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The Dystopian Futures of Philip K Dick

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

The first movie I saw based on Philip Dick’s fiction is the “Minority Report”. This story happens in a future where crime is prevented from happening by human beings chosen for their prescient vision anticipates them. Computers listen to their brainwaves and wisdom. They are “Pre-Cogs”, recreating “pre-crime” events. Tom Cruise plays the role of John Anderton, the boss of the Department of Pre-Crime in the District of Columbia, which has been free of murders since the experiment started. It turns out that there will soon be a murder, and the perpetrator will be none other than Anderton himself. The story impressed me so much that I decided to search for and read all Philip Dick books.

Many other stories written by Dick have been transformed into films. For example, Blade Runner is a 1982 SF of the dark variety directed by Ridley Scott, depicting a dystopic Los Angeles in the last days of 2019. The story is inspired by the book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. The film is about a future in which genetically manufactured entities (replicants) are used for dangerous jobs in Earth’s planetary colonies.

Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” of an ordinary person who discovers that he was, in reality, a government assassin with his memory erased has been rendered into the film “Total Recall” by Paul Verhoeven. Schwarzenegger plays the protagonist. Confessions of D’un Barjo (1992 is a French movie Directed by Jérôme Boivin. The short story “Second Variety” has been captured in celluloid in Christian Duguay’s B-grade “Screamers”. Screamers are self-replicating robots, so named because of the horrible screeching noise they make. Gary Sinise’s “Impostor”, created in 2000, is based on the 1953 short story of the same name. “Paycheck” deals with erased memories. Ben Affleck plays the role of Jennings, an engineer willing to take on a dangerous mystery job for a financial reward. Richard Linklater’s animation film, A Scanner Darkly (2006), is a dark, surrealistic film. Dick’s 1977 novel was planned as an autobiographical piece of work based on drug addiction.

Philip Dick was very productive, and his work consisted of 44 novels and 121 short stories in his short lifetime: he died in 1982 at the age of 53. He was obscure for a large part of his career, and it was after his death in 1982 that Hollywood discovered his work through “Blade Runner.”

Prone to mental health problems, visions, and paranormal experiences, Dick had a distorted relationship with reality. He suffered from hallucinations and paranoid delusions. For example, his picture of his son having a fatal congenital disability enabled doctors to save his life. In the 1970s, he imagined that he was experiencing two parallel versions of his own life and that his mind was invaded by a “transcendentally rational mind”, which he called VALIS, an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. This is the theme of his semi-autobiographical fiction, VALIS, published in 1981 near his death.

A recurring question he addresses in his work is: How do we know what’s real and what’s not? In the future that he envisioned, technology went unchecked by humanity, and that was not a pleasant sight.

Writers of science fiction are considered prescient. Prophetic writers like Margaret Atwood foresaw the threat to women’s rights, JG Ballard foresaw the architectural and social dystopias and E M Forster predicted the Internet in “The Machine Stops” (1909). Jonathan Swift imagined that Mars had two moons. Aldous Huxley foresaw oral contraception and test-tube babies. George Orwell’s vision had telescreens and mass surveillance.

“His stories presumed the incessant presence of the internet, virtual reality, 3-D printing, driverless cars….,” according to Stan Nicholls [1] in a BBC interview. Indeed, his futures incorporate many aspects of post-War America, which gives it a surreal familiarity. Nevertheless, it was uncanny how he anticipated specific societal and technological developments. For example, he spoke of communicating advertisements directly to people and predicting what they desire to choose, quite like Facebook’s Algorithm does.

In “Galactic Pot-Healer”, Philip K. Dick describes disposable clothes made from foam sprayed onto the skin. Now, with the invention of “Fabricant”, cotton fibres immersed in a fluid, this has become real [2]. He has anticipated something called “the internet of everything” in his work. His version of the driverless cab appears as Johnny Cab in “Total Recall”. Dick anticipates a future where everything, including the amenities at our homes, will demand payment.

His books have often stressed how advertisements are invasive. For example, in the 1954 short story Sales Pitch, the theme of the aggressive person-oriented promotion is realized in a machine gone mad. In Simulacra, published in 1964, advertising, on the other hand, is embodied by a mechanized creature resembling a fly.

Dick’s fiction has a strong political dimension. For example, the story ‘The Man in the High Castle is about an alternative future where Nazis win the second World War. The Axis powers have divided the US, and extreme religious extremists are in control. The similarities with Trump’s America are disturbingly large.

Dick was strongly anti-establishment. Authorities and corporates of his stories consistently abuse their power. In issues connected with surveillance, this was particularly so. Commodification and addiction to materialism are recurring themes. Both media and political celebrities, aided by a servile technocracy and bureaucracy, come together to create frightening situations.

The events of his novel “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” take place in the US in 1988 under dictatorship. Jason Taverner, a singer and Television personality, realizes that he is a nonentity and lacks the personal documents essential to avoid being seized and sent to a labour camp. Many Dick characters fail at doing essential things, even at home. A scene in Ubik, a 1969 novel, has a character who argues with the door to his apartment, as he doesn’t have the money to trigger its coin-operated mechanism. The door even warms legal action when he tries to break it down.

Dick’s most disturbing vision was that the world is a simulation, and the reality we perceive is nothing but a facade. Furthermore, he believed that his visions were products of glitches in the simulation.

His genuine concern that human beings were merging with technology made them dehumanized creations influenced his writings. His androids, lacking humanity’s softening touch, are sinister and potentially dangerous. His concern was that we were producing a race of cold and detached beings who would have no empathy towards their companions nor creators. He writes, “their handshake is the grip of death, and their smile is the coldness of the grave” about these machines.

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