Phillip K. Dick’s Piracy of Influence

Like a lot of folks, I knew the work of California’s mad genius Phillip K. Dick, well before I’d ever cracked open one of his books. Well before he began popping up in the zeitgeist of the 21st century. 

Art by Jeff Drew

PKD’s literary world consists of trenchcoats, cigarettes, and brunettes. All surrounded by a cosmos full of powerful technology serving (or using) simple human beings, lulled into easy belief. Soon, dear Thrill Seekers, this reality–like a whipcrack–vanishes. At that moment, PKD unleashes monstrous paranoia by deploying psychic terrorists, deranged bureaucrats or omnipotent hallucinations. All usually backed by the quarterly earnings of the Corporation. These things have become hallmarks of most modern Science-Fiction. The films of Terry Gilliam, whether realized or not, have frequently mined PKD’s mountain. 

Despite the inherent visuals in the language, PKD uses these genre trappings to elevate his stories into high art and examine the human condition. PKD’s’ characters ask the big questions. They stare at the Martian desert, or the nuclear wasteland, or into their android lover’s eyes and wonder aloud…

…What does it mean to be a human being? A question that is near and dear to ECR’s heart dear Thrill Seekers.

Although never a big earner during his lifetime (he spent a few years eating Happy Dog brand dog food because of Struggling Author’s Poverty Syndrome or SAPS.) PKD barely provided for his first wife while hustling records at a record store and publishing in the Pulp magazines 1950-1959. (That’s a lot of dog food. For any author out there thinking of giving up cause this gig is too hard…Don’t EVER QUIT!) PKD’s work is everywhere these days. His ideas are foundational elements in pulp culture. His timeless message…simple and clear, “I’ve questioned the nature of my reality and determined, nothing’s real. And So Can You!”

And so they have…

For almost forty years, Hollywood has bought, borrowed and stolen PKD’s ideas,  in a savage attempt to turn a nickel into a dime. With the upcoming Amazon Prime US release of Phillip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, Jan. 12th. 2018; ECR takes a moment to explore the wonderfully strange work of Phillip Kindred Dick (1928-1982)

PKD in the 1950’s proving you don’t have to have a beard to write fiction.

There’s a moment in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, where our hero, an everyman loser with a Mars fetish, undergoes a radical treatment. A simple procedure to implant a Martian vacation into his subconscious. Implanting memories ala Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. And just like in the Jim Carrey/Kate Winslet romcom, the implant backfires, and our hero suddenly becomes aware that a memory implant is unnecessary since–he really has been to Mars—as a secret agent. After he is returned to the “real world” he finds mementos from his actual past and these totems allow his broken memories to connect the dots. “Have we met each other before?” 

Cover of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1966. First publication of “We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale.”

The effect on the reader is quite powerful. The suggestive nature of Phillip K. Dick’s storytelling blurs the edges of reality, forcing the reader to immediately identify with the character’s plight. When a reader uses their ears, the story becomes, even more, psychedelic in its nature. Phil Gigante’s Audiobook performance is spectacular and really helps illuminate the ever-changing landscape of reality.

In the 1990 film adaptation, Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger sleepwalked (but hit his marks) as our Mars loving everyman hero. Because as we all know, Everyman looks like a muscled up He-Man who croons at the audiences in phonetic English. The film was directed by Robo-Cop‘s hyperviolent Dutch Master, Paul Veerhoven. One should never try to compare the two films. Robo-Cop is a wildly satirical event and Total Recall sold a lot of popcorn. I remember reading about TR’s high body count before it was released. But hey to be fair, the movie was topping off the same decade that brought us Rambo: First Blood Part II,  Lethal Weapon and all that schlock from Cannon Films.

Pot smoking, iron pumping, Republican fights against metal gauntlet for command of a pyramid…or something.

The three-breasted Martian mutant woman aside, the Movie’s premise at least follows PKD’s story logic. A story where the nature of reality is suddenly pulled away to reveal a stunning and contrasting, truth. 

A sort’ve Blue pill-Red pill moment that permeates the entirety of PKD’s canon. A concept the Wachowski brothers (Now Sisters) would exploit to build a wonderful screenplay and effective movie called the Matrix. Of course, they would go on to prove that PKD could be imitated but never duplicated, as the next two films in the Matrix trilogy, were yawned into the collective unconscious. Now I know there are those who really like all four Matrix movies. We also know people who put hot sauce on ice cream…you know…crazies. 

Before the Wachowski’s pulled off their great idea heist, several other films appeared owing a debt to PKD: Cronenberg’s Scanners, Proyas Dark City, end of list.* There’d only been three film adaptations of PKD’s work. The aforementioned Total Recall, a throwaway called Screamers and the mother of all cult movies, 1982’s Blade Runner. A film that oozes texture they way some Toad’s ooze psychedelic deterrents. Just like those Toad’s, the cinema’s natives stayed away and the film barely made back its 28 million dollar budget. Despite its technological accomplishments and getting PKD’s approval (PKD died of a stroke shortly after viewing a rough cut of the unfinished film), BR would die–only to be reborn–or cloned, back into existence inside your VCR. 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? and its sequel…Well, Do they?

Total Recall, on the other hand, raked in the corn. Following this immense success, Hollywood studios started buying up PKD’s bibliography. Unfortunately, the man wasn’t alive to negotiate the terms himself. Although, Total Recall proved that the movie didn’t have to be well made to make any money. It would be several years before something appeared as good as Blade Runner, again. Most of the film adaptation’s quality has been cobbled together at best. Films like Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Next, well they…let’s just say the latter stars, Nicolas Cage, the middle one stars a “Bennifer” version of Affleck and finally…Matt Damon. Between Total Recall and 2002’s Minority Report (A Speilberg CGI triumph starring an ever disconnecting from his own reality, Tom Cruise) PKD had many pirates raising their black sails and looting his booty. And So Can YOU!

There is no denying that PKD was a product of Cold War paranoia and the spread of sixties counter-culture. Now that we are fifty years removed from the Summer of Love, PKD’s work feels more prescient in a way that few other science-fiction authors can claim. As of the writing of this, there’s no martian colonies, or robot armies or complete and total nuclear war or the widespread use of psychic communication. But tomorrow? Who knows? 

Following the end of net neutrality and #netnetality as well for that matter, the commercial value of our collective digital footprint will become apparent to the masses. This monetary use of technology is another hallmark of PKD. The talking door in Ubik, (an unfilmable book like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian) who refuses to open until Joe Chip pays him, The costs of android pets, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, (also known as BLADE RUNNER) and the costly drug taking form of entertainment in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, to name three. 

Everyone becomes a Palmer Eldritch

Our eyes have value. A simple Google search will reveal all the mysteries of the known world, or provide you with fifteen minutes of BM reading. Clicking on blogs doesn’t necessarily put food on the table, but it does put a coin in many a blogger’s PayPal wallet. But in reality, the all-powerful, all singing, all dancing corporation benefits the most.

Back in the nineties, I was blown away by the Wachowski’s Matrix. The idea that we’re all living in a computer simulation felt fresh. But of course, hindsight’s for assholes. Little did I know that PKD had espoused such a concept in 1977. You can see the man in all his glory here. 

These titles have value for your eyes. 

Back then years ago, the speech was looked at like cocktail olives in a jello mold. The late seventies audience cringed politely as this brilliant man allowed everyone in the room to think he’d completely lost his mind. And So Can YOU! 

The Matrix cribs not just the simulated reality from PKD’s slushpile, it also has trenchcoats, cigarettes and brunettes (Trinity.) Once the situation is established, the movie cranks up the paranoia in elaborate battle scenes between Neo (our everyman hero with a computer fetish) and the ominous super-powered Agents, ie The Matrix itself. 

Another movie that steals heavily from PKD’s influence is The Truman Show. The plot follows the same points as PKD’s Time Out Of Joint.

Image provided by the Jim Carrey Bathroom Livefeed.
PKD’s worldview seems prophetic now. Especially in terms of the cold indifference of bureaucracies. In Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, PKD predicts a dystopian future where moving from place to place is an impossibility if you don’t have the right authorization papers. Think of a codified national socialism for the world. To complicate matters, our protagonist has been attacked by his mistress (spoiler alert: she throws a strange jelly monster on his chest and he passes out–only to wake up with absolutely no memory of who or where he is. Sound familiar? It should…And So Can YOU!

PKD’s most acclaimed novel, is the Alternative History fiction, The Man in the High Castle. A book that looks at Western humanity, had the Nazi’s and Imperial Japanese won World War II. Throw in PKD’s own affinity for collecting old things (in the novel it’s antiques, in real life, PKD hoarded LP’s) and a little philosophy provided by the I Ching and you have the only book that won PKD a Hugo Award. ECR’s first exposure to this little gem happened in a three-story bookstore in Norwich Castle Mall, England. After visiting a pub, I’d wandered into it by chance to get out of the rain. Around the second floor, I sat to rest and that’s when I saw it. The cover was a simple American flag but with swastikas instead of stars. ECR recognized the name and purchased it along with a pulpy newspaper print edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The complete works cost three pounds. PKD’s book–significantly higher. 

When Amazon Prime launched its series MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. Interests in PKD’s work came back with a vengeance. A sequel to BLADE RUNNER came out and just like the original, struggled domestically. Even the blockbuster storyline of Total Recall couldn’t reheat old hash as the remake bombed at the box office. And with the Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) produced Electric Dreams, getting terrible reviews by critics, it stands to reason that PKD’s reputation stands to take another one of those famous–whipcrack–plot turns. This time, it looks poised again for the bottom.

Actual Map of USA 2016-2020

So why is PKD’s work so hit or miss? 

Maybe because the man himself seemed to teeter on the nature of reality…and drugs…lots of drugs.

In A Scanner Darkly, PKD explores the world of drug addicts and the law. It’s no secret that PKD had been an amphetamine abuser since he began his writing career. You don’t go through five marriages and 25 plus novels without a little pick me up. Drug abuse and drug taking permeate the entire canon of PKD. Sometimes he’s for it…others, he passes moral judgments. But just like today, with California legalizing Marijuana statewide…drugs were a big part of the day to day for PKD.

57% of California voters since the new year. 

Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly was an instant cult classic, however, it wasn’t the movie he wanted to make originally. No, he originally opted to film UBIK. By far and wide the best novel in PKD’s canon. If I had it to do over, I’d start here. It’s the most original piece and for the most part, has yet to be imitated by pirates. 

A disturbing clock that only goes backward in time.

The thing that makes PKD’s work so appealing on the written page is simple. Despite all of the sci-fi tropes, trenchcoats, cigarettes, and brunettes, PKD creates believable and relatable characters. It is their unsparing humanity that drives these stories about psychics, androids, and police states. If the characters weren’t as strong as they are, then PKD’s stuff wouldn’t be so agonized over by film companies gambling on it. 

Despite everything, we here at ECR look forward to the US release of Electric Dreams. And if you’ve read down to this point right here…God bless your black heart!

The man, the myth, the legend by R. Crumb

If you’d like to learn more about the life and work of Phillip K. Dick. Please check out The Penultimate Truth of Phillip K. Dick or you know, read his work…it’s some quality thrills.

And so can you! Who are we? Just another snowflake of the dial-up generation. Heavily influenced by television and the VCR. Those outliers between X, Y, and Millenial. The vast ignored middle class of history, whose steady ascent towards forty makes them yearn for that forgotten time when remembering a phone number was crucial. In other words, before PKD’s fictional future mirrored the present. 

Special thanks to Jeff Drew for allowing us to post his wonderful painting of PKD at the top of this article. Please visit his website:
*If you can think of other PKD knockoffs, or just want to rant, please leave us a comment or reach out to us on Twitter.  Special Thanks to Saint Facetious for reminding us of DARK CITY.
Keep up the good fight.


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