Two young women on the street were discussing this summer's Spielberg/Cruise SF blockbuster based on Philip K. Dick's 1956 short story of the same title.
"Minority Report was good until the last five minutes¨it looked like they could have ended it three times, but they didn't know which ending to choose."
"I hate it when they do that."
This scrap of cultural debris, of kipple, is more significant than it first appears, a happenstance reminiscent of Dick's stories. In its own way it sketches out the dichotomy of a mainstream popular culture (orbiting around the immense gravitational pull of Hollywood movies) fascinated with Dick's visionary work, yet unable to present Dick in a way that is both true to him and thoroughly satisfying as a film.
Dick began writing in the 1950s, a decade haunted by the Cold War and a decade which witnessed the blossoming of science fiction. While this form of literature was already haunting the margins of culture as early as 1926, when Hugo Gernsback identified it as "scientifiction", it was the terror of science gone mad¨the atomic bomb¨that gave science fiction its first, heroin-like shot in the arm.
Fear of the bomb is omnipresent in Dick's work, but perhaps his strongest expression of this Cold War terror comes in 1965's Dr. Bloodmoney. Written in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. Bloodmoney is an attempt to somehow control the fear of a world teetering on the brink of nuclear war. In a fittingly Nietzschean gesture, Dick decides to drop the dreaded bomb. His evocation of the H-bomb's explosion over San Francisco in the opening pages of the novel is shattering, and we follow the shaken cast of survivors in their slow struggle to recover and rebuild.
These survivors include the eponymous and unbalanced Dr. Bluthgeld whose earlier atomic test for the U.S. government had unforeseen lethal consequences. He believes that he has triggered the atomic holocaust with the power of his mind, and the weight of this responsibility crushes him. But he also perceives himself as the reluctant executor of a terrible judgement against humanity. Thus, in this one character, Dick precariously balances the forces at play in the Cold War: the insupportable burden of possessing nuclear weapons, the existence of "lofty reasons" for the potential use of them, and the fear that decision-making power is exercised by mentally-ill individuals. Dick further heightens the reader's sense of the fragility of the nuclear situation by having Dr. Stockstill¨unsubtly portrayed and named to form the solid centre around which the survivors gather¨muse that the inevitability of nuclear war is a natural phenomenon, and that the very existence and proliferation of these weapons necessarily reaches a critical mass after which they irreversibly come into use. Against such an inexorable natural process, Dick holds up another: the sense of strength and healing that comes from community. Dick hopes for nothing more than a balancing of forces, which is hinted at by one of his favourite words¨homeostatic. This word is highlighted during the tableau that concludes the novel: one of the survivors watches a homeostatic trap chase a pair of mutated bulldogs, but the trap is too slow to catch them. Yet the survivor knows that the trap will never abandon the chase. The tableau presents a balance emblematic of the stability that the characters in the novel strive for, and that the Cold War world sought as well.
In some ways the fear of nuclear war is just another expression of a theme that has seized the attention of literary theorists, philosophers and social scientists alike: how stable is "reality"? This is the great postmodern question, which has led theorists like Jean Baudrillard to conclude that even protests against the current multinational consumer system are programmed by the system, Michel Foucault to argue that the totalitarian momentum of this system seeks to colonize that last refuges of human freedom, one of these being our unconscious minds, and Daniel Bell to open up the possibility that the consumption of images and simulacra will continue to the point where "reality" may be nothing more than a series of products that one can purchase.
In Time out of Joint (1959) Dick presents the idea that the reality one lives is engineered for an ulterior purpose. The reader comes to suspect, along with main character Ragle Gumm, that the sham reality of 1950s Old Town hides some terrible disaster. Not only do the people outside of Gumm's "family" fail to notice anomalies, but Gumm guesses that there is actually a conspiracy to maintain the hoax. He wonders why he is being kept in this small town and encouraged by everyone to continue solving a daily puzzle in the newspaper: "Where Will the Little Green Man be Next?"
The central role that a photo of Marilyn Monroe plays in helping Gumm and his "family" to solve the mystery of their existences shows Dick with his finger on the pulse of time, identifying enduring cultural landmarks and fascinations, something that no doubt led him, in 1962, to the premise of his only novel to win the coveted Hugo Award, The Man in the High Castle.
This novel presented the ultimate hallucinatory reality for the 20th century¨a reality in which the Axis powers won World War II. Into this world, which Dick peoples with memorable characters, comes a novel written by a man who supposedly lives in a defended compound¨the High Castle¨in the nominally independent Rocky Mountain States. This novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, portrays a reality which powerfully affects everyone who reads it: a reality in which the Axis lost the war. Dick deepens the sense of dislocation for his characters and for the readers when the death of Reichschancellor Martin Bormann unleashes a power struggle in the Reich that will affect top secret Operation Dandelion¨the planned nuclear attack on the Japanese Home Islands. To his horror, the Japanese Consul in San Francisco, Tagomi, discovers that the only leadership candidate opposed to Dandelion is Reinhard Heydrich, head of the dreaded S.D., and to save itself Japan must support the evil of the black uniform¨an evil which has completed the holocaust in Europe and demands the surrender of Jews even in the Japanese-occupied Pacific States of America; an evil which has exterminated the black population of Africa in fifteen years. Tagomi literally becomes ill at discovering the reality of evil and concludes that humans are insects "Ógroping toward something terrible or divine." Tagomi manages to perform one small moral action¨refusing to accede to a German request to extradite Jew Frank Frink from the P.S.A. to the Reich, and this action is echoed by Wegener, a representative of a German faction trying to thwart Dandelion: "We can only control the end by making a choice at each step."
The novel ends with Frink's wife Juliana discovering that the real "author" of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the I-Ching and that the novel is actually the "truth"¨Germany and Japan lost the war. While this realization does not heal her reality¨save for the fact that her journey has prompted her to want to rejoin her husband¨it stands as a symbol that transcends the book and speaks directly to the reader. The Man in the High Castle is thus, itself, an assault on reality¨a work of fiction's internal reality. The reader of 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, cannot help but feel that, despite its terrors, the Cold War is inevitable and preferable to the only historical alternative that could have prevented it.
Such messages of acceptance, of balance, may surprise those who do not see Dick in the context of the Discordian movement. Promoted by such writers as Robert Anton Wilson and William Burroughs, this movement oscillating between a tongue-in-cheek hoax and a profound spirituality sees Dick as something of a messianic figure, something the unabashedly mythologizing 2001 documentary, The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick, promotes. Even critics with no idea of this dimension to Dick instinctively refer to him as an ŠSF guru', which is an unconscious recognition of Dick's fascination with the spiritual, a theme that he weaves into all his major works.
The decision by Ridley Scott and the screenwriters of 1982's Blade Runner to cut out the spiritual dimension of Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is probably the film's greatest flaw. In the novel, troubled bounty hunter Rick Deckard confronts old man Mercer¨whose painful ascent of a hill worshippers can reexperience through the agency of the empathy box. The confrontation parallels Krishna's conversation with Arjuna, but instead of Krishna justifying Arjuna's choice in warring on his kin, Mercer bluntly tells a Deckard who is questioning his job of killing human-seeming androids: "You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."
During the book's finale Deckard experiences an apotheosis¨he becomes Mercer by imitating Mercer's excruciating climb up a barren hill in the irradiated wastes north of San Francisco. And Mercer, the humble saviour, encourages worshippers in crisis, like Deckard, by mysteriously manifesting and presenting them with electric animals. The interesting logical doubletake involved here (i.e. if Mercer can magically appear and bestow electric animals, why not real ones?) is quintessentially Dick and demands¨in a way that again shatters the "reality" of the text¨that the reader simply accept.
Despite what might seem like a nihilistic fatalism, Dick has a great respect for life. Animals are treasured in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to such an extent that people who cannot afford a real animal, like Deckard, buy electric ones. When Deckard makes enough money "retiring" androids, he finally buys a real goat. But the android Rachael kills it, and Deckard takes the shocking and horrible act as the presentiment of his own death. In both this novel and Dr. Bloodmoney, where the horse Edward Prince of Wales is killed, the brutal killing of a helpless and innocent animal is a symbol of all that is wrong in the world.
Such meditations about life, specifically life on Earth, affect Dick's use of the theme of the human colonization of space, the early science fiction dream that was borne aloft on the shoulders of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. But the dream began to be questioned by writers like Dick: was the desire to leave the Earth not an abrogation of our responsibility to take care of the planet? Thus, the space colonies in Dick's work are often signifiers without the signified¨the stories do not occur there. The off-world is a dream, a potentiality that threatens to become a nightmare. Dousing John F. Kennedy's rousing endorsement of space exploration, The Man in the High Castle dismisses off-world colonies that are flashy showpieces for a morally and financially bankrupt Nazi regime. 1969's Ubik is a rare Dick story that actually has a scene set in space. But the scene on Luna is brief¨only long enough for an explosion which kills the main characters.
The first of the Hollywood Dick films, Blade Runner, is true to Dick's skepticism about space¨San Francisco is awash in advertisements for settlers to come to the colonies, but these garish signs and droning announcements are ignored by the characters. The only reality associated with the off-world colonies that we see are the Replicants, the deadly androids. 1990's Total Recall gains the bulk of its screentime by basing action on Mars that is only implied (and may be a delusion) in Dick's 1966 short story "We'll Remember it for you Wholesale". Director Verhoeven loses the very Dick-like paranoid power of the first part of his film in the process and the resulting Mars scenes are only remotely reminiscent of Dick. Seemingly following Verhoeven's questionable lead, 1995's Canadian co-production, Screamers, based on Dick's 1953 short story "Second Variety", transports the viewer to Sirius 6B, a mining colony world in the last throes of a civil war. Yet the byzantine nature of the conflict between the New Economic Bloc and the Miners' Alliance, and the grim barrenness of the planet and its bunkers do have a certain undeniable Dick-textured ambivalence to space exploration. The 2002 film, Impostor, based on Dick's 1953 short story of the same title, captures the essence of both Dick's sense of reality gone askew and his characteristic presentation of the threat of space. Gary Sinise's model citizen Spencer Olham is suddenly suspected of being an organic robot-bomb sent by the Centaurans to Earth, but we never see the Centaurans themselves or their planet.
Minority Report, the latest Dick-based film, not only erases the short story's space travel reference but makes other alterations as well. Specifically, the decision to focus the unstable reality that invades John (Tom Cruise) Anderton's life on one individual¨Anderton's boss in Pre-Crime who unconvincingly exploits the Pre-Crime system to get away with murder¨goes against the spirit of Dick's work. In the film the telepathic pre-cogs deliver no minority report, and so Cruise's character is forced to violate the whole premise of the story (i.e. that the pre-cogs actually foresee the future) by choosing not to kill the ostensible murderer of his son. In the short story, it is the system itself which is shown to be flawed when it is revealed that all three pre-cogs have disagreed with each other, i.e. there are three minority reports. What is perhaps most amazing is that a film that makes such sparing use of Dick's themes, and misuses a major one, works as well as it does for as long as it does.
Since Hollywood is unwilling, or unable, to properly translate Dick to the screen, the experience of reading Dick's stories will necessarily eclipse any film adaptation. Nevertheless, the fact that Hollywood has returned to the work of Philip K. Dick as often as it has testifies to the importance of Dick's ideas for contemporary society. If nothing else, as the schizophrenic irreality of our lives deepens, and thus Dick's relevance, the increasing number of films based on his work will guide a steady stream of people back to his booksÓwhere the real stuff is. ˛