Philip K. Dick loved to write about ordinary guys. Ordinary guys who commute by space-car to Ganymede every morning. Or who make a wrong turn on a business trip and muck up the space-time continuum. But ordinary all the same. The short stories that launched his career in the 1950s are rife with guys with names like Doug and Ed and Bill, middle managers who kiss their wives at the door before stumbling into a galactic predicament that evokes one of Dick’s favorite themes: Are we sure our reality is … real?
It’s an enduring question, which is why Dick’s pulp work endures too, defying the disposability that the genre’s name implies. The best-known adaptation of his work is “Blade Runner,” based on his 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” But the bulk of his TV and film adaptations come from stories he wrote for low-rent publications like Astounding, Galaxy and Startling Stories: “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Screamers,” “Impostor” and more.
So the makers of the new TV show “Electric Dreams,” an anthology series in the tradition of “The Twilight Zone” and “Black Mirror,” are just taking further advantage of a reliable resource. Its first season, which debuted Friday on Amazon, is based on 10 stories that Dick published between 1953 and 1955. The companion book collecting those stories isn’t his best work. There are gimmicky climaxes and strained dialogue. (“Something’s wrong! Something’s happened! Things are going on!”) But they entertainingly reveal how Dick’s key obsessions – the ideological and commercial forces that shape and threaten identity – were in place from the start.
What we’re skeptical about now, Dick was skeptical about then. In “Sales Pitch,” a man is psychologically bombarded by robotic ads and door-to-door salesmen in ways that’ll resonate with anybody who’s had to disable their smartphone notifications: “Robots and visual-audio ads,” he laments to his wife. “They dig right into a man’s brain. They follow people around until they die.”
In “The Hood Maker,” a sharp critique of authoritarianism, everyday citizens are under surveillance by mind-reading “teeps” (human mutants caught in a nuclear blast) scanning for disloyalty. “The teeps are no different from the Jacobins, the Roundheads, the Nazis, the Bolsheviks,” one rebel intones. “There’s always some group that wants to lead mankind – for its own good, of course.”
And “Exhibit Piece” whacks at the seductions of America’s postwar largesse: A 22nd-century museum curator finds a rip in space-time and decides to live in his exhibit of the late 20th century. “It’s a nice place here,” he says. “Freedom, opportunity. Limited government, responsible to the people.” But the ending suggests he’s chosen poorly.
Such stories were plainly born of Cold War anxiety. But unlike fellow science-fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, whose 1950s pulp stories had a habit of ending unsubtly, with mushroom clouds, Dick’s stories have lasted because he grasped that oppression and paranoia were local as well as intercontinental events – indeed, they festered quite well in conformist suburban neighborhoods. “The Hanging Stranger,” by far the strongest story in the collection, is a bleak tale that suggests Dick admired Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” published just a few years earlier. A TV salesman emerges from his basement to discover a dead body hanging from a lamppost, but his neighbors are strangely sanguine about the lynching. Soon enough, it’s clear that aliens have taken over his neighbors’ minds: “Controlled, filmed over with the mask of an alien being that had appeared and taken possession of them, their town, their lives.”
An allegory of racism? Capitalism? Communism? Dick invites you to take your pick: “The hardware ‘in my stories’ is in the future, the scenery’s in the future, but the situations are really from the past,” he once told an interviewer. His situations also hail from a future that Dick, who died in 1982, couldn’t predict: Screenwriters for the TV show have provided brief, perfunctory introductions to each story in this book, and a few acknowledge working with Trumpism much on their minds. “Foster, You’re Dead,” a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses story involving bomb shelters, is mainly about ’50s commercialism, but it has plenty to say about present-day scapegoating and nuclear paranoia.
Even when Dick is blasting Earth to ashes, he’s more interested in what those calamities reveal about our foibles. In “Autofac,” would-be activists aim to wreck the maddeningly efficient automated delivery systems that keep order after “the Total Global Conflict” – self-determination means claiming our right to self-destruction, too. He could also play the identity-crisis theme for comedy, as in “Human Is,” in which a woman’s bullying husband heads off to another planet on a business trip and returns as unrecognizably tender. Clearly, the pod people of Rexor IV have gotten into poor Lester’s brain. But what if a pod person is the secret to a happy marriage? And what if a bully is just a different kind of pod person?
“What it means to be human” is usually the stuff of book-jacket puffery, but it was a serious lifelong obsession for Dick. He pursued it through alternative histories like “The Man in the High Castle,” post-hippie dystopian novels like “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” and a meandering, unfinished philosophical-religious opus he called his “exegesis.” In every format, he was consistently skeptical about man’s fate. “We’re licked. … We humans lose every time,” laments one of the rebels in “Autofac.”
But he stopped short of certain answers, stopped short of dooming us entirely. Because who could say for sure with us baffling humans? In uncertainty, Dick suggests, there’s always a glint of possibility.
Athitakis is a critic and author of “The New Midwest,” a critical study of the region’s fiction.
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