Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick

The speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick (1928–1982) transformed the paranoid plots of 1930s–1950s pulp fiction about conspiratorial threats from outside by infusing them with anxieties emerging in the 1960s–1970s regarding the disintegration of psychological structures under the pressure of postmodernity (the turning of every last realm of public and private life into a commodity; disinformation produced by media elites; the construction of a consensus reality through manufactured illusion; technologies of behavior modification).

Dick’s most important books—Time Out of Joint (1959), The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ubik (1969), A Maze of Death (1970), A Scanner Darkly (1977), The Divine Invasion (1981), Valis (1981), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)—extrapolate the idea of revelation, the ideological nucleus of the conspiracy genre, into something at once sublime, uncanny, and insidious. The humdrum lives of his “little guy” protagonists are totally disrupted as they discover themselves implicated in “an intricate, sustained illusion-system of massive proportion” (The Game Players of Titan, 110).

Nightmarish disclosures that cannot be rationalized away to maintain the illusion of free will, in combination with the suggestion that the paranoid nightmares might be not fantasies but glimpses of the vast underlying system of society, incompletely comprehended, allow Dick’s conspiracy narratives to function simultaneously as casestudies of paranoia and as allegorical critiques satirizing the totalitarian tendencies of postwar U.S. capitalism.

Rehearsing the various mechanisms and detours of paranoia, Dick’s protagonists proceed to construct more and more elaborate explanatory models in compensatory response to profound feelings of personal insubstantiality and social impotence.

Dick reconceived the common science fiction device of the “pocket universe”—a discrete microcosmic enclave of incubated ignorance—as a virtual reality perpetrated by governmental or corporate media. He presciently depicted dystopian near-future societies characterized by systems of simulation that serve to control the population by infiltrating consciousness and structuring the individual’s sense of self.

Plots concerning the capture of audiences and markets by oligarchic networks render in fictional terms his recognition of how an emerging society of the spectacle was beginning to induce people to invest in hegemonic models of the world that were against their best interests.

Dick’s deeply ambivalent work typically merges the angst-ridden folklore of mind control (e.g., the implantation of false memories) with the superficially more hopeful folklore of alternate realities (e.g., via drug-enhanced psi powers).

By blurring the demarcation between “actual” events and psychic processes, and thereby surrendering cognitive suppositions to endless permutation, Dick’s destabilizing narratives throw into question all criteria for establishing credibility or future action. For example, A Scanner Darkly depicts the gradual blurring of demarcated role-identities as a police undercover agent is required to surveil a drug user/dealer he had been pretending to be, but in fact has now become.

Here the unimpeachable founding premise, so dear to conspiracy theory, is tinged for comic effect with digressive thought processes typically conduced by certain pharmaceuticals: “‘I mean, it’s my theory that I did it,’ Barris said. ‘Under posthypnotic suggestion, evidently. With an amnesia block.... Possibly ... to cause dissension to break out [about] whom we can trust, who is our enemy, and like that’” (A Scanner Darkly, 53).

The compulsively suspicious scrutiny applied by Dick’s protagonists to their circumstances typically effects an uncanny return of metaphysical speculation in accord with his validation of pop culture: “the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum” (Valis, 212). As Dick’s critique of capitalist production-consumption regimes became increasingly absorbed in indeterminacy, the conspiratorial agendas of oligarchies were personified as entrepreneurial trickster demigods.

In Ubik a ubiquitously promoted product approximates deity in promising to be all things to all people, although—as “a further hoax, to bewilder them that much more” (Ubik, 212)—it might not exist at all. Similarly, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch concerns a battle for the market between two hallucinogenic drugs, Can-D, a palliative, and Chew-Z, a wafer that seems to place the receiver in communion with a demonic higher reality.

Like so much of U.S. conspiracy thinking, Dick’s paranoid scenarios ultimately situate the economic and the political on essentially gnostic metaphysical foundations (“I think we’re living in some other world than what we see” [Time Out of Joint, 138]). Like their creator, Dick’s protagonists live in a universe of intimations, visitations, and epiphanies.

And like him, they seem to be inspired by the thought of being conspired against because conspiracy makes you feel that you are at the center of the universe. Goaded by the violent incursions of indiscernible political or commercial power, their complicity resides in the ingenious way they reconstruct their daily existence by linking seemingly incongruent phenomena and events.

Obsessively scanning the environment for clues and traces of unseen powers, they speculate themselves into cul de sacs, where they repeatedly revisit unsolvable enigmas: “‘The clues we are getting don’t give us a solution; they only show us how far-reaching the wrongness is.... [They have] introduced confusion rather than verification.... What’s it mean?’.... Ragle found himself poking through reality.... a splitting rent opening up, a great gash” (Time Out of Joint, 180).

Dick’s speculative fictions almost uniquely occupy the nexus where various “high” and “low” traditions of U.S. conspiracy thinking and paranoid world-designs converge. More accessible because less densely allusive than Melville or Pynchon, Dick tapped the conversation between U.S. vernacular and popular cultures, overhearing subliminally encoded communiqués of sublime revelation and subversive admonition.

For this reason his ideas seem comparable to those of other eccentric autodidacts of the U.S. tradition of carnivalesque metaphysics: Charles Fort’s assurance that “we are property”; Richard Shaver’s account of malign robots inhabiting “the Hollow Earth”; Elijah Muhammad’s revelation that the white race was devolved from the black by a cosmic “big head scientist” [sic]; L. Ron Hubbard’s claim that humans derive from incorporeal entities who became entrapped and self-forgetful while playing at “the game” of incarnation.

However, Dick’s bouts with psychological dysfunction, legendary binges on mind-altering substances, and heartfelt terror of FBI cooptation lend existential authenticity to his (knowingly) outrageous conspiratorial fabulations.

In 1974 he reputedly received coded pictographic revelations beamed from a “Vast Active Living Intelligence System”—an event fictionalized in Valis, his magnum opus. The Exegesis, a two-million-word, 1,000+ page commentary on this experience develops the premise that time/space are delusional—an experimental labyrinth devised as a game by higher beings.

Dick sporadically believed he had been contacted by the original, now immortal, Christian resistors to the tyranny of the Roman Empire, who had come into Watergate America to help bring down Richard Nixon (“The Savior woke me temporarily, & temporarily I remembered my true nature & task, through the saving gnosis, but I must be silent, because of the true, secret, transtemporal early Christians at work, hidden among us as ordinary humans” [Sutin 1995, 288]).

His more radical epiphanies notwithstanding, Dick’s vision of how consensus reality might be produced by the conspiratorial manipulation of simulacra has passed into the mainstream through Hollywood films based on his novels (Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report) or reflecting the appropriation of his conceptual paradigm (Capricorn One, The Truman Show, The Matrix). His analysis has much in common with postmodern practitioners of “the hermeneutics of suspicion” such as Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson, who have praised his work.