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Dick, Philip K

Entry updated 23 October 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1928-1982) US author, one of the most important figures in twentieth-century Genre SF and an author of general significance. He is a figure who helps define by contrast those identified in this Encyclopedia as Mainstream Writers of SF: writers, that is, whose comprehension of the significant literatures of the last century has sometimes seemed less than full. An author like Thomas Pynchon, who is not described in this encyclopedia as mainstream, will understand what he owes Dick; a mainstream author like Margaret Atwood has worked to make it clear that she does not. He lived most of his life in California, where most of his fiction was set, either literally or by displacing sf protocols into a nightmare of the Pacific Rim. He attended college for one year at Berkeley, operated a record store and ran a classical-music programme for a local radio station; he was married five times, and had three children. From 1950 to 1970 he was intensely and constantly productive – a circumstance made clear by the posthumous publication of several markedly ill-at-ease nonfantastic novels mostly written in the early fifties. The order in which he wrote his many novels is of importance in assessing their interrelation; the discussion below is therefore ordered according to when his works were actually composed [see Checklist for the order of publication of his work].

Dick began his career with short magazine fiction – his first published story of genre interest was Beyond Lies the Wub (July 1952 Planet Stories; 2009 ebook) – and over the next few years came a number of ironic and idiosyncratic short stories, some of which were collected in A Handful of Darkness (written 1952-1954; coll 1955; with 2 stories cut 1966), The Variable Man and Other Stories (written 1952-1954; coll 1957), The Book of Philip K. Dick (written 1952-1955; coll 1973; vt The Turning Wheel and Other Stories 1977), Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K Dick (written 1952-1980; coll 1984) and I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (written 1953-1980; coll 1985). Most of this short fiction was written within a decade of the beginning of his career, and the first three and a half volumes of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick are devoted to these early years. This set, which remains definitive, consists of five separate titles, all of which suffer from a singularly unhelpful array of vts [for details see Checklist]: The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick #1: Beyond Lies the Wub (coll 1987); The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick #2: Second Variety (coll 1987); The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick #3: The Father-Thing (coll 1987); The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick #4: The Days of Perky Pat (coll 1987) and The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick #5: The Little Black Box (coll 1987).

Dick's first sf novels – The Cosmic Puppets (written 1953; 1956 Satellite as "A Glass of Darkness"; exp 1957 dos) and Dr Futurity (written 1953; 1954 Thrilling Wonder as "Time Pawn"; exp 1959 dos) – were professional expansions of magazine tales and reveal his fingerprints to hindsight; the former interestingly returns a man to his home-town which, overlaid by manufactured illusion, serves as a battleground for two warring forces who bear the aspects of Ormazd and Ahriman (the opposing principles of Zoroastrian cosmology). Dick's Paranoia about godlike manipulations of consensual reality marks a theme he would obsessively repeat in less crude form, just as the confusion of humans and mechanical simulacra adumbrated in the second book might be considered one particular variant of the major theme which runs right through Dick's work: the juxtaposition of two "levels of reality" – one "objectively" determined, the other a world of appearances imposed upon characters by various means and processes.

His first published book, Solar Lottery (written 1953-1954; 1955 dos; rev vt World of Chance 1955 UK – each text printing some material the other excludes), has an immediate impact; it is a story belonging to, if not rather dominating, a category prevalent in the early 1950s – the tale in which future society is distorted by some particular set of idiosyncratic priorities: in this case a world in which social opportunity is governed by lottery. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of A E van Vogt, and juxtaposes political intrigues with the utopian quest of the disciples of an eccentric Messiah. This interest in messianic figures runs throughout Dick's work as an important subsidiary theme. There are versions of it in The World Jones Made (written 1954; 1956 dos), Vulcan's Hammer (1956 Future Science Fiction #29; exp 1960), and in his sf of the 1960s.

But, after writing (in short order) The World Jones Made, a heated authoritarian Dystopia, Eye in the Sky (written 1955; 1957), which makes sophisticated play on the reality diseases adumbrated in his first novel, and the relatively routine The Man Who Japed (written 1955; 1956 dos), Dick began an exceedingly ambitious – and almost totally unsuccessful – attempt to break into the mainstream-novel market. From this time – after Gather Yourselves Together (written circa 1949-1952; 1994), a tentative first try – came Voices from the Street (written 1952-1953; 2007), Mary and the Giant (written 1953-1955; 1987), The Broken Bubble (written 1956; 1988), Puttering About in a Small Land (written 1957; 1985), In Milton Lumky Territory (written 1958-1959; 1985), Confessions of a Crap Artist (written 1959; 1975), The Man Whose Teeth were All Exactly Alike (written 1960; 1984) and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (written 1960; 1986). Graceful, wry, vulnerable, pessimistic and wise, they are novels less good only than the best sf titles composed during Dick's most intense and perhaps greatest period, from about 1958 to about 1965. Of these, only Confessions of a Crap Artist was published during his lifetime.

Time Out of Joint (written 1958; 1959) is a bridge novel: its central character, who lives in a peaceful, Zoo-like Pocket-Universe enclave created for him by a war-torn society so that it can exploit his Precognitive talents, retains the desire and capacity to defeat illusion and regain objective reality. In later books the author became more and more fascinated by the various unreal worlds he created. In the first of these, the Hugo-winning The Man in the High Castle (written 1961; 1962), his best-known single book, the characters live in an Alternate History in which the Allies lost World War Two (see Hitler Wins), but one of them eventually learns from the I-Ching that the real world – manifest in the alternate through the pages of a novel – is one in which the Allies won (though it is not exactly our world). Throughout, in this first entirely "typical" Dick novel, an ontological insecurity – about one's physical being, about one's position in a complexly inimical world, about the ultimate nature of reality and appearance (see Perception) – abyssally interpenetrates all other concerns. In this novel, Dick's subtle and consuming focus on forgery is clearly evident – many of Dick's protagonists are literally forgers, or dealers in objects of suspect virtu; and most of his overall realities can be understood as forgeries of God or God-substitutes like Palmer Eldritch – and elicit comparisons with the work of his near contemporary, William Gaddis (1922-1998).

After this major novel came, in close succession, the writing of three further books which together constitute his finest achievement. Martian Time-Slip (written 1962; August-December 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow as "All We Marsmen"; exp 1964) creates a world irradiated by schizophrenic (see Paranoia) perceptions, and moves with frightening intensity – and hilarity – to an elegant transcendental finale. Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (written 1963; 1965), is built more intricately than any other Dick novel upon a plot-structure whose interconnections and layers themselves work as a portrayal of the world – in this case a Post-Holocaust USA. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (written 1964; 1964), more extremely than any previous Dick book, inhabits the badlands within which the real and the ersatz interpenetrate: suppliers of a hallucinogenic Drug which makes life tolerable for Martian colonists face opposition from the sinister Eldritch, whose own new drug, Chew-Z (imaged in language which recalls the Communion wafer), pre-empts reality entirely.

The complexity and stature of these four books were perhaps muffled in the 1960s through their being outnumbered by the less-achieved Dick works that were being composed or released at this same time – We Can Build You (written 1962; November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum", with last chapter added by Ted White; text restored 1972), The Game-Players of Titan (written 1963; 1963), The Simulacra (written 1963; 1964), Now Wait for Last Year (written 1963; 1966), Clans of the Alphane Moon (written 1963-1964; 1964), The Crack in Space (written 1963-1964; 1966), The Zap Gun [for subtitle see Checklist below] (written 1964; 1967), The Penultimate Truth (written 1964; 1964) (see Underground), The Unteleported Man (written 1964-1965; December 1964 Fantastic; first half only 1966 dos; both halves rev 1983; with short inserts by John T Sladek rev vt Lies, Inc 1984; further rev from original manuscript 2004) and Counter-Clock World (written 1965; 1967). None of these stories quite jell in the end – though much happens of considerable interest – and none lack moments of extraordinary cultural and psychological insight, sometimes presented in a language singularly familiar with the large repertory of mind-states accessible through the use of Drugs. It was only with a late novel, A Scanner Darkly (written 1973; 1977), that he would explore the more negative human implications of drug-taking, though with an almost hallucinated vehemence.

In his next major novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (written 1966; 1968; vt Blade Runner 1982) – filmed as Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott, the sequel being Blade Runner 2049 (2017) directed by Dennis Villeneuve – Dick effectively climaxed the series of novels in which mechanical simulacra of human beings – sometimes eminent – figure as agents of illusion. In this tale, which became much more widely known after the film, android animals are marketed to help expiate the guilt people experience because real ones have been virtually exterminated or become extinct; simultaneously the protagonist must hunt down Androids illegally imported from Mars. In so doing, he learns that the society's new Messiah may also be a fake; and that the landscapes of decay and imposture may in fact only mirror his own condition. As with so many of Dick's best books – like Martian Time-Slip, Dr Bloodmoney and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – the story takes place in a depleted environment, with a small population existing in a derelict Ruined Earth. This sense of a shrinking world intensifies in Dick's last two "untroubled" works of genius: Ubik (written 1966; 1969), which features the creation of a subjective world by a group of people killed in an accident but restored to a kind of consciousness within a preservative machine, though any final determination of what is real in the book is made superbly problematical; and A Maze of Death (written 1968; 1970), a bleak, poisoned exercise in theology which has been described as his single finest work.

From this point in Dick's life, metaphysical questions began to dominate. Galactic Pot-Healer (written 1967-1968; 1969) begins almost as a Parody, but soon becomes involved in questions of predetermination and the Dualistic conflict between darkness and light. Theological issues are paramount also in the novelette "Faith of Our Fathers" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) and in Our Friends From Frolix 8 (written 1968-1969; 1970), the composition of which is illuminated by Outline for Our Friends from Frolix 8 (written 1968; 1989 chap).

As the 1970s began, theology gradually segued in Dick's own life into episodes of paranoia and epiphany, climaxing in a religious experience in March 1974 which he spent much of the rest of his life analysing in the form of an "Exegesis", of which a small, integral portion was published as Cosmogony and Cosmology (written 1978; 1987 chap); a larger selection from this material was later assembled as In Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis (1991); a more comprehensive presentation of the whole – comprising about 15% of the 8,000 manuscript pages left by Dick – has been assembled as The Exegesis of Philip K Dick (2011) edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem. The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick: 1972-1973 (coll 1993), The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick: 1974 (coll 1991), The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick: 1975-1976 (coll 1992) and The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick: 1977-1979 (coll 1992) focus on the same material.

And, after twenty years, the stream of novels became intermittent. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (written 1970-1973; 1974), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award, mainly retreads old ground. It was followed by a rather unsatisfactory collaboration with Roger Zelazny, Deus Irae (written 1964-1975; fixup 1976). A Scanner Darkly (see above) intensifies Flow My Tears's analysis of Drug states, infusing the metaphysics of the tale with a poignant sense of a lived life (almost certainly with autobiographical implications); Radio Free Albemuth (written 1976; 1985), which began to deal in "healthy" fictional terms with the Exegesis material, was published only after Dick's death.

This latter novel is, in any case, a kind of draft of the finest book of Dick's last years, VALIS (written 1978; 1981), a fragile but deeply valiant self-analysis – the two protagonists of the novel, a man who is mad and a man who is not, are clearly meant to comprise a double portrait of the author himself – conducted within the framework of a longing search for the structure of meaning, the Vast Active Living Intelligence System. The Divine Invasion (written 1980; 1981) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (written 1981; 1982), which were assembled with their predecessor as The VALIS Trilogy (omni 1989), share obsessional search-patterns but little else. They were the books of a finished writer, in every sense. VALIS in particular reflects Dick's extensive interest in the notion of bicameralism expounded by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976); Jaynes's work also had an impact on the structuring of the Exegesis (see above).

The posthumous growth in Dick's reputation is, of course, partially due to the huge amount of critical attention (see Critical and Historical Works About SF) his work has received [see Checklist for examples], an attention so excessive, given the number of sf writers who also merit sustained study, that at least one scholarly journal refused in the early twenty-first century to consider, at least for a period, any further essays on his work. Far more influential, however, has been the Cinema response. A number of variously significant films have been based posthumously on Dick's work: Blade Runner (see above); Total Recall (1990), which is based on We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (April 1966 F&SF; 1990 chap); Screamers (1996), based on "Second Variety" (May 1953 Space Science Fiction); Minority Report (2002), based on "The Minority Report" (January 1956 Fantastic Universe); Paycheck (2003), based on "Paycheck" (June 1953 Imagination); A Scanner Darkly (2006), adapting the novel; Next (2007), loosely based on "The Golden Man" (April 1954 If); and The Adjustment Bureau (2011), very freely adapted from "Adjustment Team" (September/October 1954 Orbit). There is a tendency in these films to render the Dickian abyss as an assault upon our senses by noir technologies and melodramatic City-scapes, and to retell his stories as action dramas, all of which fails understandably to capture the compulsive everydayness of his nightmare worlds. That said, it is of real interest to be able to note that in the Postmodern twenty-first century the term Dickian has some of the same cultural impact as the term Kafkaesque (see Franz Kafka).

The earlier Dick often lost control of his material in ideative mazes and, sidetracked, was unable to find any resolution; but, when he found the tale within his grasp, he was brilliantly inventive, gaining access to imaginative realms which no other writer of sf had reached, as demonstrated in Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams: Volume One (coll 2017), which assembles tales first published 1953-1955 and adapted for the Channel 4 Television Anthology Series Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams (2017-2018). His sympathy for the plight of his characters – often far-from-heroic, small, ordinary people trapped in difficult existential circumstances – was unfailing, and his work had a human interest absent from that of writers engaged by complexity and convolution for their own sake. Even the most perilous metaphysical terrors of his finest novels wore a complaining, vulnerable, human face. In all his work he was astonishingly intimate, self-exposed, and very dangerous. He was the funniest sf writer of his time, and perhaps the most terrifying. Pace Hollywood's ameliorative pyrotechnics, his dreads were our own, spoken as we could not have spoken them in 1960, nor speak them now. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005. [BS/JC]

see also: Ace Books; Aliens; Automation; British Fantasy Award; BSFA Award; Collections; Colonization of Other Worlds; Comics; Computers; Conapt; Conceptual Breakthrough; Cybernetics; Cyborgs; Entropy; Fantastic Voyages; France; Games and Sports; Genetic Engineering; Gods and Demons; Gothic SF; Great and Small; History of SF; Humour; Icons; Identity; Invasion; Left Coast; Longevity in Writers; Machines; Matter Transmission; Media Landscape; Memory Edit; Metaphysics; Music; New Wave; New Worlds; Optimism and Pessimism; Outer Planets; Philip K Dick Award; Politics; Psychology; Recursive SF; Reincarnation; Religion; Robots; Satire; SF Music; Timescape Books; Time Travel; Virtual Reality; Toys in SF; Weapons; Zap Gun.

Philip Kindred Dick

born Chicago, Illinois: 16 December 1928

died Santa Ana, California: 2 March 1982


Listed in order of publication; see body of entry for order of composition. The Dick bibliography is increasingly complicated. Many stories have been published separately; some of these also being title stories of various collections and their vts; we do not here treat these separately published stories as being connected to collections, listing them instead under collections and stories.



Collected Stories

The Library of America Philip K Dick

Early Work of Philip K Dick

individual titles

collections and stories


Ostensible nonfiction related to the VALIS sequence appears under that series heading above.

Selected Letters

Listed in order of coverage rather than of publication.

individual nonfiction titles

about the author

The literature on Dick is enormous and daily growing. Here are a few representative volumes:


previous versions of this entry

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