Philip K. Dick

By: Joshua Glenn
December 16, 2009


“My books (& stories) are intellectual (conceptual) mazes & I am in an intellectual maze in trying to figure out our situation (who we are & how we look into the world, & world as illusion, etc.) because the situation,” writes PHILIP K. DICK (1928-82) somewhere in his Exegesis, “is a maze.” Those familiar only with Hollywood’s adaptations of his work might imagine that the maze to which Dick refers is one whose walls and mirrors might be shattered — thus dispelling all illusions forever — through a heroic effort. Not so! Long before his theoretically-minded contemporaries lamented the forces of governmentality that inscribe us in the clutches of power-knowledge, or the hegemonic allure of the dominant discourse, Dick speculated that social control was exercised through diabolically subtle and bewildering mechanisms. In The World Jones Made, Time Out of Joint, Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Now Wait for Last Year, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, A Maze of Death, We Can Build You, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly, and VALIS — to name my favorite, um, twelve Dick novels — we learn that heroic measures against political and epistemological neototalitarianism are forever doomed to fail. In a 1972 speech, Dick instead hailed the “laziness, short attention span, perversity, [and] criminal tendencies” of the semi-employed, drug-abusing, near-schizophrenic schlemiels with whom he was then spending most of his time. “We can tell and tell him what to do, but when the time comes for him to perform, all the subliminal instruction, all the ideological briefing, all the tranquilizing drugs, all the psychotherapy are a waste,” insisted Dick. “He just plain will not jump when the whip is cracked.”

A couple of the ideas in this item were first aired in Hermenaut #15 (1999), n+1 #1 (Fall 2004), and Slate Magazine (June 27, 2006). Click here for more science fiction on


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What do you think?

  1. One of my favorite Dick books is not even one of his best. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, empathy turns out to be the differentiator between reality and representation. You might think the cult of Mercer would collapse when a replicant notices that Mercer is an actor and the mountain a cheap set, b/c the robots’ better vision sees more clearly. Or does it? What the robot does not “see” is the shared empathy felt when people “log in” all at once, nor does it feel the ever-increasing blows of the rocks that prevent reaching the summit. Sometimes the reenactment *is the reality. But of course it’s never that simple, and while Dick explores many (all?) of the permutations, he does not reach a resolution, instead allowing the philosophical conundrums to share an uneasy co-existence in the reader’s mind, unsynthesized, unsummarized, and unheimlichkeit.

  2. if only that were true, though, eh? if only mild defectiveness were the answer. i mean, i love the idea of all this satanically insidious programming just rebounding off the addled dome of the stoner/tweaker/whatever, but aren’t we enjoined to use our noggins just a bit more than that?

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