In his first decade of writing, 1951-1961, Philip K Dick wrote nine novels recounting the existential problems of characters struggling to survive in small town America. Other novels are known, but have not survived. None of these books found a publisher until after Dick’s death. To earn a living, Dick wrote over 100 short stories and nine novels for the science fiction market during the same period. In these books, in contrast to the material produced by other SF writers of that time, Dick recounted the existential problems of characters struggling to survive in a near future world dominated by world government, big corporations, thought police and lethal technology. The ninth SF novel was The Man in the High Castle, a dystopia in the tradition of Brave New World. From 1961 until his death in 1982, Dick wrote only SF, gradually gaining a reputation as one of the greatest writers in the genre, but always wanting to be recognised as a novelist, not a SF writer.
What would have happened had Dick found a publisher for his early novels? He was very influenced by Sinclair Lewis, but had a style of his own. He wrote rapidly from the start, two novels and a dozen stories each year. It has been claimed that all of his work is first draft material, in some cases worked over by SF editors. It might be that Dick’s writing, which often expresses subconscious perceptions, benefited by this working method even as his style suffered.
Gather Yourselves Together (1950) is about three people and their relationships as their company evacuates business premises in China at the approach of the Communists. Voices From the Street (1952) is about the disillusion of a radio and TV store owner as his marriage disintegrates and he heads towards a nervous breakdown. In Mary and the Giant (1954) a music store proprietor has a relationship with a younger woman who deserts him. The Broken Bubble (1956) concerns the interrelationships of two couples and the emotional disaster this breeds. In Puttering About in a Small Land (1957) Dick revisits this scenario with different characters in California. In Milton Lumky Territory (1958) the proprietor of a typewriter company has a rocky relationship with a former high school teacher but they are eventually able to develop a harmonious life together. Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959) is about a protagonist with reality problems who observes a murderous struggle between his sister and her ill husband. The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1960) concerns the machinations of a real estate agent against his neighbour. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (1960) is about what happens when a garage business owner sells the business, forcing his employees to scheme and manipulate in order to survive.
Instead of looking at Dick’s work in terms of genre (SF and the oddly named ‘mainstream’ fiction), it might be more useful to try and see what unifies his writing in all genres. Dick’s books usually have a central character who is essentially Dick himself, and who has a survival problem. Events or partners or friends or his emotional instability involve him in a questioning and reassessment of his situation, even his sanity. He begins to investigate those about him, often seeing them in new ways and sometimes forcing them to see themselves in new ways. The resolution at the end is usually arbitrary. In other words the plot in all Dick’s books is not too important, but what the central character feels and discovers is. What is often questioned is the structure of the world the central character inhabits. Whether it’s small town America and the drive to get ahead financially in a cultural desert or technology rampant under the control of sinister manipulators without a soul, it’s examination often reveals a frightening void beneath. In the early novels here considered the saving grace is often goodwill, which can give the means to rebuild relationships. As Dick developed as a writer this faith in man was replaced by a search for god.
This exploration is recounted in a style at once eccentric and monotonous. Both insights and inventions are described flatly, which at times add to the effect of realism with which the future is depicted while developing also a sadonically humourous effect in what is described (think of the automated news vending machines or door knockers or the semi personalised autocab drivers of the future, or the big part a trivial problem can play in a small life in the contemporary novels).
The first novels are more carefully written than Dick’s SF. In the SF the concepts are the most important element, and one is often distracted by poor, first draft, unedited writing and construction. In the first novels (I’m trying not to say ‘mainstream’) all of Dick’s strengths are visible. His concern for people and their feelings; his flat naive style which yet conveys so much; his merciless depiction of the awful desert of suburban mid-West America in the 50s (matched later by his picture of the overpopulated, technology stricken desert of the future). And the books are carefully constructed, with an emphasis on delineation of character. These nine novels will make Dick’s reputation, as a significant (if not major) depicter of mid 20th century America. The SF exploits the same themes and extends them into an exploration of psychic states of mind on the one hand, and of a mutated, paranoid and impersonal society on the other. Due to economic necessity Dick’s production of SF increased at an alarming rate. Sadly, it was printed unedited and printed badly. Today it is still possible to buy editions full of spelling errors, find characters given the wrong names or gain an impression that what was published was merely notes for a book (the sequencing in We Can Build You comes to mind).
The SF material has survived this treatment. Dick’s flat, unemotional and horrifying depiction of a society gone mad, dominated by intrusive technology, and paranoid leaders who leave no room for people to lead ordinary, fulfilled lives is compelling. He brilliantly explores altered states of mind, either minds of unusual gifts or minds breaking down under unbearable pressure. Dick was to become heavily involved with drugs and his fiction became at last a little unhinged, turning to a Messianic frenzy and preaching a moral reform.
Dick’s greatest gifts are there in embyro in his early novels. Some of these books, like Mary and the Giant, are as good as anything he ever wrote. The books are enjoyable to read, not least for the disciplined artistry with which they’re written. One can get involved with a story (as in a Highsmith book) through the flat, simple style that remorselessly introduces you to the predicaments of the ordinary, banal characters. The horror is compounded of satire and compassion which dismays yet involves you.
On the other hand, one goes to Dick’s SF books for their concepts and themes, not for character or plot. (Mind you, this is true for most SF). Dick’s themes are profound. It is a pity he never bought, or rarely, that developed artistry which the early novels show him to have been capable of.
Here is a survey of each of Dick’s early novels: http://www.quantumcosmos.com/philipkdick-mainstream.htm.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.