Welcome to the Club; Philip K. Dick Would Be Amazed to Find Himself in the Library of America. That's Only One Reason He Belongs

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, May 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Welcome to the Club; Philip K. Dick Would Be Amazed to Find Himself in the Library of America. That's Only One Reason He Belongs


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

If there is anyone who would not understand Philip K. Dick's inclusion in the Library of America--those uniform editions of what the Library calls the "best and most significant" American literature--it would be Dick himself. It isn't that he didn't think he deserved to be taken seriously. The honor simply would not fit with the way he saw the world: in his novels, the future is always a sorrier version of the present, a copy of a copy of a copy. But there he stands, alongside Faulkner, Melville, Wharton, Twain and all the other Mount Rushmore figures of American literature.

Dick, who died 25 years ago--the same year the Library of America was born--never received much serious attention during his life. He worked almost exclusively in the literary ghetto of science fiction. In Dick's depiction of the future, we do get the spaceships and the colonies on Mars, but we never shuck off being human, we never figure out what being human means--and those who search the hardest for meaning are often driven mad for their troubles. As a character thinks to himself in "The Man in the High Castle," "One seeks to contravene one's perceptions--why? So that one can wander utterly lost, without signposts or guide?"

His books are set in a future that was almost always an extension of the present. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", one of the four novels included in the Library of America volume, posits a world where robots are the underclass. The important thing, as far as Dick was concerned, was that there had to be an underclass--it was something human beings couldn't live without. "Androids" became "Blade Runner" when it went to Hollywood, and while "Blade Runner" is about as close as Hollywood has come to capturing Dick on film, it still misses the heart of the book: the idea of a world without animals--"electric sheep" alludes to the fact that people have robots for pets. Perhaps the most powerful thing about this book--and the movie only hints at this facet of the story--is the almost unbearable sadness of what Dick envisioned.

Judged by conventional critical yardsticks, Dick falls short of greatness. His plots creak. Reading his prose can feel like being assaulted with a blunt instrument. But the usual standards don't really work with him. Almost despite himself, it often seems, he created an atmosphere of paranoia, fear and psychological imprisonment that grips a reader like a waking nightmare. And greatness in art is always a subjective thing--if you're comparing Philip K. …

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