Philip K. Dick’s Moral Vision


[Editor’s note: on this 34th anniversary of the death of Philip K. Dick, I’m sharing the 10th and final chapter of Patricia S. Warrick’s bibliographical retrospective “Mind in Motion” (1987). It’s a good reminder of what makes PKD’s work so unique and enduringly relevant.]

This critical study of Dick’s fiction is a work without a concluding chapter – and appropriately so. To summarize his ideas, to categorize his work, to deliver the final word would be to violate Dick’s vision. He saw a universe of infinite possibility, with shapes that constantly transformed themselves – a universe in process. He had not delivered his final word when he died on March 2, 1982, because for him the Word was truly the Living Word, the power that creates and re-creates patterns. Trapped in the stasis of a final statement, the Word would have been defeated by entropy and death.

But if we cannot make a final statement, we can at least note the significance of his opus of fiction for the times in which we live. Great creative personalities often see the essence of an age with a clarity denied to the mass of people. their vision is so vivid that when subsequent events confirm it, humanity, slower at arriving at a realization of its present, hails them as prophetic. I believe that Dick may well be one of those creative personalities whom we hail as visionaries. The claim seems a strange one, considering the literary form in which he worked. Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats – the Romantics with the the elegance of poetic diction make up the visionary company, not writers working in a prose form often regarded as trash. But let us for the moment ignore the form in which he was forced to write and consider instead his vision.

He had a remarkable sense of the cultural transformation taking place in the last half of the twentieth century. He pointed out the cracks in our institutions, our ideologies, and our value systems that would inevitably lead to their collapse. He understood that what had been functional in an industrial age would not work as our culture transformed itself and moved into an Information Age. Such changes often march in with violence. As Dick’s fiction declares again and again, the late twentieth century is a time at war with itself, not with an external enemy. To fight against what one abhors without realizing it lies within is to destroy all. Dick warns us against doing this to ourselves. The cloud of chaos inevitably hangs above the Dickian landscape, a reminder that a like chaos will descend on the real world and envelop us if we continue to make war.

Dick’s fiction calls up our basic cultural assumptions, requires us to reexamine them, and points out the destructive destinations to which they are carrying us. The American Dream may have succeeded as a means of survival in the wilderness of early America; it allowed us to subdue that wilderness and build our holy cities of materialism. But now, the images in Dick’s fiction declare, we live in a new kind of wilderness, a wasteland wilderness, because those cities and the culture that built them are in decay. We need a new American dream to overcome this wasteland. Dick’s ubiquitous wasteland landscape is a moral mirror asking us to journey within and explore the universe of mind and psyche where all the forms that shape the outer world are created. The critical journey of discovery is into the mysterious realm of inner space. Just as Dick’s Fomalhaut Cosmos was a universe created by his imagination, so the universe in which we live is constructed of our ideas about it. To change it we must change our ideas.

Dick’s work makes no new declarations about our time; we knew early in the twentieth century that ours was an Age of Anxiety. But the gift of his powerful mythmaking ability is to give us the stories that help us see both what we are and what we may become as we move into the Space Age. His novel contribution is the bizarre images he creates that so vividly picture our anxieties. Phantasmagoric  shapes, the Dickian protagonist calls them, as he muses about the swirl of awesome possibilities sweeping through his mind. They are disorienting images – without clear boundary, inconsistent, contradictory, fragmented, at war with one another. They force us to reconsider our conventional conception of reality. Dick said that “science fiction is uniquely a kind of semi-reality. It is not a statement that ‘this is,’ but a statement, ‘What if this were.’ The difference is crucial in every respect.” Frightening as are some of the futures Dick imagines for mankind, they are not fixed. We are Leo Buleros, we are “choosers,” Dick tells us in the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; and The Divine Invasion envisions another future than nuclear destruction that we can choose.

We have noted Dick’s wide acquaintance with the classics. But much as Dick loved classical literature, he did not draw on this source in creating his characters. The Dickian fictional world is a world without Titans or Heroes; instead it is a world cut off from the gods. It is filled with little people lacking in power or wisdom, who daily face the dilemma of trying to survive in the face of the inexplicable destructive forces that constantly try to snuff them out. Yet they are not the conventional antiheroes of modern fiction. Perhaps the oxymoron heroic antihero best describes Dick’s protagonist. finally, the Dickian hero acts. He may writhe and struggle to escape, but in the end he accepts the burden of his existential freedom. Daily, he finally learns, he must once again to push the boulder of moral responsibility up the hill of right action. Freedom thus becomes of highest value in Dick’s code. The individual must be free to make moral choices, even though he may often fail to make the right choice. Dick declares again and again, for the individual to be turned into a machine programmed to carry out the decisions of others is “the greatest evil imaginable; the placing on what was a free man who laughed and cried and made mistakes and wandered off into foolishness and play a restriction that limits him, despite what he may imagine or think, to fulfilling an aim outside his own personal – however puny – destiny.”

Our study of Dick’s writings has traced the journey of his restless mind, watching as it grasped an idea, created a metaphor for it in a fictional pattern of antimonies, discarded it for another idea – always spiraling forward albeit often in a wobbling, erratic course. Yet from the beginning one element remains constant in all the fiction – Dick’s faith in the power of empathy. The idea was not well developed or labeled when it first appeared. We see empathy in two of his early short stories as through a glass darkly. He has not yet given it a name. Instead, his characters act it out, and only later does he recognize what his fiction has said. In “Roog” Dick pictures a dog who guards the garbage can of his owners against the garbage men who come to collect it each week. The dog is driven crazy because he cannot offer protection to his owners against these weekly raids. Years later, Dick commented on the story, explaining that he was describing an actual dog owned by a Berkeley neighbor. “I watched the dog suffer, and I understood a little of what was destroying him, and I wanted to speak for him. That’s the whole of it right there. Snooper couldn’t talk. I could. In fact I could write it down, and someone could publish it and many people could read it. Writing fiction has to do with this: becoming the voice for those without voices. It’s not your own voice, you the author; it is all those other voices which normally go unheard.”

“Beyond Lies the Wub,” Dick’s first published story, also dramatizes the concept of empathy. It tells the story of a pig-like alien captured and eventually eaten be a crew of space adventurers despite the fact that the wub possesses human characteristics. Captain Franco and his men lack the ability to see beneath the wub’s appearance. Twenty years later Dick said of the story”:

The idea I wanted to get down on paper had to do with the definition of “human.” The dramatic way I trapped the idea was to present ourselves, the literal humans, and then an alien life form that exhibits the deeper traits that I associate with humanity: not a biped with an enlarged cortex — a forked radish that thinks, to paraphrase the old saying — but an organism that is human in terms of its soul.

I’m sorry if the word “soul” offends you, but I can think of no other term. Certainly, when I wrote the story “Beyond Lies the Wub” back in my youth in politically active Berkeley, I myself would never have thought of the crucial ingredient in the wub being a soul; I was a fireball radical and atheist, and religion was totally foreign to me. However, even in those days (I was about twenty-two years old) I was casting about in an effort to contrast the truly human from what I was later to call the “android or reflex machine” that looks human but is not — the subject of the speech I gave in Vancouver in 1972 [“The Android and the Human,” included herein] — twenty years after “Beyond Lies the Wub” was published. The germ of the idea behind the speech lies in this, my first published story. It has to do with empathy, or, as it was called in earlier times, caritas or agape.

In this story, empathy (on the part of the wub, who looks like a big pig and has the feelings of a man) becomes an actual weapon for survival. Empathy is defined as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place. The wub does this even better than we ordinarily suppose could be done: Its spiritual capacity is its literal salvation. The wub was my idea of a higher life form; it was then and it is now. On the other hand, Captain Franco (the name is deliberately based on General Franco of Spain, which is my concession in the story to political considerations) looks on other creatures in terms of sheer utility; they are objects to him, and he pays the ultimate price for this total failure of empathy. So I show empathy possessing a survival value; in terms of interspecies competition, empathy gives you the edge. Not a bad idea for a very early story by a very young person!

Two years after writing “The Wub,” Dick again explored the concept in “The Last of the Masters” (1954) and now he named it and actually called it empathy. In the story a young freedom fighter, Silvia, finally encounters the head of the coercive government and discovers he is a robot. She says in horror, “My God, you have no understanding of us. You run all this, and you’re incapable of empathy. You’re nothing but a mechanical computer.”

By the second period of Dick’s fiction when he writes his great novels of the 1960s, empathy is regularly used as the key element defining the authentic human being. the concept is made concrete most vividly in “The Little Black Box,” published in 1964. Dick then incorporates the black empathy box in Do Androids Dream where those like J.R. Isidore who use it regularly gain the strength to climb up through the difficulties of their daily lives. Beyond that, the power of empathy frees the individual from the prison house of his own consciousness and allows him to slip through the mirror forever reflecting back his own image. Once beyond, he sees the world from an alien consciousness to which he gives the same rights and worth as his own awareness. All life, not just his own, becomes sacred.

At first glance, Dick seems to be a contemporary writer who in many ways espouses an old-fashioned moral view that places him in the long tradition of humanistic writers. From the beginning, his writing insists that each individual has a responsibility to act in a moral way, even though that early fiction makes no reference to God. And of course by the end of his career, the novels focus on the major concepts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While these concepts are never accepted in their entirety – in fact they are almost always revised – they are never denied or negated.

A closer examination of Dick’s moral code, however, shows us that given the complexities of the contemporary world, the values of traditional Christian humanists are too simple to be workable. He develops a code of valor that is much more demanding. Choice is no longer a choice between good and evil, as the moralist in an earlier age would have declared. Today the problem facing each man is that even when he practices empathy and yearns to make the right moral choice, he often finds himself in a moral dilemma where in order to do right he must also do wrong. Again and again the Dickian hero is faced with this tragic choice: to do the right thing he must violate his own moral nature: for example, Tagomi, Glen Runciter, Joseph Adams, Joe Chip, Rick Deckard. The moral road is not an easy one. The critical metaphor for this arduous journey is the upward climb – Wilbur Mercer on the hill, Joe Chip on the stairs.

In an interview near the end of his life Dick once again reinforced his belief that moral values are the ultimate values: “In a sense what I’m saying is that all life is a moral issue. Which is a very Jewish idea. The Hebrew idea about god is that God is found in morality, not in epistemology. That is where the Almighty exists, in the moral area. It isn’t just what I said once, that in Hebrew monotheism ethics devolve directly god. that’s not it. It’s that God and ethics are so interwoven that where you have one you have the other.”

Dick is an iconoclastic literary figure. His fiction refuses to conform to the characteristics of any particular category. Because he uses many of the techniques of science fiction, he is customarily labeled as a writer in that genre. But the strong, often overwhelming, elements of realism in his fiction – novels Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney, for example – make that label somewhat inaccurate. In many ways he seems to fit into the tradition of Absurdist literature, and he readily admitted the influence in his formative stage of Beckett, Genet, and other Absurdist dramatists. The typical Absurd hero inhabits a grotesque world whose structures violate reason and common sense but are nevertheless true. He is constantly frustrated, muddled, or horrified by the inexplicable events that seem to happen only to him and finally lead him in paranoiac panic to decide that Fate is deliberately playing pranks on him. Not the Fall of Man but his pratfalls are the concern of the Absurdist writer. So, too, are pratfalls often Dick’s concerns. Yet in fuller assessment, we find that Dick does not fit neatly into this category because he refuses to give in to the nihilism of the French Absurdists.

Dick on occasion proclaimed himself a writer in the Romantic tradition who was particularly influenced by German Romanticism. He read Goethe and Schiller when he was young, and the works of Beethoven and other German romantic composers were among his favorites. His intuitive mode of creativity and his emotional excesses characterize him as a romantic, as does his rebellion against all institutions that violate individual freedom. “I’m a Sturm and Drang romantic,” he himself declares in one interview.

When we continue to look for Dick’s literary ancestors, we discover that the ones from which he is rooted most directly are the metaphysical poets. Dick claimed them as among his favorite poets and uses quotations from Vaughan and Marvell and Donne in his fiction. For example, he quotes Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, “Batter my Heart, three person’d God,” in its entirety in Timothy Archer. His four chambered metaphors resemble metaphysical conceits with their concentrated images that involve an element of dramatic contrast, or strain, or of intellectual difficulty. Like Donne, he uses a colloquial style. Both writers are obsessed with the idea of death and treat it again and again in their works. So, too, do both writers blend wit and seriousness, intense feelings and vast erudition.

A discussion of literary influences is not a discussion of the essence of Dick’s fiction because his literary voice is unique. He is an eclectic, choosing and using ideas, techniques, and quotations from the literary tradition as he creates in his own distinctive form. He is a synthesizer but never an imitator. the bibliography accompanying Timothy Archer demonstrates the wide range of literature that yielded material to him: the Bible, works of Aeschylus, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Vaughan, Goethe, Schiller, Yeats, to name the major writers. In this final novel Dick felt free to reveal his debt to and use of the great literary tradition, a use that he hid under cryptic allusions in most of his science fiction.

Time must be  the judge of Dick’s literary worth. If, as some of us suspect it will, Time does declare him one of the major writers of the twentieth century, he will be hailed as the synthesizer of a new literary form yoking realism and the fantastic. The novels to which I have given major attention in this study (with the possible exception of A Scanner Darkly) all succeed in this new form, for which I have chosen the term quantum-reality fiction. Dick’s fiction gives too little emphasis to science to be called true science fiction. It gives too much emphasis to the real world to be called fantasy. It violates common-sense reality too often to be called realistic fiction. He sees with a new vision as he creates imaginary worlds for his reader – a vision that declares all worlds to be fictions, brought into existence by the consciousness of the creator. Man faces the void and keeps it at bay only by the power of his intelligence to create forms.

The universe where Dick’s characters live when they fall out of commonsense reality is built on concepts that are a part of quantum physics. As physicists describe it, quantum reality is evasive and seems forever to hide beyond direct observation. Quantum physicists do not entirely agree about the nature of quantum reality, except in labeling it as bizarre. A contemporary physicist notes, “if we take the claims [of some outspoken physicists] at face value, the stories physicists tell resemble the tales of mystics and madmen… Not ignorance, but the emergence of unexpected knowledge forces on us all new visions of the way things really are.” Quantum theory holds that all elementary events occur at random, governed only by statistical laws. And Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle forbids an accurate knowledge of a quantum particle’s position and momentum. Beyond that, the prevailing quantum theory holds that there is no reality without the act of observation. Dick’s fiction catches the essence of this quantum reality, and he is probably the first writer of fiction to have done so.

In addition to his creation of quantum reality fiction, Dick also deserves recognition for the development of the complex four-chambered metaphor that allows him to picture the dialectical mode of the human mind as it moves in the process of thinking.

Beyond his accomplishments as a writer, Dick merits recognition for his accomplishments as a human. He struggled to live by his code of valor. In the face of great adversity, he survived and created. He was a tortured genius, condemned to live within a brilliant mind that compulsively drove itself to gather up and live out all the anxiety, pain, and torment of our age. Perhaps he needed so to suffer before he could transform our shared experiences into literature. Perhaps he did not choose but worked heroically in the shadow of a mental illness from which he had no escape. He is not the first writer to be so tortured. I recently reread a biography of Virginia Woolf which describes her struggle to write in the face of repeated nervous breakdowns, and I noted how similar Dick’s life was in this respect. He was less fortunate than she; he had no lifetime spouse like Leonard Woolf to shelter him economically and emotionally and to publish his works.

Dick’s life was a quest for meaning, a struggle with the great metaphysical problem of our time – how to reconcile what he knew in his head with what he knew in his heart. He identified himself with his little men, unheroic protagonists who endure in the face of great adversity, going quietly about their work. His work was writing and he, too, went about it quietly, eschewing publicity. Through all the mental and physical illness he never stopped writing for more than a brief time. He never lost faith in the power of literature to create a shared consciousness for the community of men. Looking at our strife-torn world, he said:

The key is this. We must shape a joint dream that differs for and from each of us, but it must harmonize in the sense that it must not exclude and negate from section to section. How this is to be done I can’t of course say; maybe it can’t be done. But… if two people dream the same dream it ceases to be an illusion; the sole prior test that distinguished reality from hallucination was the consensus gentium, that one other or several others saw it, too. This is the idios kosmos, the private dream, contrasted to the shared dream of us all, the koinos kosmos. What is new in our time is that we are begining to see the plastic, trembling quality of the koinos kosmos – which scares us, its insubstantiality – and the more-the-merrier-vapor quality of the hallucination. Like science fiction, a third reality is formed half way between.

In his writing Dick shared with us his private dreams and his nightmares about this new reality in the future toward which we move. He said he was disturbed by those reviewers who found only bitterness and pessimism in his fiction because his mood was one of trust. “Perhaps,” he said, “they are bothered by the fact that what I trust is so very small. They want something vaster. I have news for them; there is nothing vaster.” For Dick all that one could trust was the capacity of the ordinary person to act with courage when courage is required. He explained, “To me the great joy in writing a book is showing some small person, some ordinary person doing something in a moment of great valor, for which he would get nothing and which would be unsung in the real world. the book, then, is the song about his valor.”

Perhaps this book can be regarded at least in part as a song about the valor of Philip K. Dick. For he continued to write over the years, hounded by poverty, often depressed, and ignored by the mainstream literary world where he hoped for recognition. He lived in a sea of emotional disaster, he was often ill, he used drugs, he alienated his friends, he destroyed five marriages… Yet incredibly he wrote well over forty novels and one hundred short stories, and at least eight of those novels, the ones we have examined in detail, seem likely to become classics. He was one of the most courageous of writers, a man who lived by his own code of valor.

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