James Wallace Harris maintains a website devoted to identifying the Classics of Science Fiction. He is fascinated by how books are remembered and forgotten, and often writes about science fiction at his blog, Auxiliary Memory.
Now that Amazon is showing The Man in the High Castle, the popular and critically acclaimed streaming mini-series, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, I think it’s an excellent time to mention some of Phil’s other books that deserved to be remembered. Success always eluded PKD in his lifetime (1928-1982), even though he eventually published 44 novels and 121 short stories. He was legendary in the small world of science fiction fandom while he lived, but didn’t become globally famous until Hollywood started showing his stories, beginning with Blade Runner, after he died. Since then, Hollywood has slowly grown PKD’s world-wide pop-culture legacy. However, filmmakers have praised PKD in a strange way, seemingly only loving his far out plots and settings, always gutting the characterization, turning his characters who are suffering quiet desperation into action heroes.
We think of Philip K. Dick solely as a science fiction writer, but is that what he wanted? Between 1952-1960 Dick wrote nine literary novels hoping to be accepted as a mainstream writer, a during the 1950s he struggled to pay bills by selling science fiction short stories to the dying pulp magazine market. Between 1955-1960 he published eight science fiction novels, and all but one went to Ace Books, a low rent paperback publisher. His one hardback success during that time, Time Out of Joint, was published in 1959 by Lippincott, and it is a science fiction story that leans towards the literary. I imagined that made him very happy.
What is the big deal between genre and literary? Why would a writer want literary recognition over popular genre fame? Philip K. Dick was a large fish swimming in the gutter of 1950s and 1960s publishing, and science fiction got very little respect back then. Would PKD actually preferred to be any size fish in the larger 20th century literary pond? I think those nine rejected novels say yes. It’s important to understand the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, and we can see the difference by comparing The Man in the High Castle book with The Man in the High Castle miniseries.
Literary fiction is observational. For example, two of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Ulysses by James Joyce and In Search of Lot Time by Marcel Proust, fictionally chronicle real people, places and events in obsessive detail. Artists of literary masterpieces work to capture reality in precisely detailed sentences, whereas genre fiction stories are made up and heavily designed around plot and storytelling. In a way, literary and genre are two ends of a spectrum: some of the best genre writers will base their characters and plots on actual people and events, and some famous literary works embrace fantastic story ideas.
PKD’s The Man in the High Castle has a setting of genre ideas. The characters, though, feel very literary, as if their manners and traits were drawn from people Dick watched when imagining his novel. The film version of the novel kept his genre setting, replaced his literary characters with genre characterizations using Dick’s character names, and gave the story more action and plot. I’m not sure if modern audiences would have liked a filmed version that stayed true to the original novel, since it would have been slow and subtle. But, that’s exactly the kind of story I love in my old age, and it was the story that won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963.
When I was younger I loved genre fiction because I was thrilled by exciting ideas and plots, and characters didn’t matter as much to me. Now my tastes have shifted to the literary side of the spectrum, and in recent years I’ve been seeking out Dick’s early rejected novels. This morning I started listening to The Broken Bubble, one of Philip K. Dick’s mainstream novels written in 1956, and was immediately mesmerized by its portrait of the 1950s, a time I remember from my childhood. I’ve been a fan of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction stories since 1967, but whenever I’ve read one of his literary novels, I feel I’m reading PKD at his best. In fact, my favorite PKD novel is Confessions of a Crap Artist.
When I decided to write this essay about the literary novels of Philip K. Dick I checked Google and discovered the essay I imagined I’d write had already written by Bruce Gillespie back in 1990: “The Non-Science Fiction Novels of Philip K. Dick 1928-1982.” Reading Gillespie, I realized that even though these novels were rejected by publishers, and many of PKD’s fans, there are a few of us precisely tuned to resonate with Dick’s mainstream ambitions. I delighted in each detail while listening to The Broken Bubble, wondering where Dick found each, and Jim Briskin, Patricia Gray, Art and Rachel Emmanuel seem achingly lifelike. Listening to the novel made me want to research Dick’s life around the time he wrote The Broken Bubble to discover if his fictional characters were based on real people. Was the story’s science fiction club “The Beings From Earth” based on a science fiction club Dick attended?
Many people do not like PKD’s literary stories, finding them too filled with ordinary bits of daily life and dull. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote his Ph.D. thesis, The Novels of Philip K. Dick, and completely dismissed them. So, why are these early PKD novels so disliked by many, but loved by some? While listening to The Broken Bubble I thought, “If I could only write like this, I’d be the novelist I dream of being,” but the reality is I’d be writing books few readers would want to read.
Gillespie also suggests something I was going to write in my planned essay, that some of Dick’s science fiction novels are very literary, and even like his mundane novels. Here’s a list of PKD’s non-SF novels that were mostly published after his death in 1982. I copied this information from the excellent “The Mainstream Novels of Philip K. Dick” which has details of publication history, as well as cover images of all the various editions. Dates are (written/published).
- Voices from the Street (1952/2007)
- Gather Yourselves Together (1952/1994)
- Mary and the Giant (1953/1987)
- The Broken Bubble (1956/1988)
- Puttering About in a Small Land (1957/1985)
- In Milton Lumky Territory (1958/1986)
- Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959/1975)
- Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (1960/1987)
- The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1960/1975)
Gillespie create two other groups, which I also imagined beforehand, but mine are slightly different. I think Dick wrote a number of science fiction novels that seemed like they were influenced by the style and characterization of his literary novels, which meant the characters could have been based on impressions from real people Dick knew. They are also PKD’s science fiction novels that I admire most.
- Time Out of Joint (1959)
- The Man in the High Castle (1962)
- Martian Time-Slip (1964)
- We Can Build You (1972)
- A Scanner Darkly (1977)
I consider literary novels to be works of fiction where writers work to describe reality. They are full of observed details, and are often based on real incidents and people. Because of the fantastic nature of science fiction, it’s hard for science fiction to be literary, but sometimes science fiction writers can write about made-up situations in a way that feels very real. One reason I call A Scanner Darkly literary is because Dick was inspired by people he knew who died using drugs, although he fictionally reincarnates them into an unbelievable plot and setting.
Finally, Dick wrote his hard-to-classify visionary novels that lean toward the literary and spiritual, and feature some of his best mature writing. I also include with these the Exegesis he wrote while working on the VALIS trilogy. The three stories are based on Dick’s mystical experiences of February and March of 1974, and even as they get more fantastic fictionally, we feel Dick desperately seeking to find some kind of objective truth from his real world experiences. These novels are based on one shattering event Dick experienced eight years before he died, and it seems his last years were obsessed with understanding this experience. Was it madness or revelation? This led Dick to chase after Gnosticism, a very gnarly form of ontology.
- VALIS (1978)
- The Divine Invasion (1980)
- The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1981)
- The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (2011)
Will any of these stories get the Hollywood movie treatment or be made into streaming mini-series? I doubt it. Although, I could imagine an HBO miniseries based on Philip K. Dick’s life. Such a biographical series describing PKD’s reality would certainly be more interesting than the biopics they’ve produced so far, or at least further out. PKD was one strange dude that lived one strange life and this is why I love reading his literary novels. They are clues to how PKD thought. One aspect of literary fiction is it often makes the reader want to study biography, and great works of literary fiction often become a Tesseract of mystery. Even though novels must be standalone works of art, their beauty can be enhanced by biographical study. If you’ve ever fallen into the Black Hole of Jack Kerouac and The Beats, you’ll know what I mean. Literary novels become lost journals left by reality explorers, and Philip K. Dick went to some very strange places.