Philip K. Dick and Human Kindness

I have never been able to stand the self-conscious novelist, who teaches university for a living and delivers one Great American novel a year. Self-reverential and -referential, this individual bleeds "literature" to the exclusion of anything unconscious and true.

Opposed to this is the natural, the idiot savant, the desperate man who has no idea that he is writing anything memorable, the madman whose pulp fiction is half garbage and half genius. This was Philip K. Dick, who started and ended his career writing cheap Ace paperbacks, who did too many drugs and left too many marriages and died at age 53, but whose writing has a quality of unexpected wild insight that guarantees he will be remembered.

He is best known as the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was filmed, not very faithfully, as Blade Runner. The original--which would have made a better, but less popular, movie if filmed exactly as written-- is among the best of Dick's explorations of the question: What is human?

Dick took too many hallucinogenic drugs in his lifetime, and they undid him. There is a very funny, yet very grave scene in A Scanner Darkly, a very realistic novel of drug use with a minimal science fiction overlay, in which a group of friends are unable to analyze how the gear shift on a bicycle works, due to the damage they have done to their brains. Like the acid-inspired art in Timothy Leary's books, in which human scenes decompose into unrecognizable abstract shapes, Dick's hallucination-filled consciousness wound up being an obstacle to truth. Dick fell for the major fallacy of the '60's, that hallucinogens would be a gateway to truth, not a path into darkness. Sometimes he recognized this as the tragedy of his life, but would soon after revert to a search for mystical revelation. He spent his entire life looking for God.

Dick's fiction deals with three levels of reality. To the is and the ought, favorite playing field of philosophers since the beginning of human abstraction, Dick adds the seen, which is stripped away by means of drugs to reveal the hidden is:

The soft-drink stand fell into bits. Molecules. He saw the molecules, colorless, without qualities, that made it up. Then he saw through, into the space beyond it, he saw the hill behind, the trees and sky....In its place was a slip of paper. He reached out his hand and took hold of the slip of paper. On it was printing, block letters.


In this novel, Time Out of Joint, Ragle Gumm thinks he is living a quiet life in a 1950's American town, and solving a newspaper puzzle each day called Where Will the Little Green Men be Next? In reality, he is insane, living in a time of unbearable interstellar war, and predicting the time and place of the next attack by solving the puzzle. His seen reality, entirely false, is stripped away, layer by layer, until he reaches the is. It is only when we know the is that we can begin thinking about the ought.

Time Out of Joint is an early and inferior novel, ringing some interesting changes on a traditional science fiction theme: Everything You Think You Know is False. Dick would tell this story again, with increased certainty and poignancy. Good novels and bad each contain one or more set pieces where reality spins out of control; people fall through holes, everything changes, dead things come back to life or the protagonist falls into the underworld. Many of these episodes are based on real drug experiences of Dick's; he plants them in the midst of a narrative, like an embedded and strange jewel, and then brings you most of the way back to the narrative afterwards. He always leaves some details unexplained so that the episode continues to stand out; it is never entirely integrated. One of Dick's most expert mindgames occurs in Androids. The mentally slow J.R. Isidore, being held hostage by fugitive androids, finds a spider in his house. All living things are precious in the future portrayed in the novel because there are so few animals left. The androids, who feel no compassion, amuse themselves by cutting off the spider's legs, to see how few it requires to walk.

With the scissors Pris snipped off another of the spider's legs. "Four now," she said. She nudged the spider. "He won't go. But he can."

The scene is a tour de force; at the same time as Pris is torturing the spider, an endless talk show which broadcasts 24 hours a day--Dick's morbidly funny take on the media--is debunking the "Mercerism" religion of compassion in the background. Dick, with a very sure touch, shifts back and forth between Pris, the talk show host's revelations, and Isidore's reactions to both. Finally, Isidore can take no more and falls through the floor into the "tomb world", where he sees dead things coming back to life, and meets Mercer, who freely admits that he is a fraud but is undeniably human, therefore real, at the same time. He lifts Isidore from the tomb world and says (in Dick's truest voice):

"I lifted you from the tomb world just now and I will continue to lift you until you lose interest and want to quit. But you will have to stop searching for me because I will never stop searching for you."

Isidore returns to the seen--but the dead spider, which Mercer has restored to life, is still alive. Dick usually leaves a loose end like this one to avoid complete incorporation of the hallucinatory set-piece into the narrative--to let you know that the vision is more real than the life which it temporarily interrupted.

Android is Dick's clearest statement about the nature of the human. In stripping away the nonessential, he makes it clear that being human doesn't mean walking on two legs, having eyes, speaking language or even making love--the androids can do all this. It is the crazy, off-kilter, unconscious compassionate quality that Isidore has, and which is echoed in Mercer, the loving and magical fraud whose dishonesty doesn't matter, because it is completely dwarfed and made insignificant by his humanity. In Dick's universe, a creature that resembles an insect or a pudding may qualify as human even when something that looks, walks and talks like a man does not.

Dick's fiction, like all fiction, held a mirror up to his life. Proust said that great art results not from the quality of the life but of the mirror. Dick's was a spotted, distorted mirror that reflected flashes of the J.R. Isidore quality; so, if Dick's novels dealt with life on three levels, each was a reflection of three levels of his own life, creating six levels in all:

So, between the life and the work, the "seen" and the "is" deny each other, but "ought" matches "ought". This is a tribute to Dick; he was terribly lost but unlike most lost folk, he knew where the destination was. The old story ends, "you can't get there from here." Dick's dilemma was the opposite; he didn't know how to get here from there.

In a letter written a few months before he died, he called his life "decades of disorder and intoxication and smashing and leaving and just plain wandering the face of the Earth." He wrote to his daughter two months later that God intervenes when our burden becomes too great, but only if we call out (this is of a piece with Mercer's "only if you stop looking for me"):

this is why not all humans are saved, because not all humans see, ever, in their entire lives, that they live by and through God, and God alone.

Most of his life, he had been chaotic, physically and verbally abusing the women who loved him, even moving to harm when he hypocritically told himself he was helping (as when he tried to have one woman committed to a mental institution.) He was a cruel and self-involved man who genuinely wanted to be good-- not simply to be seen as good, like most people, but to be, in a mute, intuitive way, like J.R. Isidore. All his novels portray his continual struggle for the ought. He lost, but it was a noble failure. The humanity he craved, and portrayed in the ought of his fiction, is an unobtrusive perfect work, like the unobtrusive perfect works that had a habit of turning up unexpectedly in his novels:

The blue vase made by Mary Ann Dominic and purchased by Jason Taverner as a gift for Heather Hart wound up in a private collection of modern pottery. It remains there to this day, and is much treasured. And, in fact, by a number of people who know ceramics, openly and genuinely cherished. And loved.