Philip K Dick: three early stories on a theme

With a new Blade Runner film coming, and a TV series of his work, we look at the writing of Philip K Dick...

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We started this series last week with a look at The Revenant, and the differences between film book, and audiobook. You can read that piece here. This week, we’re venturing into the world of Philip K Dick…

In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? you can find, amongst many other ideas, the concept of kipple. Kipple is, according to Philip K Dick, the accumulation of unwanted small objects. From one, many will start to appear, ever growing in numbers:

When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.

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Philip K Dick’s imagination strikes me as being a bit like kipple – except this stuff is too good to want to get rid of it. It grows at a frightening speed. You start one of his books reading about one idea – a great idea – and then it proliferates. Other ideas begin to appear until you are eventually immersed in the worlds he creates.

For instance (to stick with Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter of androids, and that’s interesting enough. Then we find out he owns an electric sheep, and he desperately wants to upgrade to a real animal because in the future he lives in Earth is irradiated to such an extent that animals are a precious commodity. Then we learn he thinks getting a real animal might help his failing relationship with his wife, who is addicted to her empathy box – a device that operates according to the principles of Mercerism, which is a religion with a charismatic head figure that focuses on the importance of empathy, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the novel. With every page, another idea appears, and they all come together to offer variations on the same theme: what makes us human?

Blade Runner (1982) is a brilliant film for lots of reasons, but it necessarily leaves out a lot of the ideas you find in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?; you get the feeling there simply wouldn’t be time and space in a film to do it all justice. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 decides to stay faithful to that key theme of what makes us human, or if it will even attempt to feel as if it came from the same pen that wrote the original novel rather than simply emulate the visual spectacle of the 1982 film.

But even if the sequel does abandon the imagination it grew from, we can have hopes for Electric Dreams, a ten-episode series of adaptations based on Dick’s fiction that’s on the way. We haven’t yet been told what’s being adapted for this project, but some of Dick’s earliest stories might be a great choice to really get stuck into. Their apparent simplicity would suit a shorter length, but there’s an opportunity to incorporate the details that often get left out, and to work on strengthening those areas of the early stories that were often less successful, such as characterisation and pacing, and to update those elements that have dated. Dick’s early stories show him getting to grips with the craft of writing, but nevertheless are still a splurge of sheer creativity, moving fast, the words struggling to do justice to the imagination. The benefit of revisiting these stories with modern screenwriting and strong central performances and special effects could be that we really get to invest emotionally as well as intellectually in the ideas contained within.

Even with Dick’s first published stories, he was already building on the themes that obsessed him, bringing together ideas and questions in great number around big issues. That’s what makes them still a brilliant read – and makes me hopeful for a television adaptation that focuses on accumulating the facets of his imagination together to make for a powerful viewing experience. Here’s a look at three of his early stories that are all about the human propensity for violence, arriving at fascinating conclusions from what might seem to be familiar beginnings. Imagine what the small screen could do with these:

Mr Spaceship (1953)

Facing an alien enemy that make organic mine belts in space, two scientists come up with a revolutionary idea: they decide to connect a disembodied human brain to a spaceship, in order to make a craft advanced enough to outwit their foe. You might already think that you know where this story is going, but within a few pages it deals with your expectations and then sets course for very interesting territory.

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Dick never struck me as a writer who cared too much about explaining science. This story doesn’t waste any time on how you might incorporate a brain into a spaceship. Instead it whizzes off into philosophical, religious and sociological questions to do with the human propensity for aggression, and it offers some surprising conclusions.

Many ideas are thrown out with little explanation, and it’s up to the reader fill in all the blanks, creating a back story for the kind of society the scientists live in. Mr Spaceship leaves so much room for expansion; it would be great to see a visual version of it that really played around within this universe.

The Skull (1952)

Conger was once an interplanetary hunter, tracking down and killing animals illegally on many worlds. Now he’s a prisoner, back on Earth. He gets offered a deal by the powerful organisation known as the Council: freedom, if he accepts a time-travelling job to kill a religious figure from the past called The Founder. The legacy of the Founder is a spreading message of non-violence that the Council don’t care for – can it be stopped before it’s even begun?

The plot may well not surprise you nowadays if you’re a regular reader and watcher of science fiction, but The Skull remains a powerful story regardless. It delves into issues of motivation and causality, and also contains some really potent imagery; imagine being given the skull of the man you’re being sent to kill, and holding it in your hands even as you search for him. It’s an arresting concept that doesn’t shy away from big theological questions.

Tony And The Beetles (1953)

Tony is a young boy being raised on the sun of Betelgeuse. It has been colonised by humans, but the indigenous beings (known colloquially as Beetles because of their appearance) remain, and Tony plays with Beetle children. The situation seems stable enough, even though humans and beetles are still at war elsewhere in the galaxy – but then a change in circumstances reveals that issues are far from resolved.

This is a story that has only increased in relevance over the years. It contains some great writing at points that shows how violence creates violence, and also is stronger in terms of characterisation, giving us a central figure we can invest in emotionally. Tony’s parents, and their relationship, could be expanded in interesting ways, and that key moment of tension when Tony realises things are not what they seem is so involving – as usual, things are never as clear cut as they first seem in Dick’s stories.

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All three of these stories wrestle with the same thing. Why do we commit violent acts? Is it ingrained within us and an essential part of being human, or is it brought about by societal pressures that we could feasibly solve? What would it take to make us seek alternative solutions to problems, or renounce violence altogether?

By looking at the issue in so many different ways, jumping from planet to planet, from society to society, from one era to another, Dick builds up so many thoughts on his theme. Rather than watch an adaptation of his work that removes elements to simplify the themes, I’d love to see a screen version that incorporates an accumulation of details, much as we find in the original writing. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Electric Dreams will do just that, allowing all the details and inventions to come together as a whole, and even enhancing the weaker elements.

But, for now, you could do worse than to read or reread a few of Dick’s stories and novels, and wonder at how one person could start with one idea, and make it in to so many more. They may have accumulated like kipple, but not one of them was useless.

A range of Philip K Dick titles, including The Skull and Mr Spaceship, can be found as audio books at BookBeat.