Philip K. Dick
A Scanner Darkly (1997)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
Fred, as he's known to his superiors in the police department, is an undercover narcotics officer. He reports to his superiors wearing a "scramble suit" that hides his identity. His assumed personality is Bob Arctor, a down-and-out drug dealer/user of the potential lethal (and psychologically damaging) drug Substance D. He lives in a ramshackle home with two roommates named Jim Barris and Ernie Luckman. Arctor/Fred also has a crush on a dealer named Donna, whom he thinks might lead him to one of the big time dealers for the source of Substance D is a mystery--even to the cops. The only problem is that Arctor/Fred has been using Substance D for some time, and one of its side-effects is the splitting of the users brain into two distinct personalities. Fred is just beginning to exhibit symptoms of this when his superiors, not realizing Fred is Arctor, assign Fred to begin narcing on Arctor. As Fred's brain deterioates, he "forgets" that he is, in fact, Arctor. The question is: will Fred discover the source of Substance D and/or withdraw from the case before the damage is permanent. SPOILER: Donna is actually an undercover agent who has been supplying Arctor with Substance D in "hopes" that he will be committed to one of the mysterious rehab centers, which are the suspected sources of Substance D. Arctor/Fred is committed, but is he too fried to be an effective mole? The answer is yes and no. To find out why, read the book.
Geographical Setting: Orange County, California
Time Period: 1994 (remember, at the time the book was written, this was 17 years in the future)
Though it failed to win any awards when published, A Scanner Darkly is considered to perhaps be PKD's best novel (it was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award). Written shortly after Dick himself cleaned up after a decade and a half of drug addiction (primarily speed), the tale is a somewhat humorous, sometimes depressing semi-autobiographical examination of the mid-70s drug scene. Paranoia and cyclical (and nonsensical) drug-speak provide a backdrop for PKD's examination of drug culture. The characters are leant an authenticity because Dick actually bases them on individuals he knew during the early 70s (as is pointed out in the Author's Note). Unlike many of Dick's early novels and short stories, A Scanner Darkly is more philosophical and much less cinematic. Still, the trademark stamps of the PKD canon (i.e. a sense of dark humor and paranoid protagonists struggling to define what is real and what is "imaginary") are firmly in place. This is PKD at the top of his form. It's popularity is sure to benefit from the 2006 release of Richard Linklater's film adaptation of the film starring Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr.
Read-alikes: If you become enamoured of PKD after this title, try more of his works. The novels Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (about a powerful television personality who loses his identity and whom society suddenly has no record of) and Ubik (about a group of precognitives who are or aren't killed in an explosion orchestrated or not by a rival company) are excellent starting points. In addition, many of his short stories are fabulous and have been collected into the four-volume The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick. If you're looking for other science fiction dealing with drug use and abuse, try PKD's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (the drugs this time are Can-D and Chew-Z), Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone (2000) about a government employee who tests new psychotropics on himself and becomes involved ina plot to sabotage a presidential campaign, or Barry Malzberg's Campbell Award winning Beyond Apollo (1972) about the sole survivor of the first manned mission to Venus. Also consider the Emmanuel Carrere biography of Philip K. Dick I Am Alive and You Are Dead (2003), which provides the real-life backstory of PKDs involvement with drugs and his subsequent paranoid episodes.
Red Flags: drug use, sexual situations, language
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep chronicles a day in the life of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter with the San Francisco Police Department, in post-apocalyptic 1992. World War Terminus has rendered the Earth virtually unlivable. Most humans have migrated to colonies on Mars, but not just anyone is allowed to leave. Some humans chose to remain on Earth despite the harmful after-effects of the war rather than face the prospect of colonization. Other humans, known in the book as chickenheads or antheads, have suffered adverse effects from radiation dust and are legally barred from emigrating off-world. Life in the colonies is not without its hardships, so the use of androids as slave labor has become widely accepted. As androids became increasingly sophisticated over time, they reached the point where they became indistinguishable from humans without the aid of special tests and instruments. Sometimes, androids escape the colonies and travel to Earth, and it's the job of bounty hunters to kill, "retire", them. Deckard is assigned the task of retiring 6 of the most highly advanced type of androids after a more senior bounty hunter is seriously injured while working the case. As the day progresses, Deckard encounters a number of characters and situations which cause him to question his job and humanity. SPOILER: Deckard manages to survive the task of finishing off all of the androids, but does not escape the ordeal unscathed. By the end of the book, he has certainly lost touch with the man he was when he accepted the assignment and seems to have gone slightly mad.
Geographical Setting: San Francisco, California
Time Period: January 3, 1992 (Alternate Future)
One of the best things about the book is that it's relatively short and never seems to drag in pace. Quite a bit happens in just over 200 pages. Dick's style of writing is unique, and his stories all have a certain feel to them that is difficult to explain but easy to recognize. Dick's books have a good balance between dialogue and descriptions of actions. Another feature is that they usually contain many interesting, and often playful, concepts. Examples from this book include a catalog listing the prices of every animal known to man, lead codpieces that protect against radiation dust, and a "Penfield Mood Organ" which can be used to generate a wide range of emotions in the user. Not all of the ideas are essential elements of the story, but they go a long way to adding depth to the narrative. Many of the characters in the story are well-developed and fun to read about. None of them lead particularly enjoyable lives, but they tend to maintain a hopeful attitude in the face of difficult situations until the end of the novel. The book deals with some relatively heavy philosophical issues, although it's possible to read the book without examining them in-depth. One of the main themes of the book revolves around the hierarchies that exist within and between species. Anything natural is given greater value than anything artificial. Real animals are a highly valuable commodity, while artificial, erstaz, animals are about as valuable as artificial diamonds are today. Humans are considered superior to androids, even though the Nexus-6 series androids are vastly more intelligent and capable than the genetically deficient chickenheads and antheads and even some normal humans. Another main theme of the book the is question of what distinguishes humans from other life forms. It's suggested that empathy, represented in the book by Mercerism, is one of the traits. Deckard begins to question his humanity as the story continues because he comes to believe that retiring androids is an inhuman thing to do. An important note for fans of the film adaptation, Blade Runner, is that the novel is very different in terms of tone, storyline, and even characterization.
Read-alikes: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a deeply philosophical/psychological sci-fi novel that would appeal to readers who enjoyed the more esoteric aspects of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In an dystopian alternate future, humans are cloned and raised for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs. Like some of the characters in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, many of Ishiguro's characters struggle to understand what their purpose in life is. Ishiguro's novel is not pure science fiction, but does address many of the same questions relating to what differentiates humans from other life forms. Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human by K.W. Jeter is a follow-up to both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner. Because the book and it's film adaptation are very different, some reviewers have commented that the book seems convoluted at times. Despite these criticisms, this book should satisfy fans of the book and the movie who just couldn't stand to not know what happened to Deckard, Rachel, and the other characters who survived the original stories or wish to revisit the world Dick created. Although the book has its critics, many reviews praised Jeter's writing ability and suggested that fans of either story would be satisfied. Jeter went on to write three more follow-ups. Readers who enjoyed themes related to the interplay between androids and humans and an exploration of what it means to be human would probably also enjoy Looking for the Madhi by N. Lee Wood. Although the plot of the book is much different, readers who enjoyed the more philosophical aspects of Dick's novel will probably like this book as well. In addition to the themes listed above, the novel also manages to fuse religion and technology, another major theme of Dick's book. The Caves of Steel is remarkably similar to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in terms of plot and themes. The story revolves around a police detective who, like Deckard, tries to protect humans from artificial life forms, this time, robots. The book also deals with a number of similar themes, including: the relationship between natural and artificial life, human reliance on robotic slave labor, a ruined environment, crime and punishment, and hierarchies between species. The Humanoids by Jack Williamson is an older sci-fi novel that also deals with humanity's struggle against creatures of their own creation on a dystopian and devastated Earth. In this book, a team of heroes struggles to restore freedom to humanity against a race of mechanical men whose superior intelligence informs them that the best way to protect humans is to deny them freedom. Like the androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the mechanical men in this book are, in many ways, superior to human beings but lack the emotions and values that make humans special.
Red Flags: Violence, Mild Sexual Situations, Insect Mutilation
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
Imagine waking up and realizing that you no longer exist: no legal documentation; no personal identification; no recognition by friends, lovers, or colleagues. All you have is your own memory, the clothes on your back, and a wad of money in your pocket. This is what happens to the Hollywood star, Jason Taverner, on October 12, 1988. However, the United States where Jason resides is a police state and you must have proper identification cards to get through random checkpoints. Without the appropriate identification, you will be sent off to a forced labor camp with students and other dissenters. Jason is also unique in that he is classified as a
six, meaning he is sixth in a line of DNA restoration systems. Sixes are rare and often feared because of their unique, powerful nature that causes them to stand out from other members of the human race. Jason attempts to start making sense out of his situation, but with each attempt he becomes more confused and unable to discern reality. No one is to be trusted. The police apprehend him several times and eventually Jason comes face to face with Police General Felix Buckman. Jasonís interaction with Buckman results in his introduction to Buckmanís sister, Alys, a pill-popping fetishist. Alys and Jason embark on a supposed mescaline trip together and this leads Jason back to the life he once knew or more appropriately, back to the life where he was known.
Geographical Setting: Los Angeles, California and Las Vegas, Nevada
Time Period: 1988
This John W. Campbell Award Winner alternates between being plot-driven and character-driven. Throughout much of the novel, Jason is at risk of being caught by the police and this sense of desperation and fear compelled me to keep turning the page. Along with the fact that I had no idea if Jason was really experiencing a true or false reality. There is strong primary and secondary character development. Dick also explores the psychological aspects of the characters in this novel in relation to identity, sexuality, and death. The setting is secondary to the characters and the story could have taken place anywhere in the United States. Interesting technological innovations exist. People drive quibbles, fancy hovercrafts, instead of automobiles. Drugs (both real and imagined) also factor prominently into the novel and are the ultimate cause of Jasonís alternate reality.
Read-alikes: Dick also wrote three other novels where drugs figure prominently, Now Wait for Last Year, A Scanner Darkly, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Other titles to consider are William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash are harbingers of the cyberpunk craze and owe much to the groundbreaking work of PKD. Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would make another excellent readalike as it the netherworld of human psychology. If you are interested in reading more novels that delve heavily into the psychological realm, you might try Slow River by Nicola Griffith and Solitaire by Kelly Eskridge.
Red Flags: Mild profanity; incestuous relationship; mild references to sex, but no graphic descriptions; mild references to violence and punishment; discussion of lesbian relationship; and infidelity.
The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical)
The Japanese and Germans have won World WarII. The Russians did not turn back the Germans at Stalingrad and the Americans waited too long to enter the conflict. Germany harnessed Atomic weaponry and have since wiped out all of Africa, drained the Mediterranean Sea for farming purposes, and conquered most of the planets. The Axis powers have split the world in two. Even the United States are split and governed by the two powers; The Nazis have the East coast and the Japanese rule the West coast. Much of this novel takes place in San Francisco, where Frank Fink, a Jewish American and his partner set up a jewelry shop, creating authentic American Jewelry for the Japanese to purchase. Fink's wife is a mentally unstable waitress living in Colorado, a state that has retained some autonomy from the Axis powers. Juliana Fink takes up with a trucker at her restaurant and is introduced to the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a speculative book about what the world would have been like if the Allied powers had won the war. Juliana and the trucker make plans to meet the author of this book...a man who lives in a high castle in the mountains. Not long after meeting this trucker, Juliana realizes that the trucker is actually a German assasin who is on a mission to kill the revolutionary author. Robert Childan is an art store owner, who has recently been discovered as selling pieces that claim to be antiques, but are just well-done fakes. Mr. Tagomi, one of Childan's clients, is a Japanese government official living in San Francisco looking for the perfect gift for an important spy from across seas to reveal the Nazis next move. SPOILER: Tagomi is able to find out from the spy that Germany plans on nuclear bombing Japan's Home Islands to oblivion. Disaster is narrowly avoided as new leadership is sought for Germany. Tagomi,however, takes his own life. Childan goes on with his business with an obsessive Nordic-Superiority complex. Frank Fink continues creating his curious little art pieces and jewelry. Lastly, Juliana Fink slashes the assasin's throat in a luxurious hotel room and goes to see the Author and through their confrontation, realize that the America actually won the war and "the man in the high castle" has been living a lie.
Geographical Setting: San Francisco, and Colorado.
Time Period: 1962
Dick's The Man in the High Castle is a somewhat murky, complex story of confusion told through the lives of ordinary Americans. The author's writing style can be hard to read with many sentence fragments (or "though fragments") and unintelligible actions. Characters are uncovered mainly through their internal thoughts and actions and are not given very much backstory or introduction. However, readers are quick to empathize with the characters, as even the occupying Nazi officials are presented with unquestionable humanity. Each character has their own struggle with identity and morals and a constant sense of worry, uneasiness, and paranoia exists throughout the book. Another theme (exemplified by the mere premise of the book) is the question of what is real and whether objects contain any special meaning in and of themselves. The storyline is not linear but follows several parallel subplots, often deliberately omitting important, anticipated scenes and confrontations, letting the reader imagine what happened after the fact. Pacing is steady and moderate with some skips in time as previously mentioned.
Read-alikes: Those interested in reading more of Philip K. Dick, might try another Sci-Fi award winner (The John W. Campbell Award) by the author, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. It's a novel about a man who wakes up and finds that he does not exist. This novel would appeal to the reader who enjoys the thought of seeing a future if they didn't exist. Readers should also look at some of Philip K. Dick's other works, especially Ubik and Valis, which both deal with disorienting realities and ambiguous meanings in an often confusing world. Those who enjoy Alternative History (a major appeal element of the book reviewed) will look towards Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which is set 20 years earlier thanThe Man in the High Castle and Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five examines the issues of history and fate, challenging readers to consider what can be changed and what cannot. Many characters in The Man in the High Castle regularly consult the "I Ching", an ancient Chinese fortune-telling method, to help guide them in life. Their interpretations of omens are often the decisive factor. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a futuristic but equally haunting vision of the world. The main character, a book-burning fireman, has a change of heart as he discovers the world is not as it seems and becomes an underground book lover. Alternate history fans should definitely read the Days of Infamy series by "alternate history master" Harry Turtledove. The series imagines what would have happened if the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor after the December 1941 bombings. Turtledove also presents multiple characters with interweaving stories who struggle with their sense of identity, such as Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii during the invasion. Jack Womack's Ambient will appeal to those readers who are drawn to the dark, greedy, and sinister dystopias described by Philip K. Dick. One final suggestion: Robert Harris' Fatherland (1992), which examines a conspiracy that could undermine the Nazi regime...20 years after their WWII victory. Another read-alike is a collection of short stories that examine the topic of a Nazi victory. Benford Hitler Victorious would be ideal for a reluctant reader to cross from historical fiction to science fiction. They would also work for a reader who does not have the time to devote to a whole novel, but is still looking for something to read. Finally, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is another alternate history, this time much more epic in scale, examining the results of a much more devastating plague in 14th Century Europe which would have led to the rise and eventual dominance of Eastern powers and philosophy. It is highly realistic, much like Philip K. Dick's writing, and a limited number of recurring characters who are reincarnated in different eras of the book.
Red Flags: There are a few violent scenes and a scant amount of sex.