child's plastic Barbie-like doll named Perky Pat in an effort to relive their civilized lives while their children embrace a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In "If There Were No Benny Cemoli" a group of men and women who escaped the nuclear war on Earth by fleeing into space return after years of absence and try to take over, much to the chagrin of the survivors who've built up their own lifestyle in the intervening years. The list goes on and on.
    • Let's put it this way: if the novel is not set After the End, a Scavenger World, or Just Before the End you are looking at books based on Dick's own introspection (so most likely either A Scanner Darkly or VALIS).
  • And I Must Scream: There are a lot of short stories that have this component to them, although generally this is mercifully subverted in the full-length novels with the protagonist at least escaping from their reality into complete insanity. And yes, complete insanity is what qualifies as mercifully subverted in this case, because even with not much space to write them in, PKD wrote short stories revolving around Go Mad from the Isolation, The Aloner, and Fate Worse Than Death that could develop to And I Must Scream.
  • And Now For Something Completely Different: The Golden Man contains several magic realism stories (such as a man obsessed with the model town in his basement having it change the town he lives in itself), an anti-abortion story (where a scientist challenges the abortion requirement that a fetus who cannot do simple math is eligible for abortion, demanding to be aborted because he claims he's forgotten simple math) and, surprisingly, a humorous (somewhat darkly) war against... alien midgets.
    • "The Man in the High Castle" is alternate history.
    • "King of the Elves" is an Urban Fantasy short story.
  • Arc Words - "The Empire Never Ended", which originally came from a dream he had when he was young; also "Ubik" and all its products, variants, and... whatever... in Ubik.
    • Also: The Black Iron Fortress
  • Artificial Human: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Second Variety and many others
  • Author Stand-In: Horselover Fat (a pun on Philip Dick) in VALIS, as well as Nicholas Brady in the discarded early draft that was posthumously published as Radio Free Albemuth. In both, however, he also includes a separate character named Philip K. Dick. Feel free to blather now.
    • Furthermore, in VALIS, there is a point where a third character finally snaps and tells Horselover Fat that Fat is P.K.D. Up until that point in the narrative (told through Fat's eyes) the reader assumes they are two different characters. It is simultaneously revealed to Fat, as well as the reader, causing the reader to feel as schizophrenic as the author/character. PKD seems to disappear from the plot, or meld with Fat, after this revelation.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: In the short story Waterspider almost all sci-fi authors such as Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and even Dick himself are actually latent psychics; all of their works are in reality based on future events that their precognitive abilities are unknowingly picking up from far off in the future.
  • Beware the Superman: Dick suggested this from time to time, but rarely had the opportunity to write about it, as John W. Campbell preferred to compare Mutants to Persecuted Intellectuals. Dick had a different opinion, which resulted in The Golden Man.
    Dick: Here I am also saying that mutants are dangerous to us ordinaries, a view which John W. Campbell, Jr. deplored. We were supposed to view them as our leaders. But I always felt uneasy as to how they would view us. I mean, maybe they wouldn't want to lead us. Maybe from their superevolved lofty level we wouldn't seem worth leading. Anyhow, even if they agreed to lead us, I felt uneasy as to where we would wind up going. It might have something to do with buildings marked SHOWERS but which really weren't.
  • Black Comedy: Dick's preferred literary mode. One of the major reasons why his work as a whole is such a Mind Screw is the deadpan, almost nonchalant way in which he presents the most bizarre and terrifying events. In A Scanner Darkly a character tries to commit suicide by washing down a lot of pills with a very expensive bottle of wine. It may or may not have worked, but either way the character hallucinates that he spends thousands of years having his sins read to him by a bizarre alien. His response is "At least I had the wine."
  • Broken Aesop / Family-Unfriendly Aesop : Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is somewhat divisive, with two very different interpretations and resulting reactions.
    • On the one hand, Roger Ebert compared Deckard to "A Nazi measuring noses", and AI advocates compare the story to The Birth of a Nation for AI: Should "friendly" AI ever come to be, the story's premise could be seen as insulting or paranoia-inducing to said synthetic beings- thus potentially triggering a Roko's Basilisk scenario.
    • On the other hand, many take away from the story the moral that the difference between appearance of a thing and the actuality of its identity (emotion/compassion apparently being the deontological decider for humanity) are moot: "If it talks, speaks, and thinks like a person, it is a person." It also questions if there is a difference between sentience and programmed routine, and what constitutes self-awareness. What, after all, is the difference between an AI given the ability to simulate emotion via Transferable Memory, and Deckard's wife experiencing artifical emotion from her empathy box?
  • Broken Masquerade: Time Out Of Joint, Ubik and others. Many a reader has been left unsure exactly which masquerade has been broken and whether it's really a masquerade at all.
    • Basically any story (nearly all of them) where the protagonist either a) has their reality completely deconstructed, b) has had a psychotic break/is on drugs (and hence is living in a 'fake' reality) and doesn't know it, or c) had the unfortunate destiny of being a main character in a Philip Dick book (you just know good things aren't coming their way). Mercilessly used, chewed out, and tortured in The Game-Players of Titan (poor, poor Pete...), and hilariously screwed with in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
    • In Cosmic Puppets this is played with extensively while the protagonist is gradually having his reality disassembled around him while he desperately tries to grip on to anything that might sustain his sanity. He is literally pulled to the brink of a nervous breakdown when two people with their eyes closed walk straight through the people he is trying to talk to before moving through a house wall. It doesn't help when the seemingly Only Sane Man in the vicinity says (paraphrased), "Of course, it's perfectly normal. You're not mentally ill, are you?"
  • Chekhov's Gun: Paycheck is a deconstruction of the concept.
  • Do-Anything Robot: Sales Pitch is about a Do-Anything Robot that serves as its own salesman and touts its ability to do absolutely anything, so you don't have to do anything at all.
  • Downer Ending: Many. Second Variety, Sales Pitch, Faith of Our Fathers, The Unreconstructed M...
    • Occasionally a Bittersweet Ending may be evident, and his short stories end on happier notes, more so.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The unambiguously optimistic ending of Eye in the Sky. Dick's clear-cut idealism and faith in the power of people working collectively would soon desert him, majorly.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Rachmael ben Applebaum, the protagonist of Lies, Inc., teleports from Earth to the supposed off-world paradise of Whale's Mouth. Once there he's shot with an LSD dart and sees a giant, angry "cephalopodan cyclops," a pretty clear Shout-Out to H.P. Lovecraft.
  • Fisher Kingdom: The various worlds of Eye in the Sky started twisting visitors to match their worldviews. Because each "world" was in fact inside someone's head in a sort of shared hallucination.
  • Flock of Wolves:
    • In The Eyes Have It an Inspector Javert character who hunts aliens (indistinguishable from humans except for glow-in-the-dark eyes) and dissects them informs his superiors that there is an alien spy among them. It turns out they are all aliens except him.
    • The Game-Players of Titan, which involves aliens from Titan that can make themselves appear human, has a scene in which the protagonist discovers that he is the only member of the anti-alien resistance cell he's joined who isn't an alien sleeper agent.
  • Genre Savvy: The majority of Philip Dick's protagonists are paranoid enough to consider the possibility that they are unreal constructs of a hallucination, subjects of an experiment of a higher power, or constantly slipping between alterable states of reality. Exhibit A: in Cosmic Puppets the male protagonist returns to his home town to find that what he remembered never existed and the first thing he thinks of is the possibility that someone implanted false memories into his mind in order to manipulate him for nefarious causes... unfortunately he isn't Genre Savvy enough to listen to his first instinct that he should leave the town before he gets stuck there.
  • Genre Shift: Dick used to pull this in a low-key way, because he liked telling stories from the Point of View of more than one character, and he adapted from James Joyce the technique of shifting the style to reflect the way the character would write, if the character could write. A hilarious example is Surley G. Febbs from The Zap Gun, whose chapters are written as if Febbs's character were the Marty Stu in a story written by himself: when Febbs is sent a mysterious parcel, he examines it and the narrative comments "It intrigued his uniquely subtle, agile mind."
  • Gnosticism: Philip K. Dick is a textbook case. Questions about the fundamental nature of self and reality, personal revelations from God, and an overbearing sense of existential paranoia. Philip K. Dick was explicitly influenced by the Nag Hammadi, which had been recently discovered and translated towards the end of his life.
  • God Is Evil: Considering his obsession with Gnosticism, this isn't surprising. "Faith of Our Fathers" was the first really well-known God Is Evil SF story.
    • Mostly it comes in the form of either "the Demiurge suddenly got interested in your life", or "the complete/higher God was looking the other way when the Demiurge decided to Kick the Dog" (the Dog in this case being one of PKD's protagonists).
    • By the time we get to the appearance of "The Pink Light", the manifestation of Sophia (in different forms), and alternate interpretations of the Torah (which are then used to validate multiple levels of existence), it becomes "Aion Telos is trying to help but can't get through to humans because Yaldaboath is blocking the entrance to the Iron Fortress." That said, what we're really talking about here is the intervention of the Advocate versus the Adversary, because the Godhead itself tends to be either too bored to pay attention or... well, broken.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: All humans and sentient creatures have both redeemable and damnable qualities (with generally more time spent musing on the damnable). There is no black and white, only mixed shades of grey, and if you think you've finally come across someone who fits into either a pure white or black category, then you are probably about to find out something about them that dilutes them to grey again. The only exception from this rule are those that are manifestations of the demiurge, and the psychosis backing them always has a dimension of understanding to it that makes the reader unable to label them as definitively evil.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Depending on the story. This is part of The Golden Man's motivation - it knows humanity will always try to kill things like it, so it decides on the path that ensures it - and his progeny - survive.
  • Intangible Time Travel:
    • Paycheck, with its "timescope"
    • A lot of the short stories play around with the ideas of causality and time loops. At least one has an older version of the protagonist try to kill his younger self.
  • Karma Houdini: "The Unreconstructed Man" frames an innocent man for a murder. The murder was committed via a killer drone that climbed a wall, snuck into an apartment very quietly, fired an explosive pellet into a man, left enough incriminating forensic evidence to convict said man, and folded neatly into an inconspicuous television.
  • Lighter and Fluffier: His short stories in comparison to his full length novels. Mostly because the short stories tend to have less introspection and dissection of the human condition.
    • With the notable exception of the suburban nightmare The Pre-Persons. Published a year after Roe v. Wade, it extrapolates from there to a society in which abortion is no longer limited to the unborn, but to children up to the age of twelve. It got him attacked in some circles for alleged misogyny, and still scores him kudos from anti-abortion advocates. You can read it here.
  • Mad Oracle: A Real Life one, according to some.
  • The Madness Place: In Real Life he wrote most of his books in multi-day writing binges (often helped by stimulants) during which he never left the typewriter.
  • Mandatory Twist Ending: Yes, there is going to be a twist, but if Philip Dick doesn't want you to have any idea of what the twist is going to be, you are likely to be hit over the back of the head by it while it crawls out of a hole from another dimension.
  • Meaningful Name: Palmer Eldritch, Felix Buckman in Flow My Tears, etc.
    • In A Maze of Death, you have the subverted dumb-blonde "Susie Smart", the lying hypochondriac "Dr. Babble", and the Jerk Ass bully "Ignatz Thugg". In a humorous moment, Ignatz Thugg makes a snarky comment about how fitting Dr. Babble's name is without ever noticing he has a Meaningful Name himself.
  • Mechanical Evolution: In "Second Variety," when the United Nations is losing a war with the Soviet Union, they create automated factories to produce robotic "claws" to fight back. The claws later self-produce more effective designs which mimic human beings and infiltrate the human ranks.
  • Mental Story: Eye in the Sky takes place in a sort of shared mental world, with the current most-dominant personality warping it to their prejudices and worldview.
  • Mind-Control Conspiracy: Himself, and also in VALIS.
  • Mind Screw
    • Could be argued to have if not invented, at least cemented the trope in popular media.
    • At the end of Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K Dick's self-insert (by the same name) is told that the government will be releasing pro-government propaganda science-fiction under his name. The first working title was to be The Mind Screwers.
    • His short stories tend to be saner and less weird, even the one about a religious movement of people who use a special electronic box to empathetically link to a religious figure who is currently undergoing an exhausting journey. Supposedly. In fact, some of them are humorous ("The War with the Fnools", in which aliens attempt to exterminate the race by disguising themselves as human - if not for the fact they're midgets).
  • Missing Episode: In his bibliography, A Time for George Stavros, Pilgrim on the Hill, Nicholas and the Higgs, etc. were (the manuscripts) lost before publishing.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: A Meta example. All of Dick's novels have rather cryptic names that relate to the soul core of the book and the concepts it is trying to relate, usually with an implied association about the kind of suffering the protagonists will go through, or the depressing reality they will have to face (and you can be assured that they will suffer through it). And then there is one book called A Maze of Death ... Guess how many protagonists die within the first 24 hours? Guess how many times they die within the span of the book?
  • Ontological Mystery
  • Patriotic Fervor: He often lampooned parochialism by taking it Up to Eleven and having people swear allegiance to their apartment buildings, each of which naturally views the others with disdain and suspicion. The Simulacra is probably the best example: the book opens with a heated discussion over whether to abolish an apartment building's school and send its children to a public school, where they might, to the horror of the conservative faction of the community council, meet children from other schools and learn they're not so different after all.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Due to the incredibly dark, reality-challenging, and ideologically expansive nature of most of his works, it is almost impossible to create a faithful adaptation of one of PKD's full novels. The entire novel simply can't be pulled down into a 3-hour or less movie. For this reason, a lot of his shorter stories rather than full-length novels are made into movies: Minority Report, Total Recall (1990), Paycheck etc. There are only two movies based on his actual novels that were well-made and critically-acclaimed: Blade Runner, based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, which, even on a severely curtailed script Ridley Scott travelled through Pre- and Post-production Hell with; and the A Scanner Darkly adaptation, which was incredibly faithful to the book but mostly because A) the director was incredibly creative, and B) it is set 20 Minutes into the Future. God help the director who takes it into his mind to tackle VALIS.
  • Psychic Powers: Precogs being one of the the most common, as in "The Minority Report". Ubik centers on a group of anti-psychics, people whose presence blunts the efficacy of psi powers — useful against terrorists who happen to be psychic.
  • Reality Warper: Many, with their powers constantly becoming more intricate and elaborate throughout the decades of P.K.D's writing career until you get to The Divine Invasion, at which point you may need a pen, paper and a flow chart.
  • Repressed Memories: In "Recall Mechanism," the protagonist suffers a fear of falling, which his psychiatrist believes is caused by a repressed memory. Subverted when the "memory" turns out to be a psychic vision of the protagonist's future death, which he can do nothing to avoid.
  • Robot War: His most famous story of this kind, "Second Variety", was made into the film Screamers.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Minority Report, both versions. In Paycheck the government's discovery of a future-seeing device causes it to bring about the disasters the machine prophecies.
  • Shout-Out: Dick was fond of putting in quick shout outs to Carl Jung and/or his theories, which were a huge influence on Dick's stories.
  • Shown Their Work: Many of his stories, but especially V.A.L.I.S.. I hope you know your Taoism, Gnosticism and mythology well. Some working knowledge of Koine Greek doesn't hurt either.
    • Subverted with Deus Irae. Started in 1964, Dick decided he didn't know enough about Christian theology to finish it. Roger Zelazny got involved, then realized he didn't know enough either. They took turns bouncing it back and forth and forgetting about it until the publisher demanded the final manuscript. In 1975.
  • Sliding Scale of Libertarianism and Authoritarianism: Dick himself had borderline anarchist views (to the point where many anarchists have acknowledged his influence), but many of his settings are authoritarian dystopias. "The Last of the Masters", meanwhile, is set two hundred years after an anarchist revolution and depicts the last surviving government.
  • They Look Like Us Now: Second Variety with human looking robots. As well as many stories with artificial human-looking robots or aliens, some who have no idea that they are not human - an some who are terrified that they are.
    • The War with the Fnools ALMOST goes this way - the eponymous fnools, who resemble human midgets, get taller and taller when exposed to human vice (more specifically, tobacco and alcohol, which seems to alter their genes). The protagonists despair after an attempted act of prisoner kindness (giving two captured fnools a smoke) makes them average-size, and thus easier to blend-in - until the last fnool gets drunk and keeps drinking, making them inhumanly tall and easier to pick out of a crowd once more. This is all played for laughs.
  • Time Travel for Fun and Profit: In "Captive Market," an old lady discovers her ability to travel into a variety of branching timelines. She uses this power to sell supplies to future survivors of a nuclear holocaust at huge mark-ups.
  • Up the Real Rabbit Hole: Characters in his books are frequently discovering the world in which they live to be a simulation or otherwise not entirely real. An obvious source of inspiration for The Matrix, along with The Invisibles by Grant Morrison.
  • Watering Down: One of the minor characters in Eye in the Sky is a hostess at a club who waters down her own alcoholic drinks (as a large amount of her job is drinking with customers) so as to not get drunk herself.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • What Measure Is A Human - pick a book, any book...
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: In Solar Lottery, the titular government lottery is designed to make everybody randomize their actions. The antagonist, Reese Verrick, instead elects to play some speed chess as he plots to assassinate the head of government.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: In "Recall Mechanism," a nuclear war has created mutant humans with precog abilities, but the future they see is immovable. The hero is one such precog whose debilitating fear of falling is caused by his subconscious visions of his future death. The man who causes his death turns out to be one as well, whose recent attitude of literally pushing people around are from visions of how he kills the protagonist.

Alternative Title(s): Philip K Dick