Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The definitive PKD

Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s: The Man in the High Castle / The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Ubik, Library of America, 2007
In the 1960s, when he wrote these four novels, Philip K. Dick was not known, as he is today, as an acclaimed "literary" science-fiction writer and visionary who inspired many films. Since his death in 1982, his reputation has steadily soared, a little bit too late, and now this former genre journeyman toiling in obscurity has become the first sf author to be enshrined in a handsome omnibus volume in the esteemed Library of America series. Of course, I had to buy it even though I already owned multiple copies of all these novels. It is a genuine pleasure to read any of the LOA volumes, so lovingly produced they are. And this one especially so, compiled as it was by an author heavily influenced by Dick, Jonathan Lethem. You will never see a biographical chronology so interesting to read in its own right: we even learn that Timothy Leary called Dick during John and Yoko's bed-in and he put the famous pair on the phone to tell PKD that they wanted to film one of the four novels contained here, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Incidentally, Lethem's taste is impeccable. Though Dick wrote no fewer than 21 novels in the 1960s (plus a couple of dozen more before and after), these are without a doubt the four best: The Three Stigmata, The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One could easily compile another such volume with four more extremely strong novels of this period: Clans of the Alphane Moon, Dr. Bloodmoney, Now Wait for Last Year, and Martian Time-Slip. However, the ones collected here are the ones I would pick, if I could have only four. They are all absolute classics and support many rereadings. I remember when in the 1970s, I encountered Three Stigmata for the first time and could not totally make sense of it, but I was intrigued. It was hallucinogenic, it was trippy, it was theological. A few years later I found myself seeking it out again, rereading with a passion, finally really "getting it," and then compulsively seeking out everything I could find by PKD. It took me years but I eventually tracked down every last out-of-print forgotten paperback. Since then all his works have been reprinted and made easily available. But my original "discovery" experience is why this LOA volume means so much to me now. The Man in the High Castle is perhaps the best alternate history ever written, a speculation on what life would have been like if the Germans and Japanese had won World War II. Ubik is a brilliant ontological quest into the very structure of reality. Do Androids Dream, the novel on which the film Blade Runner is based, is among other things a meditation on what it means to be human. These four novels have become like cornerstones in my own life's journey. For them to have been given this respectful and definitive publication is something that brings me a lot of pleasure, and would also, I think, have pleased Philip K. Dick.


Bo Cephas said...

I'm dismayed by LoA's disclaimer that they've made no attempt to reproduce the non-textual elements of the stories typographic design (Notes on the Text.) I feel like I'm missing some of the fun. I have an idea of what they mean, having just finished a novel that featured a little unusual text placement, to wit Bester's "The Stars, My Destination." Not having access to multiple copies, I have nothing to compare to the LoA edition. Do you know specifically what is lacking from this collection?

Doug Mackey said...

Alfred Bester's "The Stars, My Destination" as well as his "The Demolished Man" are atypical in their heavy reliance on typographic effects. There is nothing comparable in any of Dick's stories or novels. All of his books have gone through multiple editions and various publishers without reference to any non-textual feature that I can think of. I'm sure if there had been a situation where there were line drawings, say, as in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, recently republished by LoA, they would have adhered to the original, although since I don't have that volume I can't confirm it.