Science Fiction Studies

#45 = Volume 15, Part 2 = July 1988

Carl Freedman

Editorial Introduction: Philip K. Dick and Criticism

When Philip K. Dick died in 1982, his career could not have been reckoned as precisely a failure, but neither was it, by the usual criteria, a roaring success. What had he achieved? He had produced an immense amount of work—more than 40 novels and some dozens of short stories—but this oeuvre had by no means made an impact comparable to its bulk. He had established a respectable reputation among SF readers, earning steady if unspectacular sales and winning two notable SF awards (a Hugo for The Man in the High Castle and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), but he was never one of the major stars of the genre; and beyond the specific ranks of the genre he was almost unknown. His reputation among fellow SF authors was admittedly very high—Stanislaw Lem, Brian Aldiss, Ursula Le Guin, John Brunner, and Thomas Disch are a few examples of colleagues who were also admirers—and a small handful of others (mainly journalists and academics) were convinced that Dick's was a neglected major talent. Among Dick's particular supporters were a number of readers of and contributors to SFS.1 But they (we) experienced considerable difficulty even in making friends and colleagues fully aware that a writer named Philip K. Dick existed. One could not refer—for instance—to Thomas Pynchon's indebtedness to Dick, or speak of Dick's immense superiority to his imitator Kurt Vonnegut, with any real confidence of being generally understood. As for the proposition that, to many of us at least, seems as clearly valid as any such formulation can be—namely, that Dick ranks as the most accomplished, interesting, and significant American novelist to have emerged since the Second World War—few members of the literary world, in 1982, could have understood the claim as anything other than outrageous and deliberately shocking.

It is impossible to pretend that the millennium for Dick's reputation has arrived during the last six years. Still, the major indices have been favorable. It is just the sort of irony which occurs in the lives of Dick's own harried and rightly paranoid protagonists that the first big money which his writing ever earned came in just before his death, in connection with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which—however despicable as a filming of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?2—has, in the years since 1982, succeeded in placing Dick's name before a wider audience than ever encountered it before. Serious critical attention, academic and non-academic alike, has also been dramatically on the rise: probably more has been published about Dick since his death than during the three decades of his active career, and the criticism increasingly assumes Dick's status as a major writer. When Fredric Jameson, one of Dick's earliest and most influential academic backers, eulogized him as "the Shakespeare of science fiction"3 the comparison referred to the intrinsic merit and interest of Dick's work, not to his reputation; but today one can detect at least the beginnings of a critical "Dick industry" on the model of the famous (and infamous) Shakespeare industry. To many this may indeed seem a mixed blessing, and it is largely true that the progressive canonization of a writer tends to conclude what may be called the "heroic phase" of his reputation. A process of literary Veralltäglichung4 takes hold, as criticism loses a certain evangelical intensity, which is replaced, at best, with elaboration and revision or, at worst, with dutifulness. Yet it is also at this stage that the criticism of an author becomes a most genuinely collective and (in that sense) dialectical project —that is to say, an ongoing discipline devoted to the continual revaluation of an object, rather than a mere series of isolated (if sometimes felicitous) shots in the dark. In the case of a writer as centrally canonical as Shakespeare, the sense of collective labor may easily ossify into quasi-bureaucratic rigidity, and the creative Shakespeare critic may find it necessary to adopt the stance of the outlaw, vainly (but not necessarily unproductively) attempting to defy and circumvent the Shakespeare industry.5 But Dick is far from that stage yet, and the Dick critic today is more likely to relish the different (and comparatively unwonted) freedom of the collective routine.

Such is the general critical situation which defines this special issue of SFS. The issue as a whole assumes neither an introductory nor a definitive stance, and its implied reader is one who has not only read at least a few of Dick's own novels but has also probably read some Dick criticism in the past and will certainly do so again in the future—perhaps in the pages of SFS, perhaps elsewhere too. That there is much to be said about Dick which goes unsaid in these pages is merely taken for granted, for the issue makes no attempt to "cover the subject" in any thoroughgoing way. Several texts (most notably High Castle) are discussed at considerable length, while others not necessarily of less interest or importance are (essentially by chance) comparatively neglected. This is, indeed, an example of the freedom which accompanies the criticism of an even nascently canonical author: it was possible to edit the issue on the basis of the intrinsic merit of the particular submissions, without needing to assure equal representation for all of Dick's major works or in any other way to produce a smooth, well-rounded critical totality. Least of all was any attempt made to hammer out a common critical line to which all contributions should conform. Though everyone involved in the production of this issue surely agrees that Dick is one of the major authors of our time, it would, I think, be difficult to formulate any other or more precise proposition that could command unanimous assent. Among the various contributors (and not least between the two guest co-editors), the careful reader will certainly notice many implicit and several explicit disagreements. In sum, one might say that if the general criticism of Philip K. Dick cannot now claim the special intensity or excitement of the manifesto, it is also free of the rather straitened circumstances which typify that noble but limiting critical genre.

If there is no need to produce, or possibility of producing, a truly comprehensive critique of Dick in a single collection, then there is clearly no point in attempting to summarize here all the relationships that obtain between Dick's texts and their criticism. I will, however, attempt to describe very briefly why, in my view, the serious criticism of Dick's work is today something of a growth industry. In the general and conventional terms of literary value, I have, indeed, already suggested the reason pretty clearly: Dick's is a major achievement, and critics are increasingly recognizing it as such. But such a formulation, however justified, is inadequate, for the notion of "recognition" begs most of the real questions. If Dick's texts—like, in their own way, Blake's or Melville's—speak more powerfully now than they once did, then specific factors both textual and historical must be identified.

I have elsewhere argued that the defining characteristics of Dick's fictional worlds are commodities and conspiracies:6 for Dick, virtually everything in the socio-economic field is grotesquely (if sometimes humorously) commodified, while almost everything in the socio-political field is (most often terrifyingly) conspiratorial. Although, as I maintained, this emphasis clearly marks Dick as a paradigmatic writer of late or monopoly capitalism in the US, it may also imply a rather more precise historicization of the Dickian project than I earlier suggested: specifically, that Dick is a writer of the 1960s. Even in a simple bibliographic sense, the proposition is valid. If we accept that the '60s, as a distinctive socio-cultural period, begin with the Greensboro sit-ins and the election of President Kennedy in 1960 (beginning again, as it were, with his assassination in 1963), and that the decade ends with the American defeat in Vietnam in 1973 and the unraveling of the Watergate scandal between 1972 and 1974, then the great majority of Dick's work falls squarely within the period.7 Nor is it only a matter of quantity. Though Dick's first SF novel, The Cosmic Puppets, was completed by 1953 and published in 1956, it and the other seven SF novels produced before High Castle (1962) are really apprentice work (with the exception, I should argue, of Time Out of Joint [1959]), while the post-'60s works— whether brilliant successes, as with A Scanner Darkly (1977) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), or interesting failures like VALIS (1981) and The Divine Invasion (1981)—are in important ways atypical of Dick's central achievement. His essential masterpieces—among which I should list High Castle (1962), Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Simulacra (1964), Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Androids (1968), Ubik (1969—in my view his finest novel of all), and Flow My Tears (1974, though a manuscript draft had been completed by 1970)—are all products of the most eventful decade in postwar American history.

It is a decade that, at least in certain respects, bears a privileged relationship to the commodified and conspiratorial character of monopoly-capitalist society in the US. As to the latter characteristic, the decade, in one definition, is actually framed by two immense and still largely mysterious conspiracies, that of Dealey Plaza and that of the Watergate; but the unanswered questions that surround these particular executive actions—Which governmental elements, if any, connived in the Kennedy assassination? Was Oswald a framed pro-Kennedy agent? Did the pro-Helms wing of the CIA use McCord as a double agent to help overthrow the Nixon Administration?—are in the end probably less important than the more general and more gradual revelation of the state as conspiratorial in the sense of being unresponsive to any popular will or interest. In the early '60s some fractions of the state, such as the Supreme Court and the Attorney-General's office, could claim a certain progressive function in connection with the civil rights movement, but they were pitted against governors and sheriffs (and against many legislators); and by the second half of the decade, when the war in Vietnam and the domestic anti-war movement had become the central presences in US political life, the conspiratorial intent of the state to impose a non-communist government on Vietnam regardless of Vietnamese or American wishes was clear, as was the determination of the state to suppress domestic dissent by various illegal and undemocratic means. The Pentagon Papers and subsequent reports of CIA and FBI lawlessness provided valuable documentary evidence of what had, however, been in general terms evident for some time.

One victim of state conspiracy in the 1960s was of course Dick himself, whose home was burglarized in 1971, almost certainly with the connivance of local authorities and probably by Federal agents, though the affair remains rather murky. There are various hypotheses as to the reasons for the break-in, in which Dick's papers were stolen—perhaps the most piquant explanation, at least for an SF critic, is that in one of his imaginings Dick had inadvertently described something strikingly similar to actual and extremely secret weapons being developed by the Pentagon—but Dick understood the conspiratorial character of his world long before his own victimization. The theme is already strong in Time Out of Joint, in which Ragle Gumm's entire life is manipulated for reasons of state in ways completely beyond his knowledge or control; and there is no major work (nor many minor works) where it does not play an important role. Martian Time-Slip, for instance, is one of Dick's relatively few novels set elsewhere than Earth, and it is characteristic that he explores the most venerable planet in SF not to populate it with Bug-Eyed-Monsters but to analyze the possibilities for corruption and conspiracy in the colonial Martian regime. In The Simulacra (notable for its ambivalent attitude towards the Kennedy mystique), Dick muses on just how difficult it is to know who is really in charge in a modern conspiratorial state. Or again: when Rick Deckard, at one point in Androids, finds that a police station is not the safe haven he had supposed it to be but one of the places from which a conspiracy of murderous androids is being directed, he is, as it were, making much the same discovery that a great many Americans were making at just about the time that the novel was published.

That time also possesses a special relevance to the progressive commodification of social life. As Jameson, basing his analysis on the pioneering economic work of Ernest Mandel, explains:

[L]ate capitalism in general (and the [']60s in particular) constitute a process in which the last surviving internal and external zones of precapitalism—the last vestiges of noncommodified or traditional space within and outside the advanced world—are now ultimately penetrated and colonized in their turn. Late capitalism can therefore be described as the moment in which the last vestiges of Nature which survived on into classical capitalism are at length eliminated: namely the third world and the unconscious. The [']60s will then have been the momentous transformational period in which this systemic restructuring takes place on a global scale.8

Of course, commodification is of its very nature a somewhat more difficult phenomenon to date than the political regime of conspiracy; and it is certainly true that the process by which captains of industry became "captains of consciousness"9 (and unconsciousness) can be traced back at least to the turn of the 20th century. But Jameson is surely right to see the '60s as particularly crucial to the advent of a fully reified post-modern society, a radically textualized society of commodified signifiers.

One central index of the process is the penetration of the American mind by television. Though the new medium had emerged as a major force in the 1950s—in certain ways I Love Lucy counts as the most completely national American experience to date, even more so than the Second World War— its presence in American life remained somewhat tentative and vulnerable, as was shown by the damage which television as a whole suffered from the quiz show scandals late in the decade (the scandals themselves registers of an old-fashioned outrage at the decline of referentiality, at the non-correspondence of commodified image with reality). The turning point came in 1963 with the TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination aftermath. The nearly universal praise which Walter Cronkite and his colleagues won for their evident grace under pressure provided the most solemn ratification possible for television's role as the pre-eminent purveyor of truth to the US public—a role that has only been strengthened and consolidated ever since. A few years after Kennedy's death, the Vietnam War, which he helped to start (but which he would perhaps not have expanded as Johnson actually did), had become the world's first TV war, the first war to be sponsored by commercials for cigarettes and underarm deodorants: no more apposite an image of the thorough penetration of life (and death) by the commodity structure is easily imaginable.

At the same time, however, there is another and complementary sense in which the '60s also have a special importance for the history of commodification: it was the time that mass awareness and criticism of commodification began. True enough, the commercialism of the Eisenhower era had its prominent critics, such as Dwight MacDonald and Paul Goodman. But their influence (joined with the more rigorously Marxist influence of Herbert Marcuse) became really widespread only in the following decade, as '60s' radicalism insisted, from the left, that universal suburbia was not to be identified with felicity. The Black liberation and anti-war movements always had strong cultural emphases in addition to their more straightforward political demands, while, towards the end of the decade, feminism and environmentalism emerged as protests against the reification of the female body and of the planet's natural resources, respectively. Even the Yippies, in their Dada way, contributed something. Overall, if '60s' radicalism was weak in its general inability to forge durable links with organized labor and its attendant temptations toward various forms of philosophical idealism, the obverse of this weakness was its strong Great Refusal of the fully commodified space that monopoly capital was imposing with greater thoroughness than ever before. Though not widely celebrated at the time, Dick's work was of course very much a part of this Refusal, and it is no accident that one of his first prominent supporters from outside the SF ghetto was the journalist Paul Williams of Rolling Stone—originally a '60s' journal of both cultural and political radicalism. Dick's representation of commodification is somewhat more complex than his representation of the conspiratorial regime, and I refer the reader again to my 1984 article mentioned above. Here I will only linger a moment over one of the sharpest satiric details from Ubik, perhaps Dick's most complex and profound meditation on the ubiquitous commodity structure. The protagonist Joe Chip is attempting to leave his apartment:

The door refused to open. It said, 'Five cents, please.'

He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. 'I'll pay you tomorrow,' he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. 'What I pay you,' he informed it, 'is in the nature of a gratuity; I don't have to pay you.'

'I think otherwise,' the door said. 'Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.'

In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.

'You discover I'm right,' the door said. It sounded smug.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt's money-gulping door.

'I'll sue you,' the door said as the first screw fell out.

Joe Chip said, 'I've never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live with it.' (Ubik [NY: Doubleday, 1969], 3:22)

It is a quintessentially '60s' insight. It is one matter for things to be in the saddle and ride mankind; it is a more advanced state of affairs when things insultingly and litigiously charge mankind for the privilege.

If, as I have tried to indicate, Dick is a paradigmatic '60s' writer and one of the great social critics of the era, it may not be immediately apparent why the 1980s should be the time when his reputation is on the rise. The Age of Reagan, after all, is normally considered the antithesis and repudiation of the '60s, and many writers of intense celebrity then, such as Vonnegut or Norman Mailer, are somewhat in eclipse now. Why should Dick's fame be benefiting?

In the first place, it is important not to overstate the degree to which the oppositional values of the '60s have actually been defeated. The radicalism of the period has never been occluded in the way—for instance—that the radicalism of the 1930s was occluded during the '50s. Reaganism has scored a few clear victories in its war on the '60s—the currently prevailing attitude towards drugs is perhaps the most prominent example—but more often has been forced to accept uneasy co-existence with its enemy. Certain commonplaces concerning racial and gender equality remain at least to some degree hegemonic, as does a degree of concern for the natural environment unthinkable before the '60s. Even Reagan's attempt to re-establish US military intervention in the Third World as a respectable tool of foreign policy has had nothing like the success that might have been predicted: especially when one considers the pre-'60s' history of the US in Central America, it is an astonishing tribute to the long-term efficacy of the movement against the Vietnam War that the most reactionary President of modern times, with a special hatred for revolution south of the border, has nonetheless been unable to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

So the '60s are still with us to a greater degree than is always appreciated. Yet this statement is true not only of '60s' radicalism but also, and far more, of the processes of conspiracy and commodification central to Dick's representations. In this regard, the '80s are not the negation of the '60s but almost their apotheosis. So far as conspiracy is concerned, one huge example may be cited. Neither Dealey Plaza nor Watergate—nor perhaps even the less spectacular but more consequential series of conspiracies detailed in the Pentagon Papers—is truly comparable to the Iran-Contra affair, which seems to have been not a perversion or circumvention of constitutional government in the US but a frontal assault on it. When the most militantly reactionary elements in the executive branch of the national state conspire to invent foreign policy not only in secret and in defiance of legal sanction but even in opposition to the more visible and regular elements of the executive branch itself, then government by conspiracy has reached something of a high point in US history. The sense of sinister farce so often important to Dickian conspiracy is very much in evidence here, and one especially piquant story from Oliver North's Congressional testimony sounds a good deal like a Dickian invention: I mean the story of how the Director of the CIA, feeling intolerably inhibited by the minimal rules of his own agency, decided to create a "mini-CIA" even more secret and less accountable than its original. Conversely, Dick's stress on grand, grotesque, and malevolent conspiracy is more relevant and "realistic" today than when his major novels were actually written, and what may once have seemed to some unreasonably paranoid now looks considerably more sober. To this extent, the upsurge of interest in Dick during the '80s is reminiscent of a cartoon published by The New Yorker while the facts of Watergate were rapidly becoming public: a man lying on a psychiatric couch wanly asks the impassive shrink, "All that political paranoia you helped me get rid of, Doctor—what do I do now that it turns out I was right?"

With regard to commodification also, the '80s have proved Dick even more right than his own era did. Doors may not yet impertinently demand money (though cash registers do), but the increasing colonization of social life by the commodity structure has nonetheless intensified. In the most visible realm of commodification—namely, mass culture—Marcusean one-dimensionality has increased as the commodified image becomes more and more purely itself, so to speak, and attempts to discard all residual or emergent scraps of negation or subversion: so that Michael Jackson succeeds Bob Dylan, Harrison Ford succeeds Marlon Brando, and television shows like Cosby and Miami Vice take the place of such shows as had their genesis in the '60s as All in the Family and M*A*S*H. But the point here is not so much to make aesthetic judgments as to understand the imperialism of the aesthetic category itself (in a Benjaminian sense), as society becomes progressively post-modern. Again Iran-Contra is, I think, something of a cultural benchmark. To compare the joint Senate-House hearings on the scandal in the summer of 1987 with the Ervin Committee hearings 14 years earlier is to appreciate how during the Watergate era actual political issues were still to some extent being effectively discussed, while the later hearings were much more "pure television." The phenomenon named "Olliemania" (perhaps a more accurate designation than was intended) is of course noteworthy in this regard—balding, pipe-smoking John Poindexter made nothing of the same impact with almost precisely the same ideology—but there is one moment in particular that I think deserves special inscription in the history of the post-modern: the moment during the final day of North's testimony, when his attorney, Brendan Sullivan, successfully interrupted and diverted Chairman Inouye by maintaining that the telegrams received in response to his client's TV performances rendered irrelevant the international legal precedent which the hapless Hawaiian traditionalist was attempting to cite. In this context, the method of producing leaders in The Simulacra seems less than wholly outlandish.

It seems to me, then, that it is Dick's understanding of the fundamental realities of the 1960s—conspiracies and commodities—which makes him all the more important for the 1980s and which thus helps to account for the increasing interest which his work inspires. That not all—perhaps not even any—of the others involved in the production of this issue necessarily share this perspective should go without saying. But it is the perspective from which I myself think that each of the following essays makes a notable contribution to Dick criticism. Roger Bozzetto lays considerable stress on the conspiratorial element in Dick, and explores a matter more often mentioned than actually analyzed—namely, Dick's reputation in France—in order to engage some of the fundamental issues of Dick's fiction. His work is usefully complemented by that of Daniel Fondanèche, who, also writing from a French perspective and also concerned to account for Dick's standing in France, sees Dick as a prophet of freedom with values attuned to those of the May 1968 generation. John Huntington's approach, by contrast, is more strictly formal, though not in a finally limiting way: he concentrates on Dick's use of a van-Vogtian narrative device, but also argues that plot mechanics in Dick are deeply related to the philosophic and critical aspect of his work. Eric Rabkin and Scott Durham are both concerned to situate Dick with regard to economic reality, but their emphases are somewhat different: Rabkin reads Dick as an essentially humanist critic of a dehumanizing industrialism, while Durham engages recent anti-humanist work in the theory of the subject in order to relate Dick to the specific movements of monopoly capital. George Slusser, in the most extensive effort of the issue, makes a powerful Emersonian challenge to the assumptions that have motivated much Dick criticism, my own included: the same article of mine which undergirds my foregoing analysis of Dick's reputation is for Slusser an example of how Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism of Dick has gone wrong, and he reads paranoia in Dick far differently than I do. Slusser's case is sure to prove controversial, especially in its crucial opposition of historicity to history; but, whether or not one finds it ultimately persuasive, the case demands careful consideration. It is from a standpoint much closer to my own that John Rieder contributes a careful, provocative reading of what is also a key text for Slusser, High Castle; while his stress on the metafictive in Dick recalls, in a different terminology, some of Huntington's narrative concerns. Finally, in Emmanuel Jouanne's essay the locus is again France but with a slant rather different from that of Bozzetto or Fondanèche; Jouanne's stress (like J.N. Dumont's in a note on Gnosticism) is on Dick's late trilogy—i.e., on the decisively post-'60s' Dick—and its relation to French SF in the 1980s.

These essays, then, produced on two continents, cover a great many Dick texts and are written from a variety of viewpoints. It should be mentioned that the collective project of Dick criticism to which they contribute had one of its founding moments in an earlier number of this journal—SFS No. 5 (March 1975)—which was also especially devoted to Dick. Perhaps the first critical treatment with true scope and rigor, that issue included (along with other noteworthy material) Stanislaw Lem's now legendary "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among Charlatans," groundbreaking analyses of Dr. Bloodmoney (by Fredric Jameson) and Ubik (by Peter Fitting), an important overview by Darko Suvin, and a contribution by Dick himself. I think it is fair to say that those involved in the current issue have been anxiously aware, in good (Harold) Bloomian fashion, of the high standard set by this precedent and crucial influence. On the other hand (and in some part thanks to that predecessor), we do have the advantage of addressing an audience more conversant with Dick's SF and better prepared to give it serious attention. We hope that the present essays will make the same kind of contribution to future studies of Dick.


1. I especially have in mind SFS No. 5, which I discuss in my concluding paragraph.

2. For an excellent discussion of this matter, see Peter Fitting's "Futurecop: The Neutralization of Revolt in Blade Runner," SFS, 14 (1987):340-54.

3. Jameson, "Futurist Visions that Tell us About Right Now," In These Times, 6:23 (May 5-11, 1982):17.

4. This crucial term from Weberian sociology has no real English equivalent, though the ugly coinage "routinization" is close. For Weber, it refers to the process by which the personal authority of the charismatic individual is translated into the mundane, legitimate authority of the established institution.

5. Examples include Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London, 1965) and, more recently, Terry Eagleton's Shakespeare (Oxford, 1986).

6. I am referring to my "Towards a Theory of Paranoia: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick," SFS, 11 (1984):15-24.

7. My primary authority for the chronology of Dick's work is the bibliographic appendix in Paul Williams's Only Apparently Real: The World of Philip K. Dick (NY, 1986). I am also indebted to Daniel J.H. Levack's PKD: A Philip K. Dick Bibliography (San Francisco, 1981), a much more detailed effort than that by Williams but less up-to-date and evidently produced without access to certain crucial sources available to Williams.

8. Jameson, "Periodizing the 60s," in The Sixties without Apology, ed. Sohnya Sayres et al. (Minneapolis, 1984), p. 207.

9. The allusion is to Stuart Ewen's Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (NY, 1976).

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