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Philip K. Dick’s fiction is our nonfiction
By the end of his life Philip K. Dick became convinced that all his novels are not fiction but truth — that they weren’t invented by him but rather transmitted through him by a benign entity trying to save humanity from doom — basically by Ubik itself. If what PKD thought was true, then he was a prophet-like figure who just shared his revelations. But instead of sermons, he did it through the form of science fiction novels.
If you think it’s totally crazy and schizophrenic, PKD would be the first to agree with you. And yet, he’d insist that it’s still all true. And if you devout some time reading his Exegisis — which even in edited and shortened form is a thousand pages long — maybe you’ll be convinced too.
I like picking up Exegesis from time to time to read a few pages. If I read it for too long, it takes hold of me and and I really do believe PKD’s books are just journalism. They’re describing reality — a reality that no one’s is hip to yet and maybe I can educated myself about the upcoming future just reading him rather than any nonfiction or news.
I just re-read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), which is set in San Francisco. And now when I live here, the futuristic world he portrayed doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me but rather prophetic.
Now, six months into the Russian-Ukrainian war, I better understand the headspace PKD lived in — the constant fear of the nuclear war hanging over him. He captured it well in his books and San Francisco he described in the wake of “World War Terminus” seems pretty realistic
The book takes place in post-World War Terminus — in the wake of nuclear fallout. Radioactive dust covered the earth and made it uninhabitable. Most animals went extinct and the people who survived were forced to emigrate to Mars, where they were provided by the government with an android servant to make their hard life on a different world easier. The android servants are not so happy about their fate and escape back to earth from time to time where they are caught and killed — “retired” —by bounty hunters, one of whom is the protagonist of the book.
Some people prefer to remain on earth and some who have been classified as “special” have to — since they are considered too genetically inferior to be allowed to immigrate and to reproduce. It’s a depressing, deadly landscape with no children and where animals are all gone. The rare few animals that are alive are so expensive that they are a status symbol. The bigger an animal you own, the higher status you are.
People are obsessed with animals. Everyone carries with them a catalogue with descriptions of various animals and their current market prices. In this world it’s a source of shame not to own an animal — so much so that the main character, named Rick Deckard, prefers to buy a fake robotic sheep that acts and looks just like a real one to trick his neighbors into thinking that he also owns and takes care of a real animal.
This empathy towards animals is pretty much the only thing that separates humans from the androids — and the entire test to spot androids is built around it.
Animals are so central to the plot, it’s unbelievable that Ridley Scott disregarded them in Bladerunner — an ok movie, but a complete failure at capturing PKD’s world.
The book has one of the best opening scenes in a novel of all times and Ridley Scott completely ignores it as well.
Rick wakes up in the morning with the help of his mood organ instead of an alarm clock. It’s easy and immediate. Pills and supplements are made unnecessary by the “mood organ” because it can instantly get you into any mood or feeling that you want to be in. You dial it in — no need to swallow and wait. What a dream. You can even dial a combination that makes you want to dial a mood when you are too down to dial one, or you can dial a combination that “makes you want to watch TV no matter what is on.” Ridley Scot completely misses PKD’s dark humor along with his great recurrent “mean wife” character. Rick’s wife Iran wakes up in the bad mood — she managed to hack the mood organ and dial six hours of self-accusatory depression. And off the bat they get into an argument.
The scene with the marital fight — her blackmailing Rick that’s she’ll dial for herself a mood so nasty he’ll regret he is alive — is so fantastical and yet believable that I kept forgetting that it’s sci-fi and the mood organ doesn’t exist yet. And that’s what is weird about PKD — he is maybe the most anti-technology sci-fi writer. Very different from the science and technology nerds who populate this genre. His sci-fi is also very matter of fact and this mundane atmosphere is way scarier than anything conjured up for instance by Frank Herbert in Dune.
It’s as if PKD didn’t actually mean to invent anything at all and just described the reality as he perceived it. It’s just that he broke through time space continuum and could see things behind the veil of maya that we are all tricked by.
In the book the surviving humans still pursue advance technology, despite what it lead them to. And they are rather successful at it, which is very similar to our present day technological death cult. PKD just takes it to the max and reveals its dystopian nature, something that many people can’t see even today — since technology is only presented as a great tool of progress and a bright future.
PKD never showed technological future as glorious, in most of his books — it’s depressing, scary, mundane, limiting. The comfort it gives people is questionable — gadgets that are supposed to improve daily life are petty and vindictive and very strict with you. The talking door that refuses to open because you don’t have enough coins to pay it, and won’t extend you a loan because your credit score is bad. Or there’s the really advanced VR game that allows you to inhabit the fun world and beautiful bodies of a Malibu dwelling couple — but it requires a potent hallucinogenic drug to work and is never really fun because most of the time you’re just bickering and arguing with the co-players you’re having the shared VR hallucination with.
Not only did PKD write surprisingly anti-technology sci-fi novels — some of them have came true. Considering Do Androids Dream… takes place in San Francisco — a city with the lowest number of children in the US, but with many pets — the book is a self-fulfilled prophesy already.
“Lost” by Evgenia Kovda.
Here in San Francisco animals get stolen for money — a French bulldog that can cost up to $6,000 gets hijacked from an owner at a gunpoint and is likely resold to some other wealthy purchaser craving for love and companionship. People offer to pay thousands of dollars as a reward for their lost pets. The city is covered with posters of this nature. A pet, of course, is not yet such a prized possession that you have to pay for it in monthly installments. But maybe we are getting there. And maybe we are already halfway there — with pet medical insurance monthly payments, doggie daycare, and the constant GoFundMe campaigns to pay for pets’ medical emergencies.
Another complete miss on Ridley Scott’s part is the character of John Isidore, the “special.” In the book he is the kindest person who even empathizes with the plight of androids. He feels the pain of the spider when one of the androids pulls his legs out just for fun. He, affected by radioactive dust, became “chicken head” — inferior in intelligence to all the androids. Yet he is shown as the most superior in things that do matter — empathy. Isidore seems to be an alter ego of PKD, who initially made him the main character of his other book, an autobiographical novel — Confessions of a Crap Artist.
PKD seemed to be interested in just a few questions that he pursued in most of his books — “what is an authentic human? and what is the nature of our reality?” And these questions, now many decades after his death, are finally coming into focus for more and more people.
The authentic human for PKD is the one who has empathy for the fellow creatures stuck with us here on earth. And the nature of our reality is the hostile kipple-filled world, which is in a state of constant entropy that we can try to fight against but can never win.
On some level, what PKD invented in 1968 reads like a documentary in 2022 San Francisco. Except San Francisco is still a paradise like landscape with parks and quaint little houses. For how long this city will be able to stay this way…well that’s an open question.
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There is one thing that PKD didn’t get right.
In Do Androids Dream, despite their intelligence, the androids lose — they were defeated by humans. In our reality the androids won. By androids I mean the psychopaths who run this world and have no empathy — neither for the pain of their fellow humans or for animals. We are ruled by “solitary predators,” as PKD described the androids, who have “no evolutionary benefit to be communal like humans.”
Humans in the book have a religion Mercerism — similar to Christianity — that is centered around a martyr like figure of Wilbur Mercer who they fuse with using the their “empathy boxes” that everyone owns. They share in his pain as he ascends a mountain and gets hit by rocks. The thing is that Mercer proved to be a fake, a washed up drunk old actor and his perennial climb is just a prerecorded video against the green screen at a Hollywood sound stage. Yet it doesn’t matter that he is a fake, what’s important that people keep believing in the common task and want to fuse with each other and share the pains and the joys. So according to PKD believe itself is what matters not the veracity of the prophet figure that it rests upon.
The androids are jealous of Mercerism that only humans can practice because empathy is off limits to them. It makes them perfect killer machines and yet makes cooperation impossible. It is their weak spot that eventually leads to their demise — at least in the book.
In our reality though psychopaths do run the world and don’t seem to be losing any time soon, and they work together quite well. And Ridley Scott might as well be one of them. Why else would he sympathize with the android characters — completely missing the point of PKD’s book? Someone should definitely run a Voigt-Kampff test on him and retire him pronto.
PS: Out of all PKD film adaptations, only Paul Verhoeven managed to capture PKD’s paranoid delusional world in “Total Recall”— funny, absurd, confusing, full of hostile forces that are against you and yet you don’t know why they are. It really gets at the most profound philosophical questions — Are we defined by our memories or are we what we do? Can we change? Verhauven gets the “mean wife” character perfectly, too. Maybe because Verhauven is an authentic human unlike Sir Ridley Scott.