P. K. Dick as an Idea Writer

The other day I happened to be looking for the exact text of a recurring phrase from Ubik. I stumbled across a Metafilter thread about some P. K. Dick speeches and essays that very quickly settled into the usual dichotomy of Dick discussions: On the one side, "he was a crappy stylist who wrote the same story over and over again, and besides he was insane"; on the other "he was a visionary mystic who looked at the same issue a myriad of ways, and besides, what does 'insane' really mean, anyway?"

Recurring again and again was this notion that Dick was not an "idea writer": Not someone who thinks up new cool gadgets or really extrapolates where things are going. Visionary, yes, but not about society or technology.

I personally think people who dismiss Dick as a writer are missing out. But I also think that people who focus on him as a mystic are seriously missing out. I used to look at the Technovelgy newsfeed as often as I could find the time -- it's a great place to trace back new technology to the treatment SF writers gave to it when they first described it, usually 50 or more years ago. And one thing that I noticed quickly was that Phillip K. Dick stories seemed to be cited more than those of any other writer.*

Here are a few examples, off the top of my head and with some help from Technovelgy:

  • Ubicomp (Ubik in a particularly annoying form, but all over the place in his work).
  • Smart-missiles (The Zap Gun, and many other places).
  • "Electric" pets (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
  • Personalized newspapers ("homeopapes") (Ubik and elsewhere).
  • Insect-sized spy robots/cyborgs (Lies, Inc. and others).
  • Insect-sized advertising robots/cyborgs (The Simulacra).
  • Customized presentation of advertising in general (all over the place, it was one of his memes)
  • Doors, weapons, etc. that are keyed to "cephalic patterns": They recognize you by recognizing the thing about you that is most uniquely you, your thoughts. (Lots of stories.)

Some themes emerge: Most notably for me is that he re-uses things relentlessly. It could be to save effort; more likely, it's because he's still exploring the idea and wants to put it into different situations. Note how he uses the fly as a spy in one setting, and as an advertising delivery vector (a meme-infection vector?) in another. Those aren't just different uses, they're diametrically opposed in one aspect; seeing them both here forces you to understand what they have in common: The idea of sneaking something up on you, whether it be for the purpose of theft (the spy-fly) or infection (the ad-fly).

So for my money, Dick is probably one of the better idea-writers to have worked in SF. I don't see this as separate from his mysticism (or paranoia). Some of these ideas (like the concept of being recognized by something and presented with a pitch that's specifically tailored to you) seem like attempts by technology to mimic a god -- or perhaps (and you have to think this would enter Dick's head, knowing Dick) intrusions of God into the machine. (In terms of his later thought, it might be the Demiurge revealing himself in moments of everyday life.)

*Please, don't go and count, this is just an impression, not science.

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