Philip K. Dick's Unconventional Dystopias: From Radio Free Albemuth to A Scanner Darkly

By Rossi, Umberto | Extrapolation, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Philip K. Dick's Unconventional Dystopias: From Radio Free Albemuth to A Scanner Darkly


Rossi, Umberto, Extrapolation


He couldn't say what grievous chain of circumstances led from the innocuous genetic novelty to another crushing totalitarian regime.

(J. Lethem)

There is a widespread feeling that Dick is basically a dystopianist, to put it in Lethem's terms. One of the earliest commentators, Darko Suvin, went so far as to declare that "up to The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch the novels by Dick that are not primarily dystopian [...] are better forgotten" ("The Opus" 7). It is a strong statement, as one can expect of Darko Suvin, but, even though Suvin is one of the top experts when it comes to utopian writings, his remark suffers from a certain vagueness. A more recent and more focused suggestion to read Dick's SF as dystopian is found in David Seed's compact introduction to the genre, where he sees Time Out of Joint (1959) as a novel in which Dick manages to apply his typical and disquieting ontological interrogation (usually summarized by the question "what is real/reality?") to the deconstruction of an already existing regime which, according to Seed, usually structures the plot of dystopian narratives (Seed 88-89).

Besides, M. Keith Brooker has argued that the American 1950s, the decade in which Dick's apprenticeship as a professional writer took place, were marked by a decline in the American utopian imagination (3)-since he takes care to point out that the fifties as a cultural-political period did not end in 1959 (this is the meaning of the phrase "long 1950s" in the subtitle of his monograph), it may be easily argued that much of Dick's oeuvre echoes the pessimistic Zeitgeist of its times. Brooker maintains that "[tjhe new worlds explored in science fiction tended more toward dystopia than utopia" (102), and such an encompassing assessment can be said to englobe most of what Dick has written.

One cannot escape the feeling, however, that "dystopian" has become too common a word in English, and that it has become no more than a synonym of "pessimistic": a book or a film with a bleak atmosphere depicting unhappy lives of miserable people in some unpleasant place is easily tagged "dystopian." Getting back to Suvin's assessment, though, it seems to have been formulated in a moment when his definition of dystopian fiction was not yet as cogent as it should have been. Not as cogent as the one proposed by Tom Moylan in his Scraps of the Untainted Skyf where dystopia is envisioned as a narrative text that offers a detailed description of a non-existent society which is worse or significantly less perfect than the society in which the contemporary readers live; but this society must be presented and/or judged as such from the point of view of a representative of a discontented group or class (155).2

Moylan's definition works quite well with several classical dystopian narratives, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four first and foremost, but it is hard to find works in Dick's oeuvre that fit this definition. The non-existent society which is worse than ours may be non-existent to us readers, yet should exist in the novel we are reading: but this clashes with Dick's own fictional strategy, which I have called "ontological uncertainty." Just take the world in which The Man in the High Castle is set: a universe where Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the militarist Japanese Empire won World War II qualifies as worse than ours, so this might be a solid dystopian novel. But the book ends, as we all know, with the discovery that the alternate universe with the United States split in three parts and California under Japanese rule does not really exist; that Abendsen's novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is true, and that the USA and the British Empire won the war. How can dystopia work in such a situation? It needs a nightmarish world about whose reality there is no doubt-inside the novel, of course. In the fictional space of Nineteen Eighty-Four nobody can doubt that Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia are there: it is the dissidents like Winston Smith that do not exist, as Winston is told by Thought Police officer and Party ideologue O'Brian (Orwell 206). …

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