Reflections on Philip K. Dick


Amazon have just released their adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. David Gill, at San Francisco State University, was recently interviewed by Salon about the show. He makes some interesting observations that I think bear examination:

The thing it seems to be lacking is the sense of a square peg being pounded into a round hole. In other words, there’s this subtle notion in the novel that the Nazi victory has completely paralyzed the American dream and these people are all struggling to find a new moral compass to guide their lives by. In this, the American Dream has been subverted — so what we’re gonna see in the show is like an American Revolution where they rise against their Nazi oppressors

In other words, the TV version has bottled the basic premise of the book and has instead turned it into a good guys vs. bad guys scenario. He adds:

I’d be okay with that, but it seems they’ve really shifted the focus of the project itself and are really only interested in showing us fascist imagery juxtaposed with American iconography.

This is a pity as Ridley Scott is attached to the project as an Executive Producer which doesn’t bode well for the rumored sequel to Blade Runner.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter as any tv show must be different from a book version for reasons of pacing and drama. Although I do think it’s a mistake to think tv can’t be subtle–I just watched Nicola Walker in two very good shows. River, with Stellan Skarsgård, and Unforgotten with Sanjeev Bhasker. Both were moving and fascinating shows which explored emotional depths with little or no action.

But I happened to ask my GIS class this week if they’d heard of Philip K. Dick. No one had, until I started mentioning movies, some of which they recognized. So what this means is that PKD is little read by the current generation, but more likely get their knowledge via movies and tv. When the subtleties are ironed out, this isn’t necessarily good.

Take Blade Runner itself. Again Gill makes a good observation when he says:

As far as accurately translating his ideas and dynamics onto the screen, I don’t think anyone has been successful. “Blade Runner” inverts the moral of [his novel] “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — instead of being a story about how humans can be like androids, it’s about how androids can be like humans.

In some ways this is the more devastating critique. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was not about simulation, but the potential loss of the human, and, more generally of life itself. As key aspect to the book is the loss or lack of actual biological non-human life due to climate change/war and its replacement by artificial replacements. So this was about diminishment of human life as we are no loner able to have relationships with other species (instead there are artificial turtles, spiders, owls etc). Everybody is trying to get off-world as the earth is dying.


Scene from Blade Runner


Beijing, 2013

This is why, the book’s other half of the story, which is not in the movie at all is so critical. This is the idea of salvation or at least escape offered by Mercerism; an invented “religion” based literally on empathy for others (you hold onto empathy boxes which merge your affective body with others). When you grasp the handles of the box, you join communally with Wilbur Mercer, who is on a seemingly never-ending trek up a mountain (iirc). Unfortunately, Mercer is exposed as a fraud, an actor by the name of Al Jerry (think ‘pataphysics and Al Jarry). But this doesn’t matter. It’s not whether Jerry is divine or not, but rather the affective connections he enables or guides. As an android hunter, Deckard is suffering from affective flatness, to such an extent of course that there is a famous indeterminancy about whether he himself is an android. Again, the point is not whether he is or is not. It’s about what people’s/androids/animals affective capacities are–a becoming-animal if you like. (My use of Deleuzian language here is deliberate: PKD, J.G. Ballard and especially Christopher Priest are amazing writers of affect. I’m currently re-reading Priest’s best novel, The Affirmation and suggest you start with that if you’re unfamiliar with Priest.)

I’ll watch the Amazon series when I get a chance (I saw the pilot last year and visually it’s very impressive). I’d recommend River or Unforgotten first though.


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