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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Was Philip K. Dick a bad writer?

Philip K. Dick is perhaps one of the best examples of a genre science fiction writer who broke through and won mainstream acceptance. You can get a three volume boxed set of 13 of  his novels from the Library of America.  Stanislaw Lem once wrote an essay asserting that nearly all American SF was crap, with the exception of Dick's work.  And of course Robert Anton Wilson was a big fan, which is one reason I bring up Dick here (see RAW's writings in for example Chaos and Beyond and in Beyond Chaos and Beyond.

Yet I have noticed recently that the received wisdom isn't accepted by everyone.

I recently read Jo Walton's An Informal History of the Hugos. She says this about Dick: "I have read half a dozen assorted Dick novels and hated all of them. I can see that he's a very good writer, but I can't stand the way his mind works."

Tyler Cowen posted a list of his ten favorite science fiction novels last year (in response to a request for me; it's a rather good list). In the notes below the list, he writes, "Philip K. Dick is 'idea rich,' but basically a bad and overrated writer."

Cowen recently interviewed political scientist Henry Farrell, who is a Dick admirer; after some good discussion of Gene Wolfe the interview moves on to Dick. Farrell's remarks are worth quoting:

So the best of his creations, if you want to think of the best as a novel, I think is The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which is plausibly the only genuinely good novel that he wrote, and also is the only novel that has a sympathetic and interesting female character in it. But it’s not his most important work. I think it’s good at showing that towards the end, he managed to get some kind of a sense of himself from outside and a perspective on his struggles with mental health, which clearly were both a driving creative force for him and a source of much personal agony and destruction.

I think that the works that are most important are Ubik and Martian Time-Slip. Both of these are the quintessential Dick novels about how it is that reality can break up and what it feels like to be in that kind of world.

I've read none of the three books Farrell mentions. I have myself read about half a dozen Dick novels (about as many as Jo Walton, I guess). My favorite by a considerable margin is The Man In the High Castle. I also liked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  I read Now Wait for Last Year about a couple of years ago and it did little for me. I read The Penultimate Truth and maybe 1-2 others a long time ago. I have Valis sitting on my Kindle and hope to get to it soon. 

Incidentally, Cowen's "Conversations with Tyler" podcast is quite good. 


fuzzbuddy said...

There's a nice little nod to Wilson early on in Valis.

Eric Wagner said...

PKD seems like a terrific writer to me.

Chad N. said...

I own the box set and enjoyed each and every one of its stories. I love Dick's ideas AND his writing. His writing style is so easy for me to read in much the same way RAW's is. That's a big deal for me.

My PKD faves are Radio Free Albemuth (not in the box set), Transmigration and Androids. An honorable mention for 3 Stigmata.

My least fave was hands down Scanner Darkly.

One I haven't read and am most curious about: Penultimate Truth.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Chad, What did you think of the Radio Free Albemuth movie?

Chad N. said...

I didn't see it, actually! Did you? What did you think?

It looked a little cheesy to me and I'm so fond of the novel that I didn't want the movie spoiling the way I visualize the story...

I really loved how prominently cats were featured in Radio Free Albemuth. There's a part where Nick speculates that his cat likes to go out on the porch late at night to tune into the solar system, or something like that <3

Rarebit Fiend said...

This kinda reminds me of the shit that went down when LoA included his works in their excellent library. I think Walton's criticism is a lot more legitimate than Cowen's. It reminds me of the internet exchange that made me the angriest I can remember where some pretentious ass told me that while I can enjoy Clark Ashton Smith I *had* to admit that Henry James was a better writer. Don't get me wrong, Henry James is fine but I'll take Smith over reading "Daisy-fucking- Miller" any day.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Chad, I saw the movie. I thought it was pretty good. I just ask because I noticed that many of the Dickheads thought it was the most faithful Dick adaptation.

It's available free on Hoopla Digital, which is offered by many public libraries.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Rarebit Fiend

Francis T. Laney's memoir of Los Angeles fandom, "Ah! Sweet Idiocy" (available free at has a nice anecdote about Laney going to meet Clark Ashton Smith. It includes this bit:

"Unforgettable, though, was Smith’s impressive recitation of a medieval formula to raise the Devil.
The afternoon was just guttering away into, twilight, leaving the room in a hazy half darkness; between the look in Smith’s pale eyes, the overtones in his voice, and his powerful delivery, I must admit that the chills were really going to town playing hide-and-seek along my backbone. Materialist that I
am, I was actually relieved when Smith paused and remarked that he wouldn’t repeat the spell a third time, for fear it would work! Then he laughed, and the spell broke. But the man has dramatic powers which I believe might have made him famous as an actor had he followed that art."

Lvx said...

I’d consider myself a fan, but I don’t think he is a great writer exactly. He is an idiosyncratic writer that you may or may not be able to synch your mind with. Most of his work doesn’t seem very professional to me, especially the early stuff, hammered out over a weekend on speed. Often it has that golden age of sci-fi, cardboard characters feeling. But there are certain moments in some of his novels that take his ideas to sudden, surprising heights of richness.

My top three are Man in High Castle, Three Stigmata & Scanner Darkly.

Ive given up watching adaptations of his work as they’ve all been disappointing to me.

Jesse said...

"I have read half a dozen assorted Dick novels and hated all of them. I can see that he's a very good writer, but I can't stand the way his mind works."

This is the reverse of a formulation that's more familiar in these conversations, in which one praises Dick's big ideas but damns him as a sentence-level stylist.

Eric Wagner said...

I love Dick's final four novels, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer especially. I read Ubik a few years ago and loved it.