It’s been years since I read The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s classic science-fiction novel. I had forgotten what a great writer he was until now, having just finished reading about 120 of his short stories. It’s no wonder Dick’s work has inspired so many movies, television shows and other sci-fi writers. He was amazingly talented. Features commonly found in his short stories include:
Great titles. I don’t know if he came up with all his own titles or had help from his editors, but the titles alone make you want to devour the stories immediately. What the Dead Men Say. Oh, to Be a Blobel! The Hanging Stranger. We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. The Pre-persons. The Impossible Planet. A Game of Unchance. And my personal favorite: Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday.
Bare-bones style. Dick’s writing is simple and spare, with no wasted motion. He rarely uses metaphors or other stylistic embellishments, and packs his sentences with specific nouns and concrete statements that run the gamut from the mundane (such as how a character likes to drink his coffee) to the profound (more on that next). In addition, while his stories certainly have an air of science about them, it’s not generally hard science or technical in the least, making his narratives very easy for the average reader to follow.
Mind-blowing ideas. This is really the greatest strength of Dick’s writing. His plots involve things such as time flowing forward and backward at the same time, a mutant for whom the near future is crystal clear but the past is barely perceived, a character who grows rocket ships in his backyard garden, a scientist who turns music into animals, and time-traveling astronauts who come back to earth and attend their own funerals after (or before) they crash. Every one of his short stories has a central theme and off-hand thoughts that challenge the imagination.
Accurate predictions. Dick wrote in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that were uncannily predictive. In one, robot salesmen harass people on the street and in their homes, literally drowning out everything else in their lives and driving them crazy. In another, he describes a process similar to today’s 3D printing. One story is a forensic police procedural differing little from CSI, the TV show that appeared decades later. Another tells of the difficulties and insanities of filling time on 25 television channels broadcasting nearly all day long. Dick foresaw the growing centralization of “democratic” government and industry. In The Pre-persons, written in 1974, one year after Roe v. Wade, he describes a near future where children up to the age of 12 can be hauled off by someone akin to a dogcatcher and killed, since the government has decreed that the soul enters the body at that age.
Of course, Dick was only human (probably) and missed a few things. Printed newspapers are usually the main source of information in his future worlds, and cigarette smoking remains socially acceptable. The Soviet Union held together much longer in his future worlds than it did in reality. And, Dick has people commuting via aircraft and rocket ship much more quickly than is actually panning out.
Superb structure. Because Dick’s writing style is so spare, his characters seldom have much depth. However, he more than makes up for it with rapid pacing, plot twists, multiple and contrasting points of view, and abruptly shifting scenes (in place and time). His endings almost always tie the loose ends or mysteries together in a satisfying way, and often with an O’Henry-like twist. Usually things end worse for the characters than they expect, but not always. And even better, his endings frequently suggest what is next to come for the characters, the planet and/or the entire universe as a result of the solved mystery, making you imagine an entire new story that grows out of the one you just read.
Recurring themes. Despite the startling originality of each story, Dick uses certain themes over and over: an earth reduced to ashes as the result of nuclear war; characters with pre-cognitive abilities; robots, robots everywhere; mutants (often resulting from nuclear bomb radiation); colonists struggling to survive on distant planets and moons; deeply paranoid characters spinning endless theories as they struggle to figure out what is really going on; time travel and its implications; characters unsure of their identity and/or species; Kafkaesque bureaucracies and totalitarian regimes; a blurred, continually changing demarcation between what is real and what appears to be real. His central characters are often average or even below-average people caught up in a situation they sense is ominously significant, but only as the story unfolds are they able to get closer to grasping the causes, effects and implications — if then.
Humor. Dick was by his own frank admission paranoid, and appears not to have had anything close to a happy or easy life. Nevertheless, and despite the weightiness of his themes, he inserts a great deal of humor in most of his short stories. I don’t know of a writer with a better sense of irony, or who better handles understatement for comedic effect.
Read some great sci-fi.
(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)