The great Philip K. Dick authored forty-four novels and numerous short stories over a writing career that spanned about thirty years. Many of his works are outright science fiction classics and he won several major sci-fi awards, including the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, but he wasn’t overly concerned with fame or financial success. As he wrote to his writer friend James McKimmey early on his career in letters I oddly wound up with, “My main reason for writing is basically simple. I want to react against society; I’m after impact, not money.” Ironically, Dick achieved most of his commercial and literary success after his death in 1982. All of his novels are currently in print and his work has remained a hot commodity in Hollywood for decades.
While lists of “best novels” are always highly subjective, and even lists of “favorite novels” often seem vague and arbitrary, these are my top five Dick novels, the ones l that have stuck with me the longest and that I’ve revisited most frequently.
# 5 — DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SLEEP?
The basis for Ridley Scott’s 1990 classic neo-noir masterpiece, Blade Runner, this 1982 novel is a classic in its own right. While the film is more focused on the sci-fi elements of the story, the book gets much deeper into the morality issues in retiring “Replicants” who have gone rogue. Set in a bleak post-apocalyptic 2019—how was Dick so prescient?—the book is undoubtedly a science fiction classic, but with its femme fatales, relentlessly bleak vision, and searing paranoia it’s also a noir masterpiece, right up there with the best of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith. Any conversation of twentieth century noir masters should include Dick.
# 4 — THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
What sets Philip K. Dick apart from other great twentieth century science fiction writers is his sheer range. While he one wrote many “hard sci-fi” novels set in futuristic high-tech worlds, he also wrote some of best high concept, idea driven science fiction, such as this brilliant 1962 novel. Set in an alternate history/universe where the allies lost the Second Word War, the United States has been divided by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan who are in the midst of a Cold War. The novel isn’t just about alternate realities, it’s about competing realities, as it suggests that the idea that the allies won the war is the true “inner truth.” Many subsequent alternate history sci-fi novels were influence by this novel, and it was adapted into an acclaimed Amazon Prime series that ran for four seasons.
# 3 — A SCANNER DARKLY
Like many great auteurs, obsessive themes appear in Dick’s novels over and over again, such as paranoia, altered states of consciousness, government invasion into privacy, and drug addiction. Many of these themes mirrored events in Dick’s life and, in this sense, this is probably Dick’s most autobiographical novel. Set in his native California, the book is about an undercover police agent who had infiltrated a houseful of drug addicts, and he himself becomes addicted to a powerful psychoactive drug called “Substance D.” About a man who totally loses touch with reality, the is possibly Dick’s most paranoid novel, which is saying a lot. The 1977 novel was adapted by Richard Linklater in 2006.
# 2 — MARTIAN TIME-SLIP
While in 1966 writing a novel set on mars was hardly a unique concept, this exceptionally well-written book is infused with originality. The protagonist flees to mars as a way to escape from his schizophrenia and discovers that his mental illness might actually be an altered state of time perception that is actually normal. This is Dick at his best, writing about themes that no contemporaries would dare to explore, using science fiction tropes to explore a variety or big issues including colonization, mental illness and autism.
# 1 — TIME OUT OF JOINT
No matter how wild an occasionally convoluted Dick’s plots get, there are always real, identifiable characters at their core, and there is no better example of this than this 1959 novel. One of Dick’s earliest novels, and certainly not his most known, the book is set in alternate reality 1959 where, for example, Marilyn Monroe doesn’t exist. Gradually clues about actual 1959 emerge, although this 1959 isn’t exactly “reality” either, it’s a Truman Show-esque constructed reality from the future, specifically 1998. Like many of Dick’s novels, some themes may seem familiar only because they influenced so many future books, TV shows and movies. If you’ve never read Dick before and want to dive in, this is the one to start with.
Jason Starr’s alternate reality thriller The Next Time I Die, published by Hard Case Crime, is on-sale June 28, 2022 wherever books are sold.
Photo: Before My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
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