‘My father’s warnings are becoming a reality’
As two new Philip K Dick adaptations head to the screen, the author’s daughter tells Tim Martin that the world is edging ever closer to his wildest imaginings
Atelepathic pig reasons sorrowfully with the man about to eat it. North America splits in half along racial lines. People buy new memories and have them implanted. These are some of the fictions of Philip K Dick, whose writing, often ignored in his lifetime, seems to vibrate with anxiety and desperate wit about the things that worry us today: the effects of technology on the human mind; mankind’s impact on the world; and the unstable nature of reality itself.
“It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories that asked the question ‘ What is reality?,’ ” Dick once wrote, “to someday get an answer.” That comment offers a clue as to the appeal of his fiction, which is sometimes so intensely felt that it can be hard to read. If you’ve ever sensed, even for a moment, that your grip on reality has gone a little slack, then you may not wish to pick up his 1969 novel Ubik, a book that opens in a hypercorporate world in which people have to pay for everything (including leaving the house) before a bomb blast plunges its small group of characters into a reality that seems to be altering with every passing second. Things age too fast. People develop false memories. Are the characters all dead? Are they dreaming – or mad? How would they know? How would you know?
The work of Dick – PKD to his fans – incorporates some of the robots-and-rocket ships trappings of mid-century science fiction, but its themes can feel disconcertingly modern. Tomorrow, the latest PKD adaptation arrives on screen in the form of Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, a 10-part series produced by Sony for Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon in the US. It takes inspiration from 10 stories that Dick wrote for pulp magazines in the early Fifties, all of which already contain the paranoid themes and obsessions that would go on to dominate his career. In one, an abusive husband returns from a distant war with an alien hiding in his head. In another, a sprawling automatic factory learns to replicate itself piece by piece.
Perhaps with the example of Amazon’s lavish 2015 adaptation of Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle in mind, the producers of Electric Dreams have gone all-in on the scope and casting of this new series. The stars include Timothy Spall, Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Janelle Monáe; the sets range from a murky Blade-Runnerish retrofuture, full of vintage automobiles and telepaths in brown trench coats, to the plains of Earth untold years after the apocalypse.
One of the producers is Isa Dick Hackett, the author’s daughter, who, with her siblings Laura Leslie and Christopher Dick, runs Electric Shepherd Productions and oversees adaptations of her father’s work. Friendly and businesslike, Hackett sees the influence of his writing in everything from The Sims video games to virtual reality and online avatars, “although interestingly he wasn’t much of a hard sci-fi guy,” she says. “He didn’t necessarily predict a lot of inventions. It was more about how technology impacted on human beings.” Nonetheless, she points to the “homeopapes” in several of Dick’s stories – self-generating news sheets that provide up-tothe-minute content “tailored to your individual requirements” and containing “the classification of news that you wish” – as one example of how reality increasingly resembles his fictional ideas.
Hackett offers a relaxed commentary on her father’s often comfortless works of fiction, but she is clear that if Dick were alive today “and if he hadn’t in some respects been mad before, it would have driven him mad. He would have felt as though his warnings to people about the impact of humans and human relationships were becoming reality.”
In the 30 years between 1952 and his death, Dick wrote with the zeal of someone on a mission, both helped and harmed by the amphetamines on which he increasingly came to rely. As time went by, the harassed everymen in his novels, who find themselves entangled in horribly plausible fake worlds or surrounded by not-quite-right imitations of humanity, became figures for the author himself – and PKD’s life, in turn, edged closer and closer to PKD’s novels.
Readers and scholars continue to debate the true nature and extent of Dick’s mental illness. As Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson wrote in their introduction to the 2011 edition of The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, a two million-word document that Dick produced in
‘Some people call it paranoia. Looking back, it seems he was pretty reliable’
‘ He tended to consider a lot of things that could go wrong’: Philip K Dick