Science Fiction Studies

#128 = Volume 43, Part 1 = March 2016


Umberto Rossi

Centrifugal Interpretations

Alexander Dunst and Stefan Schlensag, eds. The World According to Philip K. Dick. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 240 pp. $90 hc.

The story of this collection of essays begins in 2012, a productive year for Philip K. Dick scholarship. The thirtieth anniversary of the writer’s death was celebrated with the PKD Festival at San Francisco State University in September and the “Worlds Out of Joint”conference in Dortmund, Germany, in November. This book is probably the most important fruit of the German event, but it would be reductive to consider it as a mere publication of proceedings; Dunst and Schlensag’s volume presents readers with a selection of the papers that have been turned into real academic essays. Having been one of the participants at the conference, my impression is that the authors have generally benefited from the discussion at the conference and other participants’ presentations and have enriched their explorations of Dick’s oeuvre. There is a sort of centrifugal force at work in this collection of essays. None of the participants can be defined as PKD scholars (with the possible exception of Laurence A. Rickels, who has published at least a monograph on Dick’s work, even though his very personal approach sets him apart); all of them seem to have encountered Dick’s fiction while pursuing very different interests, from Cold War culture to media ecology. This has both positive and negative consequences.

On the one hand, there is the constant risk of turning Dick into a mere pretext for scholarly research whose purpose is mainly theoretical. Rather than an in-depth discussion of Dick’s works, the author uses a few quotations from a few texts to support a general thesis, leaving the reader dissatisfied because other texts by Dick might disprove that thesis or compel the commentator to reformulate it. Someone, say, interested in posthumanity might have read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) just because of their prior interest in Blade Runner (1982), ignoring such relevant texts as We Can Build You (1972) or “The Electric Ant” (1969). My experience tells me that Dick is one of those writers—like Thomas Pynchon or J.G. Ballard—whose vision and “message” are almost impossible to grasp by reading a single work or a small part of their oeuvre. Besides, the occasional critical visitor may be victim to the many pitfalls scattered throughout Dick’s narratives and his tremendously contradictory and beguiling paratexts.

On the other hand, Dick’s fictions are particularly important because they project a world—something implicitly acknowledged by Dunst and Schlensag, given the title they have chosen. It is a world that, as often happens in the major postmodernists, is at the same time a counterfactual artifact and a distorted but revealing mirror of the times (not only the present, of course, but also the past, if one thinks of The Man in the High Castle [1962], and of course the future, since we are dealing with a writer who produced mostly—though not only—high-grade sf). The worlds of Philip K. Dick may be twisted, but no more twisted than our world or worlds. His oeuvre draws from so many fields and is so heterogeneous and (why not?) centrifugal that it must be explored and interpreted from diverse perspectives, so that the media scholar, the historian, the narratologist, the economist, the postcolonialist, and the posthumanist are all welcome. It may well be that a scholar who only accidentally or tangentially crosses Dick’s path may stumble onto something that is also interesting for an old-fashioned literary critic (and PKD buff) like the author of this review.

The first part of the volume, “History,” includes pieces that focus on the sociocultural contexts of Dick’s fictions. Its first essay is Roger Luckhurst’s “Diagnosing Dick,” which I have enjoyed as a speech and appreciated as an essay. It is a remarkable exercise in cultural studies aimed at showing how difficult it is to interpret Dick’s fictions by diagnosing its author as a paranoid/schizophrenic/manic depressive, etc. In the early years of PKD scholarship, such home-made diagnoses were far from uncommon, and they were often used to downplay the last phase of his literary career (1970-1982), where his theological imagination was mixed with more or less conventional sf devices. Luckhurst shows how simplistic these reductive analyses were, as the definition of mental conditions itself repeatedly changed in Dick’s lifetime—or, in Luckhurst’s words, “psychiatric discourse does not have an objective status that might ‘translate’ the instability of Dick’s chaotic self-diagnoses into something final or authoritative. It was itself experiencing a series of continual transformations in the post-war period” (18). Luckhurst’s overview of the shift in psychiatry from a psychodynamic approach (inspired by Freud, Jung, and Binswanger) to a biological one (where pharmaceutical treatment is paramount) is then used to highlight how Dick’s vision of mental illness was influenced by the changes in psychiatric classification. This is an essay that I would recommend to any scholar or student who wishes to tackle the issue of madness in Dick, and I hope it may inspire further research in that direction.

Chris Rudge’s essay on drugs is more ambitious but less focused. It reads like a fragment of a larger, richly documented discussion (one might think a PhD dissertation), but it goes in many directions at once, and this is usually counterproductive in a short piece. Rudge is right when he argues that Dick’s personal drug use is as important as the representation of drugs in his works (31), but then his chapter mostly deals with secondary literature on drugs (and Dick), not with whatever biographical evidence we have about Dick’s drug  use (and abuse) and how it may open new perspectives on his writings (fiction or nonfiction). One more problem is that Rudge (correctly) tries to tackle both legal and illegal drugs in his discussion, a move that is legitimate (some substances, such as LSD, became illegal in Dick’s lifetime), but which so enlarges the field of discussion that he is left with little canvas for his picture. Moreover, when it comes to biographical sources, Rudge seems to trust something Dick said in an interview—that is, that when he took amphetamines, they never reached his brain. “But if the test results were valid,” wonders Rudge, if amphetamines “had never crossed the blood-brain barrier, then why had Dick continued to use amphetamines at all?” (42). Knowing the complexity and contradictoriness of Dick’s written and oral communications with others as one can—partially—reconstruct it from letters and other obiter dicta, my reply would be “do we really have the document Dick talked about, signed by four doctors, stating that amphetamines were not reaching his neural tissues?” When Dick told Daniel DePrez that though he had swallowed handfuls of amphetamine pills they had had no effect on his brain, he was probably enacting one of those distancing strategies whose traces can be found scattered in many documents, by which Dick was dissociating himself from his past as a drug addict (and possibly an occasional pusher)—something that made him (for example) present A Scanner Darkly (1977) as an “anti-drug novel” to the Department of Justice (Selected Letters 161). We do need more research on the complex relation between Dick’s oeuvre and drugs, but it must entail a careful analysis of what the writer said, how, to whom, and in what context.

Fabienne Collignon’s discussion of Ubik (1968) places the novel in the context of the Cold War, cryogenics research, and cybernetics in America in the 1960s. Collignon’s decision to concentrate on a single novel in which the issue of cryogenics is paramount makes her essay less unfocused than Rudge’s; yet one wishes that she had carried out a more expansive reading of Dick’s fiction, as she might have found a lot more opportunities to apply her conceptual arsenal, based on an impressive knowledge of the technoscientific imagination of the 1960s. Cold-pac in Ubik, read through the perspective of Collignon’s “holy technological trinity” of “cryogenic-cybernetic-capitalist order” (61), is indeed a form of commodification of the dead; but her thesis would have been strengthened by a more in-depth analysis of the relation between Glen Runciter and his wife Ella and/or his employee Joe Chip. Still, one cannot help admiring Collignon’s elegant style, with strong echoes of Baudrillard, which makes reading her essay (like her recent monograph, Rocket States [2014]) pleasurable; and some of the hints she drops have the indisputable merit of suggesting possible lines of further inquiry.

The second part of the collection, “Theory,” begins with Marcus Boon’s essay on drugs and ontology in Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Here ontology is not used in a metaphorical way (as in my book on Dick’s novels) but in its proper philosophical meaning, and Boon’s discussion of the role played by drugs in the complex relation between subject and object has as much to do with Kant, Heidegger, and other major figures of Western philosophy as it does with Dick. Boon’s thesis is fascinating: drugs, which impact the subject’s capacity to reason and know, are on the side of both subjectivity and objectivity, thus finding themselves astraddle the divide formulated by Kant, which is the necessary precondition of most philosophical discourse since the end of the eighteenth century. Is this literary criticism? Maybe my idea of literary studies is old-fashioned, as I tend to think it is something else; but, as I have already argued elsewhere, Dick’s writings also have a philosophical dimension that deserves to be discussed and possibly developed. No wonder that critics with a strong philosophical bent, such as Jameson in the US or Antonio Caronia in Italy, have been attracted by his essays as well as his fiction. And it is the nonfictional part of Dick’s oeuvre that Boon is evidently most interested in: the essay will surely be useful for those who want to explore Dick the amateur thinker, with his frequently naïve statements and unexpectedly deep and dazzling insights.

Laurence A. Rickels’s essay on The Simulacra (1964), “From Here to California,” is—as is often the case with his writings—not an easy read, since Rickels’s complex interpretive method, drawing on German history and culture, psychoanalysis, and many other theoretical references, is often hard to decipher. In Rickels’s interpretation, Germany becomes a sort of psychological (or psychiatric) dimension of US culture, in an integration that is best represented by the USEA (United States of Europe and America), the weird German-American conglomerate in which Dick’s 1964 novel is set. Rickels presents us with many interconnected lines of inquiry: the activity of Wernher von Braun as a popularizer of astronautics in the postwar US, the disappearance of the Holocaust in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the psychoanalytic interpretation of teenage delinquency by Donald Winnicott, German pre-WWII sf, Henry Morgenthau’s “proposal that post-war Germany was pastoralized to insure world peace” (94), and so on. These apparently heterogeneous discourses all relate to episodes and details of Dick’s The Simulacra in a bewildering but sometimes enlightening way. I admit that I have not been able to grasp all that is at stake in Rickels’s essay, but there are insights worth considering, such as the connection between the harmless androids in We Can Build You and the murderous ones in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—in which Roy Baty and the other escaped androids are envisioned as adolescents “going on psychopathic” (92).

Yari Lanci’s “Remember Tomorrow: Biopolitics of Time in the Early Works of Philip K. Dick” rereads four early narratives (“The Variable Man” [1953], “The Golden Man” [1954], and “The Minority Report” [1956], and  The World Jones Made [1956]) focusing on the theme of precognition and prediction from the perspective of Foucault’s concepts of biopower and biopolitics. Lanci aims to show that these stories of the 1950s may reveal totally new meanings in today’s world of “financial speculation and debt” (111). The author argues that debt is as powerful a tool for the control of the future as precognition or statistical projections are in Dick’s stories, and reads in a novel way these classical themes of sf (and fantasy). While I am not wholly satisfied with how Lanci handles the texts (a closer reading might have strengthened his interpretation), it must be said that the attempt is intriguing and might yield interesting results if carried out in a more systematic form, working on other stories and novels by Dick where precogs play an important role (of course, Ubik comes to mind). While it is true that the presence of psi-powered characters was explained away by Dick himself as an external constraint (some sf editors demanded that psi powers feature in the works they purchased), it would not be the first time that external constraints (be they political, moral, religious, or commercial) compelled a writer to face a particular theme or issue and find a creative and productive treatment of it, lending itself to in-depth sociopolitical analyses. Moreover, since Dick was also the author of five large volumes of short stories, which have generally been neglected, any critical contribution drawing attention to his shorter fiction is always welcome.

The title of Mark Bould’s contribution, “Dick Without the Dick,” proves that British humor is alive and well; it opens the “Adaptation” section of the volume, which contains three essays on the impact Dick’s fiction on other arts—cinema and comics—and on a different cultural context, that of Japanese sf. Bould discusses the quandaries of what might be labeled “adaptation theory” and persuasively makes readers aware of the complexity of adapting a literary text to another medium (in this case, cinema), arguing—in a “classical” Derridean perspective—that what is problematic is the idea of the original itself. He subsequently explains something that any movie-going Dick reader has experienced—that is, the fact that most of Dick’s fictional adaptations lack that “Dickian feel” we all like so much. Bould then discusses two low-budget movies, Special (2006) and Big Man Japan (2007), which do not claim to be inspired by Dick’s twisted worlds but which, so Bould argues, convey typical Dickian elements and atmospheres. At the same time, Bould argues that the category of slipstream may play an important role in the assessment of Dick’s oeuvre (and I do agree with him), connecting this issue to the whole question of adaptation. All in all, this is one of the best contributions to the volume, and it makes me wish its author had also addressed two more films that drew heavily from Dick without saying so: The Truman Show (1998) and Inception (2010)—both qualifying, by the way, as slipstream movies.

Takayuki Tatsumi’s essay, “Mr Tagomi’s Planet,” takes a more historical approach, outlining with commendable clarity and precision what the reception of Dick’s fiction has been in Japan, and how it interacted—in that specific historical and geographic context—with the reception of a literary movement that has not often been connected to the weird narratives of the Californian writer—that is, surrealism. Much has been written about, say, J.G. Ballard and surrealism, or Dick and postmodernism, but the fact that Dick was welcomed in Japan by scholars and writers who were also importing the surrealist imagination strikes me as a quite original insight; writers such as Chiaki Kawamata, who featured both André Breton and Philip K. Dick in his novel Death Sentences (1984), have made a point of underscoring the surrealistic side of PKD. Moreover, Tatsumi’s discussion of Dick’s reception in Japan makes one regret that there have not been more contributions, both during the Dortmund conference and in the volume, regarding his reception in France, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere (I should point out, however, that one of the editors of the volume, Stefan Schlensag, delivered a groundbreaking speech about Dick in Germany at the 2012 PKD Festival in San Francisco).

Schlensag, in his essay “On Three Comics Adaptations of Philip K. Dick,” deals with graphic novels by American and Italian authors, and though working in the relatively recent and growing field of comics studies, his analysis of the adaptations of Dick’s fiction runs parallel to Bould’s contribution on Dick and cinema. What I find really interesting in this compact and well-thought-out essay is Schlensag’s contention that “[c]omic adaptations may also enhance our understanding of the texts on which they base themselves, setting in motion a creative process that involves artists and readers and challenges a traditional evaluation of adaptation based on ‘fidelity’” (169). His reading of three well-chosen examples persuasively supports this hypothesis, since Tony Parker’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (2009) nonetheless asks the comics artist to answer complex questions about the translation of a purely verbal text into the hybrid narrative of comics, while the graphic prequel to Do Androids, Chris Roberson and Robert Adler’s Dust to Dust (2010), instead of allowing its authors to stray far from Dick’s narrative, forces them to confront a series of minor and major elements in the novel in order to address Dick’s classic question, “What is reality?” Last but not least, Pierluigi Matteuzzi and Francesco Ongarato’s Philip K. Dick (2012) draws from Dick’s life (also through Lawrence Sutin’s biography) to visualize quite effectively how his peculiar variety of ontological uncertainty is rooted in his “private” life, and how that life has been recreated and interpreted in Dick’s more overtly autobiographical novels, from Radio Free Albemuth (wr. 1976; pub. 1985)to The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).

Last but not least, we have the “Exegesis” section of the volume, addressing Dick’s most problematic work. When the Dortmund conference took place in fall 2012, the gigantic selection of texts edited by Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson had just been published, finally allowing readers and scholars to tackle a document that had attained an almost legendary status (one of the contributors to the volume calls it “PKD’s epic quest which is Everest in scale” [192]). No wonder, then, that three contributions address it from different points of view. Erik Davis’s “The Hymn of Philip K. Dick” not only deals with the Exegesis, but also tries to assess Dick’s religious writings and his religious/esoteric interpretations of his own fiction by also taking into account his letters and other paratexts. This allows Davis to address the complex and multilayered form of mysticism that emerges in Dick’s writings after 1974—but which might have already been present before the notorious 2-3-74 experiences, whatever they actually were—because he wants to question what he sees as a “secular bias found in much sf criticism” aimed at warning “the reader away from taking Dick’s visionary productions too seriously” (174). This skepticism would read Dick’s Gnostic (or kabbalistic, or Christian, etc.) texts as, to put it bluntly, the ravings of a madman. Davis shows that, though the Exegesis may be madness, there is a method in it, which can be read following Mircea Eliade’s comparative study of religions. This essay is certainly one of the highlights of the volume, and I hope Davis will publish more on Dick’s later writings. There is no doubt that PKD studies can only benefit from a less biased and unsympathetic examination of those narratives, along with the textual juggernaut of the Exegesis.

I confess that I was not able to understand everything in Richard Doyle’s rambling essay “Stairway to Eleusis,” which manages to reproduce the feeling of vertigo that one may experience after reading many pages of the Exegesis—a text that was not conceived as something unitary by its author and resists linear modalities of reading. Doyle maintains, after Herbert Simon, that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of the recipient” (196). I wholeheartedly agree, and suspect that I was almost out of attention when I reached this information-rich text. Moreover, I am not so sure that Doyle’s insistence on “unity of what is” (201; emphasis in original) may really help us to come to terms with such a heterogeneous, multilayered, fragmentary, and above all contradictory text as the Exegesis.

The final contribution to this section is James Burton’s “From Exegesis to Ecology,” an essay that strives to show how Dick started from a “search for a transcendent savior figure” but ultimately realized that he had produced “the thing he [was] looking for” (224)—that is, VALIS itself. Burton uses the term ecology in a highly metaphorical sense in his essay, applying it to the “structure” of the Exegesis, which he sees as a heterogeneous system of texts in a relation resembling the one connecting very different living beings and their environment in an ecosystem. This essay tackles the Exegesis “in media-ecological terms” (213), as a very complex constellation of interconnected texts that at the same time maps our interconnected world of global communications and information systems, and is part of it. Some details of Burton’s discourse do not wholly persuade me, such as when he compares the Exegesis to Benjamin’s Arcades Project (wr. 1927-40; pub. 2002); yet I think Burton has a point when he argues that the purpose and goal of the Exegesis changed over time. Indeed, I would suggest that Dick’s bewildering mass of textual fragments was also an incubator for at least three of his later novels: Radio Free Albemuth, VALIS (1981), and The Divine Invasion (1981). The ultimate result may have been, as Burton suggests, the discovery that God is an “eco-technological subjectivity” (224), but the Exegesis wasalso a laboratory in which Dick relentlessly hatched narrative embryos, not simply more or less maverick and competing theories.

All in all, I reckon that The World According to Philip K. Dick, its heterogeneity and unevenness notwithstanding, is a must-read for PKD scholars, and might be even more productive if approached as a series of articulate suggestions of future lines of research within and through Dick’s oeuvre. But there is something it is definitely not. Though presented on the back cover as “the first essay collection dedicated to Philip K. Dick in over two decades,” I would like to remind its editors that another essay collection on Dick’s oeuvre (Trasmigrazioni, edited by Valerio Massimo De Angelis and myself) was published in 2006. But we know that this globalized world is one of shifting realities, and books not published in English often lack ontological solidity, alas.

Collignon, Fabienne. Rocket States: Atomic Weaponry and the Cultural Imagination.  London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

Dick, Philip K. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. 1974-82. Ed. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

─────. The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick, 1972-1973. San Francisco, CA: Underwood, 1994.

Rossi, Umberto. The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

─────, and Valerio Massimo De Angelis, eds. Trasmigrazioni: i mondi di Philip K. Dick. Firenze: Le Monnier, 2006.

Sutin, Lawrence. Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. 1989. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005.

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