Here’s the thing about Philip K. Dick: he was an abysmal writer. Though they are now far less frequent than a few years ago, every Dick “retrospective” begins with some sort of veiled caveat about his writing, which quickly segues into effusive praise of his ideas and style. Notice Adam Gopnik’s piece in the New Yorker from just over a year ago:
“Of all American writers, none have got the genre-hack-to-hidden-genius treatment quite so fully as Philip K. Dick…Dick has also become for our time what Edgar Allan Poe was for Gilded Age America: the doomed genius who supplies a style of horrors and frissons.”
Notice the turn here. Though Gopnik later argues the contrary, his very citation of the widespread belief that Dick is a genius underappreciated serves as salt for an argument that must be made, namely although Dick is a horrible writer, he can and must be appreciated for his “form of protest and instant social satire.” This pusillanimity of argumentative tact is necessary for the argumentative sleight-of-hand that most Dick critics must make in order that his writing is accepted by the public intellect.
This sort of criticism, though helpful in getting Dick’s name around, is wrong-headed and yields an improper reading of the man’s expansive body of work. If the argument is bought, Dick is treated as high literature, regardless of his poor prose. This is as stupid a concept as it is wrong-headed, because through Dick’s writing it is self-evident that the ideas his writing elicits are the true mettle of Dick’s literary persona. The current critical view of Dick is wont to strip away the layers of writing that surround his ideas like so many coatings of paint. His writing, though bad, is not a foil: it is the essential aspect of a literary philosopher, not a satirist or a social critic.
As a major of philosophy, my perspective on the writer is necessarily skewed towards this reading, but I think it is corroborated by even a cursory review of his books and the underlying ideas they treat. The New Yorker critic sees in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a blithe lampooning of American corporatism and the decay of the rule of law. Blade Runner has in this case served to obscure the book’s actual message by the sheer power of its visual language (this is an important point). Deckard’s infantile social capacity is mirrored with the social impulse towards mood-modification. His wife cannot communicate with him on any meaningful level because she is obsessed with her own Cartesian winter, spent modifying her moods and compulsions with high-technology pharmacology.
In Dr. Bloodmoney, a predominant theme of Dick’s writing is taken to its apotheosis: Walter Dangerfield orbits the earth in a satellite, broadcasting classical music to the inhabitants below. Dr. Bloodmoney or Bruno Bluthgeld or Jack Tree is himself responsible for the nuclear war that has brought the human race to its knees. This is Descartes’ cogito enlarged to the point of absurdity. Bloodmoney finds himself vested with the terrible power of being able to cause a nuclear holocaust with his own mind.
Dick critics who see him as a satirist par excellence do him a disservice, mainly because his satire would be ideosyncratic and without any real insights into the human condition after World War II. Dick is backward-looking, and forward-extrapolating. He is not trying to poke fun at the consumerism stalking the gates of American culture or of the vapid scientism that challenges the viability of any ideology.
It is a common refrain that the Dickian hero is more likely than not an ‘average joe’, who is just trying to make his way through the world, yet is brought kicking and screaming into unfortunate circumstanes that demand he prove his worth. This is convenient because the satirical read benefits: Dick is simply portraying the plight of the common man under the encroachments of modern technology.
Dick is portraying a loneliness that is modern above all, and modernity has no space at the table for a satirist. Why do Dick’s ideas matter so much, then? Because he stands for the resumption of history after its end; to show that there is a continuity in the crises of humanity. We wrested the spark of atomic fire from the fennel-seed of intellect. Our mistakes and slips of mind have ever more potent consequences, but it is by very dint of the seriousness of modern life that Dick finds an even more essential meaning to being human. His writing isolates this continuity and matches profundity in the human sorteé with ever-greater absurdities in his own outpouring of love, grief, and humor.