Philip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the film Blade Runner, did not live to enjoy his Hollywood success. He died on March 2, 1982, three months before the film was released.
In the years since, the novelist once dismissed as a gutter pulp sci-fi weirdo has steadily climbed the ladder of posthumous literary reputation. The case for Dick’s genius has never rested on his dystopian vision of technology, which he shared in common with masters like HG Wells and Stanislaw Lem, and with hundreds of sci-fi writers since. Good science fiction — as opposed to fantasy novels set on other planets — is defined by a quasi-philosophical examination of interactions between men and machines and other products of modern science. It is part novel and part thought-experiment, centered on our idea of the human.
What made Dick a literary genius, then, was not any special talent for predicting hand-held personal devices or atom bombs the size of a shoe which might have led him to a job in Apple’s marketing department. His gift was for what might be called predictive psychology — how the altered worlds he imagined, whether futuristic or merely divergent from existing historical continuums, would feel to the people who inhabited them. Dick’s answer was, very often: “Not good.”
Dick’s dystopian-psychological approach marks him less as a conventional science fiction writer than as a member of the California anti-utopian school of the Sixties, whose best-known members include Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Ken Kesey, Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson. Seen from this angle, Dick was perhaps the most powerfully and sweepingly paranoid of a group of writers whose stock-in-trade was conspiracy and paranoia, the hallmarks of a society marked — at that moment, and this one — by violent street crime, drug-induced psychosis, and visionary promises gone terribly wrong. Of his anti-utopian peers, Dick’s sci-fi genre background made him the only one who had any particular feel for the proposition that technology was inseparable from, and would therefore inevitably alter, our idea of the human.
Technology was and is perhaps the most Californian aspect of the American mythos. The idea that the universal constants of human nature were at war with the mutilating demands of technology-driven systems was a very Sixties Californian conceit, to which Dick’s fellow anti-utopians each adhered in their own way: In Kesey’s showdown between man and the castrating nanny-state; in Didion’s emphasis on the vanishing virtue of self-reliance; in Pynchon’s degenerate Ivy League Puritanism; in Thompson’s drug-addled primitivism; and in Stone’s Catholic idea of devotion to a God that might somehow salve the wounds of the survivors once the great American adventure goes bust.
What Dick saw, and what his fellow anti-utopians did not, was that human psychology and technology are not separate actors, and that whatever emerged from the other side of the future would be different to the human thing that entered it.
Link to the rest at Unherd