Reading Philip K Dick’s ‘Lies Inc’ I am conscious yet again what an unusual writer he was. A thwarted social novelist of the 50s who poured out a constant stream of SF to make his living until he died in ’82, Dick’s books show a strange gap between style and content.
In creating his over-populated 21st century urban world Dick shows an intuition superior even to H G Wells. His analysis of that world, and in particular of its political manipulation and lack of personal fulfillment, is charged with powerful feelings of indignation and concern as well as brilliant exposition and imagery. Yet his plots are rambling – he often has no plot, just vague personal interactions over series of events. When there is a plot it is a standard adventure plot. His characters are pegs to hang ideas on, and his protagonist shifts in and out of focus in an uncomfortable way.
His style is in many ways poor. He sometimes gives the strange impression he has little care for the English language, and some of his stories are so confusedly written, rambling, ungrammatical that he seems there incompetent as a writer. Some of these faults, it is true, are the result of sitting up all night, and frantically scribbling something, anything, to give his publisher the next morning. And substance abuse was his vice. It expanded his consciousness but maimed his pen. Editors too had no compunction in cutting to fit, and work has been reprinted without change that shows traces of this. 30 years is a long time to work like that, and Dick inevitable produced bad work, as did Balzac and Dostoyevsky, who worked the same way.
Dick is nevertheless the pre-eminent SF writer. He often startles by his ideas, engages by his vivid evocations, moves by his passion, and this is somehow separate from his sometimes poorly written vehicle, the SF ‘dime’ novel. Yet these novels made him accessible to, and popular with, an audience of millions, many of whom were borderline literate. This market has been captured now by the film, unfortunately of the Schwartzenegger variety with its powerfully controlled lack of thought and efficient exploitation of the market, which takes the money and gives very little in return.
Dick has written several books well, taking great care with his ‘mainstream’ novels, and many of his short stories are masterpieces, pure concept that makes the writing shortcomings unimportant. A case could be made for Dick as the greatest story writer in the field of SF. Some of his novels plug into a mythic concept and employ symbolism quite potently.
Dick’s best books are the best SF. And the rest of his work is a strange mix of inchoate but brilliant ideas bubbling in a literary sludge. As though Marx or Darwin wrote penny dreadfuls to earn a living.
Dick is prophet, poet, philosopher – and hack. His books are genuine, true, authentic and that is why he is read. One goes through them like a survivor of a nuclear war, picking up a piece of prose here, nodding one’s head at a suggestion, musing on the implications of an idea, moved to concern by a situation. His books are an example of the world he depicts – ruined, exploited, schitzoid, threatened, yet full of beautiful things, and that most beautiful thing to humans – human feeling.
Peel away the layers: voice of the lunatic fringe, guru of mystic states of mind, science fiction hack, voice of middle America in its struggle against entropy, budding novelist. Perhaps Philip Dick never had a chance: but then, neither did Scott Fitzgerald.
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