The late Philip K. Dick's works were one of the strongest influences on science fiction writers in the first decade of the 21st century, including the fields of alternate history and paranoid thrillers.
Yet he received relatively little acclaim and financial success in his own lifetime and was unable to attract the attention of major publishers. The hold that Dick still has on the collective imagination of science fiction writers suggests that many of his concepts were ahead of their time and are better suited to the current world than the time in which they were originally published.
One of Dick’s most critically-hailed and frequently-read works is The Man in the High Castle
, considered one of the genre-defining works of alternate history. The story is set in an alternate version of the post-World War II United States that lost to the Axis Powers and has been partitioned between Japan and Germany. The novel is as much philosophical in tone as it is plot-driven and details the efforts of the American characters to adapt to, resist, and emulate the philosophies of their conquerors. It became Dick’s only novel to win a Hugo Award
Despite being Dick’s most critically successful novel and its open ending, he never completed his proposed sequel to High Castle.
He found that researching the fascist German and Japanese cultures of World War II was so disturbing to him on a personal level that he was unable to push himself to complete the sequel, although fragments of it are available as chapters in the collection The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick
Another of Dick’s highly influential novels is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
, which was the basis for Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner
, the first exposure to Dick's work for many mainstream audiences. The novel details the efforts of a bounty hunter to exterminate androids that have escaped onto an overpopulated, dying Earth where human-level artificial intelligence is forbidden.
The story behind Blade Runner's production is very interesting. At first Dick opposed the film, being critical of all the screenplay drafts and refusing to even write a novelization. However, when he was allowed to see the finished special effects sequences of certain scenes, he was amazed by the high quality and resemblance to his literary vision and became supportive of the film and director Ridley Scott. The film itself was not financially successful upon initial release but has since become one of the most critically-hailed screen versions of Dick’s work.
Perhaps the most defining feature of Dick’s work was its heavy use of characters suffering from mental illness and paranoia. One of his novels, Clans of the Alphane Moon
, takes place on a world populated entirely by groups of people suffering from mental illnesses, organized into “clans” based on their diagnoses. The novel functions as a satire of society as well as speculative fiction. The clans perform specific functions and have stereotyped roles in the society of the Alphane Moon, just as specific personality types become attracted to certain professions on Earth.
Reflecting Dick’s distrust of politics, the political class of the Alphane Moon is made up of paranoid individuals, and the seat of government power is called Adolfville. The story is essentially a paranoid thriller. Chuck Rittersdorf seeks to kill his wife Mary on this world amidst the machinations of the competing clans and government entities. Dick’s gift for description and vision of paranoid thought patterns dominate the novel and make it one of the most unique and fascinating science fiction thrillers.
In addition to the novels previously mentioned, these interpretations of Philip K. Dick’s work are available from the Central Rappahannock Regional Library and may be reserved for check out: