The sci-fi writers probing of the nature of reality seems ever more prescient. Ahead of a Blade Runner sequel and new C4 series, three novelists pick their favourite works
Chosen by Nicola Barker
You couldnt really call me a bona fide Dickhead because I havent read everything Philip K Dick wrote (60-odd books, including short story collections during a relatively short career at one point he was so prolific that he completed 11 novels in a single year). I do co-own a large selection of them, though, and in 1992 or some time thereabouts I attended a seminar at the ICA, hosted by Brian Aldiss (who else?) in which each title was read aloud and marked out of 10 (this was an approach established by Lawrence Sutin in his marvellous biography of the writer, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick), so that attendees could yell a riotous higher! or lower! according to their own personal predilections.
It would certainly be fair to say that in the 35 years since his early death in 1982 Dick has been openly acknowledged nay celebrated as one of the worlds greatest ever writers of science fiction. Sutin rightly summarises Dicks artistic drive as an exhaustive investigation into both what is real and what is human. Dick himself claimed the core of my writing is not art, but truth, and still more perplexingly: I am a fictionalising philosopher, not a novelist. To a majority of his contemporaries (even in sci-fi circles) Dick was, for the most part, considered a drug-addled nut. One of his highs (or lows) of choice was horse tranquilliser. He married five times. He was a twin his sister (who he insisted was a lesbian) died shortly after they were born. His life was illumined by a series of extraordinary spiritual visions.
When you are writing about Dick, there is so much to include, such abundance so much scandal, so much complexity, so much richness. He was plainly a highly perverse individual and at some level (a funny, clever, joyous level) an outrageous bullshitter. But deny it as he might, he is a novelist a true novelist and a novelist of rare genius. These books arent simply a series of hypotheses sparsely covered in a thin pelt of character, emotion and language. They are soft and sumptuous and twirl around the readers calves, hissing and purring. His writing celebrates art, life, ideas (as surely all the best writing must) and, perhaps most deliriously the inexpressible.
Early on in his writing career Dick wrote a series of straight novels (not that Dick was ever capable of straightness he was, by nature, intrinsically curvy). They arent among the most celebrated of his works. But my contention is that there are several true gems among them, the shiniest of which and for me, the most creatively inspirational, as a novelist are Confessions of a Crap Artist and (my marginal favourite) Puttering About in a Small Land.
Crap Artist definitely has the best opening two lines, though:
I am made out of water. You wouldnt know it because I have it bound in.
Its a little masterpiece (and for some reason slots into my consciousness hard upon John Kennedy Tooles superb A Confederacy of Dunces). It was published in 1959, but Puttering (written in 1957 when Dick was only 29) is my firm favourite. Sutin rates it rather disconcertingly at a shockingly measly five. Im not sure why this is. Because I can find little to fault in it. The bare bones of the story are certainly, on initial appearances, deliberately unshowy almost pedestrian. But this is what I love. Dick isnt making a big deal out of anything. He is finding drama in smallness, in the margins, in tiny changes of perspective. The book is slight but transformative. And because this is not an art I have refined myself (a cat may look at a king!), I deeply envy it. I suppose there is a Kitchen Sink element (the timing corresponds), but theres nothing mannered or crass about the way Dick handles his subject matter. He isnt angry or splenetic. He is quizzical and mystified. He is best of all inquisitive.
In brief, the novel details the coming together of its two protagonists, Roger and Virginia Lindahl. They meet, are kind of in love, and kind of horrified by each other. They move from Washington to LA at the end of the war. We see them find work. We see Roger open a television sales and repairs shop. The Lindahls have a son with asthma who they send to a private school in the mountains. Here they meet the Bonners Chuck and Liz. Roger and Liz commence an affair.
What I most admire about the book is the way people simply do not understand what they are doing while at the same time experiencing utter clarity. Dicks writing is like a kind of psychological washing-up-brush he carefully pushes its bristles up into his characters minds and rotates exhaustively.
The reader has total access. Its both horrifying and delirious. There are some truly demented passages. And theres a profound sense that Dick doesnt really give a damn. Hes not making any great claims for himself (or the novel), hes just turning it out. It isnt overthought or minutely considered. It is joyful and propulsive. Because this is how he writes. This is who he is. Effortlessly cool. There are ideas to spare. He throws them around like a Dame tossing Cadburys Minis into the crowd at a pantomime.
Such confidence! Such largesse!
I so aspire to be generous in this way. And fun. At one point Dick describes a high-pressure business meeting and says Beth studied him as if he had managed to fart through his nose.
Pure Dick. Come on. You gotta love it.