So, I mentioned in my last post the difficulty I would have in picking my five favourite Philip K. Dick short stories. Ever since I wrote those words I've been mulling the possibilities over in my mind, and I think I've reached something like a list (although I have to admit I cheated slightly). Now, there are many things to criticize in PKD's writing: his dialogue is often stilted and rarely sounds anything like actual conversation or speech, his characters are rarely more than types (in the worst sense of that term), his plot structures verge on the formulaic (if you've read one of his stories, you have a pretty good idea how all of his other stories will unfold), and his character names and settings are shamelessly recycled from one story to another.
With that being said, reading PKD is, in my opinion, like reading no other writer. His ideas often appear extremely banal (“What happens if a man is late leaving for work?” to take the premise of one story), but he finds in these moments incredibly complex and difficult ways to grapple with reality and our experience of it. There are surreal and absurd elements to his fiction, but normally these things develop out of the metaphysical questions he asks in the story. The floor often drops out from under you while you read, but it's okay, because you find out there's nowhere to go: the floor and whatever is underneath it never existed in the first place. To borrow a phrase from Simon Reynolds (one that I've mentioned before on this blog), reading PKD is like having your brain set on fire, and for much the same reason as with reading theory: his work exposes and critiques many of our conceptions of modern life, existence, time, and the physical world.
On a more personal note, discovering PKD was just a really amazing moment in my life. For a kid from the suburbs who had already consumed most of his local library's science fiction section--but who had no grounding in philosophy or in any literature beyond Shakespeare, the Romantics, and uber-canonical stuff like The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye--reading A Maze of Death (the first thing I checked out from the library by PKD) was a genuinely shocking and exhilarating experience. I'd read Robert Silverberg, and I liked the grittiness and sex in his stories and novels, but PKD was even edgier. I felt like I should be hiding it from my parents (not that they ever attempted to censor anything I read). This was nothing like Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke: it was more philosophical than Asimov, less creepily right-wing than Heinlein, and way more fun to read than Clarke. What is more, PKD did stuff with the suburbs that I'd never read, seen, or heard anyone do before: he didn't just say that the suburbs were shallow or a cultural void, he asked what would happen if suburbs became the model of human civilization and traced out all the implications of that scenario. It was electrifying stuff for my teenage brain (and still is today).
I don't read PKD as much as I used to, but I can't imagine being interested in a lot of the stuff I'm interested in now without him. By the time I got to reading postmodern fiction, a lot of it seemed positively tame by comparison and didn't frustrate me nearly as much as it did some of my classmates. Similarly, I think I like magical realism so much because it feels the same to me as PKD in a lot of ways. Without further adieu, then, my five favourite PKD short stories:
- “Stand-by”/”What'll We Do With Ragland Park?” - Yes, I'm cheating right off the bat; these stories go together, though. They share characters (and this time it's not just Dick recycling character names; they really are the same characters) and a plot. I can't really say why I love these stories so much, other than that, in typical PKD fashion, they touch on a dozen topics only tangentially related to the plot, but entirely related to his two big concerns (as he himself admitted): 1) What is real? and 2) What does it mean to be human?
- “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” - What I love most about this story is the feeling that it is slowly losing control of itself. The reader knows the entire time that an elaborate fabrication is taking place, but the more detailed the lie becomes, the longer it goes on, the less real anything else seems to become. The world is untethered from the past, and the lie becomes necessary in order to create a history that will allow the present to keep existing. The title statement comes to be less a hypothetical statement than a desperate situation that must be prevented from occurring at all costs.
- “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” - Love, regret, childhood trauma, this story has it all. It is also one of the saddest stories PKD ever wrote. I think what's so poignant is the desire on the part of one character (Martine) to make herself real to another (Victor). Like most of the characters in PKD's fiction, she's up against a lot: reality is always failing to manifest itself, always failing to be there, even when it takes the form of the people we love.
- “The Days of Perky Pat” - I wonder if Baudrillard ever read this story, because it seems like he would have a field day with it. I can think of no better way to explain the order of simulacra and the idea of the hyperreal than through the Perky Pat boards the adults play with in this story. The world does not need to exist--it can in fact be a post-apocalyptic wasteland--because we will spend endless hours recreating it in our fantasies and will make it more real than it ever was before it disappeared. The world as it exists is actually in the way of it being as real as it could be.
- “Precious Artifact” - This story might be the archetypal example of PKD's favourite plot structure: 1) establish the setting of the story; 2) reveal that setting to be an illusion and present a new setting; 3) indicate that both the revelation of the first setting as an illusion and the establishment of the second setting are equally illusory; 4) catalogue the characters' responses to this chain of events and their attempts to determine what is real. What raises this above just a gimmick is the way Dick uses these revelations as a way to comment on the relationship between perception and reality. In this case, even though the main character understands that things are not as they seem, he accepts (though he must unconsciously know it is false) an equally spurious conception of the world because he does not want to actually know what is real, he just wants to find a more acceptable illusion in which to live than the one he currently inhabits. Again, this describes a ton of PKD's fiction. I like this particular story, though, because it is a chance to see him in full command of his powers and his unique vision: it's not quite as far out as his later novels (there's none of the heavily religious/mystical content), but it's more intellectually engaging than his early action-oriented stories. If you like “Precious Artifact,” there's a good chance you will enjoy PKD.
Honourable mentions, or, my next five favourites in no particular order: “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Autofac,” “Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked,” “The Day Mr. Computer Fell Out of the Tree,” and “Retreat Syndrome.”