Adam Gopnik on Phillip K. Dick

The New Yorker has an exquisite article by Adam Gopnik on science fiction writer, Phillip K. Dick. Gopnik doesn't pull punches; Dick was in many ways bat-shit crazy. He also had a genius for understanding that the future would likely be just as wrong -- in the way that people in 60s tended to define wrong -- as the present. This sense of stability in human nature made his books ironic and deeply satirical.

Money quote:

Dick's admirers identify his subjects as..."reality and madness, time and death, sin and salvation." Later, as he became crazier, he did see questions in vast cosmological terms, but in these sharp, funny novels of the sixties he was taking on a more pointedly American question: Are there reliable boundaries between vicarious and real experience? Is there anything that can't be made into a form of show business, and any form of show business that can't be made into something more? Recreation and religion, and their intertwining, are the DNA of his worlds: the tedium of existence forces us toward "fun"; fun becomes the basis of our faith.


The gift of Dick's craziness was to see how strong the forces of normalcy are in a society, even when what they are normalizing is objectively nuts. In "Clans of the Alphane Moon," from 1964, a mental hospital in a remote solar system has been abandoned by its keepers, and the lunatics have, over time, proliferated and organized themselves into a strange but functioning and interdependent country: a clan of paranoids supplies the statesmen, the Skitzes live in poverty but have wild poetic visions, the Deps provide a depressed realistic appraisal of the future, and the manics are the warriors. It's weird, but it's a working society, not a suicidal one. And a society that in some ways resembles Dick's own, that of the Johnson-Nixon years. Of the normalized madhouse on the Alphane moon, a psychiatrist says:

Leadership in this society here would naturally fall to the paranoids. . . . But you see, with paranoids establishing the ideology, the dominant emotional theme would be hate. Actually hate going in two directions; the leadership would hate everyone outside its enclave, and also would take for granted that everyone hated it in return. Therefore their entire so-called foreign policy would be to establish mechanisms by which this supposed hatred directed at them could be fought. And this would involve the entire society in an illusory struggle, a battle against foes that didn't exist for a victory over nothing.

Read the whole thing. I reviewed A Scanner Darkly -- the movie based on the book by Dick -- here.

Hat-tip: 3 Quarks Daily


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nitpick: Only one 'l' in Philip.

As a pretty serious PKD devotee, I'd say that is a stunningly good piece from Gopnik. Nice to see someone who "gets it" and yet doesn't merely blindly worship Dick's writing.

Thank you, very much, for the best link I've followed this week.


I have to pay you my compliments for these phrases, which sum up very well what I appreciate in fiction generally and found in P. Dick's writing in particular:

"a sense of stability in human nature"
"[seeing] how strong the forces of normalcy are in a society, even when what they are normalizing is objectively nuts."

Way to go, and I also thank you for the link.