Science Fiction Studies

# 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975

Darko Suvin

P.K. Dick's Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View (Introductory Reflections)

I would divide Dick's writing1 into three main periods: 1952-62, 1962-65, and 1966-74. The first period is one of apprenticeship and limning of his themes and devices, first in short or longer stories (1952-56) and then in his early novels from Solar Lottery to Vulcan's Hammer (1955-60), and it culminates in the masterly polyphony of The Man in the High Castle (1962). Dick's second, central period stands out to my mind as a high plateau in his opus. Following on his creative breakthrough in MHC, it comprises (together with some less successful tries) the masterpieces of Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney, as well as that flawed but powerful near-masterpiece The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The latest phase of Dick's writing, beginning in 1966, is in many ways a falling off. It is characterized by a turning from a fruitful tension between public and private concerns toward a simplified narration increasingly preoccupied with solitary anxieties and by a corresponding concern with unexplainable ontological puzzles; and it has clearly led to the creative sterility of 1970-74 (We Can Build You, though published in 1972, had appeared in magazine version by 1970). However, Ubik (1969), the richest and most provocative novel of this phase, testifies to the necessity for a closer analysis of even this downbeat period of Dick's. Thus, an overview of his opus can, I trust, find a certain logic in its development, but it is not a mechanical or linear logic. Dick's work, intimately influenced by and participating in the great processes of the American collective or social psychology in these last 20 years, shares the hesitations, the often irrational though always understandable leaps backwards, forwards and sideways of that psychology. It is perhaps most understandable as the work of a prose poet whose basic tools are not verse lines and poetic figures but (1) relationships within the narrative; (2) various alternate worlds, the specific political and ontological relationships in each of which are analogous to the USA (or simply to California) in the 1950's and 60's; and (3)—last not least—the vivid characters on whom his narration and his worlds finally repose. In this essay, I propose to deal with these three areas of Dick's creativity: some basic relationships in Dick's story-telling—a notion richer than though connected with, the plotting—will be explored by an analysis of narrative foci and power levels; Dick's alternate worlds will be explored in function of his increasing shift from mostly political to mostly ontological horizons; finally, Dick's allegorically exaggerated characters will be explored in their own right as fundaments for the morality and cognition in his novels.


Amazing the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke. —MHC §8.

In order to illuminate the development of Dick's story-telling, I shall follow his use of characters as narrative foci and as indicators of upper and lower social classes or power statuses. The concept of narrative focus seems necessary because Dick as a rule uses a narration which is neither that of the old-fashioned all-knowing, neutral and superior, narrator, nor a narration in the first person by the central characters. The narration proceeds instead somewhere in between those two extreme possibilities, simultaneously in the third person and from the vantage point of the central or focal character in a given segment. This is always clearly delimited from other segments with other focal characters—first, by means of chapter endings or at least by double spacing within a chapter, and second, by the focal character being named at the beginning of each such narrative segment, usually after a monotony-avoiding introductory sentence or subordinate clause which sets up the time and place of the new narrative segment. The focal character is also used as a visual, auditive, and psychological focus whose vantage point in fact colours and limits the subsequent narration. This permits the empathizing into—usually sympathizing with but always at least understanding—all the focal characters, be they villains or heroes in the underlying plot conflict; which is equivalent to saying that Dick has no black or white villains and heroes in the sense of Van Vogt (from whom the abstracted plot conflicts are often borrowed). In the collective, non-individualist world of Dick, everybody, high and low, destroyer and sufferer, is in an existential situation which largely determines his/her actions; even the arch-destroyer Palmer Eldritch is a sufferer.

The novels before 1962 are approximations to such a technique of multi-focal narrative. Its lower limit-case and primitive seed, the one-hero-at-the-center narrative, is to be found in Eye in the Sky and, with a half-hearted try at two subsidiary foci, in The Man Who Japed. Solar Lottery has two clear foci, Benteley and Cartwright, with insufficiently sustained strivings toward a polyphonic structure (Verrick, Wakeman, Groves). Similarly, though there are half a dozen narrative foci in Time Out of Joint, Ragle is clearly their privileged center; in fact, the whole universe of the book has been constructed only to impinge upon him, just as all universes impinged upon the protagonist of Eye in the Sky. Vulcan's Hammer is focused around the two bureaucrats Barris and Dill, with Marion coming a poor third; the important character of Father Fields does not become a narrative focus, as he logically should have, nor does the intelligent computer though he is similar, say, to the equally destructive and destroyed Arnie in MTS. However, in MHC there is to be found for the first time the full Dickian narrative articulation, surpassed only in MTS and Dr. B. With some simplifying of secondary characters and sub-plots, and taking into account the levels of social—here explicitly political—power, MHC divides into two parallel plots with these narrative foci (marked by caps, while other important characters are named in lower case):


The upper level is one of politico-ethical conflict between murderous Nazi fanaticism and Japanese tolerance (the assumption that a victorious Japanese fascism would be radically better than the German one is the major political blunder of Dick's novel). In (1), the San Francisco plot, the two sympathetic focal characters are Frank Frink, the suffering refugee Jew and creative little man, and Mr. Tagomi, the ethical Japanese official. In (2), the locomotive plot, the sole focal character is Juliana. Tagomi helps "Baynes" in trying to foil the global political scheme of Nazi universal domination, and incidentally also foils the extradition of Frink to the Nazis, while Juliana foils the Nazis' (Joe's) plot to assassinate Abendsen, the SF writer of a book postulating Axis defeat in World War 2; they both turn out to be, more by instinct than by design, antagonists of the fascist politico-psychological evil. But the passive link between them is Frink, Juliana's ex-husband, and his artistic creation, the silvery pin mediating between earth and sky, life and death, past and future, the MHC universe and the alternate universe of our empirical reality. Tagomi's reality-changing vision in §14, induced by contemplating Frink's pin, is a Dickian set scene which recreates, through an admittedly partial narrative viewpoint, the great utopian tradition that treats a return to the reader's freeways, smog, and jukebox civilization as a vision of hell—exactly as at the end of Gulliver's Travels, Looking Backward, or News From Nowhere. But it is also an analogue of the vision of Abendsen's book: the book and the pin come from chthonic depths but become mediators only after being shaped by the intellect, albeit an oracular and largely instinctive one. For Dick, a writer (especially an SF writer) is always first and foremost an "artificer," both in the sense of artful craftsman and in the sense of creator of new, "artificial" but nonetheless possible worlds. Frink and Abendsen, the two artificers—one the broodingly passive but (see the diagram) centrally situated narrative focus of the book, the other a shadowy but haunting figure appearing at its close—constitute with Tagomi and Juliana, the two instinctive ethical activists, the four pillars of hope opposed to the dominant political madness of Fascism. Though most clearly institutionalized in German Nazism, it can also be found in middle-class Americans such as Childan, the racist small shopkeeper oscillating between being a helper and a deceitful exploiter of creative artificers such as Frink.

The second or plateau period of Dick's opus retains and deepens the MHC narrative polyphony. It does so both by increasing the number of the narrative foci and by stressing some relationships among the focal characters as privileged, thereby making for easier overview with less redundancy and a stronger impact. The two culminations of such proceeding are MTS and Dr. B. In MTS, three of the focal characters stand out (underlined): 

Of the three privileged characters, the labour boss Arnie is powerful and sociable, the autistic boy Manfred politically powerless and asocial, while the central character, Jack Bohlen, mediates between the two not only in his sociopolitical status but also in his fits of and struggle against psychosis. However, Jack and Manfred, the time-binding precog and the manual craftsman, are allied against the tycoon Arnie. This is the first clear expression in Dick's opus of the alliance and yet also the split between Rousseauist personal freedom, realized in Manfred's final symbiosis with the totally asocial, noble-savage Bleekmen, and an ethical communal order, implied in Jack. The politically powerless turn the tables on the powerful—as did Juliana in MHC—by means of their greater sensitivity. This allows them a much deeper understanding of people and things, inner and outer nature (which they pay for by greater suffering). Therefore, the set-piece or obligatory situation in MTS is again a visionary scene involving Manfred, Jack and Arnie in several interdependent versions of nightmarish reality-change (§§10-11).

The oppositions are aggravated and therefore explored more fully in Dr. B, Dick's narratively most sophisticated work. Nine personal narrative foci are here, astoundingly, joined by two choral focal groups—the secondary characters who get killed during the narrative but help decisively in Hoppy's defeat, such as Fergesson, and the post-Bomb-community secondary characters, such as June. The double division in MTS (powerful/powerless plus personal freedom/ethical order) is here richly articulated into (1) the destructive dangers which are opposed to the new prospects of life and vitality, further subdivided into (2) the search for a balanced community, and (3) the search for personal happiness. Very interestingly, Dangerfield, the mediator of practical tips and past culture, provides the link between all those who oppose the destroyers. In this most optimistic of Dick's novels, Bloodmoney's Bomb was a Happy Fall: the collapse of American sociopolitical and technological power abolishes the class distinctions, and thus makes possible a new start and innocence leading to the defeat of the new, anti-utopian would-be usurpers by the complementary forces of a new communal and personal order. These forces are aptly symbolized by the homunculus Bill—perhaps Dick's most endearing character—who is both person and symbiotic creature:

In this light, the ideological movement of the book is complete when Bonny, the all-embracing Earth Mother figure, has forsaken the old danger, Bloodmoney, and when her son Bill—coeval with the innocence and power of the new order (much as his feebler prototype, Mrs. Grayles in A Canticle for Leibowitz)—has defeated the new danger, Hoppy. Professor Jameson identifies (in this issue) the new danger convincingly with a neo-pragmatic stance connected with modern electronics and the USA, just as the old danger was the classical mad scientist of the Dr. Strangelove type connected with nuclear physics and Germany. Jameson's essay, as well as the analyses of MTS by Mr. Aldiss and Professor Pagetti, make it possible to cut short here the discussion of narrative foci in these two masterpieces of Dick's. It only remains to notice that a Rousseauist utopianism cannot finally fuse personal happiness and harmonious community—at the utmost it can run them in tandem.


The disintegration of the social and economic system had been slow, gradual, and profound. It went so deep that people lost faith in natural law itself.—Solar Lottery §2.

There remains, in Dick's middle period, the important if ambiguous 3SPE, the discussion of which will require shifting the emphasis to what are for Dick the horizons of human destiny. 3SPE is the first significant Dick novel to allot equal weight to politics and ontology as arbiters of its microcosm and its characters' destinies. I shall deal first with politics.

Up to the mid-60's Dick could be characterized as a writer of anti-utopian SF in the wake of Orwell's 1984 and of the menacing world-war and post-Bomb horizons in the pulp "new maps of hell" by Bradbury, Heinlein, Blish and Pohl (to mention those who, together with Vanvogtian plotting and Besterian Espers, seem to have meant most to him). The horrors of Cold War politics, paranoiac militarism, mass hysteria organized by politicians, and encroaching government totalitarianism are broached in the stories of the mid-50's such as "Breakfast at Twilight," "War Veteran" or "Second Variety"; in one of the best, "Foster, You're Dead," the militarist craze for bomb-shelters is further seen as a tool for commercial twisting of the everyday life of little people. In Dick's early novels the dystopian framework is developed by adding to a look at the dominated humble people an equally inside look at the ruling circles—the telepaths and quizmasters in Solar Lottery, the secret police in "The Variable Man" and The World Jones Made, the mass-media persuaders in The Man Who Japed, the powerful bureaucrats in Vulcan's Hammer. Indeed, Eye in the Sky is the formalization of a literally "inside" look at four variants of dystopia, and carries the message that in the world of modern science we are all truly members of one another. Up to 3SPE, then, the novels by Dick which are not primarily dystopian (The Cosmic Puppets, Dr. Futurity, The Game-Players of Titan) are best forgotten. Obversely, political dystopia has remained a kind of zero-level for Dick's writing right to the present day (e.g. in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), at times even explicitly connecting the early stories to the later second-line novels by taking over a story's theme or situation and developing it into the novel's mainstay (e.g. "The Defenders" and The Penultimate Truth, or "Shell Game" and Clans of the Alphane Moon).

The culmination and transmutation of political horizons occurs in Dick's "plateau tetralogy," from MHC to Dr. B. MHC, with its superb feel of Nazi psychology and of life in a world of occupiers, occupied, and quislings overshadowed by it, is the high point of Dick's explicitly political anti-utopianism. Paradoxically if precariously balanced by ethical optimism, it is, because of that confident balance and richness, in some ways Dick's most lucid book. It is also the first culmination of the Germanic-paranoia-turning-fascist theme which has been haunting Dick as no other American SF writer (with the possible exception of Vonnegut) since "The Variable Man" with its Security Commissioner Reinhart, and the seminal Man Who Japed with its German-American Big Brother in the person of Major Jules Streiter, founder of the Moral Reclamation movement. The naming of this shadowy King Anti-Utopus is an excellent example for Dick's ideological onomastics: it compounds allusions to the names and doctrines of Moral Rearmament's Buchman, Social Credit's Major Douglas, and the fanatic Nazi racist Julius Streicher. The liberalism of even the seemingly most hard-nosed dystopian SF in the American 1940's-50's, with its illusions of Back to the Spirit of 1776, pales into insignificance beside Dick's pervasive, intimate and astoundingly rich understanding of the affinities between German and American fascism, born of the same social classes of big speculators and small shopkeepers. This understanding is embodied in a number of characters who span the death-lust spectrum between political and psychological threat. Beginning with the wholly American Childan (who is, correspondingly, a racist out of insecurity rather than fanaticism, and is allowed a positive conversion) and the German assassin Joe masquerading as an American in MHC, through Norbert Steiner and Otto Zitte as well as the vaguely Teutonic-American corrupt bigwigs Leo Bohlen and Arnie Kott in MTS, such a series culminates in Dr. Bruno Bluthgeld/Bloodmoney (descended from Von Braun, Teller, et sim., both through newspapers and through Kubrick's mad German scientist Dr. Strangelove). It finally leads to a German takeover of the Western world by means of their industries and androids in The Simulacra, and of the whole planet through the UN in The Unteleported Man. In this last novel, the revelation that UN boss Horst Bertold (whose name and final revelatory plea are derived from Bertolt Brecht, the anti-fascist German whose name would be most familiar to the music and drama lover Dick) is a "good" German, on the same side of the political fence as the hounded little man Rachmael ben Applebaum, effects a reconciliation of powerful German and powerless Jew.

These politico-national roles or clichés had started poles apart in MHC. But by the end of Dick's German-Nazi theme and cycle the year was 1966, and the sensitive author quite rightly recognized that the world, and in particular the USA, had other fish to fry: the ubiquitous fascist menace was no longer primarily German or anti-Jewish. Already in MTS, the lone German killers Steiner and Zitte were small fry compared to the Americans of Teutonic descent Leo and Arnie. In Dr. B, therefore, the Bluthgeld menace is supplanted by the deformed American obstinately associated with the product of Bluthgeld's fallout—the Ayn Rand follower and cripple Hoppy, wired literally up to his teeth into the newest electronic death-dealing gadgets. Clearly, Bluthgeld relates to Hoppy as the German-associated World  War 2 and Cold War technology of the 1940's and 50's to the Vietnam War technology of the 60's. It is the same relation as the one between the Nazi-treated superman Bulero and the reality manipulator Eldritch, and finally between the Krupps and Heydrichs of MHC and the military-industrial complex of American capitalism: "it was Washington that was dropping the bombs on [the American people], not the Chinese or the Russians" (Dr. B §5), The transformation or transubstantiation of classical European fascism into new American power is also the theme of two significant stories Dick wrote in the 60's, "If There Were no Benny Cemoli" (read—Benito Mussolini) and "Oh, To Be A Blobel" (where an American tycoon turns Alien while his humbler employee wife turns human). The third significant story, "What the Dead Men Say"—which stands halfway between 3SPE and Ubik—features half-life as a non-supernatural hoax by American economic and political totalitarians on the make.

By the MTS phase, Dick's little man is being opposed not only to political and technological but also to economic power in the person of the rival tycoons Leo (representing a classical big speculators' syndicate) and Arnie (whose capital comes from control of big trade-union funds), while on the horizon of both Terra and Mars there looms the big cooperative movement, whose capital comes from investments of members. In the corrupt microcosm of MTS these three variants of capitalism (classical laissez-faire, bureaucratic, and demagogically managerial), together with the state capitalism of the superstate UN disposing of entire planets, constitute what is almost a brief survey of its possible forms. The slogan of the big cooperative-capitalist movement, which Manfred sees crowning his horrible vision of planetary future in decay, is AM-WEB, explained in Dick's frequent record-jacket German as "Alle Menschen werden Brüder"—"All men become brothers" (from Schiller through Beethoven's Ninth). But of course this explanation is half true and half disingenuous—the proper acronym for the slogan would, after all, be AMWB with no "E" and no hyphen. Thus, within Dick's normative Germano-American parallelism, AM-WEB is also, and even primarily, an emblem of the ironic reversal of pretended liberty, fraternity, and equality—it is the American Web of big business, corrupt labour aristocracy, and big state that turn the difficult everyday life of the little man into a future nightmare. As Mr. Aldiss remarks in this issue, the whole of MTS—and beyond that, most of Dick—is a maledictory web. The economico-political spider spinning it is identified with a clarity scarcely known in American SF between Jack London's Oligarchy and Ursula Le Guin's Propertarians. The Rousseauist utopianism of Dr. B is an indication that the urge to escape this cursed web is so deep it would almost welcome an atomic holocaust as a chance to start anew: "We are, Adams realized, a cursed race. Genesis is right; there is a stigma on us, a mark" (The Penultimate Truth, §13).

The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the interplanetary industrialist who peddles dope to enslave the masses, are three signs of demonic artificiality. The prosthetic eyes, hands, and teeth, allow him—in a variant of the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood—to see (understand), grab (manipulate), and rend (ingest, consume) his victims better. Like the tycoon in "Oh, To Be a Blobel," this eldritch palmer or uncanny pilgrim towards the goal of universal market domination is clearly a "mad capitalist" (to coin a term parallel to mad scientist), a miraculous organizer of production wasted through absence of rational distribution (§1) who turned Alien on a power trip. But his peculiar terrifying force is that he turns his doped manipulees not only into a captive market (see Dick's early story of that title) but also into partial, stigmatized replicas of himself by working through their ethical and existential weaknesses. The Palmer Eldritch type of super-corporative capitalism is in fact a new religion, stronger and more pervasive than the classical transcendental ones, because "GOD PROMISES ETERNAL LIFE. WE CAN DELIVER IT," (§9). What it delivers, though, is not only a new thing under the Sun but also false, activating the bestial or alien inhumanity within man: "And—we have no mediating sacraments through which to protect ourselves.... It [the Eldritch Presence] is out in the open, ranging in every direction. It looks into our eyes; and it looks out of our eyes" (§13). Dick moves here along jungle trails first blazed by William S. Burroughs: for both, the hallucinatory operators are real.

The narrative structure of 3SPE combines multifocality with a privileged protagonist-antagonist (Mayerson-Eldritch) axis and with the division into power levels:

However, the erstwhile normal conflict between the upper and the lower social levels is here superseded by the appearance of a new-type antagonist, Eldritch, who snares not only the little people—Mayerson and other Mars colonists—but also the established power of Bulero, and indeed subverts the whole notion of monadic, Individualistic characters of the 19th Century kind upon which Dick's, like most other, SF had so far reposed. The appearance of Eldritch, signalized by his stigmata, inside the other characters shifts the conflict into their psyches—can they trust their reality perceptions? The political theme and horizon begin here to give way to the ontological. While the ontological dilemmas have a clear genesis in the political ones, they shift the power relationships from human institutions to mysterious entities, never quite accounted for or understood in the narration. 3SPE is thus that first significant station in Dick's development where the ontological preoccupations begin to weigh as heavily as, or more heavily than, the political dystopianism.

Such preoccupations can, no doubt, be found in Dick's writing right from the beginning. "Foster, You're Dead," the story of a boy alienated by conformist social pressures, is already halfway between Pohl's satires (it was published by Pohl in Star SF 3) and the suffering alienated boy Manfred in MTS who erects an alternative reality as refuge, and can serve as a key to Dick's theme of mental alienation connected with reality changes. Parallel to that, "Adjustment Team" is a first tentative try at evolving the "Tunnel Under the World" situation of total manipulation—also the kernel of 3SPE—toward metaphysics. The mysterious failure of memory, or missing interval of consciousness accompanied by headache, which is a sign of dissolving realities and is often found in combination with drug-taking, recurs from The Man Who Japed through MTS to 3SPE. Tagomi's great vision in MHC and Manfred's AM-WEB vision in MTS can already be interpreted not only as trance-like insights but also as actual changes in collective reality. These are changes in being (ontological, as already in Eye in the Sky) rather than only in foreknowledge (gnoseological, as in The World Jones Made) or, even more simply, fraudulent-cum-psychotic ones (as in Time Out of Joint). Indeed, the story-telling microcosms, the depicted planetary realities of both MHC and MTS, are analogies for reality changes immanent in the author's here-and-now and already showing through it, like Eldritch's stigmata. MHC is an alternative world explicating a California, USA, and globe fallen prey to fascism. MTS substitutes the more general physical category of entropy for its political particular case; Dick's Mars is a run-down future, "a sort of Humpty-Dumpty" where people and things have decayed "into rusty bits and useless debris" (§6), a space and time leading—in ironic repudiation of Bradbury's nostalgia for the petty-bourgeois past and Clarke's confidence in liberal scientism—to the dialectical interplay between Manfred's devolutionary vision of "gubble" (rubble, rubbish, crumble, gobble) invading everybody's reality and vitality and Jack's struggle against it. The totalitarian manipulation and the entropic human relations are to be found in 3SPE together with and flowing into a false, profit-making religion.

However, the shift from politics to ontology, which was only hinted at in MHC and will culminate in Ubik, is in 3SPE not consistent. The referents of this lush novel are over-determined: Eldritch, the allegorical representative of neo-capitalism, is at the same time the bearer of an "evil, negative trinity of alienation, blurred reality and despair" (§13) of demonic though unclear origin. An orthodox religious and an orthodox politico-economic reading of 3SPE can both be fully supported by the evidence of the novel; but neither of these complementary and yet in some ways basically contradictory readings can explain the full novel—which is to boot overburdened with quite unnecessary elements such as Mayerson's precog faculties, the garden-variety theological speculations, etc. Politics, physics and metaphysics combine to create in 3SPE a fascinating and iridescent manifold, but their interference also, to my mind, makes for an insufficiently economical novel. It starts squarely within the political and physical field (clash of big drug corporations, temperature rise, colonization of Mars) and then drags across it the red herring of ontologico-religious speculations grafted upon Vanvogtian plot gimmicks (here, from Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump, 1955) which shelve rather than solve the thematic problems.


We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. —MHC §15.

In Dick's anthropology, the differentiation between upper and lower politico-economic power statuses is correlative to a system of correspondences between profession, as relating to a specific type of creativity, and ethical goodness or evil. This reposes on a more general view of human nature and species-specific human conduct, for which morality and cognition are closely allied, and which will be discussed in this section. Such an alliance breaks down in Ubik; this is to my mind the explanation of Dick's difficulties after 1966.

From Dick's earliest writings, aggressiveness is identified not only with militarism but also with commercialism (as in "Nanny"), and villainy with either totalitarian or capitalist rulers (as in "A Present for Pat," and in the stories of the 60's mentioned in section 2). Opposed to the unscrupulous tycoons and other bigwigs (Verrick in Solar Lottery, the terrifying roster of Führer candidates in MHC, Leo Bohlen and Arnie Kott in MTS, Leo Bulero and Palmer Eldritch in 3SPE, the Yancy Men in The Penultimate Truth, etc.) are the little people. The two ends of the politico-economic and power scale relate as "havenots" to "titans" (The Unteleported Man §4), but also as creators to destroyers. For, Dick's protagonists are as a rule some variant of immediate producer or direct creator. They are not industrial workers engaged in collective production—a class conspicuous by its absence here as in practically all modern SF. On the contrary, Dick's heroes are most often the new individual craftsmen, producers of art objects or repairmen of the most sophisticated (e.g. cybernetic) Second-Industrial-Revolution products. They are updated versions of the old-fashioned handyman (who is celebrated in the "Fixit-cart," non-statistical, unquantifiable, "variable man" of the eponymous story) for a contemporary, or near-future, highly industrialized society; and their main trait is a direct and personalized relationship to creative productivity as opposed to standardized mass-production with its concomitant other-directedness, loss of self-reliance, and shoddy living (a key to this is to be found in the story "Pay for the Printer," a finger-exercise for Dr. B). This characterology is not yet quite clear in the earlier novels, which deal more with the Ibsenian theme of social deceit versus individual struggle for truth than with the theme of destruction vs. creation. Of Solar Lottery's two heroes one, Benteley, is a classical "cadre," a biochemist, and only the other, Cartwirght, is "electronics repairman and human being with a conscience" (§2). Similarly, the hero of Eye in the Sky turns only at the end of the book from chief of missile lab to builder of phonographs, switching from Dick's chief dislike, militarism, to his chief love, music. But already in his early works there appears a populist or indeed New Left tendency to distrust rational intelligence, contaminated as it is by its association with "the cult of the by and for those oriented around verbal knowledge" (Vulcan's Hammer §14), and to oppose to it spontaneous action guided by intuition—a politics of the "do your own thing" type. Thus, in Time Out of Joint, Ragle is a creative personality who dislikes the nine-to-five drudgery of the huge conformist organizations, regimented like armies (§1), and who can "sense the pattern" of events through his artistic abilities (§14). Though the traces of this dichotomy can be felt even in the MHC heroes Tagomi and Frink—who are juxtaposed as mind and hand, intellectual visionary from the upper power level and intuitive creator from the powerless depths—it is fortunately absent from his most mature creations, the "plateau masterpieces" in which his ethico-professional pattern of characters emerges most clearly. In MTS, Steiner and Zitte are small speculators who exploit the work of others, just as the small shopkeeper Childan in MHC exploited the creativity of the artificer Jew-Gentile pair, Frink and McCarthy; like him, Steiner and Zitte are unable to face reality and so resort to sexual fantasies alternating with suicidal/homicidal moods. At the other end of the power scale, Arnie fuses the financial role of big speculator, represented in pure form by Leo, with Zitte's role of sexual exploiter.

This quasi-robotic role of a sexually efficient but emotionally uncommitted macho, for Dick an ethical equivalent of economic exploitation, is to be found in his negative characters from the android of "Second Variety" to such "titans" as Verrick in Solar Lottery or Arnie in MTS who use their female employees and mistresses as pawns in power manoeuvers. Opposed to them are the sincere little people, here the repairman Jack Bohlen, who fight their way through the sexual as well as the economic jungle step by laborious step. In 3SPE, the character spread runs from the capitalist destroyer Eldritch to the suffering artist-creator Emily; and the central hero Mayerson's fall from grace begins by his leaving Emily for success's sake and is consummated when he refuses her creations for personal revenge, thus becoming an impediment to human creativity and falling into the clutches of Eldritch's false creations. Emily's husband Hnatt is midway between her and Mayerson: he is her co-worker, the vendor of her products, but his ambiguous position in the productive process finally brings about her creative regression in the novel's rather underdeveloped sub-plot of false creativity through forced intellectual evolution (this sub-plot is carried by Bulero, the old-fashioned tycoon). Similarly, in The Penultimate Truth the weak and less sympathetic characters are the wordsmiths who have forsaken personal creativity to be abused for the purposes of a regressive political apparatus (Lindblom). This novel divides into two plots, the ruling-class and the subterranean one. The first centers, alas, around a Vanvogtian immortal and the intrigue from The House That Stood Still (1950), marring one of Dick's potentially most interesting books. For the hero of the other plot, Nick, is the democratically elected president of an oppressed community, whose creativity is manifested by political persistence in securing the rights of an endangered member. Thus, Dick's concept of creativity, though it centers on artists, encompasses both erotical and political creative ethics.

Beside the professional roles, Dick has three basic female roles, also clearly present in 3SPE as Roni, Emily, and Anne around Mayerson. The first role is that of castrating bitch, a female macho, striving to rise in the corporative power-world (also Kathy in Now Wait for Last Year, Pris in We Can Build You, etc.); the second that of weak but stabilizing influence (also Silvia in MTS, etc.); and the third, crowning one, that of a strong but warm sustaining force. Although Dick's female characters seem less fully developed than his male ones, such an Earth Mother becomes the final embodiment of ethical and political rightness in his most hopeful novels, MHC and Dr. B (Juliana and Bonny); conversely, the Bitch is developed with increasing fascination in his third phase.

As suggested above, the totally unethical and therefore inhuman person is often an android, what Dick, with a stress on its counterfeiting and artificial aspect, calls a simulacrum (see his very instructive Vancouver speech in SF Commentary #31). Already in his first novel, this is associated with modern science being manipulated by power-mad people, who are themselves the truly reified inhumans and therefore in a way more unauthentic than their simulacra. An interesting central anthropological tenet is adumbrated here, halfway between Rousseau and Marx, according to which there is an authentic core identical with humanity in Homo sapiens, from which men and women have to be alienated by civilizational pressures in order to behave in an unauthentic, dehumanized way, so that there is always an inner resistance to such pressures in anybody who simply follows his or her human instinct of treating people as ends, not means. That is why Dick's heroes rely on instinct and persistence (several of them, such as Jack in MTS or Nick in The Penultimate Truth are characterized as permanently "going to keep trying"). That is why social class is both a functionally decisive and yet not an exclusive criterion for determining the humanity of the characters: the more powerful one is, the more dehumanized one becomes, and Dick's only real heroes tend to be the creative little people, with the addition of an occasional visionary; yet even the literally dehumanized alien such as Eldritch has inextinguishable remnants of humanity within him which qualify him for suffering, and thus for the reader's partial, dialectical sympathy for his (now alienated) human potentialities. That is why, finally, there emerges the strange and charmingly grotesque Dickian world of semi-animated cybernetic constructs, which makes stretches of even his weaker novels enjoyable light reading: e.g. the fly-size shrilling commercial and the hypnotic surrogate-"papoola" of The Simulacra, the Lazy Brown Dog reject carts in Now Wait for Last Year, the stupid elevators and grumpy cybernetic taxis such as Max the auto-auto in The Game-Players of Titan, etc. Together with a few interesting aliens, the all-too-human inhumans culminate in the menace of 3SPE and in Dick's richest spectrum of creatures in Dr. B, which runs from the stigmatic psi-powers of Bluthgeld and cyborg booster-devices of Hoppy to the zany and appealing new life-cycle of homeostatic traps and evolved animals. At the center of Dr. B is the homunculus Bill, who is in touch with humans, animals and even the dead, and unites the kinaesthetic and verbal powers in the universe of that novel.

I have left Ubik for the end of this discussion both because it seems to me Dick's last major work to date and because in it the analogies between morality and cognition suffer a sea-change. The Dickian narrative model, as discussed in this essay, is in Ubik extremely simplified and then recomplicated by being twisted into a new shape. The character types remain the same and thus link the new model with Dick's earlier work: the bitch Pat, the redeemer Ella, the bewildered old-fashioned tycoon Runciter, the shadowy illusion creator Jory, losing in precision but gaining in domination in comparison to Eldritch, and, most important, the buffeted but persistent schlemiel Joe Chip. But the shift from social to ontological horizons around the axis connecting the two main narrative foci of Runciter and Chip results in a world without stable centers or peripheries, where the main problem is to find out who is inside and who outside the unstable circles of narrative consciousness, liable to an infinite receding series of contaminations from other—often only guessed at—such centers. The characterological equivalent of this uncertainty is the half-life, a loss of sovereignty over one's microcosm. After the explosion on the Moon, is Chip, or Runciter, or neither, or both in that state? The most all-embracing explanation would be that both are in the moratorium with different degrees of control, and acted on by the rival forces of destruction and redemption of Jory and Ella. However, no explanation will explain this novel, about which I have to differ fundamentally with what seem to me the one-sided praises of Dr. Lem and Professor Fitting in this issue. No doubt, as they convincingly point out, Ubik is a heroic effort with great strengths, particularly in portraying the experiences of running down, decay, and senility, the invasion of entropy into life and consciousness, amid which the little man yet carries on: impavidum ferient ruinae. This experience of manipulated worlds, so characteristic of all our lives, is expressed by a verbal richness manifest, first, in a whole fascinating cluster of neologisms connected with the half-life, and second, in the delicious satire centered on the thing Ubik—the principle of food, health, and preservation of existence, of anti-entropic energy—which is promoted in kitschy ad terms parodying the unholy capitalist alliance of science, commercialism, and religious blasphemy. Dick's basic concern with death and rebirth, or to put it briefly with transubstantiation, has here surfaced perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in his opus. Yet it seems to me that—regardless of how far one would be prepared to follow Dick's rather unclear religious speculations—there is a serious loss of narrative control in Ubik. The "psi-powers" signifier has here become not only unnecessary but positively stultifying—e.g., has anybody in the book ever got back on the original time-track after Pat's first try-out?; did Pat engineer also her own death? etc. Further questions arise later: why isn't Pat wired out of the common circuit in the moratorium?; why isn't Jory?; etc. There is a clumsy try at subsidiary narrative foci with Vogelsang and Tippy (§§1 and 5); Jory "east" Wendy just when Pat was supposed to have done it; etc. The net result seems to me one of great strengths balanced by equally great weaknesses in a narrative irresponsibility reminiscent of the rabbits-from-the-hat carelessness associated with rankest Van Vogt if not "Doc" Smith: the false infinities of explaining one improbability by a succession of ever greater ones.

The deconstruction of bourgeois rationality for which Professor Fitting argues seems thus not to result in a new form but in a nihilistic collapse into the oldest mystifying forms of SF melodrama, refurbished, and therefore rendered more virulent, by some genuinely interesting new experiences. This is, of course, not without correlation to Dick's ideologies after the mid-60's, his drug-taking experiences, and his (often very ingenious) God-constructions; and one must assume that this was validated by the feeblest and least useful aspects of the late-60's counterculture, by the mentality despising reason, logic, and order of any kind—old or new. Thus, the heroic effort of Ubik seems to me, in spite of its many incidental felicities, to be the 3SPE experience writ large: in some ways among the most fascinating SF books of its time, it is finally, I fear, a heroic failure. In art, at least (and I would maintain in society too), there is no freedom without order, no liberation without controlled focusing. A morality cut off from cognition becomes arbitrary; as Dick's own words in the epigraph to this section imply, it becomes in fact impossible.

My argument may perhaps gain some additional strength if it is accepted that Dick's writing around and after Ubik has not been on the order of his first-rate novels. From Now Wait for Last Year on, it has withdrawn from the earlier richness into an only fragmentary use of his already established model, it has centered on one protagonist and his increasingly private and psychoanalytic problems, or, as the other side of the same coin, on a Jungian collective unconscious. In We Can Build You, e.g., the erstwhile characteristic Dickian theme of the simulacrum Lincoln is left to fizzle out in favour of the Jungian theme of Pris—though the conjuring up of the past probity from the heroic age of the U.S. bourgeoisie against its present corruption cries out for more detailed treatment. While the touch of the master shows in incidental elements of these late novels (e.g., the comics society of The Zap Gun, or the imitations of Chaplin's Great Dictator in Now Wait for Last Year) there are also outright failures, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with its underlying confusion between androids as wronged lower class and as inhuman menace. Indeed, Dick's last novel, Flow My Tears...., raises to my mind seriously the question whether he is going to continue writing SF or change to "realistic" prose, for its properly SF elements (future Civil War, the reality-changing drug, the "sixes") are quite perfunctory in comparison to its realistic police-state situations.


"Oh no," Betty disagreed, "no science in it. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science had advanced over now. Book fits neither premise."

"But," Paul said, "it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort." —MHC §7.

A number of very tempting subjects have to be left undiscussed here: the uses and transubstantiations of stimuli from movies and music (especially vocal music concerned with transcending the empirical world, e.g. in Bach, Wagner, or Verdi); the uses of literature—from Shakespeare, Aesop, and Ibsen through Hemingway, Wells, Orwell and the comics to the SF of the 40's and 50's; the strange co-existence of dazzling verbal invention with sloppiness and crudities; etc. Also, no conclusion will be attempted here. That would be rather an impertinence in the case of a writer hopefully only in the middle of his life's path, who has grown and changed several times so startlingly, outstripping consistently most of his critics (so that he will, hopefully, also prove my gloomy opinions about his latest phase wrong). For a conclusion, the reader is referred to this whole issue, and to a rereading of Dick. But instead of it, I would like to indicate that in his very imperfections Dick seems typical. All his near futures and alternate presents are parabolic mirrors for our time, which he has always deeply felt to be out of joint. His political acumen was a good dozen years in advance of his fellow Americans, not so much because he mentions Nixon both as President and as FBI Chief in his earliest works as because, for example, in his first novel he asked: "But what are you supposed to do in a society that's corrupt? Are you supposed to obey corrupt laws? Is it a crime to break a rotten law...?" (§14). His ontologico-religious speculations, while to my mind less felicitous, have the merit of taking to some logical SF limits the preoccupations a great number of people have tried to express in more timid ways. It is when Dick's view is trained both on Society and Reality in their impact upon human relationships, with the ontology still clearly grounded in the sociology, that I believe Dick's major works, from MHC to Dr. B, have been written. His concerns with alienation and reification, with one-dimensional humans, parallel in SF terms the concerns of a whole generation, expressed in writings such as those of Marcuse or Laing. His concerns with a social organization based on direct human relations parallel the movements for a radical democracy from the Berkeley Free Speech movement (the scene of his most fully utopian work, Dr. B) to the abortive youth-New Left movement of the late 60's. His deep intuitive feeling for decline and entropy raises the usual Spenglerian theatrics of space-opera SF to the "Humpty-Dumpty" landscapes of MTS, 3SPE and Ubik. He always speaks directly out of and to the American experience of his generation, most so when he uses the parabolic mirror of Germans and Nazis. He has the strengths and limitations of his existential horizons, which are identical to that of his favourite hero—the artificer, including the verbal craftsman. His books are artifacts, refuges from and visions of reality—as are Abendsen's book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in MHC and Lederman's Pilgrim Without Progress in 3SPE. In fact, only a fiction writer could have embarked on the Pirandellian ontology of Ubik, whose characters search not only for their Author but also for their world. Explicating the message in terms of the form, half a dozen works by Dick, at least, are SF classics. That is equivalent to saying that they are significant humanistic literature.


1The chronology of Dick's publications, taking into account only his books, looks as follows (S means stories collected or otherwise published in books, namely ##2, 7, 27, 32, 36, 37, 38, and 42 in R.D. Mullen's bibliography in this issue, with the lead story from #7 somewhat arbitrarily classified as a novel; N means novels; the 1967 Ganymede Take-Over, written in collaboration, is counted as one half of a novel and will not be further considered here):

Though I rather enjoy some of Dick's stories, from "The Preserving Machine" (1953) and "Nanny" (1955) to "Oh To Be a Blobel" (1964), they are clearly secondary to his novels, where the themes of the most interesting stories are developed more fully. The novel format allows Dick to develop his peculiar strength of alternate-world creation by means of arresting characters counterposed to each other in cunningly wrought plots. Therefore, after 1956 Dick returned to writing notable stories only in his peak 1962-65 period; his later tries at forcing himself to write them are not too successful, e.g. the story in Dangerous Visions (though I have not read his 1974 story yet). In this article I shall concentrate on discussing his novels.

The most frequently used titles of Dick's will be abbreviated, after their first mention, as follows: MHC for The Man in the High Castle, MTS for Martian TimeSlip, 3SPE for The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Dr. B for Dr. Bloodmoney.

My thanks for help in procuring books by Dick are due to Professor Fredric Jameson, Mr. L.W. Currey, Mr. Martinas Ycas, and to Doubleday and Co. for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; and for first forcing me to look closer at Dick to Ms. Allison Gopnik, McGill student. I have also profited from all the other contributions to this issue, both where I largely agree (as with Professor Jameson) and where I largely disagree (as with Dr. Lem and Professor Fitting).



 An overview can find a certain logic in Dick’s development, but not a mechanical or linear logic. Dick’s work, influenced by and participating in the great processes of the American collective or social psychology in these last 30 years, shares the hesitations, the often irrational though always understandable leaps backwards, forwards, and sideways of that psychology. It is perhaps most understandable as the work of a prose poet whose basic tools are not verse lines and poetic figures but (1) relationships within the narrative, (2) various alternate worlds, the specific political and ontological relationships in each of which are analogous to the USA (or simply California) in the 1950s and 1960s; and (3) the vivid characters on whom his narrations and his worlds finally repose. In this essay, I propose to deal with these three areas of Dick’s creativity. Some basic relationships in Dick’s storytelling—a notion richer than though connected with plotting—will be explored by analysis of narrative foci and power levels. Dick’s alternate worlds will be seen as illustrating his increasing shift from mostly political to mostly ontological horizons. Finally, Dick’s allegorically exaggerated characters will be explored in their own right as the foundation of the morality and cognition in his novels.

Back to Home