A galactic guide to Philip K. Dick’s best books

June 26th, 2011 § 2 comments

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s best books are maddening beyond belief. He is a tremendous writer who managed to write about deep and serious matters in the most ridiculous genre of them all.

But one can’t expect anyone but a hardcore fan to wade through Dick’s tremendous output of 44 novels. At a quick count, there is only seven I may not have read. So here’s a guide to Philip K. Dick’s ten best books.

Ubik

Philip K. Dick's best book, Ubik

Ubik, Philip K. Dick's best book

Here Dick examines one of his key themes: What is reality? When asked this question in person once, he gave a wonderful answer: “Reality is that which continues to exist even if I don’t believe in it.” The book takes a more roundabout view. It features God in a spray can. You spray Ubik around you if reality starts to fall apart. A top class book, with ideas that resurfaced in popular culture in the Matrix movies.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick’s second great theme is: What is it that makes us human? This story about near-human “replicants” makes that theoretical question a matter of life and death, in the typical Dickian way. Dick’s short answer, by the way, is empathy. Many people know this story from Ridley Scott’s excellent movie version, Blade Runner. The book features a strong added dimension, the religion of Mercerism with its induced suffering, that never made it into the movie. Amazingly, this book was written in the same year as Ubik – 1966.

* A note of caution: This title seems to have been appropriated for a number of books with ties to the original. Make sure you get the original Philip K. Dick book and not something cobbled together afterwards.

A Scanner Darkly

Most of Philip K. Dick’s books are about the California of his era, with science fiction trappings added. In this one, the sci-fi element is at its thinnest. It’s more of a drug book. Bob Arctor works for the drug busting law agency. Like all agents, he is totally incognito in his “scramble suit”. Then he gets sent to investigate himself… Dick once called this his best book. The animation style movie of the book is also well worth watching.

The Man in the High Castle

This is the book that put Dick on the map, winning the Hugo Award in 1962. It tells of an alternate history where Germany and Japan won World War Two. This is probably the best place to start reading Dick if you like science fiction, but games with reality is not your thing. The alternate reality in this book is, at least, fairly consistent, without the dizzying shifts he often inflicts on readers.

Martian Time-Slip

A repairman in a colony on Mars struggles with schizophrenia, local power struggles and an autistic boy who sees the future. While not the very best of his books, it is arguably the most representative, if you only read one.

Time Out of Joint

Published in 1958, this is the earliest book on the list. Ragle Gumm (what a name!) lives in 1950s USA and is the regular winner of a newspaper competition to predict Where Will the Little Green Man Appear Next? Only it turns out that the competition, his wife, his entire life, is a carefully constructed fiction aimed at preserving his sanity. The movie The Truman Show is reminiscent of this book.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Dick’s growing religious sense comes strongly to the fore in this book, where settlers on Mars play with Barbie-style dolls to preserve their sanity and chew gum that makes them hallucinate. Parts of this book are like listening to Bach

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

A famous television personality suddenly discovers his identity has been officially deleted. In his subsequent struggles, he learns something about the Dickian concept of compassion. (How many other authors’ names can be adjectivised meaningfully?) It is one of Dick’s most emotionally moving books.

Valis

This is late-period Dick and one to avoid unless you’ve already read four or five others and preferably know a bit about the man. The book seems to be the product of a mind on the edge of madness. Most of Dick’s books drive the reader slightly mad, casting doubt on your relation with reality, but never to the same extent as this. It’s a profound and moving book, but for patient fans only. It was originally published in 1981, only a year before the author’s death.

Confessions of a Crap Artist

This is one of the non-SF books Philip K. Dick wrote early in his career. It was written in 1959 and only published in 1975, after he had made his name. In fact, there is little to choose between these books and you can also try Puttering About in a Small Land or In Milton Lumky Territory. Though often flawed, these books about real people with small lives have great charm.

But read the science fiction first.

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