Friday, June 01, 2007

Philip K Dick Top Five
The first thing that you have to accept about Philip K Dick's work is that a lot of it isn't that well written. Dick was, at his best, a superb prose stylist. Unfortunately, he was also a speed-freak with persistent financial problems. Consequently, he tended to work pretty quickly and a lot of the resulting prose is pretty slap-dash.

Still, reading PKD is a lot like listening to The Fall. In either case, anyone who really wants to understand what the work is about can't just dip into the more (ahem) conventionally well-realized work. You really have to get the complete picture to get any picture at all.

So, just because the following PKD primer largely concentrates on the widely-recognized "good" novels, don't think I'll let you get away with holding forth on the the subject of Philip K Dick if you haven't suffered through the shoddier chapters of The Crack in Space and Solar Lottery.

1. A Scanner Darkly (1977)
Dick’s best-written novel is also his funniest, his most moving and quite possibly his most thought-provoking. All of the key themes are here and it all holds together uncommonly well. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll ask difficult questions about the nature of being.

2. Valis (1981)
Towards the end of his life, Dick started to receive important theological information via telepathic transmissions from an alien satellite. He probably believed that this experience represented nothing more than the onset of drug-induced schizophrenia. Nevertheless, he set about the task of obsessively documenting the data provided. Some of the results emerged in two novels, of which Valis is by far the best (Radio Free Albemuth being the other). Valis is a surprisingly sardonic semi-autobiographical caper and punk Gnosticism of the highest order.

3. Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974)
Dick’s most romantic novel is also one of his most fucked up. I’ve already talked about the theme of empathy in Dick’s work but – to summarize – he seemed to think it was vital that people should be able to feel empathy for anyone and anything. Flow My Tears… pushes this point way out there, making the reader complicit in a police state official's incestuous “marriage” to his sister. Audacious and moving.

4. The Man in the High Castle (1962)
PKD was insanely productive during the sixties. Somewhere amid the general typing frenzy he found time to craft this astonishingly well-realized alternative history thriller. The Man in the High Castle features some extremely gripping sequences but most of the action is internal. Dick conjectures that to experience evil as a real, tangible presence (in this case, manifested as Nazism) is the most terrifying thing of all.

5. The Zap Gun
Underrated! Dick was an extremely talented but tragically underutilized humorist. The Zap Gun, Dick’s satirical take on the arms race is probably his most straightforwardly funny book. Still, it’s nowhere near as goofy as the vintage cover reproduced here might suggest and it has just as much emotional and philosophical gravitas as anything PKD wrote. Enough to push The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (which some consider Dick’s masterwork) out of this top five, in fact.


barbara said...

Reading A Scanner Darkly right now. Wow wow wow. It's refreshing after months of brain-melting theory (and full of lots of good meta-commentary on melting brains!)

Biggie Samuels said...

Glad you like it.

I'm currently reading "Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick" by Lawrence Sutin.

Sutin picks 11 PKD books that he regards as the classics, about four of which I haven't read yet (although I've bought two of them). Looks like I've got some more reading to do.

kek-w said...

"Still, reading PKD is a lot like listening to The Fall."....or vice versa! LOL!

Biggie Samuels said...

Of course, this was how this all got started - the similarities between MES and PKD: the tendency to produce ragged work very quickly, the visionary borderline madness, the tendency to be liberal with the truth, the multiple marriages, the love of cats, the list goes on...

allmyvinyl said...

I'd have to admit to being one of those who consider The Three Stigmata... to be one of the best. Having said that, I've not read The Zap Gun, so I'll just have to get a copy and find out. Surprised you didn't put a short story collection in though...

Came across your site whilst researching the Autopieses album you bought last year. Nice work!

Biggie Samuels said...

If you like Ubik (which I only just got around to reading), then I think you'll like The Zap Gun.

Believe it or not, I haven't actually read that many of the short stories but I do intend to investigate more.

Anyway, I dare say I'll be reading more PKD over the coming months and the chances are that I'll post an updated version of this list at some point in the future.