Philip K. Dick on What Is Science Fiction? continues an occasional series exploring how writers have thought about their craft and what it means. Instead of looking for pedantic definitions, I’m examining the ideas about science fiction that some of the best writers have offered, not as definitions but as reflections on their chosen genre for expressing who they are as writers.
Philip K. Dick was a great writer who knew what it was like to have the electricity cut off for non-payment of a monthly bill. In his essay “Notes Made Late at Night by a Weary SF Writer” (1968,1972), he spells out how little money a writer in this genre at the time, even one as renowned as he was in his forties, could expect to make. There was more than one time when he couldn’t pay his bills while waiting for a meager check to arrive.
I think his frequent lack of money gave a hardscrabble quality to a lot of his writing. Underlying his humor, satire and brilliant ideas, there is always a sense of tough reality. Just think of the beginning of Ubik, where his main character can’t open his front door because he doesn’t have a coin to his name. There was real experience behind that vision of a world where everything had to be paid for all the time.
So he wrote all the more, not out of hopes for fame and riches, but for love of science fiction. As he put it:
What matters to me is the writing, the act of manufacturing the novel, because while I’m doing it, at that particular moment, I am in the world I’m writing about. It is real to me, completely and utterly. Then, when I’m finished, and have to stop, withdraw from that world forever — that destroys me. The men and women have ceased talking. They no longer move. I’m alone, without much money …
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, Vintage paperback edition 1995, p 18
In “What Is an SF Writer?” (1974), he comes back to the intensity of involvement in writing by way of comparing science fiction writers to scientists and political activists. SF writers, he says, share the curiosity about the nature of things of scientists but can’t dwell only on what is. Their restless imaginations push them into ideas about what could come next, not out of a sense of predicting the future, but from the need to locate their imaginings in a world different from this one.
The writer’s drive, for PKD, is to create a world in which the changes they imagine make sense and in which the characters they create could lead very different lives from ours. There is no interest in predicting the actual future of the present world.
SF writers are like political activists, he says, in that they imagine how things could be different and may want to see present realities drastically changed. But their way of doing that is to live for a time in an intensely imagined space where they can show what those changes and their consequences might be. Dick describes it as an introverted form of activism as opposed to the extroverted form which gets people to start organizing drives or stage demonstrations.
PKD emphasizes that this is not a form of escapism because the writer is firmly rooted in the realities of this world, but their thinking is not controlled by the actual environment.
The SF writer … has cut us loose enough to put us in a third space, neither the concrete nor the abstract, but something unique, something connected to both and hence relevant. So we do cut loose, but with enough ties still remaining never to forget that we do live in one specific society at one specific time …
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, Vintage paperback edition 1995, pp 75-76
In a brief essay of 1981, “My Definition of Science Fiction,” Dick gave a more abstract idea of the genre that focused as much on the reader as the writer. He said the defining aspect of SF was the conceptualization of an idea that could only be realized in a different world, one with different science and different premises. “It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet.” A new society is generated in the author’s mind that produces a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind – a shock of “dysrecognition,” so that they know they are not in the world of the here and now. To be effective, he felt that the dislocating ideas had to be new and that this creativity is one of the features that distinguished science fiction from literary fiction.
On the other hand, Dick thought that SF wasn’t very good at capturing human relationships. That may have been true in his day, and is one of the reasons a lot of older science fiction pales in comparison with recent stories. But, as strange as many of Dick’s characters are, I don’t think it was true of his work either. He sometimes attributed his own probing of relationships and his characters’ souls to his experience with drugs, addiction and several nervous breakdowns. He didn’t want to recommend that to younger writers because the cost was so high.
But I think there was more understanding of people in Dick’s work than he often gave himself credit for. The writer of The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly and The Transformation of Timothy Archer, among many others, was a brilliant observer of human life. Maybe he emphasized the dislocating creativity of the worlds brought to life by SF writers, but he himself was driven just as much by understanding the depths of human experience as any other writer in any genre.