Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, by Philip K. Dick

October 5, 2013 at 09:13 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )




Another of Dick’s non-science fiction novels, Humpty Dumpty is more notable for its carefully constructed style than for its story. It might not have mattered what Dick wrote about here; as much as how he wrote it. Indeed, there is the distinct feeling that the book might have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter, or six hundred pages longer, and with much the same set of results and level of enjoyment as in its actual form.

“What a waste it had all been. All the work. Devotion to fixing people’s cars…All those years, he thought. And before, trying different things. Had he learned anything?”

-Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

At times Dick appears to be emulating the voice of a latter-day Steinbeck, peeling back the shiny bakelite exterior of the postwar boom to point his spotlight at ordinary and irrational people making bad decisions and doing foolish things. Less sympathetic than the Joads, certainly; but easier to identify with, even if the reader recoils in awkward realisation at the identification.

Written before the majority of his science fiction work, it is truly interesting to see the similarities between Humpty Dumpty‘s Jim Fergesson and Al Miller, and later characters like Joe Chip or Rick Deckard, and even to speculate towards some of the stylistic choices that buoyed up Dick’s fantastic imagination and contributed so much to his success. Decades before a greasy and industrial aesthetic became a defining trait in the science fiction genre, Dick was already fascinated with the working class, the uneducated, the addicted and the vast multicoloured array of virtues and vices that they shared.

It is difficult to decide whether this book ought to be recommended to regular readers of Philip K. Dick and other speculative fiction, or for readers of Arthur Miller and shabby grey realism. It is remarkably far from the beaten track for the former, and doesn’t really compare all that favourably for the latter. Difficult, then, to decide for whom it ought to be recommended; but not difficult to recommend.


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A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

September 9, 2012 at 11:53 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )


It might be difficult to assign this book to a genre, had not Philip K. Dick done the world the service of establishing himself so thoroughly as one of the world’s most skilful writers of science fiction. And so there it is, and after briefly pausing to note that this book is indeed set in a dystopian future with technology foreign to true life, it can be determined. Another pulp sci-fi paperback, by another pulp sci-fi author. Easy, quick, and almost entirely wrong.

“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs out of his hair.”

-A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick strayed occasionally from “his” genre, it is true. But what he excelled at was writing engrossing and detailed stories with occasional science fiction dressings draped over them. The Man in the High Castle is more of a spiritual and religious quest than it is either historical or science-fictional; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep might have been written in 1950s America or in the distant future; and A Scanner Darkly, as its title suggests, is a hard and gritty crime-noir with plaintive and deep questions about the human experience, long before it could ever be called a science-fiction story.

This, then, is a science fiction novel for those who are not immediately attracted by science fiction. It is intelligent and exciting, if a little anticlimactic. The story is clever, but this is mostly a semi-autobiographical reimagining of Philip K. Dick’s own experiences with drugs, and lacks closure and occasionally some coherence. Among the best that Philip K. Dick has to offer, and maybe the most representative of his style and revealing of his view on life.

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The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, by Philip K. Dick

May 29, 2011 at 15:57 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )


Bizarrely for such a cryptically-titled book, The Man is an absurdly normal and myopic look at small-town life, and the farces and contradictions that drive humanity. Most of Philip K. Dick’s books are subversively and secretly about exactly this subject: the absurity of humanity. The most important thing to be gleaned by reading this particular story is a glimpse inside his chief purpose in writing, and an understanding that above all, Dick was not successful because he was brilliantly creative or more imaginative than other writers, but because he deeply cared about people, and the sort of things they get up to.

There is mystery in The Man, and there are a handful of pages where his pen disturbs the waters of prehistoric anthropology, sinister ghost towns and the question of the meaning of humanity; there are a few moments where the reader is reminded just who is writing the story, and things become chilling and exciting. Mostly, however, this book is only a moderate success as an interesting story, and more useful as a flowery essay on the strangeness of the human condition. It is not badly written (nobody could accuse Dick of that, even in his dreariest works!) but neither is it thrilling, or even at a more basic level, challenging. It is a bleak portrait that seems to be waiting to have some element of supernature draped over its stolid frame to complete its purpose; interesting for what it is, but certainly not entertaining or thought-provoking.

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick

May 12, 2011 at 13:32 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Thriller) (, , , , )


Philip K. Dick has written books that are stunning science fiction masterpieces, casting indelible shadows across the genre and redefining the work of those who both followed and preceded him. He has also written books where his own philosophical musings, his metaphysical conjecturing and his own self-importance obscure interesting ideas and maddeningly unexplored settings. This is something of a blend of both, taking up Kafka’s pen and peerlessly sketching the man who descends from an unassailable perch through no fault of his own, and without understanding to measure his plunge. The book is confidently and expertly written, and the narrative shift from Taverner to the eponymous Buckman is employed with excellence.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a great deal of Dick’s own personal musings scattered intrusively through the narrative, and moments where the characters gaze wistfully into the middle distance and chase rambling thoughts for pages at a time. The story does not really allow for that, and these moments stand out starkly, and give the reader the distinct feeling that he is being lectured–or at the very least, philosophised at, by a very eager and not entirely lucid evangelist. This problem by no means destroys what is, after all, a thrilling and well-crafted science fiction story, but it does damage it somewhat. In addition, while the bizarrely optimistic epilogue surely serves some purpose, and must connect with some spiritual or idealistic (or even subversively cynical) theme somewhere in the book, it feels clumsy and out of character with the rest of the story, and was almost certainly a mistake. The uncertainty and hanging echo of imminent peril hovering at the end of the final chapter left a vastly preferable conclusion. A great book, but manifestly not one of his best.

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Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

February 15, 2011 at 13:52 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror, Science Fiction) (, , , , )


There is very little to criticise in Ubik. Philip K. Dick begins with a smattering of science fiction ideas that most writers would give their index fingers to possess: flawlessly imagined commercialisation of all sorts of rival telepathies, futuristic terrorism, terrifically rendered post-death experiences with incredible postulations into cryogenics. He takes this rich platter, and uses every piece of it as window dressing for a dizzying plunge into the depths of the soul, with a terrifying nightmare half-life of parasitic existence. He manages to do all of this while writing a thrilling and exciting murder mystery and a realistic and engaging historical fiction.

There is a large ensemble cast of characters, and the only one the reader is really given time to explore is Joe Chip: but the shadowy and shallow shapes each remain vaguely mysterious and utterly suspicious throughout the story, ebbing and flowing marvellously in a perfect mimicry of the dream world’s own fluctuating construct. It is a shame that readers are not given time to make heavier investments in these characters, and it is a shame that the savagely brilliant science fiction of Philip K. Dick does not lend itself to further study (what he might have done with the throwaway war between the Runciter and Hollis corporations and their telepaths!). But like a bronze casting, the exquisitely-carved mold is chipped away and discarded only to reveal the true work of art. Ubik has everything: the glimmering fantasy of the future, the mystical blurring between technology and the soul of man, the authority of historical fiction and suspense; sheer bloody-minded suspense and terror that culminate in the metaphysical ambiguity that this master author manages so well.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

February 4, 2011 at 13:10 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction) (, , , , )


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a frighteningly compelling book, and a snapshot of entropy; a single frame of the inevitable swirl down the drain. It is depressing, bleak, spiteful and amoral; but it is also mournful, religious, filled with pathos,  and incredibly earnest in the questions it asks.

Philip K. Dick does not try and instill any particular philosophy in his reader, and the very leading questions he asks are open enough that any of half a dozen answers might realistically be chosen. Therein lies his success (or one of his successes): this is a book written cynically, by an absolute cynic, who is holding a door open with all his might for morality and spitituality.

The novel’s open-ended structure is delightful, and fits admirably with the entropic theme. There is no happy ending, but nor is there a tragic collapse. Not yet. Deckard might be a lot of things: a sociopath, a convert, a broken madman, a deviant or even an android, but he is certainly sympathetic, and in him rests Dick’s sympathy for the human race.

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