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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

This post is from two years ago. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder, and I decided it was time to release it from purgatory.

I recently finished the re-imagined series Battlestar Galactica, an epic space opera that drew praise from a wide variety of viewers. I have also been on a Philip K. Dick binge of late, reading many short stories and several novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

As a way of jotting down some of the thoughts I have running through my head, I want to try a short comparison of the criticisms that each face.

PKD’s greatest strength is his ability to weave intricate and complex plots in an effort to explore abstract philosophical ideas. One of the prime examples of this, highlighted in both Ubik and Stigmata, is the line between reality and illusion.

In the former, written in the same year as Electric Sheep, Dick tells a story in which the characters are never sure who is dead and who is alive. In Stigmata, a similar problem occurs, this time on the basis of drugs that create hallucinations that eventually make their way into sober reality. The characters are never sure if they are under the effect of the drug, seeing manifestations of Palmer Eldritch at the most inopportune moments.

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I have been musing the past two days on Simon Cricthley’s three-part article on PKD, which has thus far been a summary of Dick’s religious experience (here) and his particular take on Gnosticism (and here). Today, rather than just telling us about PKD, Critchley finally said something. The problem is, its just not that interesting – or at least not as interesting as reading PKD.

This final installment revolves around the idea, common to both Gnosticism and modern sci-fi, that the world as we know it is an illusion. In fact, this idea is rather common in many religious traditions, though in varying degrees of paranoia. Gnosticism represents one of the more extreme forms, but Eastern philosophy also trumpets a similar tune.

These connections also abound in sci-fi films, as Critchley points out. Probably the most famous (at least in my generation) is The Matrix, but he also includes in his list James Cameron’s Avatar and a few Lars von Trier films, Antichrist and Melonchalia (neither of which I have seen). We should also put Inception here, as well. (more…)

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Philip K. Dick

In preparation for a course this fall on Science Fiction, I have been immersing myself in Philip K. Dick. One of my summer projects is to make it through some of his major novels, beginning with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I also hope to read  Ubik and the VALIS trilogy, among others. For those of you in the dark about who PKD is, his stories were behind the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and Adjustment Bureau. Unfortunately for Dick (but not for his heirs), he did not live to see these movies released and lived most of his life around the poverty line.

PKD is regarded as an extraordinary literary mind, though beyond the realm of fiction his place is a bit less certain. In an effort to address the possible contribution of Dick to philosophy, Simon Critchley, a well-regarded philosopher at the New School in New York, has embarked on a three-part essay in the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone.  He writes:

Dick was a consummate autodidact. He survived for less than one semester at college, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949, taking and quitting Philosophy 10A in the space of a few weeks. Dick left the class in disgust at the ignorance and intolerance of his instructor when he asked his professor about the plausibility of Plato’s metaphysical theory of the forms — the truth of which was later proven for Dick by the experience of 2-3-74. Dick was evidently not trained as a philosopher or theologian — although I abhor that verb “trained,” which makes academics sound like domestic pets. Dick was an amateur philosopher or, to borrow a phrase from one of the editors of “Exegesis,” Erik Davis, he was that most splendid of things: a garage philosopher.

What Dick lacks in academic and scholarly rigor, he more than makes up for in powers of imagination and rich lateral, cumulative association. If he had known more, it might have led him to produce less interesting chains of ideas. In a later remark in “Exegesis,” Dick writes, “I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.” He interestingly goes on to add, “The core of my writing is not art but truth.” We seem to be facing an apparent paradox, where the concern with truth, the classical goal of the philosopher, is not judged to be in opposition to fiction, but itself a work a fiction. Dick saw his fiction writing as the creative attempt to describe what he discerned as the true reality. He adds, “I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis.”

It will be interesting to see where this leads in the next two parts. Most of the first part is devoted to biographical issues, particularly related to Dick’s use of drugs (prescription and otherwise) and his ‘religious’ experience in February of 1974.

Christ Pantocrator

Christ Pantocrator with “Ho On” Title in Halo

There is also the issue of Dick’s mental health. In his journals that followed the experiences of 1974, Dick describes a relationship with a clay pot that he named “Ho On.” In Western religion this is the title given to God (and in the Christian tradition, to Christ as seen in the halo to the right), and can be translation as “the One Who Is,” clearly a play on the name of God in Exodus 3:14. So like Moses, Dick seems to have met God in a meager form, and one that involves some connection to plant life.

However, as Critchley notes, those closest to Dick’s work, like  Jonathan Lethem, felt that “Dick wasn’t a legend and he wasn’t mad. He lived among us and was a genius.” As Dick himself wrote, “the schizophrenic is a leap ahead that failed,” suggesting that the line between madness and brilliance (geniusness?) has often been blurred – especially in figures like PKD.

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