The Anti-State Philip K. Dick

Recently 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 Caldor's in Vail's 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 don't claim to understand half of what is contained in those books but it doesn't matter.

I went from a kid who only read when forced to someone with a book under his arm everywhere I went. I didn't read quickly or easily. It's always been a bit of a chore for me. Androids is one of Dick's 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 Dick's story solely in human terms. The tragedy of J.R. Isidore losing his friends, Deckard's 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. Rothbard's 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.

Androids 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 can't look at a spider today without recalling that scene. That Deckard is accused of being one of them by his wife in the novel's opening scene is telling of Dick's view of the State.

This is not the only book of Dick's 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.

Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), an obvious influence on Stephen King's 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 lauded A Scanner Darkly (1976) and the mostly un-loved and forgotten Clans 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. Dick's 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 story's very human core. The anti-state perspectives of these two novels cannot be over-stated.

Ironically, of Dick's 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 don't 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.

Dick's fascination 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 Bishop's 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. It's sadly been out of print for over 20 years.

And writing that seems a bit odd. Philip K. Dick has been with me for so long that it's 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, "Okay… that was fantastic, what the hell did it mean?" like it was yesterday. I was 16. I've read it probably a dozen times since then, including every year on June 5th while I was in college and beyond. I've 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 wasn't.