Philip K. Dick, Conclusion

My series on Philip K. Dick is complete. There are a number of novels I did not touch and of course I discussed the stories only as occasional references. I feel, that there is enough material to begin to map out the major themes.


1. Post-Scarcity, the End of Work, and Inequality. Many of Dick’s science-fiction novels consider the dilemma of work and post-scarcity. The question, how do we come to terms with the inequality caused by the technological destruction of productive work. His novels are populated with what Zygmunt Bauman called “wasted lives,” the excess population of late capitalism.

2. Technology and the Future of Freedom. Dick is largely a technophobe due to the ability of technology to destroy human freedom. Technology often plays a role in distorting our reality, empowering the state, and establishing a surveillance society.

3. The Nature and Function of Corporate and Political Power. In a related theme, through Dick we can consider the changing functions of the state with the decline of the welfare state and nationalism as well as the transformation of the role of corporate power with the decline of manufacturing. As it turn outs, both become more psychopathic.

4. The Crisis of Monogamy and Family. Dick lived this crisis through five marriages. His insistence on marriage is not unfamiliar to many people in the late industrial west and his embrace of serial monogamy is all but universal. Perhaps too many of his novels consider the dilemma of liquid love in a liquid world alongside our desire for stability in an unstable liquid world. As a result we grasp at relationships and make reckless commitments.

5. Insanity and Everyday Life. Dick argues that one consequence of late capitalism is the normalcy of mental illness. How this fits with his definition of humanity as memory and empathy is explored in a few novels.

6. The Rise of Religious Delusion. Like with the question of marriage, this is something Dick explored personally through his exploration of religion in the later 1970s until his death. Religion becomes a means for us to create a firm foundation in a liquid world, but for Dick it went farther and became a source of truth, not merely consolation or security.

7. The Desolation of the Frontier. Dick places the frontier in various locations in the Solar System. Experiencing the end of the frontier in California and noticing the death of the American frontier as a location of rebirth of democracy (Frederick Jackson Turner). Instead, the frontier is a blighted landscape where people eke out miserable existences.

8. A Consumer Dystopia. Instead of an optimistic frontier, Dick gives us a consumer dystopia. Goods are cheap. Even rocket ships to other planets are cheap. People consume drugs, mood-altering chemicals, and sentimental objects from earlier eras to cope with meaningless and directionless lives.

9. Resistance. Dick is a pessimistic writer, but we can find in his works suggestions of optimism through the potential of resistance. Thankfully, in all but a few cases, the troubles that people face are easily identifiable. Even when reality is being manipulated, there is always a manipulator. By exposing the lie, or simply by being good to one another, resistance to the empires of lies and exploitation is possible.


Philip K. Dick does seem to me to be a writer exploring many themes of interest to anarchists, particularly those of us trying to navigate a strategy through late capitalism.  His answers and suggestions may strikes some of us as naive, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot-on.

Thanks to the followers of this series.  I will continue next week with my regular readings of the Library of America, starting with Ambrose Bierce.

One response to “Philip K. Dick, Conclusion

  1. I think I’ve said before elsewhere,institutionalized religion seems to be absent from Dick’s “future” literary cosmos.It only becomes apparent and overt in the novels he wrote in the latter part of his life,such as “The Divine Invasion”,where a formal religion exists,but God is still an organic reality.”Valis” is told from the standpoint of the everyday world.Another,earlier example of a religious leader,is the Anarch Peak in “Counter-Clock World”,but his words are due to his experience of the afterlife before resurrection.

    In “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,religion lies in politics not orthodox faith.Even here though,Mercerism is experienced as real,due to certain moral truths, despite a government dupe,so makes no difference even when the truth is revealed.Your comment that it becomes,”a source of truth”,is never more true than here,where revelation and transformation are the way to salvation.

    A better example where letters become the basis for a more formal belief system,can I think be found in “A Maze of Death”,where a travelers’ guide to “everyday” crisis,becomes the object of salvation.As in the above novel however,there is a similar pseudo religious situation,this time one where an avatar of God,is a known reality,and forms the basis for the oracular book the characters consult.It bears comparison with the one in “Galactic Pot-Healer” and of course the “I Ching” in “The Man in the High Castle”.

    Prehaps even more fascinating,is the fact within the novel,the existence of this place,is nothing more than another layer of illusion beneath “known reality”,and bears striking resemblance I think to an afterlife.Here then,the strength for a “religious” system founded in truth couldn’t be more stark and pertinent.

    Although it might be unrelated to this,in the final scene where Mary enters fusion again,where she finds herself going back to Delmark-O,this time without Seth who is no longer with them,is I think unexplained;prehaps though it’s the author’s way of telling us that the terrible place exists and offers hope from their dreary existence,that only Seth escaped from through his faith in the avatar of God,the Intercessor.Part of this,like other of Dick’s novels,is missing or unfinished though,I think.

    Also in AMOD,there is a political system behind the characters’ “purpose” for being sent to Delmark-O,although in a recreated world,which seems to have shades of “Time Out of Joint”.A better example though of where political power merges with religious belief or experience,is the traumatizing novelette,”Faith of Our Fathers”.It is here that a repressive government is a facade for a stranger,more terrible truth,that must be faced if there is to be any salvation.The terrifying entity posing as a dictator,is a consuming,evil avatar of God,that bears comparison to the Form Destroyer in AMOD,who there is an evil aspect of the foursome “God”.From this we can also deduce I think,the decline of manufacturing you mention,as something springing from the entropy caused by these malevolent entities,which also earlier found form in “Martian Time-Slip” as the Gubbler.Here at last is manifest the wasteland and kipple of DADOES.Wilber Mercer of course is the force of negentropy that is restorative.

    It’s not surprising then in at least a literary reality where religious experience is commonplace,that marriage,although still commonplace,is declining in family life and virtue,in the face of metaphysical revelation.The necessity of it through the rituals of orthodox religion,is no longer strong enough it seems to sustain it.

    With the decline of manufactured goods and institutionalized values,it’s not surprising then that a crass consumer culture that offers cheap entertainment and commodities,manifests in the Dickian society,and offers relief no matter how futile it is,which of course is probably seen to best effect in “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”.In this case,it’s easy to see how this breakdown can lead to mental illness and instability,which as you allude to,is commonplace in Dick’s books.This of course,doesn’t mean that they are inferior,scarecrow people,but on the contrary,know better than “normal people,the real condition of life and reality.They are often the ones who shape and see reality into a clearer aspect,with Manfred Steiner in “Martian Time-Slip” and John Isidore in DADOES as obvious,prime examples.

    In conclusion,I think that I have found the “perfect” reason for justifying the metaphysical happenings you quibbled about in his stuff,through the linkage of political and social concerns in the structure in his battery of fiction.This isn’t the final word though,and I’m still just conjecturing with the list of topics you summarized and how they could be substantial in the Dickian world.

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