Philip K. Dick: Rebel with a Cause (Part 1)

Books, Critique

Philip K DickDeath has been kind to the everlasting memory of Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), one of the most influential and perhaps also one of the most eccentric authors of the twentieth century. Since his untimely death at the age of 53 there’s been nothing short of an explosion of interest in the man and his work and as each year passes, his remarkable influence on other writers, in cinema and mainstream culture becomes more apparent. Such posthumous success and wide-reaching influence is unprecedented for any previous writer of science fiction and it’s further evidence that Death has a genius for irony: only in the afterlife has Phil Dick enjoyed the wide success he deserved and craved throughout his life!

I suspect that few people these days would question the extent of Phil Dick’s influence. As for his eccentricity, while some have attempted to rationalise it, the fact remains that he claimed to communicate with a higher being via a pink beam of light fired directly into his consciousness. Enough said. Genius often travels at or beyond the outer limits of conventional wisdom.

As much as he is remembered for being influential and eccentric however, Phil Dick deserves to be remembered as one of the most subversive writers of the twentieth century. In any genre. Philip Kindred Dick was a Rebel with a Cause, and that cause was our liberation. Through his fiction, essays and philosophical writings, Dick worked to free us from an imprisonment that we are all subject to: our formation from the moment of birth as Prisoners of Consciousness, human subjects restricted to certain modes of thought and behaviour.

To put it another way, we are constructed as androids programmed to obey a given set of instructions.

This is a big call, I know, but I believe Dick’s credentials as SF’s pre-eminent rebel can be established beyond doubt. Though not, perhaps, beyond a shadow of doubt. What are we to make of this confessional entry in his Exegesis: “I co-operated fully with my oppressors. There was no further degree to which I could be turned around… Fear killed the rebel in me in 3-74 [March 1974] … They got me. The intimidation worked…” It makes for an interesting if rather sad story about that strain of fear of authority and anti-communist paranoia we tend to associate with America in the 1950s, an affliction that Phil Dick carried with him from those dark days in the 50s into the early 70s.

In this article I’ll attempt to establish Phil Dick’s credentials as a rebel, and what exactly the cause is. Only then perhaps will it make sense why SF’s pre-eminent rebel would rail against himself for betraying the cause. I’ll cover that betrayal in a follow-up article.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Phil Dick’s writing will know that at the heart of his writing is a question: “What is Reality?”. There is however another great theme in his work, no less important, although mentioned less often: “What is it to be authentically human?”, and to appreciate Phil Dick’s status as science fiction’s pre-eminent rebel it’s necessary to understand these two questions in relation to each other.

Almost all of Phil Dick’s writing is in some way or other about resisting authority. At its most obvious his protagonists confront political, military or corporate forms of authority as in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, The Man Who Japed, and numerous other novels and short stories. While they’re not trivial, these forms of authority are really just aspects of the ultimate source of repression that Dick is concerned with: our repression by reality itself. Or rather, what Dick confronts in his writing is the consequence of the misbelief that what we perceive to be reality is the way things really are.

Reality, it would seem, is the mother of all authority.

There’s a raft of ideas at play here from the pre-Socratic philosophy of Heraclitus through to post-structuralism and in the interests of brevity (and perhaps your patience) I’m going to abbreviate what follows as far as possible. The long and short of it is that the reality we experience is an illusion that has been constructed to conceal True Reality. To quote Horselover Fat (Phil’s alter-ego in Valis): “We did not fall because of a moral error; we fell because of an intellectual error: that of taking the phenomenal world as real”.

Dick provides the formula for our imprisonment in a 1978 essay with the ironic title (given his fondness for deconstruction), How to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later: Comprehension, he states, follows perception. This is a deceptively simple and compact phrase that contains within it a wealth of ideas and a nasty surprise. When we unravel this Gordian knot of ideas (as I’ll attempt to next), we find a disturbing but inescapable conclusion: humans are fundamentally androids!

How so?

The argument runs something like this: our comprehension of reality is a consequence of our experience of the particular historical conditions in which we find ourselves through an accident of birth. Comprehension follows perception: what we believe to be reality is what we experience and perceive it to be.

If our beliefs are governed by our perception, and our behaviour is governed by our beliefs, it follows that we (our beliefs and behaviour) are programmed by those historical conditions in which we find ourselves and which we assume to be reality. Historical conditions are a factory that makes androids of us all. Marx put it like this: “It is not men’s consciousness that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” In novel after novel, one short story after another, in his essays and philosophical writing, Dick shows that beliefs that go unquestioned are an imprisonment of consciousness that govern how we think and behave.

You might protest that surely none of this matters if what we perceive to be reality is in fact the way things really are. If so, it’s meaningless to say we are programmed to behave in a certain way as there is no other way to behave. In fact our beliefs and behaviour must be authentic as what we perceive is True Reality.

If only it were so simple. Unfortunately, Phil Dick tells us, what we perceive as reality is a collective self-delusion that conceals True Reality.

So what then is this True Reality that Phil Dick believes is concealed?

The answer can only be found by delving beneath the obvious reading of Dick’s writing, but he warns us that this is the case time and again. In a letter to Patricia Warrick, for example, he lamented that “Every goddam critic, reader, and publisher immediately took these chapters to be real. I could not lay my epistemological problem before them even when I stipulated it. I wasted my time in doing what I did. The conventions of fiction blinded everyone, the convention that if it is stated that this man did this and this woman did that, that in fact they did.” If Dick states that True Reality is a Biblical landscape (as he does in How to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later) beware of accepting that at face value and consider that Dick presents many conflicting statements about what True Reality is. But therein lies the truth: in multiplicity, plurality, infinity. These are qualities that deny the possibility of an absolute, singular True Reality.

In the end, Phil Dick does not present us with a True Reality but rather with a truth about reality: that there is no True Reality. Beneath the illusion that we believe is reality there is only Void, which is the very absence of meaning or of truth for that matter.

Our reality then is an info-structure of ideas and meanings (changing over time) that we have constructed out of necessity in the very absence of meaning: our reality is Order imposed where there is only Chaos. In the absence of True Reality, we have fabricated and imposed our own reality, and it is a necessary self-delusion that conceals the terrifying truth of the Void.

Again, you may ask, if it’s a necessary self-delusion, what does it matter that it’s not True Reality? Surely it’s better to live with the World-As-We-Know-It (our fabricated if false reality) than the World-As-It-Is (the terrifying Void)?

Yes and no.

Which finally gets us to that other great theme in Dick’s work, what it is to be authentically human. From what has gone before it’s probably obvious where this is heading: an android is definitively inauthentic because it obeys a program. A human who behaves according to unquestioned beliefs is no different from an android. Actually rather than describing an android as definitively inauthentic, it’s more accurate to say “symbolically” inauthentic because in the universe according to Philip K. Dick even a machine can be authentically human if it rejects its programming. In Man, Android and Machine, Dick attributes genuine humanity to a “mechanical construct” not because it lends assistance – a humane act – but because it “halts in its customary operation” to do so. That is, it is free from the constraint of its program. It is this quality that is the very essence of authentic humanity.

It’s at this point that all the pieces start falling into place. The possibility of liberation from this Black Iron Prison we’ve constructed for ourselves is implicit to Dick’s truth about reality, that there is no True Reality. To paraphrase Horselover Fat once again, if it’s information that imprisons us, “then it can be said that information … or more precisely the ability to read this information … will save us”. The first step toward escaping the Black Iron Prison is recognising that it exists, which is why reality in Dick’s fiction so often breaks down or deconstructs to reveal an underlying chaos or the Void, or even an alternate reality which throws his protagonists into doubt, forcing them to question their beliefs.

Such a liberation of consciousness is the necessary first step for what Dick would call an authentic existence, and perhaps also, for social and political change. But keep this in mind: overthrowing one system of government and replacing it with another cannot be an end in itself: replacing one system with another, even if we believe that replacement is a utopia, the perfect system, true reality, paradise, whatever, is just replacing one prison with another. No sooner have we identified a belief system as truth and reality, than we are prisoners of consciousness.

Only in questioning everything that we take for granted are we able to achieve authenticity, which is true freedom. This is Phil Dick’s legacy to us, and though he shuffled off this mortal coil way too soon, his writing remains as testament to his refusal (to borrow the words of Michel Foucalt) “to accept anything as definitive, untouchable, obvious, or immobile. No aspect of reality should be allowed to become a definitive and inhuman law for us.”

I’d go even further than arguing his work is an expression of resistance and claim that at its most successful his writing is an antidote to repression as it disrupts our comprehension of the way things are, forcing us to ask questions. William Gibson, in his innovative Cyberspace novels (commencing with Neuromancer), describes a future in which suitably modified users can augment their knowledge and skills by slotting software directly into their brain via a skull-jack. Imagine the effect of slotting infected software. That would be close to the experience of reading the best of Phil Dick’s fiction. A virus insinuates itself into the info-structure which defines our understanding of reality, and then dissolves it!

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