Philip K Dick knew from noir. He thought he was living in one. Conspiracy, drugs, self-hatred [though maybe that’s just all writers but he certainly didn’t always seem to think the most of himself, though he did respect himself in some ways], and an early demise.
PKD lived as he wrote, and wrote about how he lived. Interreality noir.
– my personal PKD shelf –
The first PKD book I ever read was A MAZE OF DEATH. I had these rad local flea markets in a shopping centre carpark every Sunday morning and I used to religiously ride in and just wander, eat some insanely good hot jam donuts, and peruse all the people selling old paperbacks out of last week’s broccoli bins. And this was the age where old sci fi pulps got the price they deserve: between 50c and maybe two bucks if they were superfly.
I was about 12 and had read enough Stephen King and Clive Barker and Star Wars books – and I’m talking SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE and the Han Solo trilogy, not that later extended universe stuff – to know it was time to branch out. I started shifting this weird stuff around, because all the other horror authors didn’t interest me and I found myself digging more and more sci fi flicks [ALIEN/S, BLADE RUNNER, THE ABYSS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE OMEGA MAN, PLANET OF THE APES, etc], and it was getting late in the morning. All this stuff looked the same, a whole mess of Heinlein, lotta Donaldson and some Bradbury, there was plenty I wanted but nothing I could choose. Nothing worth the two bucks. But then I picked up A MAZE OF DEATH and it sounded half decent, I had no idea about the author, but the price was slashed in half from a buck to 50c. It was worth the gamble. I picked it up and my future path was set.
I read A MAZE OF DEATH and while it’s not PKD’s finest, it is lean, and harsh, and the end stuck with me like tar to your shoe. The story looks at a spaceship crew who go through the story all either being murdered or killing themselves and in the end we reset to find out they’re actually just using virtual reality to kill time as they orbit a dead star and are waiting to die. That kicker, that they’ll no doubt just go through all of this again, such anguish, such empty human rage, was something that hit me in the guts. Looking back, it’s like a recursive noir loop set in deep space. It’s insanely dark and brilliant and a very bloody good hook on which to hang yourself as an intro to PKD.
I was about to become a teenager and embark on a quest for more that I am still on.
In the early days, it was hard to find PKD books but when they arose, they were cheap. It felt like a worthy adventure. I go to a lot of secondhand book shops so in every one the first thing I still do is go to the sci fi shelves and scan for D, which means Gordon R. Dickson, with his middle initial and very very similar last name has become my nemesis for the fact he bloats these shelves and always kills me with false hope. Because now, PKD books are rare. I blame flicks like MINORITY REPORT and maybe PAYCHECK for jacking up the price because for a long while PKD pulps remained cheap but suddenly they’d be asking $20 a copy, and the worst thing was the bastards would sell. So you’d either put up or get shut out. The game is suddenly dark and sharp. But, still I look and my shelf grows.
Often times I think of my journey procuring and slowly reading PKD books as a noir where I’ll die before reading them all, though I’ll probably get them all, because that’ll make the final sting all that much worse. As the life ebbs, I can probably see the shelf, the titles smirking back at me, the one found in that gargantuan warehouse of a store, the one the eccentric shopkeeper held for me, the trio I sniped on eBay back before people knew how to snipe on eBay, they’d look down and judge me for not having imbibed them all and I’d look up and whisper out to them, and my family would hate me for looking at the books when they were gathered around.
Then I’d wake to find it was all a virtual reality test to see how I’d fare in my final moments, and I’d be left wanting, my family would leave, and the books would be empty, filled with the vast works of Gordon R. Goddamn Dickson. Because if I’m going to go down, I want PKD writing my end.
And that’s what PKD did best, he messed with your reality so your happily never after chased you through space and time. His brand of sci fi isn’t about intergalactic discovery and exploration as much as it is a synthesis of how far we can see into ourselves wrapped in a metaphor of the crushing dark that surrounds us, as well as fills us. He saw beauty and horror in everything, his dichotomy of life was to fear and then fearlessly bound forward anyway. It’s the sort of thing they don’t teach you in class.
Looking through the works of PKD, you see bleak horizons laid out in his final pages all the time. A SCANNER DARKLY is a terrible piece of drug noir, and one of his finest works. It looks into the future at a narc who goes undercover into a drug house, and one he’s already also an active member of and in during his out of work hours. But due to a scramble suit which hides the identity of all narcs, this clash is not discovered, neither by the occupants of the house nor his superiors.
So we have a man spying on himself while imbibing hallucinogens and of course this is a problem. It’s a fascinating read into paranoia, and the system that lords over the street, and how interpersonal relationships open you up to salvation as well as damnation. By story’s end, we find our protagonist trapped in a loop of rehab where he’s being made to harvest the drug in the facility, and he’s seemingly gone from the top rung to the bottom and regardless of more movement the actual problem is there’s little hope he’ll ever get off the wheel.
Dick’s wife at the time, Tessa, said she found him weeping by his typewriter after particularly harrowing nights of writing this story. It is clear PKD was putting his life and his soul into his work.
THE ZAP GUN is a deliciously morose slice of consumerism noir as we follow weapon makers who come up with their ideas in fugue states only to have their designs turned into completely useless and random household artifacts. As an alien invasion looms, they struggle to team up and design a salvation for Earth.
The way this story plays out, everyone ends up in a black hole of their own reality of redundancy. People have their ideas handed across time, people have their own ideas turned on them, people have their own ideas nullified, and nearly all ideas are in service to fight oppositional ideas that are fabricated. Your life’s purpose is a lie. Even the way the book was birthed, the publisher wanted a story to match this title they had, is insane. They brought very little to the table and PKD obliged. That idea of ideas becoming larger ideas is right there.
There’s a great through line where a board game is constructed and in it a small character wanders aimlessly in a seemingly futile experiment. As you play, you connect with the playing piece until eventually you replace it, and you look up, and there is no hope. It’s barely subtle but it’s a visceral thing as it plays upon your feelings of empathy, and how many crosses you’ll die on, and the fact the world is out to slowly draw you in and stop you, entrap you, claim you, absorb you.
THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, a novel PKD wrote amongst many as he struggled to make ends meet supporting a wife and four daughters, from whom he was estranged during his writing periods, wandering away from the homestead and down into a small shack that would get so cold the ink would freeze in his typewriter ribbon. If there was ever a confluence of events to create a noir masterpiece, this was it.
PKD had been spending every day isolated in this shack, every day inside his head with these wild ideas, and it took its toll. One day, he saw a vision in the sky above the horizon. It was the face of evil, and it was God, and this was the worst possible thing to consider. Which means that as the face continued to appear over a month, PKD processed it inside and the output was this magnificently sour and majestic novel.
It is certainly one of the most bleak PKD tales as it looks into the concept of seeing/meeting/becoming god through drug use and how dangerous a line any of that is. The book strongly treads into the territory of Gnosticism – the fact that God may be real but that doesn’t mean in any way that they are a nice or even sane deity. When man loses his higher power, or discovers that power is corrupt, well that means there’s nowhere left to fall because we all suddenly live on the grainy rock bottom.
In the end of the story, after many twists and turns, the kicker is that our lead man never knows if he’s escaped his hallucinatory nightmare, if he’s still in it, and whether he’s right or powerful if either of those scenarios prove true. Once you know there’s been a hallucination, how can you ever know you truly came out of it? And even if you did, if thoughts plague you that you didn’t will you ever be fulfilled? That noir of uncertainty and doubt that will mock you and haunt you for eternity is a scarier prospect than any actual definitive answer that will at least stop you hunting for clues or signs or ideas. This thin possibility means you are a ball spinning in a hoop that will never fall.
You can see the layers of eXistenZ and INCEPTION presented in this idea and it’s scary because the moment you apply it to your own life, you could be up all night chasing loops. Once your concept of reality is shattered, there is no recovery.
Philip K Dick didn’t seem to believe in happy endings, and if he gave you one, he wanted you to know it was perilous. He wanted you to question it because as soon as you did, it puffed away in blue smoke. That aspect of storytelling as a thing offered, and a thing taken away, and a thing unknown to which you can only guess is something that’s inspired me for decades now. As I continue to write, and have PKD paperbacks yet to read, may I die happy and certain, if he allows it.