Ravings from Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick wrote in 1978: How to Build a Universe which doesn’t fall apart Two days later

Philip K. Dick by R.Crumb

“Well, I will tell you what interests me, what I consider important. I can’t claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?


It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.


So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. “

Part of the magic of a really good book is becoming immersed in the universe which the writer has created. Sometimes those worlds seem so real that they can seem more solid, and certainly more interesting, than real life. There is considerable skill in this kind of believable world creation, and others are much better qualified than I to suggest how this should be done, and I’ve seen some great posts on WordPress about this topic.

But Philip.K.Dick’s point above about the creation of complete and yet unstable worlds is an interesting one.
Creating a world which is breaking down in some way, whether it be physically, politically, socially or psychologically provides us with the opportunity of seeing our characters deal with difficulties: and in this way, it is possible to reveal their true humanity. Thinking about this quote from Dick has lead me to understand that, perhaps unconsciously, this is exactly the situation that I investigate in my novel ‘The Artemis Effect’. I don’t wish to bore you with plot details, but groups of people from very different backgrounds are faced with living with the impacts of a huge natural event, and observing how they react to those circumstances I hope allows the reader to understand the type of people they are to a much deeper level than if they were observed in their normal, stable lives.

After the bushfires here a few years ago, it was suggested that the real humanity of people came out, both for the better and the worse. Many people donated their time and money to help victims, but there were also those people who looted burnt houses, sometimes to the extent of stealing trailers obviously loaded with the last few possessions people had dug out of the ash of their homes. In the clean up, bureaucracy and petty feuds have hampered rebuilding efforts, while others have been quite staggeringly resilient and constructive. This is the kind of effect I’m referred to when I talk about characters real humanity being revealed. Under normal circumstances, all of those strengths and weaknesses would have remained largely concealed from outside observers.

Arguably, the joy of science fiction, and maybe any fiction, is pose the question ‘What if?’ What if this technology existed? What if we met aliens? What if the politics had gone a different way? This need not be a huge scale poking at reality, such as happens in ‘The Artemis Effect’, and may only be investigate the effects of a small alteration in the normal rhythm of life for one person, but is a powerful tool. I feel that describing even a bubble of chaos in the stream of reality well enough to make it believable to the reader can be sufficient fuel for an interesting story.

Writing fiction which holds a mirror up to life, and perfectly reflects real events can still be interesting – in fact in can sometimes be a little bit like reading gossip! But much as I dislike genre labels, I’m not sure that it could ever be called science fiction. I think that Philip.K. Dick has hit on something fundamental to the genre: that in the worlds created, a degree of instability is necessary to create stories. I’m not suggesting that this is the only genre where instability is a crucial part, just that it is hard to characterize any fiction which does not have a degree of instability in the world as sci-fi.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Do we have to create unstable worlds or situations to have a story at all? Is instability a fundamental feature of sci-fi? And do we need it to reveal the humanity in our characters?


2 thoughts on “Ravings from Philip K. Dick

  1. I’d say that Dick’s best novels depict society which carries the faint traces of our own, with recognisable traits (e.g. they still have computers that break down frequently) but where society isn’t so much on the verge of collapse as staunching the occasional flow of blood. By that rationale his finest work is Dr Bloodmoney, which depicts a world that has broken down and rebuilt itself, and which is basically surviving. There’s a regression – as Dick himself put it – to an essentially rural community, and for a post-apocalyptic community (and despite all the bad stuff) there’s an almost infectious joy about it.

    On the other hand, the final paragraphs of ‘The Electric Ant’ feature a world that basically destroys itself, and forces us to actively question the nature of what is reality: what if my existence is dependent solely upon the consciousness of someone else? By this point in his life he was, I think, starting to lose his grip….

    • He certainly had his odd moments!
      Whether he is describing a rebuilt society though, or a post-apocalyptic one, he is still poking at the world as it is, and asking how people would react to being in a different situation to the one we currently find ourselves in.
      Thank you for dropping by! 🙂

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