‘My fa­ther’s warn­ings are be­com­ing a re­al­ity’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

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

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