Philip K. Dick, Vintage PKD (Vintage Books, 2006)

Philip K. Dick, while successful during his lifetime as a science fiction writer, had nowhere near the reputation that he enjoys today. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, starting with "Yeah, well -- he was writing science fiction." My own theory is that we have finally grown into his fiction. It helps, I think, that since Ridley Scott's Bladerunner in 1982, based on Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, no fewer than eight films have been based on his books. Dick has finally gotten the audience he deserved.

Vintage Books, in recognition of Dick's prominence in contemporary literature, has begun reissuing many of his works, including a compilation of several stories and excerpts from the most important novels, including chapters from The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik and VALIS, the stories/novellas "The Days of Perky Pat," "A Little Something For Us Tempunauts," and "I Hope I shall Arrive Soon," along with the essay "The Lucky Dog Pet Store," and "The Zebra Papers" from Dick's letters.

I was struck, first of all, by the consistency of Dick's voice and stance over the bulk of his career (the works run from 1962 to his death in 1982), and the consistency of his vision, perhaps most concisely explicated in "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon":   the recurring idea that we have a remarkable ability to screw ourselves up, and while we're doing that, we manage to screw up everything else.

OK -- that's a little harsh. Dick was not really that misanthropic. He had a lot of sympathy for humanity. I have this vision of his stories and novels being a way of tearing at his hair while he's watching the rest of us stumble around with our heads up our butts from one disaster to the next, always doing our best to make it worse. ("A Little Something for Us Tempunauts" is among the most grim, dark stories I've ever read, but somehow Dick managed to make Addison Doug, the prime mover in the nightmare, a tragic hero, even though I was convinced he was wrong.)

The satire is bitter and unrelenting. "The Days of Perky Pat" takes place in a post-apocalypse California, where the adults are completely obsessed by a game that recreates the comfortable, middle-class life they once knew, while the children are champing at the bit to explore the world, strange as it has become. Just when you think this story's not going anywhere and you've had enough, the whole thing snaps into focus: woe to those who disturb our comfortable mindsets. In this case, the penalty is exile. It could have been worse. (And, to be quite honest, I see this story as slipstream. Possibly a type specimen.)

In spite of all this darkness, Dick is sometimes very funny. It's a black, raucous, bang-your-head-against-a-brick-wall kind of funny, like a jeering flock of crows, but you have to laugh -- the alternative is not something you want to think about.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about this collection: it gives you the flavor of Dick's fiction, but it doesn't really satisfy. It's the kind of marketing you can come up with when you have a really great product: people are gong to want more. In that regard, it's a brilliant idea, and I highly recommend it for those who want to sample without plunging into a major novel headfirst.

Obviously, Philip K. Dick is worth reading, even if I can't fit him into one of those comfortable little slots we make for practitioners in our favorite section of literature. (Golden Age? Nuh-uh. New Wave? Not really. Postmodern? Getting closer, but not quite.) So he's pretty much unique. To reiterate -- I think we've finally grown into his fiction. He's been called prescient, which was always part of science fiction anyway. He came out of the 1960s counterculture and wrote about its worst nightmares from the standpoint of an outsider trying to survive somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the mainstream. (And if you think I'm crazy, check out the selection from A Scanner Darkly.) Read him today, and you'll realize that we're living in the world he wrote about.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

The official Philip K. Dick Web site seems to have been subsumed in Thephildickian.com.

Robert Tilendis rmthunter@earthlink.net EarthLink Revolves Around You.