Philip K. Dick Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

Philip K. Dick, arguably the best writer of the 20th century, produced science fiction masterpieces as well as several excellent "mainstream" novels. Posthumously published works such as "Mary and the Giant" cement Dick as one of the most sensitive and capable writers of his time. In an ideal world, his genius would have been recognized immediately; in reality, he is just now achieving some of the notoriety he deserved upon publication of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", "Martian Time-Slip" and "The Man in the High Castle." Dick wielded a fearsomely accurate satiric voice and a remarkable sensitivity to the human condition.

PKD biographical comic by R. Crumb. Color by Sauceruney.

PKD appears as the cover story for the December, 2003 issue of "Wired."

Related links:

PhilipKDick.com


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WHAT IF OUR WORLD IS THEIR HEAVEN? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick (Gwen Lee, Doris Elaine Sauter, eds.)

"What If Our World Is Their Heaven?" is an incredibly valuable portrait of Philip K. Dick as author, philosopher and protocyberpunk visionary. The transcripts of Gwen Lee's conversations read with immediacy and humor, revealing a contemplative, witty, passionate human being as comfortable relaying practical jokes as postulating the future of mind-machine interfaces.

Fans of Ridley Scott's classic "Blade Runner" will love this book; two chapters are dedicated to Dick's relationship with the production of the film, based off his novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?". Dick also discusses his ambiguous religious epiphanies, the plot of his never-written would-be classic "The Owl in Daylight," and the manic creative force that fueled his prolific science fiction output. "What If Our World Is Their Heaven?" is a concise yet richly insightful book that Dick's fans will treasure.

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DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" is a beautiful existential thriller that masquerades as a futuristic detective novel. Dick's best-known novel is subtle and darkly amusing. Inspiration for the cult classic "Blade Runner."

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VALIS, THE DIVINE INVASION, THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER

"VALIS," an unsettling semi-autobiographical novel, launches Dick's so-called "VALIS trilogy," continued (in theme, if not in story) in "The Divine Invasion" and "The Transmigration of Timothy Archer." "VALIS" is an altogether unsettling and gorgeous novel that transcends genre, constituting a cybernetic gospel that's as outrageous as it is moving.

"The Divine Invasion" continues to plumb Dick's theological preoccupations. Dick's second "VALIS" novel is cosmic in its existential and moral complexity.

The third book in the "VALIS" sequence, "The Transmigration of Timothy Archer" is a many-leveled and compelling exploration of faith and truth, friendship and loss, illusion and reality: a unique read that witnesses Dick tearing down the barriers between genres.

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COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD

In "Counter-Clock World," Dick devises a bleakly fascinating future world in which time runs backwards. By overturning chronology, Dick explores our buried preoccupation with mortality. Grim, ambititiously rendered and darkly cosmic, this is a probing, angry novel in which Dick is both author and audience, reveling in paradox and social confusion. "Counter-Clock World" is a troubling, understated novel that fuses political allegory, racial tension and theology.

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THE SIMULACRA

"The Simulacra" is probably the most convoluted, mystifying--and potentially dangerous--political thriller ever penned. With his trademark ear for dialogue and sensitivity to human foibles, Dick eviscerates authority in all of its guises, revealing levels of curruption and secrecy so vast and complex they transcend the comical. Along with such masterpieces as "Radio Free Albemuth" and "Time Out of Joint," "The Simulacra" is one of Dick's most effective conspiracy yarns, written with irony, insight and humor. As usual, Dick excels at evoking a world where nothing is as it seems and truth is the rarest of commodities. Vintage's reissue of this scathing novel couldn't have come at a better time.

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THE MAN WHO JAPED

"The Man Who Japed" is one of Dick's brisker books. First published in 1956, it's a relatively straight-forward account of personal rebellion in an authoritarian police state. The first half of the book is probably the best; Dick constructs an extremely funny and knowing dystopian future ruled by state-sanctioned morality. Sneaky robots known as "juveniles" eavesdrop on citizens in hopes of catching anything from foul language to adultery. Suspected transgressers are forced to endure Kafkaesque public hearings.

Against this repellant backdrop, the title character finds himself acting in blatant defiance of the government's systemic morality ("Morec") by vandalizing a statue of the regime's founder. From here, the plot wanders, sometimes leading readers on trippy but unnecessary jaunts. The second half spends much of its length extricating the hero from a bizarre interplanetary kidnapping that seems transplanted from another novel. Dick's usual sensitivity to alienation and paranoia manage to hold it in place, but it's a close call; "The Man Who Japed" was written lovingly but hastily, and suffers from some of the uncertainty of Dick's first novel, "Solar Lottary."

That said, "The Man Who Japed" is a true Philip K. Dick novel and readers will not be left wanting. In an alternate universe, I can see Dick's barbed commentary on the ever-virulent "moral majority" set alongside such titles as "Fahrenheit 451" and Walter Tevis' "Mockingbird."

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RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH

"Radio Free Albemuth" is a taut, ideologically-charged book that weaves metaphysics and McCarthy-esque paranoia. Posthumously unearthed from Dick's estate, "Radio Free Albemuth" shares subject matter with the even more unsettling "VALIS" and can be read as a complimentary retelling. This is one of the first PKD novels I read, and probably one of the most decisively "phildickian" in his canon.

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DR. BLOODMONEY

Newly reissued, "Dr. Bloodmoney" is one of Dick's best lesser-known novels, with ample humor and terror fused in a wildly apocalyptic satire. Dick's opening portrait of the United States (depicted shortly before a hydrogen bomb demolishes San Fransisco) is candid and funny, setting the stage for Dick's thoroughly disturbing--yet oddly funny--depiction of Life After the Bomb.

Dick's hope in humanity ultimately triumphs in the face of decay and uncertainty; it's this warmly human element, with the characters' all-too-recognizable quirks, failings and inadequacies stripped bare, that distinguishes "Dr. Bloodmoney" from other post-holocaust stories. This is Dick at his most heart-felt and phantasmagorical.

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UBIK

Telepathy, time travel, scheming psychic syndicates, and a most unusual aerosol known only as "Ubik." One of Philip K. Dick's most well-known novels, "Ubik" is surreal and thought-provoking.

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THE WORLD JONES MADE

"The World Jones Made" is a provocative story about a disgruntled sideshow performer able to accurately see a year into the future. He uses his ability to establish a new world order founded on the extermination of a race of single-celled interstellar "drifters." Needless to say, nothing is as it seems and the plot is engagingly atypical.

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A MAZE OF DEATH

In "A Maze of Death," Dick depicts a fledgling space colony whose inhabitants are convinced they're the victims of a sociological experiment. Dick's ability to bend traditional science fiction conceits into bizarre new forms is uncanny; "A Maze of Death" keeps the reader wondering even after the eerie twist ending.

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A SCANNER DARKLY

One of Dick's most outstanding protocyberpunk works, "A Scanner Darkly" is a portrait of dementia and paranoia in a warped near-future society, probing deeply into the mechanics of addiction and the nature of identity. "A Scanner Darkly" is bleak and disturbing, with a flare for verisimilitude that recalls William Gibson's near-future stories. (The first PKD book I read, "A Scanner Darkly" remains one of my favorites.)

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NOW WAIT FOR LAST YEAR

"Now Wait for Last Year" is a masterpiece of future politics and personal estrangement. A time-warping narcotic becomes the centerpiece for a bizarre interplanetary rivalry and the potential salvation for a miserably failed marriage. Weird, off-beat and sincere.

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TIME OUT OF JOINT

Everyman Ragle Gumm realizes that the strange newspaper puzzle he spends his days decyphering is actually a coded system that threatens to redefine his quaint 1950s suburban reality. Dick provides us with a bizarre slant on the tyranny of projected world-views and an excellent commentary on solipsism. "Time Out of Joint" is the perfect book for a reader who's never encountered Dick. Although not his best novel, it addresses his pivotal narrative concerns: What is "real"? What constitutes an "authentic" human being?

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MARTIAN TIME-SLIP

"Martian Time-Slip" is one of Philip K. Dick's very best novels, an uncategorical tale of entropy and the rigors of being human. "Martian Time-Slip" introduces Manfred Steiner, an autistic child growing up on a parched future Mars settlement, who is able to penetrate spacetime and foresee his own demise. Dick peoples his novel with completely believable and sympathetic characters and tells their stories with realism and urgency.

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THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH

"The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" is an hallucinatory glimpse into the lives of a group of desperate Mars colonists who engage in a quirky form of role-playing to alleviate their loneliness. A haunting (and funny) futuristic vision.

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CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST

"Confessions of a Crap Artist" is Philip K. Dick at his most thoughtful and moving. The only mainstream novel published before his death in 1982, "Confessions" tells the story of Jack Isidore, the schizotypal but well-intentioned title character who functions on the edge of acceptable reality. Dick's perspective on his characters' lives is uncompromising and ultimately optimistic. After viewing the world through the eyes of Jack Isidore, the world takes on profound and absurdly funny nuances.

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THE GAME PLAYERS OF TITAN

"The Game Players of Titan" is another of Dick's brilliant future dystopian novels, in which a depopulated America finds itself in the clutches of scheming aliens engaged in a mind-bending interplanetary game. "Game Players" transcends its pulp origins and proves itself one of Dick's best psychological thrillers.

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THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

In Dick's nightmarishly skewed version of world history, the Nazis have won and the United States is home to antique-hoarding Japanese, fugitive Jewish defectors, and an enigmatic book by an author conceivably in touch with something bigger than reality itself.

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WE CAN BUILD YOU

Dick's paranoid vision is as on-target as ever in this account of android-manufacture, schizophrenia and lust.

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CLANS OF THE ALPHANE MOON

A dysfunctional marriage (a common Dick theme) forms the backbone for this stunning--if thematically strained--novel of murder, Ganymedean Slime Molds, androids, and schizophrenics. Wonderful commentary on mental illness and the nature of Self.

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GALACTIC POT HEALER

Although not one of my favorite PKD books, "Galactic Pot Healer" has a lot going for it, including a devastatingly funny depiction of a totalitarian future and a sympathetic title character. "Galactic Pot Healer" allows Dick to indulge in one of his trademark themes: the role of the "ordinary" individual when confronted by reality-redefining cosmic forces.

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FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID

Fame is fickle -- cosmically so. In the award-winning "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said," a bewildered television star confronts an amnesiac world that no longer recognizes him. "Flow My Tears" was the third or fourth PKD book I read. While the intricacies of the plot escape me, the premise is unforgettable.

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EYE IN THE SKY

A particle-accelerator mishap plunges a group of tourists into the subjective universes of each other's minds. "Eye in the Sky" prefigures a whole subgenre of "virtual reality" thrillers.

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OUR FRIENDS FROM FROLIX 8

This often funny but inconsistent novel chronicles a future civilization ruled by "New Men," dome-headed successors to Homo sapiens. The subjugated "Old Men" eagerly await the return of their Space Age messiah, who eventually arrives with unexpected "friends" from afar. This novel founders at times, unable to decide how best to tackle Dick's salient concerns. Alternately political discourse and theological commentary, "Our Friends From Frolix 8" ends on an especially endearing and provocative note.

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THE ZAP GUN

A furiously entertaining story of Cold War intrigue and alien invasion.

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SOLAR LOTTERY

"Solar Lottery," Philip K. Dick's first novel, is a disconcerting psychological adventure that features themes and devices familiar from his superior later works: androids, fringe theology, everyday people enmeshed in reality-bending conspiracies, wickedly dystopian future societies, and--perhaps most importantly--the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of all the above.

THE COSMIC PUPPETS

The shortest PKD novel I've read, "The Cosmic Puppets" is surprisingly developed. Dick takes an almost absurdly simple premise -- a man revisits his home town to find that nothing is remotely the same and that no one remembers him -- and spins a creepy yarn you'll probably feel compelled to read in one sitting.

LIES, INC.

"Lies, Inc." is the rarist of PKD books: underdeveloped, scattered, essentially aimless and lacking the humor and humanity that typify Dick's canon. But I'm not blaming Dick. "Lies, Inc." is ostensibly the "restored" version of "The Unteleported Man," an early novel written in the same era as the similarly lacking "Solar Lottary." As a snapshot of Dick's early career, "Lies, Inc." isn't without value. But as a work of literature it fumbles, thrashing its way through a needlessly cryptic storyline that will have readers knotting their brows and retreading pages in a futile attempt to figure out What's Going On.

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THE SHIFTING REALITIES OF PHILIP K. DICK Lawrence Sutin, ed.

Any fan of Philip K. Dick will find "Shifting Realities" nothing less than mesmerizing. This well-compiled volume offers a rare glimpse into the author's mind, with excerpts from the "Exegesis" and essays on an eclectic variety of topics.


Check your local library or used-book store for the following...

THE BROKEN BUBBLE

"The Broken Bubble" is one of Dick's posthumous "mainstream" works that offers all of the humanity and strangeness as his masterful SF novels. Dick creates a menacing love triangle and a thoroughly believable 1950s California as affecting as Rick Deckard's bombed-out Los Angeles ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") or Manfred Steiner's Mars ("Martian Time-Slip"). Humorous, poignant and catastrophic, "The Broken Bubble" is both an excellent read and an important literary document. Also see: "Mary and the Giant."

THE PENULTIMATE TRUTH

If the word "typical" can be applied to Dick's novels, then "The Penultimate Truth" is as thrillingly typical as they come. A member of an underground fallout shelter (or "ant tank") realizes that the supposed war his people are hiding from has long since ended, ushering in a new era of conspiracy, simulation and duplicity. Part dystopian detective novel and part time-travel story, "The Penultimate Truth" ranks with Dick's canon of satirical masterpieces.

THE PRESERVING MACHINE

"The Preserving Machine" is a great omnibus, featuring the novella "War Veteran" and "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" (the basis for the film "Total Recall"). "The Preserving Machine" touches on all of the author's quintessential themes: psychosis, decay and the frighteningly maleable nature of what we call "reality." Dick's vision of humanity is grim but shot through with sardonic optimism.

BLADE RUNNER 2: THE EDGE OF HUMAN K.W. Jeter

This is not a PKD novel, but a movie tie-in that, much to my surprise, is quite literate and enyoyable. Jeter lifts from both "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "Blade Runner" to evoke a dazzling, paranoia-driven future Los Angeles. I think Dick would have enjoyed this cyberpunkish spin on his original concepts.

PHILIP K. DICK Douglas A. Mackey

Mackey's book is a perceptive and illuminating critical analysis of Philip K. Dick's novels and stories. This is a fresh and unpretentious work of criticism. Highly recommended.

THE NOVELS OF PHILIP K. DICK Kim Stanley Robinson

"The Novels of Philip K. Dick" is another interpretive study of Dick's work, progressing from his early experiments in mainstream fiction to his career-capping "VALIS" trilogy. It's a pleasure to see Dick's works scrutinized as a literary testament rather than a collection of disparate narratives.

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