Review: The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick

The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Philip K. Dick is ‘our own homegrown Borges’.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

Philip K. Dick, perhaps best referred to as PKD in our immature times, was a fascinating and many-layered writer. Other artists might challenge your personal viewpoints of what is real, and whether or not you’re right. PKD would challenge your view of reality itself.

He made this work by not being just a dry conceptual thinker. His conceptual brilliance was married with a deep desire to understand what this all could mean for humanity – a humanity that he deeply loved, warts and all.

PKD is currently most well known for movies made from his writings – the most famous ones are “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner” (as his novel this had the surreal title “Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep”). There was also Richard Linklater’s amazing and underrated “A Scanner Darkly”, which somehow escaped much notice despite having a cast of Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. Most recently there is a TV series based on one of his novels – Amazon Prime’s “The Man in the High Castle.” The most acclaimed show they’ve had to date, it is unusually true to his vision – a brilliant imagining of a 1960s America if the Axis powers had won. In the story, the characters struggling with their everyday concerns find out about our universe where the Axis powers lost – which changes their understanding of not just their world but their lives.

That’s the kind of twists that PKD excelled at – twists that mattered, because they come from a real imagining of human characters just like us. People with messy lives who find themselves in deep strangeness that they can and must figure out, just like we do.

PKD also had a rather large body of work. At one point in his life he wrote 20 novels in 2 years – and sold every single one. For those who aren’t already a fan, *and* for those who want to dive deeper, I highly recommend this collection. It offers a both impressive and accessible overview of the wide range of worlds through which PKD wielded his art. This includes 3 chapters of a sequel to the aforementioned “Man in the High Castle”, a mind-blowing spec outline for a possible “Mission: Impossible” script that was never sold, and a brilliant outline for a new light-hearted caper series involving heaven and earth which is simply too challenging for television to this day.

But perhaps the piece of this collection which best represents both the pessimism, the optimism and the deep-hearted insight that PKD brought to bear is the transcript of a lecture he gave back in 1972 – “The Android and the Human” (pp. 193-194).

…The absolutely horrible technological society — that was our dream, our vision of the future. We could foresee nothing equipped with enough power, guile, or whatever, to impede the coming of that dreadful, nightmare society. It never occurred to us that the delinquent kids might abort it out of the sheer perverse malice of their little individual souls, God bless them. Here, as a case in point, are two excerpts from the media; the first, quoted in that epitome of the nauseating, Time, is — so help me — what Time calls “the ultimate dream in telephone service” as described by Harold S. Osborne, former chief engineer of AT&T:

“Whenever a baby is born anywhere in the world, he is given at birth a telephone number for life. As soon as he can talk, he is given a watch-like device with ten little buttons on one side and a screen on the other. When he wishes to talk with anyone in the world, he will pull out the device and punch on the keys the number. Then, turning the device over, he will hear the voice of his friend and see his face on the screen, in color and in three dimensions. If he does not see him and hear him, he will know that his friend is dead.”

I don’t know; I really don’t find this funny. It is really sad. It is heartbreaking. Anyhow; it is not going to happen. The kids have already seen to that. “Phone freaks,” they are called, these particular kids. This is what the L.A. Times says, in an article dated earlier this year:

“They (the phone freaks) all arrived carrying customized MF’ers — multi-frequency tone signals — the phone freak term for a blue box. The homemade MF’ers varied in size and design. One was a sophisticated pocket transistor built by a PhD in engineering, another the size of a cigar box with an actual coupler attaching to the phone receiver. So far, these phone freaks had devised 22 ways to make a free call without using credit cards. In case of a slipup, the phone freaks also know how to detect ‘supervision,’ phone company jargon for a nearly inaudible tone which comes on the line before anyone answers to register calling charges. As soon as phone freaks detect the dreaded ‘supervision,’ they hang up fast.

“Captain Crunch was still in the phone booth pulling the red switches on his fancy computerized box. He got his name from the whistle found in the Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal box. Crunch discovered that the whistle has a frequency of 2600 cycles per second, the exact frequency the telephone company uses to indicate that a line is idle, and of course, the first frequency phone freaks learn how to whistle to get ‘disconnect,’ which allows them to pass from one circuit to another. Crunch, intent, hunched over his box to read a list of country code numbers. He impersonated to the overseas operator, and called Italy. In less than a minute he reached a professor of classical Greek writings at the University of Florence.”

This is how the future has actually come out. None of us science fiction writers foresaw phone freaks. Fortunately, neither did the phone company, which otherwise would have taken over by now. But this is the difference between dire myth and warm, merry reality. And it is the kids, unique, wonderful, unhampered by scruples in any traditional sense, that have made the difference.

As PKD foresaw, these phone phreakers were early versions of what became hacker culture. They figured out the codes for public and private telephones and would use them to call each other and in other ways infiltrate institutional technology and play with it for their advantage and just for fun. And everything that has followed has played out as PKD suspected. These kids have not only grown on to become engineers and CEOs. Hackers have also stolen passwords, cracked digital rights management and security, sometimes stealing credit cards and worse out of immaturity and simple spite. And also, justifying PKD’s wise faith and love for the perversity of humanity in all it’s messy beauty, consistently undermining and even rendering irrelevant the power of the governmental and corporate security estates at every turn.

He goes on to say:

Speaking in science fiction terms, I now foresee an anarchistic totalitarian state ahead. Ten years from now a TV street reporter will ask some kid who is president of the United States, and the kid will admit that he doesn’t know. “But the President can have you executed,” the reporter will protest. “Or beaten or thrown into prison or all your rights taken away, all your property — everything.” And the boy will reply, “Yeah, so could my father up to last month when he had his fatal coronary. He used to say the same thing.” End of interview. And when the reporter goes to gather up his equipment he will find that one his color 3-D stereo microphone-vidlens systems is missing; the kid has swiped it from him while the reporter was blabbing on.

This was all in an aside from a larger discussion on the nature and purpose of consciousness itself – an aside that both fit in seamlessly, and is well worth exploring in it’s own right.

This is the nature of riches available to those who delve into Philip K. Dick. I think this particular volume is a great exploration point.

View all my reviews