Philip Dick-01s

As is appropriate for an author who deals with the question of "What is reality", Philip K. Dick pushes hard against the boundaries of reality as perceived by the reader. Thus, our preconceived notions of reality are constantly challenged by his work. Conversely, an inappropriate demand for strict realism and rationality is not rewarded, as Katherine Hayles explains:

Call it perversity, poor writing, or simple confusion; the perfect Philip K. Dick novel does not exist. The more closely Dick's work is examined, the more obvious it is that there simply is no scheme under which all of a given novel's details will fit without contradiction. As the reader struggles to make sense of a fictive world whose rules seem to metamorphose even as he reads he can sympathize with the characters inside the fiction who also must struggle to make sense of the bizarre reality in which they are placed. Paradoxically, Dick's work derives much of its power from its irrationality; a comparison with Franz Kafka is inevitable. [1]

Critics of science fiction literature do not always readily accept this surrealism, as Stanislaw Lem explains:

the convention of SF requires rational accounting for events that are quite improbable and even seemingly at odds with logic and experience. ... Dick's novels in some measure violate the convention of SF, which can be accounted to him as merit, because they thereby acquire broadened meanings having allegorical import. This import cannot be exactly determined; the indefiniteness which originates in this way favors the emergence of an aura of enigmatic mystery about the work. What is involved is a modern authorial strategy which some people may find intolerable, but which cannot be assailed with factual arguments, since the demand for absolute purity of genres is becoming nowadays an anachronism in literature. [2]

However, the flaunting of this literary convention makes the works of Philip K. Dick no less works of literature; for, these works have an enduring literary value, and not simply an entertainment value:

Literature is another matter: it is created by a process of natural selection of values, which takes place in society and which does not necessarily relegate works to obscurity if they are also entertainment, but which consigns them to oblivion if they are only entertainment. Why is this so? Much could be said about this. If the concept of the human being as an individual who desires of society and of the world something more than immediate satisfactions were abolished, then the difference between literature and entertainment would likewise disappear. [2]

Examples of Philip K. Dick's seeming surrealism abound in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Foremost among them must be the existence of the previously unknown second police station, if only because the main character, Rick Deckard, himself considers it nonsensical, describing it in this way:

It makes no sense, he said to himself. Who are these people? If this place has always existed, why didn’t we know about it? And why don’t they know about us? Two parallel police agencies, he said to himself; ours and this one. But never coming in contact – as far as I know – until now. Or maybe they have, he thought. Maybe this isn’t the first time. Hard to believe, he thought, that this wouldn’t have happened long ago. If this really is a police apparatus, here; if it’s what it asserts itself to be. [3]

But, if it makes no sense, why does Philip K. Dick take us there? The question itself suggests that there must be a good answer, if only because it seems to have been raised by the author himself. Clearly, this second police station is a thematic device – a means to an end – that allows the author to further explore his two favorite themes: "What is reality?" and "What is the authentic human?" Deckard's questions about the second police station call into question whether reality is what it appears to be – is this really a police station? If so, why don't the members of one station remember the other – have their memories of reality perhaps been altered, thus effectively altering their reality? Has Deckard's memory been altered? Also raised are questions about humanity – are the members of this station androids? What about the other station? If only androids can have their memory altered, is Deckard an android?

If, in literature, the ends justify the means, then Philip K. Dick is more than justified in sacrificing realism for relevance.

  1. Hayles, N. B. “Metaphysics and Metafiction in The Man in the High Castle.” Philip K. Dick. Ed. Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander. New York: Taplinger, 1983. 53-71.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lem, Stanislaw. "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans." trans. Robert Abernathy. Science-Fiction Studies 5 (March 1975). Pages 54-67. Reprinted in Science-Fiction Studies: Selected Articles on Science Fiction 1973-1975. Boston: Gregg Press. 1976. 210-223. Available:
  3. Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. New York: Ballantine, 1996. 113.