Philip K. Dick on Prophets of Science Fiction Tonight

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Philip K. Dick by R. CrumbPhilip K. Dick by R. Crumb

Philip K. Dick by R. Crumb

Tonight the second episode of Prophets of Science Fiction airs on Science, featuring the author Phillip K. Dick. First let me confess that I am a “Dick Head” (That’s the official term!) and have been since I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep even before seeing the movie adaptation back in the early 1980s. I rank Blade Runner as one of the greatest movies of all time. Okay, enough with confession time.

So, you can guess that I would be excited to see Dick get the documentary treatment he deserves, especially if it is being produced by Ridley Scott — the man responsible for Blade Runner. Like the first episode on Mary Shelly, this episode of PoSF features interviews with scientists, authors, and movie makers, talking about the cultural and scientific implications of the author’s work. These are presented alongside illustrations, movie clips, and live reenactments using an actor with a rather unconvincing simulacrum of Dick’s beard.

Unlike last week’s episode, though, the interviews felt more natural and less rehearsed. I especially enjoyed the commentary of David Brin, who stands out as both a great writer of science fiction and a scientist himself.

And, of course, Scott chimes in throughout the episode, not only giving insightful commentary about Dick’s vision, but also personal stories of working with Dick during the initial production of Blade Runner. Sadly, Dick died before seeing the movie and before his contribution to popular culture and scientific philosophy were felt.

Despite being a fan and having read the majority of his oeuvre, the documentary did teach me a lot about Dick’s life, especially his childhood. Most interesting is the fact that Dick had a twin sister who died only weeks after their birth. According to the documentary, this was to have profound effect on his life, as he grew up with her as an imaginary friend who was all too real to him. There is some evidence to support the idea that his sister was a force in his life — he was buried next to her when he died at the age of 53 — but the documentary never makes clear where this extremely personal insight originates.

The show highlights Dick’s writing style, best described as Paranoid Fiction. His novels and stories are filled with characters constantly doubting the reality around them — always with good reason. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Dick also presented some of the most believably human characters in sci-fi at that time, even when the characters that were not human. For example, whereas Isaac Asimov’s robots were always “the other” — following very clearly defined laws — Dick’s androids were “more human than human,” following the same murky morality as humans, but with a compressed life span to contend with.

Of course, the reality of androids has come a long way since Dick first wrote about them, but not nearly as far as he had imagined. Dick would likely be horrified by the fact that one of the most realistic androids today is a simulacrum of his head. He would be even more alarmed, though, by the conspiracy surrounding its mysterious disappearance in 2006. A new head has since been constructed and is featured in PoSF.

The documentary dwells especially on Dick’s books turned into movies — Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, etc…. It ends with a brief discussion of his religious writings, describing them about as well as I’ve seen since they can be a little off-putting to many audiences.

However, PoSF shies away from some of his more political books. This is unfortunate since this is where Dick is at his most prophetic. If you want to understand the recent Bush administration, I highly recommend Dick’s The Simulacra.

It’s not a very deep look at his life, but If you are new to Dick or looking for some insights into his motives, watch tonight on Science at 10 PM. This episode of PoSF gives an excellent introduction and overview to Philip K., one which just might inspire a new generation of Dick Heads.

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