Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick, who for some reason, I skipped right over during my geeky high school years (with the bizarre exception of A Scanner Darkly). I’ve since ploughed my way through Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner), The Game Players of Titan, The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and presently, We Can Build You. And yet what has come to fascinate me most respecting this reading binge is not the literary qualities of Dick’s prose (it’s pretty workmanlike, truth be told) or the depth of his philosophical insights (they run quite deep—scary deep, in fact), or the theater of the absurd plotlines. These aspects of his work have their respective merits—and demerits—but I’ll leave those for others to ponder.
No, what has caught my attention is the fact that all of Dick’s writings are still in print! We’re talking here, folks, about some 35 novels and short story collections.
This is no small matter for a science fiction author or indeed any author operating in a “pop” genre. As a long-time reader of science fictions—coming up on 30 years, in fact—the observation over time of what manages to stay on the shelves or what gets pulped offers more than enough opportunity to comment on and complain about our economic, educational, an cultural tastes and inclinations.
Dick has become such an opportunity. It’s not that he’s bad. It’s more a question of is he that good. But let me contextualize…
I first realized all of Dick’s work were in print when I headed into the Barnes & Noble on the north end of Union Square to pick up novels by a British contemporary of his, a writer whose own febrile imagination struck similar chords. At the time, the only novel I owned by John Brunner was a chewed-up edition of Last Stand on Zanzibar. Re-reading it, I noted how easily the passions that Dick poured into his works on the politics and technologies of mind control were matched by Brunner’s acid reflections on overpopulation and government bureaucracy.
Part of the “New Wave” movement in British science fiction, spearheaded by writers like Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss, Last Stand is a true sci-fi tour de force: chapter titles are “coded,” while multiple storylines are heavily interlarded with narrative experiments, from disjointed newsfeeds to floating conversations run together. Despite the distinctly 1960s-ish characters and their concerns, you can’t help but admire the sheer energy of the novel’s Herculean effort to immerse the reader in the—for lack of a better term—freneticism of the world Brunner imagines.
The world has been overrun by bodies—human ones, of course--precipitating explosive acts of mass violence by those gone over the edge who try literally to clear the physical space around them. Before there was going postal, there standing on Zanzibar. In the hubbub of disembodied party banter and screaming news flashes that weave in and out of the more straightforward story of a dormant spy who, without warning, is “activated,” Brunner’s experiments in writing do more than describe lonely crowd effects: after all, why show you a world on edge when he can have you feel it?
Does it work? Sometimes, and sometimes not, but Brunner is ambitious, which explains my decision not only to replace my ratty version of Last Stand but to see if I could also get hold of his other major novels, Shockwave Rider and The Sheep Look Up.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, where’s your science fiction section?”
“Top floor, on the far right wall as you come off the escalator.”
“Thanks. Ah, here we go. Ok, let’s see: A…A…Anthony, Asimov, B…B… Bradbury, Brin…C… What the hell? No Brunner…? Let me check again. Well, how do you like that? No Brunner. I wonder what else is here.”
And that’s when I saw it. An entire shelf and a half given to books all similarly trimmed, bound, and designed: apparently every novel published by Philip K. Dick. Some I knew from reputation already: the ones I listed, as well as Ubik and VALIS. But there were any number that I had not heard of. But that didn’t seem to matter. Someone at Vintage Press and the estate of Philip K. Dick saw gold in them thar hills and decided to put all of his novels—good and bad—in print. Most, if not all, did not even have their type reset, but instead were little more than scanned pages from earlier printings, resized and newly covered to fit the collector’s edition effect.
Personally I can’t help but admire a good marketing tactic when I see one. It certainly has kept all of Philip K. Dick’s novels in print (and me buying them). But I mourn for John Brunner, whose better novels deserve better fates. So I guess it’s off to the American Book Exchange for me.