Two Poems & an Essay
Philip K. Dick has become a recent obsession of mine. An ex gave me a copy of VALIS last summer. I didn’t have a car at the time and my commute was done on foot. I read most of the book walking around the smoldering city and it was a transformative experience. VALIS was unlike anything I had read before. It was manic, paranoid, drug-fueled, and religious? As I dug into PKD’s nonfiction writings I was stunned to find out that much of VALIS was biographical; the vision of God, the ancient Christian living inside his brain, and the miraculous knowledge of a lethal medical condition that saved his son’s life. It’s as if PKD became a character in one of his own novels (which actually is a plotline in Radio Free Albemuth). If you’re like me your scratching your head wondering … is PKD absolutely insane or a total genius?
I don’t think Philip K. Dick really settled on any final notion of our universe, it’s clear he vacillates through all kinds of ideas in his Exegesis. You can open up any page in it and find a new PKD theory of the world. One of my (morbidly) favorites of his is that the world is essentially run by evil and we are all living in an inescapable prison – er, escapable only through our death; that somewhere a long time ago in the great history of the universe goodness was lost, that our God was a small and ugly demiurge and was quickly and quietly stamped out. PKD really hated all forces of authority. Not only in a fuck-the-cops-I’m-gonna-be-self-employed-my-whole-life type of way, but also in a cosmogony meets panopticon type of way. Forces of authority = pure evil. This fundamental tenet is what makes Philip K Dick’s writing so evocative. His writing exists in a world where evil has won: The atomic bomb has been dropped on Berkeley, A.I. has overrun humanity, the Axis powers won, etc. PKD had a tendency to take the quotidian and turn into something insidious. Or, as he put it, “The French, like me, see the most improbable possibility in every situation…That’s me: paralyzed by my imagination. To me a flat tire on my car is (a) The End of the World; and (b) An Indication of Monsters.”
The Barbie doll was introduced in 1959 and, sure enough, PKD suspected evil was neigh. Perky Pat, a PKD character that appears in both her own short story and the novel Three Stigmata was based on Barbie. In Three Stigmata, Perky Pat is the woman you embody during a drug-induced, VR type of hallucination wherein you live her perfect beach-dweller life for a few hours. Reading PKD in the 21st century is an especially bizarre experience because we know how it all goes down. PKD witnessed the births of so many cultural artifacts and norms that have become our day to day. Reading him makes me question their cultural legacies, like Barbie. Are we worse off for her? Was Barbie a blatant harbinger of the incessant normalization of sexual objectification of women in the 20th century, ushering in a socially acceptable rape culture, an eating disorder culture, as well as a culture that chases after an unobtainable material reality? Then again, maybe it’s not so bad. Barbie was supposed to be a feminist icon, a woman who could do anything; she could be a lover, a medical professional, a model, and a mother!
I don’t think PKD invented the genre of speculative dystopian science fiction but he may have popularized it. In today’s world, wherein everyday is described as feeling like a bad science fiction novel I think speculative dystopian fiction is more important than ever. I have even come up with a few story plots myself. Though, I never get around to actually writing them. I call it speculative speculative dystopian fiction.
Yet, it occurred to me recently, has speculative dystopian fiction become sort of passé? If we’re already living in a world that has far surpassed even the darkest of imaginations ( PKD presents a world ravaged by the greenhouse effect in The Three Stigmata and so does Ursula K. Le Guin in The Lathe of Heaven. Yet, neither of them understood at the time how devastating it would be) isn’t it time we start thinking, maybe you know, positively? Where does the imagination go from here? Where should the imagination go from here? And another question, why does our imagination tend toward dystopia? Is it natural to intuit the general evil momentum of human greed and ubiquitous technology? It seems the only people writing about prospective utopias are academics who need to end research papers on a positive note. Why don’t we write more utopias? Are the incessant dystopias presented in our cultural milieu their own self-fulfilling prophecies? Where do we go from here?