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Rereading Philip K. Dick
by Robert Silverberg



They were ugly little things. I mean the first editions of Philip K. Dick’s first novels—squat, scrunchy, cheaply printed1950s paperbacks, artifacts of a primitive era in science fictionpublishing. Ace Books was the name of the publishing company—they are still in business, though vastly transformed—and Acewriters then were paid one thousand dollars per novel, which even then was thebottom rate for paperback books, although in modern purchasing power it’s a good deal more than most new SF writers can command today.
Still, there were harbingers of things to come in those earlyDick books. The very first sentence of the very first one tells usthat in the most literal way: “There had been harbingers.” That’s Solar Lottery, Dick’s debut novel, an Ace Double Book of 1955,printed back-to-back, as Ace did in those days, with Leigh Brackett’s The Big Jump. As the novel opens, the harbingers include “aflight of white crows over Sweden,” “a series of unexplained fires,”and the birth of a two-headed calf. For us, the readers of sciencefiction half a century ago, the harbinger was the book itself, theannouncement of the presence among us of a brilliant, quirky newwriter.
How I read and re-read that book! How I studied it, and itssuccessor of just a few months later, The World Jones Made, and The Man Who Japed that followed just a few months after that. HowI loved those books! And how I yearned to write the way Philip K.Dick did! Like an earlier idol of mine, Henry Kuttner, whose workDick had plainly studied, he was prolific, he was a compelling storyteller, he was a fountain of cunning ideas. I could not havechosen better models for the sort of writing career I hoped to havethan Dick and his earlier avatar, Kuttner. Dick was only twenty-seven when Solar Lottery came out, a youthful beginner who had appeared inthe science fiction magazines just three years before with a doublehandful of ingenious short stories. I had already begun to sell somestories myself in 1955, so in terms of career launch we were virtually contemporaries, but I was only twenty, a college junior, and thatseven-year gap in our ages made me regard Dick as vastly older,vastly wiser, vastly more skillful in the art of storytelling. I was an earnest beginner; he was already a pro.
He was good, all right. But I don’t think either of us realized, back there in 1955, that he was destined to make an imperishable mark on American popular culture.

Solar Lottery is a crisp, fast-paced book, unmarred by theconvoluted, contorted style of Dick’s later work, a style that ledone astute critic to say that his prose read like a bad translationfrom the German. It hums along at an unrelenting pace. The basicextrapolative situation shows Dick’s early debt to the frantic,dizzyingly intense novels of A.E. van Vogt: out of the midcenturytelevision-quiz popular culture has somehow evolved a world ruled bythe Quizmaster, a dictator chosen by a random twitch of an electronic lottery, who can be displaced from supreme power as readily as hehas been elevated to it. There is something of Robert A. Heinleinin this, the early Heinlein of If This Goes On and Beyond This Horizon, but the main inspiration had to be van Vogt.
Van Vogt, giving us similar situations in The World of Null-A and The Weapons Makers and other classic 1940s novels, rarely madesense, but the breathless tumble of one idea over another led hisreaders to ignore or even welcome that. Dick, in Solar Lottery,does a van Vogt novel that makes sense . . . almost. He does one otherthing that van Vogt never achieved: his characters seem like realpeople. They yearn, they suffer, they get angry, they get frightened. They fret and worry and bicker in a way that no one in any ofthe novels of van Vogt or Heinlein or Asimov in science fiction’s 1940s Golden Age ever did, and the strange world they inhabit becomes all the more real because of that. And the book ends not in aslam-bang pulp-magazine climax but in a wistful, open-ended visionthat tells alert readers that Dick, even at the age of twenty-seven, wanted tobreak free of the mold that had shackled other science fiction novelists in that era of the rigidly formulaic three-part magazineserial. He wanted, in fact, to be a novelist, period, without the“science fiction” label. (Between 1952 and 1958 he would write eightmainstream novels, novels without a shred of science fictional concept—Voices from the Street, Mary and the Giant, In Milton Lumky Territory, etc.—which no publisher would touch during hislifetime. I saw them, once, stacked up in boxes in his agent’soffice. They all were published, finally, after his death, when themovie Blade Runner had conferred bitterly ironic posthumous fameand fortune upon him.)
Solar Lottery had a powerful impact on me when I read it, inone wide-eyed sitting, in the autumn of 1955. I had already begunto pattern my short stories after Dick’s, and now his first novelwould reshape my notions of what a longer science fiction storyought to be. I had it very much in mind when his publisher, AceBooks, asked me to write a novel of my own the following year. Reading it again now, at the far end of my long career, I stilladmire the mastery Dick showed at the outset of his. The bookfizzes and sparkles with ideas, and, miraculously, they all hangtogether in a way that the myriad plot explosions of Dick’s predecessor in this mode, van Vogt, never managed to do. And his crispdialog and lucid exposition carry the story along efficiently andpowerfully.

The World Jones Made came out, again from Ace, just a fewmonths later. It’s an even better book. Again we have the van Vogttechnique of concept piled on concept, but again, where van Vogtsimply stacks one idea on another without much of an attempt at anintegrated plot, Dick manages, astonishingly, to hold everythingtogether to tell a coherent story—an atomic war that fills theworld with bizarre mutant humans, mysterious alien creatures drifting in from space who may be planning to colonize Earth, a security-minded government with a strong KGB flavor, and—the primaryvan Vogt touch—a sideshow performer who claims to be able to seethe future, and, as it turns out, actually can.It is that sideshow performer—Floyd Jones is his name—whoprovides the unique Philip K. Dick flavor. In a van Vogt novel,Jones, the superman, would have been a remote and incomprehensiblefigure who had made himself emperor of the world before the storyopened. To some extent power of that sort is what Jones achieves inthe course of the Dick novel; but Dick shows his superman as a tragic, almost pathetic figure, whose anguish under the burden of hisextraordinary gift makes him far more real than any of van Vogt’smiracle-men. (“‘It’s not so much like I can see the future; it’smore that I’ve got one foot stuck in the past. I can’t shake itloose. I’m reliving one year of my life forever.’ He shuddered.‘Over and over again. Everything I do, everything I say, hear,experience, I have to grind over twice.’”) The complexity of Jones’predicament and the pathos of his character lingered in my mind for decades, and traces of it showed up in such novels of mine as The Masks of Time (1968), Dying Inside (1972), and, most particularly, The Stochastic Man (1975). None of those books is anythinglike The World Jones Made in plot, setting, or tone, and yet thespirit of that 1956 Dick book hovered over all three as I was writing them, many years later.
He was twenty-eight years old when he wrote Jones, living in Berkeleywith the first of what would eventually be five wives, and trying toearn a living as a free-lance writer in the wobbly and uncertainscience fiction market of the 1950s. (He had been working as aclerk in a record shop until his early flurry of short-story salesencouraged him to take the rash step of making writing his full-timeprofession.) That decision meant that he would spend most of theremaining twenty-six years of his life living close to the povertyline, which gives an even darker twist to his posthumous Hollywoodprosperity. I had no idea at the time, of course, of how littleDick was actually earning. I saw him as a figure to emulate: asuccessful full-time writer, selling stories to every magazinearound, and now writing brilliant novels for Ace. To me he wasalready one of the best science fiction writers in the business. Twomore books that followed in quick succession, both of them from Acein the same low-echelon format, served to confirm that belief: The Man Who Japed and Eye in the Sky. 1959 brought Time Out of Joint, the escape from Ace into hard covers and the first of hissignificant explorations of the nature of reality. And then, in1962, came the Hugo-winning masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle. From then until the end of his short and troubled life in1982 there could be no question of his place at the highest levels of the field.
Reading The World Jones Made fifty-five years later, I see noreason to revise my youthful opinion that it, and Solar Lottery,demonstrate that their author was not just a facile producer ofclever short stories, but a writer of major stature. (They havebeen reissued often over the years, and copies are not hard tofind.) In those early books he isn’t yet tinkering with the natureof reality as he did, again and again, in the great novels of hismature period, Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which became the movie Blade Runner), nor is he departing from the norms of the science fiction novel altogether as he did in the mysterious finalbooks, Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Readers who go to Jones or his other earlynovels will not find the manic strangeness of the 1960s books inthem or the challenging philosophical intensity of the later ones,and they will be disappointed if that is what they are looking for. But, taken on their own terms, they are superb examples of sciencefiction in the classic mode, building on the work of such 1940spulp-magazine stalwarts as A.E. van Vogt and Henry Kuttner and Robert A. Heinlein to give us something new and strange and wonderful.

Copyright © 2012 Robert Silverberg

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"Rereading Philip K. Dick"
by Robert Silverberg , copyright © 2012 with permission of the author.

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