Philip K. Dick
by Bobby Mitchell
I finally got around to finishing Time Out of Joint – a book Philip K. Dick
wrote primarily as a means of eking out his meagre existence as a writer. And
like all of Dick's books, it reads more like a philosophical treatise on the
parametres of reality than it does a work of standard-issue sci fi. But then,
nothing about Philip Dick was standard-issue. His view of reality – that it was
essentially subjective – was weirdly existential and schizoid.
Dick was more content to explore the convolutions of his own inner mind
than he was any fictive extraterra firma. Spaceships and aliens were often just
literary props he used to construct his crackpot universe. His depictions of life in
3-D were often something of an admixture of The Truman Show and The Matrix
– the stranger it was, the better it got. And things could get pretty damn strange in PK Dick's
world of make-unbelieve: Eye in the Sky, A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth ...
and so on.
The psychic landscape in Philip Dick's novels was delusionally paranoid.
He asked you to consider the possibilities of alternate or altering subjective
realities twirling around a maypole of a more generalised or objective reality. He
challenged our basic assumptions about reality and about what we knew or
thought we knew about our relation to it. His idea was that you could never be
too sure about anything, because even the normative or general view of reality
changed from time to time: the earth is flat, no – it's round; but it's still the centre
of the universe. No, wait – uh – sorry about that one, Jack, it appears that the
earth is actually just a speck of dust floating around a tiny star on the
edge of a great big universe. It doesn't make you feel so important now, does
it ... ? In fact, it kinda makes you wonder what the hell you're doing
here ... Right? There would've never been an existential movement had not
Galileo first invented the telescope.
There is no sane/insane dichotomy in Philip Dick's world – madness is not
a dialectical concept. There are merely different layers or degrees of reality.
Reality is modular.
The plot to Time Out of Joint is only incidental to the real story. And the
real story is not exactly what you find on the printed page. You are what you
think, reality is never what you think and there is no spoon.
Ask me if I think Philip Dick was a great writer. And I'd hafta tell ya's that it
depends on your definition of what made for a great writer. If it's about
storytelling, I'd hafta say, for the most part, ol PKD laid a big fat goose egg on
that one. I've read and reread some 30 books from Dick's oeuvre, and I'd be
hard-pressed to give you a plot summary or story outline from any single one of
em. Ask me to name some of the characters in his books, and I could tell ya
Ragle Gumm from Time Out of Joint, but I couldn't name even one of the other
characters in that book. And I won't remember Ragle Gumm in another 2, 3
weeks. But the reason you read any one of his books is not necessarily for the
story, anyway. It is, as I already pointed out, only incidental to something else,
something far greater in scope – the story is only a hook. Nothing more, nothing
And Philip Dick doesn't ask you to "explore the possibilities" of this or that
in the way of conventional sci fi. Nah. He asks you to take a trip thru his mind:
a cerebral landscape chock full of hidden mines and treasures. His story is
himself. And I don't mean that he's narcissistically hiccuping
this or that data
from his mind. But he's letting you view things thru his belly button window – he's
grokking with you, mind melding ...
allowing you to take a walk across that bridge of sighs: sirat.
And even tho you may not remember any of his stories too well, you'll
remember what happened to you as you read em! Philip Dick doesn't merely
open the doors of perception, he knocks em off their hinges!
The first PKD book I ever read was Eye in the Sky nearly 30 years ago.
And it altered forevermore how I looked at reality. It gave me a sense that there
were several worlds hidden in this world. Or that heaven, earth and hell were all
one. His was an incredibly mystical vision – as mystic as it was crackpot ...
it allowed me to see the mystical properties latent in the day-to-day, humdrum
world of gotta pay the bills and meet the landlord stuff of the right here n now.
I learned more about the mysteries of Buddhism from PKD than any other
You don't "read" Philip Dick's books, you experience em. And as far as
I'm concerned, that's what great writing is all about: when the word takes on its
own size and shape, and develops a life of its own beyond what you see on the
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.
"All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made
that was made.
"In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in
darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
"There was a man sent from God ... The same came for a witness, to bear
witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that
Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which
lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
"He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew
him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as
received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them
that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the
flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us ... full of grace and
truth." (John 1:1-14)
That's not by Philip Dick, but it gives a rough estimation of the effect his
books have on you. The point is, the Word is an organic reality, and it lives
according to its constituency with the other words around it. That's why context
is so important. A word like "a" is essentially meaningless by itself. But a whole
religious movement sprung up around that single word in the 19th Century. Just
take the first sentence from the above-quoted Biblical passage: "In the beginning
was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
God. ... " It sounds about right ... Right? I mean, it's how almost all Christian
kids grew up hearing it read to em ...
but if you go down to the Kingdom Hall, you'll hear it read a slightly different
way: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word
was a God. ... "
That one little "a" changes the entire theology of a particular Christian
sect. That's how important "a" is in a given context. No word is without its own
place and power. A single word can change the essence of reality as we know it.
And since reality is defined by words, you can change it depending on the
language you use to describe it. Words are a powerful medium. That's why the
pen is mightier than the sword.
'Cos look at it this way: all Jesus had were His words. But they have
survived for two millennia. I mean, think about it. It doesn't matter whether or not
you actually believe em ...
but an entire civilisation was built up around those words! And that's pretty
hardcore ... !
Philip Dick's books are not mere escapist entertainments. They are a
journey thru madness, a journey that teaches you to pay attention to the world in
which you live, a journey towards sanity. Take the trip. It'll be better than a
European vacation and won't cost nearly as much.
Copyright © 2001 by Bobby Mitchell.
Bobby Mitchell, American poet, is the founder of the NoneList internet mailing list for poets, writers and other creative artists. Born in 1950 in Los Angeles he grew up in Alaska and eventually found his way to the great southwestern section of the United States. He lives in New Mexico with his wife and they have six children. He writes, "My biggest poetic influences have probably been e.e. cummings, Charles Bukowski and Jaláli'd-Dín-i-Rúmí." Bobby has also written an interesting article on the Internet for the CBA: checkout Beat the Monkey: Swingin' on the Internet.