Reading Phillip K. Dick in the 21st century
Recently I've been reading some of Phillip K. Dick's short stories. I went through a minor K. Dick period in my later high school years with "Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep" (excellent) and "Clans of the Alphane Moon" (weird and inaccurate but not unpleasant). This was back around 1993- 1998 the heyday of cyberpunk fiction and I sort of read Phillip K. Dick more on the basis of that and "Blade Runner" than anything else. Though I liked the novels, especially "Andriods" with its detective-noirish setting, (I'm also a big fan of pulp detectives and film noir and noir radio shows), books like "ClipJoint" by Wilhemina Baird, and William Gibson's "Virtual Light" Piers Anthony's "Killobyte" and Mary Rosenblum's short stories really spoke to me about the possibilities of a VR and cybernetically enhanced future.
That said, some of my favourite sci-fi movies were based of K. Dick's stories, I later found out. In university film class Prof. Lanchashire helped us unpack "Total Recall" and what a fascinating unpacking it was. If you think about it there are about three or four different interpretations of the film based on whether you think Quaid is in a Rekall memory dream gone wrong from the point he first enters Rekall and the end is actually him dying or whether he really was a Martian agent, and various other possibilities in betweent hose two.
I also thought "Minority Report" was a pretty interesting film years later when I saw it on video, although there were some plotting errors, a gross part when they took the guy's eyes out for no real plot reason other than it would be gross and look cool and some comedy out of one of the eyeballs nearly falling down a storm drain and an ending that wasn't believable. The idea behind it and the tragic nature of the main character and the ethical dilemma behind the use of the pre-cogs and the appearance of the future world really made that film for me.
Other films based on his stories like Paycheck and Scanner Darkly I haven't seen.
So this granted, I was really looking forward to absorbing his stories. I really wasn't expecting to be so disappointed. Maybe my expectations were too high. So far I've read "Paycheck," "Minority Report," "We Can Remember it for you Wholesale" and "Second Variety" some of his more famous stories. I hate to say it, but I much preferred the movies of Minority Report and Total Recall (based on "We Can Remember it for you Wholesale") to Dick's actual stories! This is unusual because I usually tend to prefer the books to the movies except in the case of some ooks adapted from Michael Crichton novels. So far "Second Variety" has been my favourite.
I think the problems I'm having with the stories are two-fold. They have to do with reading Dick's stories, written in the 1960s and 50s (mostly) in 2010, (farther ahead than the settings of most of his futuristic tales!)
One is a problem I've also encounter trying to read Robert A. Heinlein, (still haven't been able to finish one of his novels and this is why): Basically, the misogyny and sexism are so prevalent, that I keep finding myself drawn out of the stories by it, and my reading pleasure interrupted as I scratch my head and say... uh... what? It boils down to this, I can suspend my disbelief about aliens, (after all no one's ever seen an alien), but the assumption that woman are less intelligent than men and are mainly useful for sex and always betray the men, just feels icky and weird to me, because it is so far out from what I experience as an intelligent and moral human being who just so happens to be a woman.
Look, it's not as if I've never read a book by an author from a historically long ago time before. Usually, as a modern woman reading older fiction, I'm used to giving the old-saws of "female delicacy," "womanly hysteria," "chaste female," "guarding her virtue" stuff a quick pass. I'm not stupid. I know most books I read were written long ago, where people's ideas about how men and women are were usually, (though not always, note Thomas Hardy and Shelley) different to those of people today, and I suppose different than our attitudes will be to such subjects in the future as well. However what bothers me, is that the females in these stories, seem to be denied any sort of basic humanity, morality, dignity and intelligence.
There are parts where Dick goes on about for some lines of dialogue about, the topless secretary's blue painted breasts when Quail goes back to Rekall in "We can remember it for you Wholesale" that actually detract from the tauntness of the growing suspense in the story. Why would Quail mention the secretary's boobs, when he is desperate to find out what Rekall has done to him before the police catch him and he's running out of time? I mean, it's just stupid and doesn't add anything to the story. And then the secretary keeps offering her body to Quail so that he accepts her favours instead of getting his full money back from Rekall. I've been a secretary and I've known secretaries and I can't imagine any of them ever whoring themselves out just to save their boss some money. It's like she's owned by the company or something and is just another organ of that organization, not a separate dignified human being with a brain at all.
Then in "Paycheck" Jennings basically bargains his knowledge for the right to marry the company head Rethrik's daughter. What's even worse is that the company head talks about wanting to keep the company in the family and so he will pass it on to his daughter Kelly's sons when she has them and how this is a problem because she hasn't had any children yet. Why would he depend on passing the company on to his future male grandchildren? Why wouldn't he just pass it on to his daughter when he had no sons. Also, why was Rethrik keeping his daughter undercover at the plant as a secretary? If she'd been working there all her life, surely she would know enough to have a more responsible job there? Oh wait, in Phillip K. Dick world no one would actually buy a woman in a job other than secretary or prostitute.
Then in "Minority Report" we have all the descriptions of the wife in her tight form fitting police uniform and high heels and the explanation that she was only a police constable, because her husband was on the board. And then of course she betrays him before meekly following him to a new life as a proper housewife on a lunar colony like he wanted. What is far more disturbing in the story is the whole matter of the pre-cogs. In the film the pre-cogs were people who happened to be psychic, and who were denied a life outside the Pre-crime facility so they could predict and prevent crimes for the city. It was considered a sad, but necessary sacrifice for the good of the whole community. The plot in the movie hinged on the police commisoner discovering he would be accused of murder, then realizing there was a minority report (i.e. one of the precogs had a different vision than the other two) that had been suppressed so he could be accused of murder and ousted from his position in a conspiracy. He goes back to Pre-crime and frees the pre-cog who had the minority report and runs off with her, because she is the one who can prove his innocence. A lot of the movies deals with his realization that what his society has done to the pre-cogs in the name of law and order is wrong and the film ends, a little too rosily on the pre-cogs in a safe, secluded location, at last being able to experience real life as human beings, rather than tools of the state. In the end the main character discovers that Pre-crime is unfair to people and helps bring down the system and the pre-cogs are freed.
In the story the pre-cogs are "deformed mutant imbeciles," basically humans with psychic powers that render them mentally disabled. Constantly hooked up to machines all the time, the mutant's bodies have become withered and useless. The people who look after them are called their "keepers" and the pre-cogs are called "monkeys." The area where they are is called the "monkey block." What ends up happening in the story is that the head of pre-crime is accused and eventually does end up murdering somebody, just so pre-crime can stay in power and the power doesn't go to the military. So basically the main character sacrifices his well-being and that of his wife to upholding the status quo. Not the most satisfying ending ever. What's really icky is the system's used of the mentally disabled pre-cogs is never questioned. Nobody talks about the rights of the "monkeys" or that they might have desires or rights at all. They are basically just seen as objects of disgust and usefulness to the state, rather than human beings. I know the attitudes towards mentally and physically disabled people used to be way different a long time ago, but even mentally disabled characters in Dickens are treated as human beings deserving of pity and justice when mistreated, not just as objects without souls.
The story I enjoyed the most was "Second Variety." This took place on an earth devestated by war, where the Russians and the UN forces had basically destroyed everything and the UN was using robot drones to defeat the Russians. I liked the fact that the Russians are very vulnerable and human and the fact that most were pressed into service against their will ruefully acknowledged. As you may have already anticipated the drones end up turning on their human masters, making andriods which they use to trick the humans into letting them infiltrate all human bunkers, not just the Russian ones. Parts of the story are somewhat repetitive, but the main character Hendrick's war-shocked pschology and the atmosphere of the piece are pitch perfect. The way he talks about the war devestated landscape, makes you feel like you're actually in someplace like WWII Europe or post-bomb Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It's that good. You eventually get this Stalag-17 like plot, where one of the characters in the group among the last four people left huddled in a cellar, is one of the mythical "second variety" of android and Hendricks has to figure out who it is before the second variety which no one knows what it looks like, kills the rest. There are only three problems with this story:
1) it seems to vascilate concerning how many people are actually left on Earth. At first it seems like lots of army groups, and then at the end that is somehow down to two bunkers: one an American UN force and one just three Russians in a cellar.
2) I figured out right away that the second variety robot was of course, the one woman (a Russian prostitute) in the group. Although it didn't really make sense because you could see her eating and it was specified that the more advanced variety three android didn't eat, so you wouldn't think variety two would eat either, I easily figured out that the woman was the robot betrayer, because in Dick's stories the women always play the men false and also she seemed way to smart and prepossessing for a woman written by Phillip K. Dick, so of course she couldn't be a woman and had to be a robot.
3) At the end Hendricks says that he is comforted by the fact that the second variety robot was killing the other robots and the robots, presumably would make war on each other just as the humans had. Why would this be comforting anyway? Pretty bloody depressing I'd think. Also, just because the second variety robot killed some of the third variety robots, doesn't mean she was at war with them. It seemed like more of an effort not to blow her cover, so Hendricks would let her in on the secret location of the moonbase and trust her, which would ultimately allow all the robots to invade the moon, the last human outpost, which would ultimately be good for robotkind, I suppose.
All this said I think the best thing about the Phillip K. Dick stories is their ideas which I think are really fascinating and in some cases quite prophetic.
Robot drones fighting human wars? Check. Happening today in Afghanistan and yeah, it scares me too.
Pre-crime? Well not yet. But it is an amazing idea. I think it might happen though not in the way he imagined with pre-cogs, because I don't think such a thing as people that psychic exist. However predictive computer programs might be able to predict future crimes or hotspots of likely criminal activity. Genetic profiling will certainly find some genes, (might have already for all I know), that make certain individuals overly aggressive and more likely to commit murder than your average person. Will these people be locked up because of their potential to commit crimes?
Time-scoops? Not very likely, although the heightened power of mega-corporations and governments bowing to the power of multinational corporations is real. Though the idea of revolution put forward in Paycheck is a very confusing one and strikes me more as Retherick forming a company to sell powerful weapons to whoever is willing to buy them than, actually producing revolutionary ideology.
As for nuclear war with Russia? Well just because we no longer talk about it all the time, doesn't mean all the nukes have disappeared. If anything I think we should be more worried today. For all its craziness I don't think the government of the USSR really wanted to destroy the world. But when you have people believing they'll bring about "the rapture" or get 72 virgins in heaven for blowing everything up, it does give one pause. We do know that considerable nuclear material has gone missing from Russian facilities.
Not that I'd start freaking out now. Maybe tomorrow.