Archive for February, 2012

PHILIP K DICK

19 February 2012

[Photograph of Philip K Dick]Throughout my adult life, Philip K Dick’s work has popped up from time to time to delight me. He truly was different.

It’s too easy, I think, to simply put him down as just a SciFi author.

I have nothing against Science Fiction, and his work is closely related to that genre, but Dick does more than set a story in the future and he does more than fantasise about the future, about space and aliens; he gets into the mind and how it works.

It was in 1982 that I heard about Philip K Dick from a pal. Dick had just died, so there were obits and newspaper columns to ignite interest. On top of that was the movie, Blade Runner.

I loved this film, from Vangelis’s soundtrack to the mash-up of the old Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler “hard-boiled gum shoe”, pulp fiction detective novel with the science fiction future of android robots. It was very stylish, beautifully directed, edited and the acting was quality.  It is a film that lives with you afterwards.

Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My pal gave me a bunch of his short stories, and I remember that I read, enjoyed and returned them, and that was that. Only it wasn’t.

I couldn’t tell you the names of his stories, nor any one that stood out more than others.  I do, though,  recall being impressed and perhaps somewhat overawed; it is a lot of new ideas all in one go.  Maybe it was too much in one sitting. I must have read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — but all I can recall is Blade Runner. Although this might seem to be more about Hampton Fancher’s screenplay than Dick’s short story, Dick was closely involved in the making of this film with Ridley Scott and Fancher.

The story is genius. In the future android robots are so life-like, it takes detectives and tests to spot the difference, and even the androids don’t know they are not real humans. The story is about what happens when an android does find out he’s not “real” — and that he has an expiry date.  This is a man-made organic machine suddenly faced with mortality.  The robot’s quest is to come to earth, track down his maker and try to avoid death.  That is just a marvellous idea. The small group of androids are being hunted down by a Blade Runner — and that’s the detective part of the story.

I later got a loan of  the amazing The Man in The High Castle — this is  actually recognised as creating an entire literary genre of its own – the alternative history genre. I was quite tickled by the thought of Japan running California, and The Germans own new York. Dick has quite an original imagination, but also the skill to write convincingly. This was a what-if story — and I’d not come across that before either.

I loved Total Recall as soon as I heard it was based on Philip K Dick I got tickets — and again, for me, it was the movie, rather than the short story that stuck in my mind. This would be in the early 1990s and it was billed as an action film first and a science fiction film second. At that time the big deal was action and action heroes — and the rivalry among Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Silvester Stallone (and a few others too).

Total Recall was based on We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and is also highly original. I would reckon that Dick might have come up with the story simply by trying to remember a holiday.  It’s so true that, not very long after we have returned from a vacation, memories fade — and we end up remembering what was filmed or photographed, the souvenirs and a handful of anecdotes.

Perhaps if we did not have these mementoes, we could forget we went on holiday altogether. When you think about it, people do suffer amnesia and dementia, so what is reality? Could we be hypnotised to believe we had gone on holiday somewhere?

In Blade Runner, the androids were created fully adult, but with pre-programmed memories of a fake childhood, mementoes, cards, photos, diaries, toys and keep-sakes. All fake.  In Total Recall, the concept is a business that offers a cheaper alternative to going on holiday — an implanted memory of the trip and fake keep-sakes and souvenirs. Dick is dealing with the same theme — what is real?

In Total Recall, the story takes this to another level — a man wants a holiday to Mars (it is science fiction after all), but cannot afford it, so he opts for the memories to be implanted — however, it turns out that the chap was a spy who had been to Mars, and the government had erased the memory of his spying and Martian activities, and turned him out with a new identity and life. The attempt to implant the fake Mars trip opened up a can of worms as the erased memories started to come back  — making this man a danger for what he knows. Good stuff, eh.

Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and A Scanner Darkly are all fantastic films based on Philip K Dick’s short stories. They are clever, work on different levels and, despite being about the perception of reality, morality, memories and other internalisations, they seem to be extremely cinematic. In the end, the stories are futuristic and therefore good for exploiting special effects. I often wonder if they can operate on a straight action film only level — or if action film fans leave the cinema inspired or in a philosophical mindset.

I remember wondering if the fact that Dick was a twin affected his outlook, and I looked him up once and found that he was married five times — that would certainly affect the mind and sense of deja-vu and mixed up memories!

The themes that Dick brought to my attention are never far from my mind.  So much of what I do for a living depends on virtual reality — I see things built before they are built.

Anyone today can go on Google maps and wander through the streets of any city or town. My phone can track me and help me identify buildings and statues, music and more simply by holding the phone up and pressing a virtual button.  How could Philip K Dick not be far from my mind; we seem to be living in his.

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