A Libertarian Look at Philip K. Dick
by Thomas Luongo: The
Inescapable Collapse of Watchmen
It is nearly
impossible for me to put into words how much the work of Philip
K. Dick has impacted my life. It started in December 1981 and the
pending release of the film Blade Runner that summer. Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) had just been re-printed
and my life would change from the moment I plunked down that $1.75
plus tax at the Caldorís in Vailís Gate, NY. I was about to turn
13 and my opinion of what a book was capable of was about to be
changed forever. Over the next few months many of his books were
reprinted in anticipation of Blade
Runner and I bought them all. My collection numbers more
than 30 novels, all of his short-fiction and more than a half dozen
biographies, interview collections and excerpts from his exegesis.
I donít claim to understand half of what is contained in those books
but it doesnít matter.
I went from
a kid who only read when forced to someone with a book under his
arm everywhere I went. I didnít read quickly or easily. Itís always
been a bit of a chore for me. Androids is one of Dickís great
books, a brilliant look at what defines us as human beings worth
being loved and cared for. That Rick Deckard is a cop who "retires"
androids looking for a better life than being a slave was a point
lost on me until I discovered the other man who has had a profound
effect on my adult life, Murray Rothbard.
As a mostly
lonely and awkward teenager, I saw Dickís story solely in human
terms. The tragedy of J.R. Isidore losing his friends, Deckardís
conversion to Mercerism (a religion based on human empathy) after
executing the Battys and the reconciliation with his wife were the
things that I focused on. But, now, looking back through older,
possibly wiser eyes, I see conflicts created solely as consequences
of State action. Rothbardís condemnation of the State in all of
its guises were easy to accept as I had been primed for years by
Dick, whose work informed so many of my favorite films, comics and
music. Reading Rothbard was like adding another member to my family.
is soaked with the horrors of State policy. World War Terminus turns
Earth into a near graveyard so the U.N. institutes a colonization
plan, enticing people to emigrate by gifting them with android slave
labor who are so human-like they escape and have to be killed to
protect the humans from their behavior. In the novel, the Nexus-6
androids are like children without parents (state incubated?) who
have some emotions but no context in which to put them. They have
no empathy. It is the dividing line between them and us. The scene
where they are fascinated while pulling the legs off of a spider,
one by one, while Isidore looks on in horror was a turning point
in my life. I canít look at a spider today without recalling that
scene. That Deckard is accused of being one of them by his wife
in the novelís opening scene is telling of Dickís view of the State.
This is not
the only book of Dickís that uses the State as the driver of the
conflict, most of his novels have some form of government bureaucracy
pushing the protagonist forward. In The
Man in the High Castle (1962) the entire plot rests on the
unreality of a world in which absolute evil exists, as represented
by Nazi Germany, not tempered by the Taoist understanding that without
both good and evil neither can flourish. All of the characters are
pushed by interaction with the State towards finding out that they
are, in effect, not real. This was heady stuff for a 14-year-old.
Bloodmoney (1965), an obvious influence on Stephen Kingís
The Stand, is set after a nuclear war wipes out most of the
human population. The
Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) denounces the corporatist
state, the nascent War on Drugs as well as enforced slavery through
the drafting of people to become colonists on Mars, it was written
in 1963. Martian
Time-Slip (1964) explores the abuse of power by a water-monopolist
on Mars, a monopoly granted by UN edict. Flow
My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) deals with identity
loss in a police-state that is purely the drug-addled delusion of
a woman repeatedly sexually-abused by her Police Chief brother.
Other books from Now
Wait for Last Year (1966) to the novella We
Can Remember it for you Wholesale (1966) as well as a number
of his early short-stories portray various government forces from
the malevolent to the inept and sometimes both, which, to me are
the most frightening images of all.
In the much
Scanner Darkly (1976) and the mostly un-loved and forgotten
of the Alphane Moon (1964) Dick creates two black comedies
of malevolent state ineptitude that in the former ultimately chills
you to the bone as the corporatist drug-war is unveiled as a vast
government program and in the latter as a playground on which individuals
can indulge their violent fantasies and psychopathology with little
to no consequence even though they gave all the crazies their own
home. It also has a portrayal of psychiatry that the great libertarian
Dr. Thomas Szasz would be proud of. Space constraints keep me from
detailing the plots of these two gems but they are two of my very
favorites of Philip K. Dickís novels; Scanner for its pain
and pathos and Clans for its sheer audacity and hilarity.
I re-read Clans recently and just marveled at his command
of the material, embracing its absurdity while maintaining the storyís
very human core. The anti-state perspectives of these two novels
cannot be over-stated.
of Dickís major novels, it is only Ubik
(1969) which eschews the state as plot driver. It is, however, in
my opinion, his most brilliant and influential work. A "Gordian
Knot" of a story that the political left sees as a useful idiot,
to butcher a term, in their attempt to destroy perception and, by
extension, justify any and all abrogations of human rights. Dick
is embraced by the post-modernists as one who played with the definitions
of reality and explored our humanity in relation to our perceptions
of it. But, where Sartre or Camus would come to the conclusion that
reality is unknowable and therefore all human action is meaningless
in the face of this, Dick (and his literary progeny) would argue
exactly the opposite. It is because of this unknown ideal that we
should therefore hold fast to each other, respecting both ours and
others struggles to find peace and meaning in the world. Joe Chip,
like Ella Runciter before him, ultimately accepts the burden of
fighting against the Jory Millers of their world and shepherding
others to their final ends because otherwise there is only death
without meaning. I love some post-modernist writers, those that
donít see it as an end, but rather a means to storytelling, cf.
the early work of Grant Morrison at DC Comics, Animal Man, Arkham
Asylum and Doom Patrol in particular. Because, while writers may
be gods to their creations, they can still be moved by them and
with the simplest gestures change the world. Stories exist to reveal
our humanity through shared experience, not belittle it. This is
the main lesson I learned from Philip K. Dick.
with the pre-Christian Gnostics and casting of many of his books
in Gnostic terms reflects this search for meaning. The aforementioned
Palmer Eldrich is a fine example as well as Valis
(1981) which details his struggle explicitly. Indeed the whole Valis
trilogy (1981-1982) along with Radio
Free Albemuth (1985) would chronicle his search for understanding
using his now vast literary arsenal. No discussion of Valis would
be complete without mentioning Michael Bishopís Philip
K. Dick is Dead, Alas (1987) which is set in a Dick-inspired
world Phil and his death are an important part of the plot. Itís
sadly been out of print for over 20 years.
that seems a bit odd. Philip K. Dick has been with me for so long
that itís hard to have a perspective on just how long my life has
been to this point and where it will go from here. I can remember
finishing Ubik and thinking to myself, "OkayÖ that was
fantastic, what the hell did it mean?" like it was yesterday.
I was 16. Iíve read it probably a dozen times since then, including
every year on June 5th while I was in college and beyond.
Iíve got screenplay outlines buried on a hard-drive somewhere and
multiple term papers written about it since then.
Philip K. Dick
introduced me to what writing was capable of. He taught me to be
unafraid to look behind the curtain and see what motivates people
at their core. More importantly, he taught me that cruelty is the
purest form of evil and that power will always be exercised. His
work was a springboard for a life of embracing the unconventional,
the audacious and the downright odd but it was through him that
I found the help I needed to define who I wanted to be, in terms
of what I was not in terms of what I wasnít.
Luongo [send him email]
is a professional chemist, amateur economist and obstreperous recovering
Yankee residing in North Florida. Look him up on Facebook.
© 2011 Thomas Luongo
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