What a clever Dick
He believed that visions bathed in pink light were passing him messages from an alien intelligence; that many of his fans were in the pay of the Kremlin; and that in a former life he’d been persecuted as a Christian in ancient Rome. By any standards, Philip K. Dick was an unusual writer. In fact, he was a near certifiable Californian freak who hammered out more than 40 books during his short life, most of them written in fortnight-long, amphetamine-fuelled frenzies. This was a man who turned fiction into performance art.
Yet Philip Kindred Dick is no Sixties anachronism, for he is now rated as one of Hollywood’s most potent literary sources, having provided the books for Blade Runner and Total Recall, as well as the inspiration (albeit uncredited) for The Matrix and The Truman Show, films that are steeped with his distinctive, paranoid, hi-tech imagery. Now two more of his stories have been filmed: Impostor , starring Gary Sinise, and Spielberg’s Minority Report, with films of Paycheck and A Scanner Darkly (in which an undercover cop is tasked with tracking and arresting himself) in planning. America’s Shakespeare on speed has never been more popular.
But why have the books of Philip K Dick, who died in 1982, endured but not those of Asimov, Clarke or other science fiction sages? This is an intriguing question, though clearly Dick’s extraordinary fecundity has played a part, along with the simple inventiveness of his ideas: disturbingly humanlike androids (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, filmed as Blade Runner); police who predict crimes before they happen (Minority Report); and the theft of memory and personality (Total Recall). Written in typical pulp-fiction style, his books were ideal for the cinema.
Yet there is more to Dick than output, as his fans (Dickheads, as we are known) will tell you, for his writing is dominated by once unfashionable issues that now fill our lives. ‘We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations,’ he once wrote. ‘We are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophis ticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives. I distrust their power.’
Today, when identities are stolen along with mobile phones and credit cards, when our email is threatened with scrutiny, when CCTVs scan our movements, and when the news is constantly being manipulated, Dick looks like an inspirational visionary (until you remember he was also totally off his trolley). As director Darren Aronofsky, whose film Pi was inspired by Dick’s novels, puts it: ‘His writing is steeped in conspiracy, but only now, after Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and so many other government plots and cover-ups, do we see things as he did.’
How do we know our memories and experiences are real, or have not been altered or implanted? How can we be certain of our humanity or identity? In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the barrier between man and robot is unsettlingly blurred, a point buried in its cinematic version which reduced its plot to that of a bounty hunter seeking an errant robot, although it compensated by brilliantly capturing the book’s bleak, demimonde atmosphere.
By contrast, Minority Report pays much more attention to Dick’s disturbing philosophical obsessions while still managing to be dazzlingly entertaining. If criminals are arrested before they can commit their crimes, what happens to free will? we are asked. If we accept the notion of ‘thought crimes’, what freedom is left to the individual? Not much is the answer. Given that the UK is to make it legal to detain indefinitely those deemed by ‘experts’ to have severe personality disorders before they have a chance to break the law, we can again see Philip K Dick at his predictive best. In the end, Minority Report cops out of a full exploration of these issues by opting for an LA Confidential style shoot-out finale. It is a superb film, nevertheless.
Certainly, it is the closest Hollywood has come to capturing the dark, persecuted worlds of Philip K Dick, and indeed may never be bettered, for LA rumours suggest Spielberg spent so much making it, and paid so much for the story’s rights, that no producer will be able to afford to film another of his books for some time. And that would certainly be a tragedy, given the potential of his works. Imagine a film of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, in which a chatshow host wakes up to a world unchanged, except that no one has ever heard of him (he could be played by Graham Norton with a bit of luck); or Time out of Joint, in which a small-town crossword fanatic turns out to be an interplanetary codebreaker, unknown to his friends – or himself.
In fact, there is no end to the movie marvels that could follow, as any Dickhead could tell you. Autor: Robin Mckie