Sunday, August 08, 2004


Michel Basilières paints a harsh (perhaps undeservedly so) portrait of Philip K Dick.

I really enjoyed Basilières' previous articles in Maisonneuve, and I've been looking forward to this one, but it leaves me feeeling confused.

After decribing the job of science fiction to see the future and citing examples of how "Toronto is beginning to look like the science fiction landscapes of the eighties"; after contending that Michel Houllebecq's Elementary Particles is science fiction; after admitting he could never muster the enthusiasm for "the Golden Age masters — Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke," while extolling the virtues of a genre hack whose novels opened a window onto the multidimensional world of books to teenage boys . . .

Why read a column — "alternative literature explored" — written by someone who degrades the genre and increasingly shows little understanding of it?

(Feedback on this instalment to date has been resoundingly negative.)

I don't know much about science fiction. I consider myself a student of the genre. There must be something to it when the most colourful and interesting books I've read in recent years fall under this category (Neal Stephenson, Richard K Morgan, China Miéville); it demands further investigation.

I've always been a fan of dystopian novels, and more often than not it's the questionable employment of scientific advancements that generates these worlds gone awry (Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake).

I admit, I've not read much Dick (but some).

According to Basilières:

Philip K. Dick rarely made sense. His paranoid delusions about his own life transposed easily into his baroque space operas. He’s becoming a hero in hindsight only because his work coincidentally seems to presage the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture. On the evidence of what’s on his pages, people are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about.

Basilières' main argument is that Dick wrote really fast, and "real writing takes real time"; therefore his writing can't be any good. He even compares Dick's drug-induced outpouring to the automatic writing experiments of the Surrealists — but an examination of intent shows how inappropriate the analogy is.

Basilières derides the creative inspiration driven by a "drugged-out mental state" or "the stress of poverty-induced deadlines."

What about those great serial writers: Dickens and opium, Dostoevsky and vodka?

Dick is not a great writer in any technical sense. He's not a master wielder of words. He's an idea man. His "science" is often illogical and never fully explained. What's at issue are the ethical implications: it's an analysis of human behaviour in weird circumstances. The science doesn't matter.

"Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans," by Stanislaw Lem:

There is some inscrutable factor at work which is visible in its manifestations but not at its source, and the world behaves as if it has fallen prey to a malignant cancer which through metastases attacks one area of life after another.

The Second Coming of Philip K Dick (Wired, Dec 2003) quotes a 1978 essay by Dick:

"We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives. I distrust their power. It is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing."

The World According to Dick, according to The Economist (Aug 8, 2004).
Philip K Dick: The Official Site.
Study Guide for Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner (1968).
The Religious Experience of Philip K Dick, by R Crumb.

1 comment:

Miriam Jones said...

Yes, yes, yes, and yes!