which means you get this spiffy slipcase

"SF is today gaining more and more respectability among serious readers and academic literary critics. Although there are a handful of stories from the pulp era of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, there were few stories that would stand up to any kind of literary analysis and virtually no novels that would. The so-called Big Three of the forties and fifties - Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke - shock serious readers today coming to them for the first time. They were not only not good writers by mainstream criteria, they were actively bad writers. This is not to say that there weren't some good ideas here and there (Asimov's Foundation series or Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END or Rama novels are often interesting), but that the prose is almost always atrocious, the characters stock and uninteresting, and the stories and novels completely lacking in literary excellence. This was intentional. Let me repeat that: the books and stories were intentionally strove to not be good literature. Why? Because many key figures in the early days of SF, like the enormously influential editor John W. Campbell Jr., explicitly stated that SF was not going to be about character and well-honed prose; it was supposed to be about "neat ideas." The goal was to explore scientific ideas through their depiction of plausible scenarios of the future. Campbell felt that good writing would actually detract from exploring these ideas. This conception of SF has not completely disappeared among fans, though the vast majority of today's writers strive to achieve a degree of excellence unheard of in the days of the pulps.

So what changed? Initially not much. But during the late fifties and then especially in the sixties and seventies, not in the least because of the ascendance of several acclaimed SF writers, many of them women, more and more people became excited about more sophisticated stories. Writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and J. G. Ballard wrote stories more brilliant than anything that those in the forties and fifties could dream of, smart and innovative stories that features richly delineated characters and marvelously complex moral situations.

But we didn't just leap from Asimov and Heinlein to LeGuin and Delaney. The crucial figure in the growth of SF into a genre that could be taken seriously by more demanding readers was without question Philip K. Dick. Although Stanislaw Lem (who was a passionate critic of Anglo-American SF but also a huge fan of Dick) was writing equally brilliant and even more finely written books and story behind the Iron Curtain), it was Dick that awoke most people to the ability of SF to be more than what had been seen in the pulps. For one thing, Dick abjured the whole "neat idea" approach to SF. He had plenty of great ideas, maybe the best ideas ever seen in SF either before or after, but his ideas were not scientific; they where, instead, metaphysical, explorations of reality and personhood. Dick moved SF from the "hard SF" and space opera that had dominated the field the previous few decades to philosophical reflection about how we create and maintain our ideas of reality.

Philip K. Dick's preeminence among SF writers has been acknowledged in many ways. He has perhaps been written about more than any other SF writer. One of SF's most prestigious awards has been given his name. Several of the most memorable SF films of recent years - BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, and MINORITY REPORT (along with some less successful efforts) were based on works. And now he has been honored by this collection of the three Library of America volumes, which jointly assemble most, though not all, of Dick's most important novels. This is not a silly gesture on the part of LOA. They have undertaken to produce quality editions of America's greatest writers and Dick certainly qualifies based on his influence and impact. The volumes are available separately, but I personally think it is worth getting them all at once, which means you get this spiffy slipcase. I should point out that it is actually cheaper buying Dick's novels in these incredibly attractive volumes than buying them in the individual Vintage paperbacks. With the additional front and back matter in each book, this really is a great way to accumulate Dick's best books.

This is, in my opinion, an outstanding selection of books. Between the three books you get:


I can't quibble with the inclusion of any of those, although a few of my favorites are missing, like WE CAN BUILD YOU, CLANS OF THE ALPHANE MOON, and TIME OUT OF JOINT. To really get a collection right, however, they really should have had a fourth volume with a selection of stories. As good as Dick was as a novelist, he was arguably even better as a short story writer, since most of his genius came with the general idea rather than the execution, which could sometimes be somewhat sloppy (due to the time constraints of meeting deadlines or sometimes just because he couldn't be bothered with rewriting, which was not his strong suit). Without a volume of stories, Library of America has not truly recognized Dick. Perhaps they will correct this at some point in the future.

Dick was a brilliant writer but not a perfect one. As you read his books, you are frequently astonished at his amazing capacities for invention. The more you read of him, the more you gain a sense of the fecundity of his imagination. He continually keeps the reader on his or her heels by continuously inverting situations, placing wheels within wheels, and shifting what appears to be reality. But the books and stories - every single one of them - are flawed in so many ways. Like Heinlein and Asimov, he was not particularly strong with character, though he was better than them. His prose is not terribly compelling, but it can be effective. But the bigger problem is that there are rough spots all over the place and there are many structural difficulties. The last third of a novel might feel like it belongs to a different one. And all of them could have used a rewrite or two. A lot of this was the result of Dick's need to meet a deadline (he was getting paid by the word, so rewriting didn't make a whole lot of sense). Some of it was his mental or physical condition - Dick engaged in massive drug use for much of his adult life, some of it for enlightenment, some of it for recreation, some of it (mainly speed) to enable him to work for days in succession without sleep (Dick was an astonishingly fast typist, able to type over 130 words a minute, but able to compose at 80 to 100 words a minute). His reputation as a drug user was so well known that Harlan Ellison requested that he write his contribution to the landmark SF anthology DANGEROUS VISIONS while high. In addition t the drug use, or perhaps as a result of it, Dick struggled with mental illnesses of one sort or another. For instance, he suffered from severe paranoia and had grand delusions about Stanislaw Lem's designs upon his life (though politically liberal, Dick was nonetheless anticommunist). Additionally, he struggled with financial and health problems. In short, he did not always have the best circumstances for writing.

It is almost impossible to overstate the influence of Philip K. Dick not only SF but on our culture at large. The kinds of stories he pioneered can be found almost everywhere. Among other achievements, he invented the alternative reality story, in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE creating an alternative history that would influence hundreds of imaginative reworkings of history (Harry Turtledove has made a career out of it). Countless stories and movies and novels and TV shows have borrowed elements or contain plots that remind one of Philip K. Dick. To cite only one possible example, in Season Six of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER there is an episode where Buffy fights a demon that causes her to hallucinate that she is actually in a mental institution, and has been for years. She learns that she is suffering from a serious mental illness in which she fantasizes that she is a vampire slayer, her generation's "Chosen One." The situation is one precisely like that in Dick, where either reality might be true. Buffy might be the Slayer or she might be a mentally ill person for whom being the Slayer is a disease. Writers from the show have acknowledged it as their "Philip K. Dick episode."

Thanks in large part to Dick, SF is today not merely the preoccupation of teens and middle-aged men who live with their mothers. People who read Thomas Mann and Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon also read Philip K. Dick. Major academicians like Fredric Jameson write extensively about Dick and his writings have become a part of the mainstream Canon. I cannot recommend these volumes strongly enough either to longtime fans or to newcomers who want to find out just who this guy is. Since his death in 1982 Philip K. Dick's critical reputation has continued to grow. Thanks in part to publications like this one, I believe it will continue to grow for some time in the future. "


should I?

Shouldn't I?

why wouldn't I?