Don't Dick Philip K. 'Cuz You Saw the Movie First

Don’t worry; there are no spoilers ahead …

[tag]A Scanner Darkly[/tag] is perhaps a great example of writing what you know, and I often wonder if this is why [tag]Philip K. Dick[/tag] isn’t more popular today than he is. There may or may not be some truth in that statement, but I have no doubt that this why many people who have seen the popular movies based on his work who then ran out and and read the books on which they were based tend to be critical of Philip K. Particularly when it comes to [tag]Blade Runner[/tag] – I’m sure many people went out and read [tag]Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep[/tag] after having seen the Ridley Scott picture and had a significant WTF!? reaction. The same with Total Recall and the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”

I should stop and interrupt myself here and explain something. I just can’t bring myself to refer to Philip K. on second reference by his last name, Dick. At age 38, I’m still too proudly immature that I can’t help but laugh, at least in spirit, like Butthead would when referring to Dick. Hence: Philip K.

While I like the movie Blade Runner a lot, and I like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, they are too very different works. I like pizza and pasta, too, and both are Italian, but differ considerably, despite common elements. In much the same way I wouldn’t say Blade Runner is based on Electric Sheep so much as influenced or inspired by it. Particularly when I think about the number of people I’ve known over the years who love Blade Runner who disliked Electric Sheep.

I almost think Blade Runner has done Philip K. Dick (huh huh, huh huh … I wrote “Dick”) a disservice. Philip K. is a great author. He was also a recreational drug user and experienced some psychological problems; he himself surmised that he suffered from schizophrenia. In short, he was very much a product of the times in which he wrote. His first novel was published in 1955; he continued to publish novels until his death in 1982 at age 54. This is not to say that he should be relegated to this time period, or to suggest that he is not relevant today – I think Scanner Darkly proves adroitly otherwise. But I think this context is important to understanding his writing – or any other author’s, for that matter — particularly if a reader is new to Philip K. The Beat poets, the counter culture of the ’60s, the paranoia and self-absorption of the ’70s — all echo throughout much of his work; sometimes directly, as in Scanner, and sometimes in a more subliminal manner, as undercurrents that only ripple on the surface.

A Scanner Darkly is seemingly classic Philip K., written in his signature style, relatively spare yet nevertheless vividly realized. And realistically realized, I would add; anyone who has ever known anyone who has used too many recreational drugs over the course of their lives will recognize the characters in Scanner. Unlike Blade Runner, the movie that recently came out based on Scanner Darkly is pretty faithful to Philip K.’s book; I hadn’t read this one before I saw the movie, but I’ve read enough of his works back in the day to recognize some of the classic elements of Philip K. that successfully migrated to the movie screen.

So I’ve been kind of surprised in the period between now and then that there have been readers new to Philip K. that sought him out after seeing the movie, and were disappointed. Some even suggest that the book is inferior to the movie, an idea with which I vehemently disagree. The movie is good, but the book is better (of course), although I’m surprised at just how well the movie captures the spirit of the book; animating in the way it was done was a brilliant idea, achieving that sense of unreality that gradually grows within the main character throughout the course of the story. And the casting … well, what better cast for a story about drug abuse, paranoia and conspiracy than this crew? And that’s not a put-down; the entire cast really does a stellar job, although Robert Downey Jr. practically steals every scene he is in.

If you haven’t read Philip K. before, and you haven’t seen the movie of A Scanner Darkly, the standard advise applies: read the book, then see the film. But if you have already seen the movie, I still wholeheartedly encourage you to read the book, if you liked the film. In fact, I think Scanner is more accessible than many of his other works. I wouldn’t suggest starting out reading Philip K. with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, especially if you are expecting Blade Runner.

Read Scanner and want more Dick? (huh, huh … yeah, couldn’t resist that one.) Then I would suggest The Man in the High Castle. I can’t claim to be a Philip K. afficionado (insert gender/sexual orientation Dick joke of choice here), but of the novels and other stuff that I’ve read of his over the years, this is by far my favorite, and definitely on my list of all-time great science fiction. He’s definitely on top of his game in High Castle. There is perhaps a lot of scholarly dissertation and social/historical and literary criticism to be had when considers that High Castle came about in 1962, Electric Sheep in ’68 and Scanner in ’77. But I’ll leave that up to the Dick scholars.

Huh huh, huh huh … Dick scholars (insert ex-girlfriend joke of choice here). Sorry, couldn’t resist “Dick scholars.” Will I ever mature, I wonder? I think not. Tried maturity once, didn’t much care for it.