Science Fiction Studies


#106 = Volume 35, Part 3 = November 2008

Andrew M. Butler

Legit Dick

Philip K. Dick. Four Novels of the 1960s: The Man in the HighCastle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch , Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik. Ed. Jonathan Lethem. New York: Library of America, 2007. 900 pp. $35 hc.

Jason Vest. Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick in the Movies.New York: Praeger, 2007. xviii + 224 pp. $49.95 hc.

Blade Runner: Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition. Reg. 1 ed.Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros, 2007. $79.98

Will Brooker, ed. The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic. London: Wallflower, 2005. x + 250 pp. £40 hc.

Brian J. Robb, Counterfeit Worlds: Philip K. Dick on Film. London: Titan, 2006. 318 pp. £16.99 pbk.

I am writing this in a coffee shop in my old hometown, having been to the second annual PKD Day at Nottingham Trent University. I have not visited in five years, and—ignoring eighteen months in the late 1990s—I have not really lived here for twenty years. I see buildings that were not here before, particular shops have moved, and entire roads have disappeared. I try to recreate my childhood city in my mind, to bring it back—after all, I have just reread Dick’s The Cosmic Puppets (1957), in which a small American town has been faked as part of a cosmic theological war.

I should not be surprised: my relationship with Dick is a personal thing and I have always been struck by how many people feel a personal relationship with him as an author. It is with mixed feelings, then, that I learn that “my” Philip K. Dick has now been canonized with the appearance of a Library of America omnibus—although it feels as if his apotheosis has been trumpeted for a decade or more anyway, as coverage appears in the New York Times or London Review of Books or whatever non-sf source that we feel impressed by this week. The Library of America, I learned, acts as a charity dedicated to keeping American literary classics in print, with initial funding in 1979 from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Clearly this title has struck a chord, as apparently it is their bestseller to date, and a second volume was issued in July 2008 (Five Novels of the 1960s and 1970s: Martian Time Slip; Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After the Bomb; Now Wait for Last Year; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; A Scanner Darkly, also edited by Jonathan Lethem).                

For the first volume, Dick-inspired writer Lethem has assembled four novels from the 1960s and added notes and a chronology. Undoubtedly these were the years when Dick was at his most publicly prolific—in the 1950s a dozen mainstream novels went unpublished and in the 1970s a million or so words of theological speculation underlay the few books he published. There are duds from the 1960s, but the overall quality is remarkably high—and none of the chosen novels is a dud.                

In the novels of this period, Dick would casually destroy the world we know in a paragraph—the War happened, finally, but nobody won—and the world is either run by a single world order (the United Nations or some replacement) or proxies for the USA and the USSR. Dick would focus on up to half a dozen central characters, from different echelons of society, who would take it in turn to be viewpoint characters. The sort-of hero would be a mechanic or a doctor or a policeman or some other kind of serviceman, and he would have an ambivalent patriarchal boss figure with an attractive mistress—or there would be an attractive dark-haired girl to distract him from his harpy-like wife. Drug use is endemic and not necessarily condemned and hallucinations are routine—since each character has his or her own world-view, the impression is that they all almost live in their own worlds.                

The Man in the HighCastle (1962) is the novel Dick wrote when he was having one last go at breaking through to the mainstream, and it won the Hugo Award, his first major sf prize. It is worth remembering that, aside from Time Out of Joint (1959), which had been published by a non-specialty publisher, Lippincott, and may have been missed by many readers, Dick’s prior published works were indifferent extensions of indifferent novellas—Vulcan’s Hammer (1954/1960) and Dr Futurity (1956/1960). In The Man in the High Castle, Dick was back on the form he had shown in Eye in the Sky (1957). A classic alternate-world narrative, in which the Nazis and the Japanese have proved victorious in the Second World War, the novel includes various German expressions that the notes in this edition helpfully translate, and historical figures and allusions to popular culture are also identified by the notes. I think it would have been useful to have included descriptions of the I Ching hexagrams, especially the moving lines, as they contain details that help interpretation of the novel—this is still not a critical edition.                

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) is a novel that appears to make perfect (or at least relatively perfect) sense until you realize that you have deluded yourself—due to an epigram that appears to undermine what you think is the ending. Earth is all but uninhabitable, Mars is being colonized, and the explorer Palmer Eldritch is returning from an encounter with something. The novel becomes a battle of drugs—Can-D, which gives a sense of a false reality, and Chew-Z, which makes the hallucination real. Here there are only seven or so notes supplied, mostly Biblical allusions, although Palmer and Eldritch remain unglossed.                

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) has become familiar through the (for the most part distorting) mirror of Blade Runner (1982)—to which we will return. It is a cunningly structured novel whose events cover a single day in Rick Deckard’s life, as he tracks down escaped androids and as those androids seek to expose humanity’s latest religion as fake. Paul Brians has long maintained a set of notes and queries on the book on his website, which put the notes here in the shade, and here again there is scope for a scholarly edition. Again, too, there are significant names—Penfield and Al Jarry—and more cultural allusions that also remain unglossed.                

The volume is rounded out by Ubik (1969), in which Joe Chip slowly comes to the (erroneous?) conclusion that he has been killed and is in suspended animation or half life. This time there is a page of notes given, but this again feels thin; at the least, the theological wordplay in the advertisements for Ubik might have been noted.                

If pushed, I think this is more or less the set of novels I would have chosen to cover the period—but I would have wanted to include Martian Time-Slip (1964) to give a second example of how well Dick could construct a novel; it also brings together his two themes of What is real? and What is human? (It is a novel that also grew in stature in my mind as I spent a decade trying to track down my own copy—there is that personal relationship again.) Heretically, I would probably have sacrificed The Man in the High Castle, which has a sometimes confusing prose style. Equally, Dr Bloodmoney (1965) stands out as the novel that most closely examines the fear of nuclear apocalypse; it includes a faked radio broadcast that looks back to the radio stations of The Broken Bubble (indeed to characters from his earliest surviving novel, Voices From the Street [written 1952-1953]) and that anticipates the messianism of Radio Free Albemuth (written 1976) and VALIS (1981). Perhaps this could have been substituted for The Three Stigmata, which is never quite as great as I remember it, but I think it has to be included as one of his most disturbing novels. It is worth noting that Lethem’s second volume, covering the 1960s and 1970s, includes both my alternates, along with Now Wait For Last Year (1966), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), and A Scanner Darkly (1977). This leaves the 1950s novels untapped, as well as the late religious works.                

What would Dick have made of the canonization that comes with uniform editions and film adaptations? Some days he would have been flattered, and of course the sales would have helped his always precarious finances. Other days he would have felt the opposite—he knew the potency of cheap music and that God lay in the trash. Being respectable might have attracted the wrong kind of attention—and he certainly feared and hated Hollywood. Some of the time.                

When Do Androids Dream was first optioned in 1968, Dick (naively?) drew up his ideal cast list to aid the producer—he was to rail against the eventual filmmakers, as they largely excluded him from the process. It is now, of course, over a quarter of a century since the big budget ($20 million plus!) flop Blade Runner (1982) made it to the large screen. I have moved through awe, hatred, accommodation, boredom, and indifference to the film, having first caught it on a rental video. I grew to love Dick, so I resented the film’s omissions (Mercerism, fake animals) and accommodations (an opera singer becoming an erotic dancer, that bloody pigeon, the tacked-on happy ending). Eventually I came to a point where I could separate film and book as distinct entities, but by then I had overdosed on repeated viewings of the video, not to mention all the articles and essays about it.                

The Blade Runner Experience, edited by Will Brooker, shows the way that the film has synergized in many directions—the psychogeography of Blade Runner tourists, the official sequels by K.W. Jeter, the computer games, and the fandom. It also examines the politics of the film—especially in terms of race and gender. After Brooker’s introduction, his essay, and one by Judith Kerman, we move through five sections: “The Cinema of Philip K. Dick,” “Playing Blade Runner,” “Fans,” “Identities,” and “The City.” The various authors of Blade Runner—Philip K. Dick (spelled Phillip on the first page of the introduction), Alan E. Nourse, William Burroughs, David Peoples, Hampton Fancher, and K.W. Jeter—are disappeared from this volume’s discussion or are only sketchily covered; this is a matter I discuss elsewhere in a review in Science Fiction Film and Television.                

Sometimes they are mentioned but are absent from the index; there is little sense of the relationship between their careers and this collection. The only author that seems to matter is the author of each chapter. As each contributor describes travels around Los Angeles, or examples of playing the computer game, or hanging out on the Internet, I am irresistibly reminded of the “What I did on my holidays” essay set at the start of each school year. It is not to begrudge their various insights, but I shrug my shoulders and think “So?” Kerman, say, finds Jewish millenarianism at work in the film, and this holds some interest at least, but I am not sure who put it there—Blade Runner seems to have become one of those blank slates that each critic reads in her own way. The net result is a set of very personal responses. As a guide to the cross-pollination of one particular film, Brooker’s collection is exemplary (and I do not mean that entirely as a compliment).                

After a troubled gestation and production, Blade Runner gained an afterlife on home video and cable channels (and in time laser discs) and became canonized as an example of great cinema. Repeated viewings exposed flaws (six replicants have escaped from the off-world colonies, but only five of them are accounted for) and caused arguments (is Deckard an android?), and there were rumors that the voice-over had been added after panicked previews. In some inexplicable way certain brief moments in the film meant he was an android (and even less explicably number six, but that had to be nonsense). The versions available—the international version kept some adult language and seconds more of violence—were clearly not Scott’s full intentions, and there was a move to assemble a restored cut after the unexpected success of an accidental showing of a preview version at a 70mm film festival. In fact two teams worked on the project in parallel, but Scott was too busy with other films to keep control, so the Director’s Cut released in 1992 was not accurately named—it added unicorn footage and changed music cues and excised voice-over and ending, but left other flaws. At the turn of the twenty-first century there was an attempt to do the job properly, which stalled—presumably due to ownership issues—and then was finally completed in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary.                

The five-disc DVD set is the version to have—the geek (“Ultimate Collector’s Edition”) option comes in a plastic briefcase with photos, toy spinner, and metal “origami” unicorn. This version offers five versions of the film, complete with commentaries. The three previously released versions of the film are on one disc: US domestic cut, international cut, and Director’s Cut. The Workprint is on its own disc, and does in fact include some voice-over—at Batty’s death. Then there is the so-called Final Cut, sans voice-over and footage of an implausibly verdant forest cobbled together from materials shot for TheShining (1980), with numbers of replicants corrected along with other problems in synchronization. The dove now flies up into an industrial night sky rather than a sunny day. All the footage has been restored and the sound remixed for the latest version in stereo. The scene in which Deckard visits Dave Holden in hospital, however, has not been added, and the word “Final” may yet turn out to be relative. Further discs include Dangerous Days, a three-hour-plus documentary about the film featuring interviews with virtually everyone involved in the production down to the tea boy. Other featurettes focus on Dick, design elements, costume, behind-the-scenes footage, and audition tapes. There are also deleted scenes and alternate versions. In production terms, at least, this set will tell you almost everything you want to know—and many things you do not.                

Some of the same ground is covered by Brian J. Robb in Counterfeit Worlds (2006), along with discussions of seven subsequent big screen adaptations of Dick’s work. The usefulness of Robb’s book lies in its completeness, with coverage of the 1950s radio plays in which Dick was involved, discussion of abortive attempts at television in the 1960s (outlines for Mission: Impossible and The Invaders, plus his own idea for a series), the script Dick wrote for Ubik in 1974, and the television series of Total Recall. There is much summarizing of scripts and many interviews with scriptwriters and designers, largely from film magazines. This is more than a cut-and-paste job, but the lack of endnotes sourcing Robb’s information suggests a populist rather than scholarly market (like my own Pocket Essential book on Philip K. Dick, similarly lacking academic apparatus). It is profusely illustrated, but has not been well served by its printing, the tiny font tending to grey. I ended up reading much of this in cinemas, and it did not take much dimness to render it invisible. An index would also have made the book more user friendly.            

If Robb focuses upon the making of the films at the expense of their meaning, Jason Vest reverses that emphasis. While some production difficulties are acknowledged, the focus is on textual analysis. He begins with a very sensible observation about the snootiness of the literary establishment, who see the source material as original, authentic, real, and artistic but decry adaptations as imitation, inauthentic, false, and commercial: “bibliophiles ... perpetuate an easy, cheap, and unreflective view of film adaptation ... the book is always better than the movie” (xiii). The Granada/Grafton tie-in edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? even came with a Publisher’s Note suggesting that the novel had an added dimension—as if the film were somewhat flat. Yes, Vest admits, there are omissions of elements from the source novel in the final film, but this is inevitable in adapting any book to the screen. By now there is a good forty years of reflective thought on the nature of adaptation, but Vest alludes to little of this work here.            

For Vest there are clearly three masterpieces of adaptation (Blade Runner, Minority Report [2002], and A Scanner Darkly [2005]), four interesting failures (Total Recall [1990], Barjo [1992], Screamers [1997], and Impostor [2002]), and a dud which is not a dud (Paycheck [2003]). Vest discusses the films as adaptations of their source materials and makes judgments about them (“the quality ... in the light of their literary sources” [xii]) whilst also claiming their “value is not dependent on their fidelity to the literary sources” (xvii). He repeatedly asks what Dick would make of the finished projects, although my experience is that virtually any statement of opinion by Dick in one interview or speech can be matched with the contradictory statement elsewhere. He might write letters of praise to a critic, whilst denouncing her to someone else (The FBI, say) in another. This is an author who is dead. His opinion would be no arbiter—although I suspect he would have been more comfortable with deletions rather than additions.            

There are of course those metteurs en scènes (John Huston, the Merchant-Ivory team) who bring a literalness to their literary adaptations—although even then there may be thematic betrayals (Huston’s Red Badge of Courage [1951]). The result can be sterile. On the other hand, an auteur might wrench a source around to his own way of thinking—almost all of Hitchcock’s films were  adaptations—or what worked on the page may not work on the screen without huge alterations (Catch-22 [1977], One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975]). Paradoxically, to be faithful may be to betray the source, and vice versa. These issues are not thoroughly discussed. Vest needed to push the film studies analysis further, especially on issues of auteurship and adaptation theory.            

What a number of the films (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report) demonstrate is a third act problem—after the set-up and confrontation (equilibrium and chaos) it is hard to find a suitable resolution to the respective narratives. I suspect that Dick does not do resolutions—or at least does not do unambiguous ones. The various scriptwriters of Total Recall were right to reject the invasion by extraterrestrial mice of the original story, but struggled to reach closure. R.J. Ellis, among others, has suggested that the ending of the film is fantasy, and certainly the projected sequels described by Robb take this as read. The ending of Minority Report is fudged by the typical Spielberg need for reinscription of the nuclear family. While Spielberg’s future is not as thoroughly planned as Vest credits and the ending is dependent on a self-fulfilling time-travel paradox (in which future cop Anderton [Tom Cruise] has only acted because Burgess [von Sydow] has tried to prevent him from acting), it really falls apart as a film after Anderton has been sentenced to suspended animation. This would have been a devastating place to end—but instead Anderton’s estranged wife is brought into the narrative from the cold to rescue him and let him save the day. Vest suggests that the wish-fulfillment elements of what follows can be explained by their not being real: “all the events occurring after Anderton’s incarceration are part of a humanist fantasy that fulfills the man’s most ardent desires” (135), like the last twenty minutes of Brazil (1985) without Gilliam’s final twist in the tail. Very Dickian—the illusory can be seen everywhere. It is all a dream. Even this review. Even this coffee shop.            

In the end I feel Vest’s book is held back by its need to compare back to Dick’s story—and personally I think that however lousy Paycheck may be, the original story is not that great. There are odd repetitions, especially between sections of chapters, as if Dick is not quite sure what story he is telling. It also seems unfair that Spielberg can offer “a witty homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 movie Rear Window” (138) and allude to North by Northwest (1959), whereas Vest comes close to accusing director John Woo of “plagiarism” of and “lazy allusion” (144) to the same films. Vest’s final chapter overview includes discussion of Dickian movies not based directly on Dick’s works, and is far from complete in this. But worst of all, I think there is insufficient focus on the films as films in their own right throughout the book.            

While I would happily see a five-year moratorium on articles on Blade Runner, the general PhilDickian presence in movies might be explored more as cinema—even though I am not excited by the thought of further adaptations. Whether the continual canonization of Dick is a good thing remains to be seen—he is not the only exceptional figure in sf. There are many other neglected writers who would repay a tenth of the attention that has been granted to Philip K. Dick, in coffee shops or anywhere else.

Brians, Paul. “Study Guide for Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner (1968).” 1999. 29 June  2008 <>.
Butler, Andrew M. Rev. of Will Brooker, ed., The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic. Science Fiction Film and Television 1.1 (Spring 2008): 142-44.
Ellis, R.J. “‘Are You a Fucking Mutant?’ Total Recall’s Fantastic Hesitations.” Foundation 65 (Autumn 1995): 81-97.

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