Philip K. Dick – Most Important SciFi Author of the 20th Century?

Philip K. Dick may be the most important sci-fi author of the 20th Century akin to Verne and Wells in vision and contemporary relevance well after they wrote. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner), We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall, twice), Minority Report (Minority Report, film and TV), Paycheck (Paycheck), A Scanner Darkly (A Scanner Darkly), Adjustment Team (The Adjustment Bureau), and now The Man in the High Castle as an Amazon TV show is just a partial list of Philip K Dick’s work that has been adapted. Although Amazon does not usually release its streaming numbers, The Man in the High Castle has become its “most-streamed original show, overtaking shows like the detective-centric Bosch and Jill Soloway’s feted dramedy Transparent.” The popularity is not the point. As a fan of Dick’s work Ubik and even Valis (though that one is much work to read) both of which have not been adapted to the screen, I am saying that Dick’s novels and short stories did what great sci-fi does. They use technology and maybe some fantasy to comment on where society is headed and how things might evolve. I think it was Dan Solove who once said to me that Dick’s work fits his era, and others in, I think Dan said, the New School were working on the same ideas (apologies, Dan, if I am mistaken about what you said). Regardless of who or what school treads the same area as Dick, for me something about his work catches attention and highlights the way we live more than others.

Take Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the movie is a good adaptation in that it hits themes rather than trying to stay true to the precise way the novel works. The novel has great stuff on machines to dial up a mood. People use it to stimulate anger, happiness, etc. as the situation requires. Did that presage mood drugs and more? Sort of. Did it hit on how we choose to live and ideas of what is authentic life and emotion? Yes. Should we take the messages about the world as reflecting reality today? No.

Although law and literature can, and maybe should, use literature to help understand an idea, saying that the world is now just like Minority Report or some other work is a reach. Using a film or novel to say something is a concern or to illustrate ideas of Orwellian, Kafkan, or other futures and that we wish to ask whether that is real can help. But the key is to rally the facts that show that those fictions are now a reality or that facts are in place that open the door to dystopia. Speaking of dystopia, I wonder how often people use fiction to say that the world or a technology is leading us to a better place. In my experience legal scholars tend to dismiss upbeat outlooks as naive or “just so” stories. I am not sure that Dick is dystopian. But in general if folks have examples where literature or film are examples of a good outcome from technology, please share.

Nonetheless, I offer Philip K. Dick in all his messy glory as my choice for Most Important SciFi Author of the 20th Century.

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4 Responses

  1. Michael Risch says:

    This is a good argument, but I think that Isaac Asimov might have something to say about it.

  2. Deven Desai says:

    Hmm. I think Asimov is more likely to speak from the dead in a Dick universe than an Asimov one, so that means Asimov comes after Dick, right? 🙂

    • Michael Risch says:

      Well, I didn’t mean literally “say.” But I think you are right about that – which leads to a question about how “real” sci-fi should be.

  3. Deven Desai says:

    I was teasing, Michael. Anyway why do you pick Asimov instead? Robots? Not compelling to me, but time may mean he catches up to Dick. The reality point is a good one. I don’t think sci-fi has to be real to be influential, but I get the view that sci-fi that is rather unreal leans to fantasy. Dune is a work that I think straddles the line but leans fantasy. For me, the hard sci-fi with inordinate detail is as boring as Clancy. First read is sometimes educational but the tech gets in the way of the story. So second read is a waste of time.