“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” — P.K.D.
The jury is still out on whether Philip K. Dick was, technically, insane. We know he did some drugs, including methamphetamine. It’s a matter of record that he was married and divorced five times, sometimes with domestic incidents. We know that he reported experiencing hallucinations and that he insisted in his later years that he had been possessed by biblical prophets, lived parallel lives, and been in psychic contact with aliens. By his own admission, he had anxiety.
We also know he accused the FBI of spying on him, although that fact proved out to be true. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to getcha,” they say.
Readers with a yen for armchair pop psychiatry are likely muttering something like “delusional paranoid-schizophrenia” about now. But psychiatric experts have a loophole for diagnosis: you have to be “dysfunctional.” Philip K. Dick was able to handle himself his whole life without being institutionalized. He was able to frankly admit to the mental spasms that any real madman would have hidden. Most notably, he was able to even turn his delusions into groundbreaking stories and make a career out of it. He was profoundly functional.
Instead, you could argue that in a different culture and time, his hallucinations would have been categorized as religious visions. His alienation from society could have been a natural reaction to the turbulent times in which he lived. His accounts of visions might even have been the histrionic acts of a cleverly creative artist trolling the public for his own amusement and to boost hardcover sales. We creatives can be a slippery lot. You ever hear how Agatha Christie trolled her cheating husband? Never mess with somebody who builds elaborate puzzles for a living.
Ask your nearest psychiatrist to define “sanity.” The next thing to happen is that the conversation will immediately slamdunk itself down the nearest Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole. Spoiler alert: Nobody is sane. The Rosenhan Experiment proves even the experts can’t sort us out. In fact, let’s make this prerequisite reading for a Philip K. Dick course:
Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives Of Eccentric Scientists And Madmen
Clifford Pickover is a noted mathematician who is himself no stranger to having a brilliant mind touched by glints of eccentricity. This book (one of his 50) documents the line between genius and insanity and how much it blurs when we’re talking about people like Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, or Ted Kaczynski (AKA the Unabomber). Follow his Twitter feed for a dose of inspired sprinting along that line in your inbox.
Anyway, Philip K. Dick is definitely a candidate for the “mad genius” template. And if you readers have now been thrust into an existential paradox where you started out judging a man’s sanity and ended up questioning everything you know about reality: Congratulations! Welcome to the paranoid universe of Philip K. Dick. Everything around him is like this. Deal with Dick long enough, and you’ll need a couple of philosophy courses and a few days to put your reality back together and feel yourself again.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? : Blade Runner (1982 / 2017)
To start with his most famous work, Blade Runner was based on his novel. To this day, it casts a long shadow over the sci-fi genre, as well as nearly inventing the cyberpunk genre. Indeed, the author we now recognize as the godfather of cyberpunk, William Gibson, left his first screening of Blade Runner a nervous wreck because he’d just seen a perfect realization of the universe he was still imagining. The story is just about a specialist cop from the future sent to take out synthetic humans who have gone rogue, nothing special…
Key takeaways: When we manufacture fake people, what makes them different from real people? How can you tell if you’re a fake person? What legal rights should we give fake people? Is nature a perfect design we don’t dare play with, or a sloppy cosmic accident which we should improve on? Think fast on these questions, because technologies like GMOs and CRISPR are rapidly bringing the day when we need answers.
The 2017 remake was fated to be criticized and has its weak spots, but it was still a work with some argued merit. The original also has some controversy with the different edits, with creative ideas dueling between Ridley Scott and the other cast, so the final edit fixes a few issues. Without spoiling the movie (as if one could with such a famous work), let’s just say that a couple of shots change the entire meaning of the story. That can happen with any Philip K. Dick work!
No, it wasn’t this scene that was edited (RIP Rutger Hauer):
YIER LED Umbrella Lightsaber Light Up Umbrella | 7 Color Changing | Golf Umbrellas | Umbrella Windproof | Umbrella Kids Men
One movie link does not do this masterpiece justice. So here’s the neon umbrella which has become an unofficial signature prop from the movies, even though they’re only glimpsed in a few frames. You can’t have the flying cars, but we got this neon umbrella thing nailed!
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale | Total Recall (1990 / 2012)
His next-most famous work is probably this short story, adapted into a rollicking Arnold Schwarzenegger action-adventure sci-fi flick which also establishes a hearty corner of the cyberpunk genre. It’s about a blue-collar worker who visits a company in the future which implants “virtual vacation” memories in your brain, but something with the process may have gone awry…
Key takeaways: Do our memories make us who we are? If we were dreaming this reality, how would we know? If agents beyond our control were keeping us cloistered in a filtered reality because we’re happier and hence tamer that way, would we be more or less free? Are we butterflies dreaming we’re people? Think fast, because technologies like social media are allowing us to pick and choose our version of reality and live in it comfortably, perhaps at the behest of overlords.
While the remake, as you’d expect, didn’t garner the favor of the original, this blaster prop looks too damn cool on the toy shelf even without the movie. You have to admit, the remake was tough because it is hard to beat The Governator. Not to mention the freaky special effects of Rob Bottin.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
For once, Philip K. Dick finally had the dignity of getting a film adaptation to have the same name as his novel. This was a rotoscoped production by none other than Richard Linklater, of Waking Life fame. It’s also one of his more straightforward plots: A drug enforcement agent works undercover in a druggie den, and accidentally draws the assignment to put himself under surveillance. Meanwhile, his own addiction is messing with his reality, on top of his dual-life identity crisis…
Hands down, we have to go with the movie for a recommended product. Even though it was a success, it’s still underrated. It is the purest adaptation of Dick’s work, the animation is thrilling to watch, and the cast is a complete smash. Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., Rory Cochrane, and Winona Ryder are all hilariously spot-on as the most realistic den of druggies you’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, the sci-fi angles and typical Philip K. Dick humanity give the story dramatic weight as well.
Another adaptation from a short story, this film introduces us to the concept of “precrime,” where chemically-induced psychics assist police in predicting when a murder will happen, allowing them to arrest the perpetrator before the crime is committed. Cheerfully rolling with this logical paradox, the leader of the precrime division is predicted by the psychics to commit a murder of his own…
Key takeaways: If we can predict the future and then use that information to change the future, were we right or wrong? Are we guilty of a crime even in thinking about it before we commit it? Is keeping society safe worth removing every otherwise law-abiding person who has one weak moment? Do we even have free will or are we all predetermined to our destinies? Think fast, because guess what police are doing now based on our social media data?
We have to go with the movie again, because it’s also underrated. It had the bad luck to come out right when its lead star, Tom Cruise, was exhibiting some, ah, eccentric behavior. Granted, Tom Cruise the actor may have a screw or two loose, but his performance is still spot on. The whole movie, a cascade of visual treats and unforgettable performances, is again a faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work and one of his most accessible pieces.
The immortal Lois Smith steals her only scene as the world’s sharpest-tongued botanist:
This is only scratching the surface of Philip K. Dick’s work and the adaptation of it into film and TV. There’s something about a Philip K. Dick story that’s eerily filmable. Many more of his works could provide us with fascinating movie scripts for years. Heck, we haven’t even seen his most “dangerous” work adapted yet. Faith of our Fathers goes straight to our opening meditation on the definition of hallucinations in the context of spiritual experiences.
At the same time, talk about your science fiction authors with a vision of the future! Pick any Philip K. Dick story and then find the front-page news story from this morning that matches it. For a man who lived from 1928 to 1982, he prophesied more of our world today than the next ten sci-fi writers combined. He was so accurate, you know, it’s almost like he was possessed by a biblical prophet or in psychic contact with an alien or something…