The problem with fiction set in the future is that the present is always catches up. Take for example A Scanner Darkly, the best known of the five novels in the Library of America’s latest collection from science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Written in the early 1970s and set in 1994, it now, almost 15 years later, seems dated (Dick died in 1982). Drug dealers still use pay phones, cars still have carburetors and people still listen to cassette tapes. On the other hand, police use holograms for spying on suspected dealers and undercover cops wear something called a “scramble suit” that makes them not quite visible. How come the forces of oppression always get the cool technology?
In many ways, Dick’s bypassed future looks like the present. A Scanner Darkly, like the 2006 digitally-colored movie staring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder it inspired, is famously set in an Orange County we recognize. Commercial strips are populated with MacDonald’s and Pizza Huts, houses are made of plastic and there must have been a mortgage crisis because whole tract of them have been abandoned. The world of 1994 is a place in which the ‘70s really never went away. People “flash” on thoughts, quality drugs are “primo” and those who like to get “loaded” are “heads.” Stoners still go to the drive-in to see Planet of the Apes and all ten (ten?) sequels.
A burn-out tragedy focused on the paranoia of surveillance society, A Scanner Darkly speaks to the present. It’s a strange read, stranger than the strangely animated movie it inspires. That’s the thing about Dick’s writing. In plot, pace and ideas, it twists your thinking. It carries timeless messages. Dick’s great themes of high anxiety, insidious technology and mental exploitation take over your head like his imaginary drugs. You don’t know what to believe even after you’ve put the book down. In a sense, reading Dick is the ultimate natural high.
Five Novels of the 1960s &; 70s follows the structure of the Library’s first volume, Four Novels of the 1960s. There’s a story made famous by Hollywood (in the first volume it was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which became the movie Blade Runner). There’s a stunning work of contemporarily relevance and surreal dread like the psychedelic marketing nightmare Ubik from the previous volume. This time it’s Now Wait for Last Year, which focuses on a three-way interplanetary war and a drug that facilitates time travel. To further screw your neurons, there’s a psychotically personal tale, in this case Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Dick infrequently wrote stories that create realities we’ve were lucky to avoid. Here, it’s Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Got Along after the Bomb, an account of life after a nuclear test disaster and the resulting exchange of bombs. The world somehow survives—this is actually a story about devotion–but don’t leave your horse unattended or somebody’s liable to eat it.
Dick’s fixation with interplanetary colonization is represented by Martian Time Slip. Life on Mars is dismal and aimless. Colonists wile away the hours until the ditch rider visits with the monthly supply of water. A traveling salesman swings by to break the monotony (and we do mean swings). Corporations scheme over which will get to exploit Mars’ not-so-abundant minerals and the colonists bide their time with the latest mind-relaxing drugs. The strangest touch: autistic children are exploited by business because they can see into the future and predict how well a product will sell.
Paranoia was the great theme of the last collection and it’s certainly present here, especially in A Scanner Darkly. But other psychological states figure in, notably schizophrenia. Dick was a heavy abuser of amphetamines and as he progressed into the ‘70s, questions of sanity dominated his work. The drug known as “Death” or simply “D” in A Scanner Darkly puts the brain at war with itself, dividing right and left spheres in a competition that results in dual realities.
This is what sets Dick’s stories apart from most other science fiction. He wasn’t so interested in inventing futuristic technology as he was in how we would keep from loosing our minds in enslavement to it. The setting may be Mars but the existential problems are the same.
The question of whether or not Dick was merely an exceptional pulp writer persists. As in the previous volume, some of these novels are just decent, others works of genius. But the scenarios and mental states he explores, even in the lesser stories, tend to linger long after this hefty volume’s been closed. Both hemispheres of our brain agree: that’s the sign of great literature.–Cabbage Rabbit