Philip K Dick in the 50s

It’s hard to imagine modern science fiction in prose or film in the last seventy years without the impact or influence of Philip K. Dick. Films have made the author’s work a household name even if the man who wrote them is not. With close to forty novels published over four decades PKD didn’t gain respect as a serious author until after his death in 1982 at 53 years old. Despite a few genre awards, the self-deprecating author would have been shocked to learn that the Library of America re-issued nine of his masterpieces in two volumes or that his work would become a mainstay in Hollywood.

Some of these respected classics of the ‘60s Such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner), Man in the High Castle, and A Scanner Darkly from the ‘70s have been adapted, but not a single Dick novel from the ‘50s was considered a major work by Library of America nor has one ever made it through film production.

It is not to say that his ‘50s output isn’t represented. “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “Imposter,” “Adjustment Bureau,” and “Paycheck” are all based on short stories written in the early ‘50s. Some of those stories are brilliant, but filmmakers expanded on concepts that were little more than set-up and punch line. The underrated low-budget movie Screamers was developed and co-written by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon and is based on “Second Variety,” one of Dick’s most powerful novelettes.

Despite this track record the groundbreaking and totally weird novels PKD released during the ‘50s remain underrated and untouched by production companies, studios, scholars and pretty much everyone but the most serious of Dickheads.

Three years ago, I considered myself a Dickhead but like many Dick fans I had only read the classics from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Like many, I started with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and read the classics that were chosen by the editors of the Library of America as “major works.”

Three years ago, I started a journey with two of my friends when fellow writer, Anthony Trevino, asked the question “Why is there no podcast devoted to the work of PKD called Dickheads?” The idea was simple. Every month we would read each of Philip K Dick’s novels in the order they were published and break them down for the listeners. Along the way we would unintentionally become Dick experts having now covered 30 novels. When we started The Dickheads Podcast we expected to have a dozen listeners at most; now it has hundreds each episode and a loyal, active listenership.

Most Philip K. Dick fans do not read in this order, they start with the classics and mostly ignore what are unfairly dismissed as lesser works. One of the consequences of doing the show for me was a feeling that the novels of this period were underrated and need fresh attention.

You Need to Be Writing Novels, Kid!

Anthony Boucher

You would not be reading this article if William Anthony Parker did not walk into Art Music in Berkley in 1950 to find Opera records for his radio show, Golden Voices of the Opera on KPFA. Having returned to the Bay Area after being part of an infamous crew of science fiction writers in Los Angeles that included C.L. Moore, Henry Kutner, L.Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein. Parker was widely published in both the mystery and sci-fi pulps. He was known to those worlds by one of his many pen names, Anthony Boucher.

The name was recognizable to one of the clerks at the record store, a young and shy man by the name of Philip K. Dick. He had grown up reading the pulp sci-fi magazines so he was familiar with his work even if he was a bigger fan of Canadian author A.E. Van Vogt. The young PKD, already on his second marriage at twenty-one years old, had considered writing but had written off science fiction as kids’ stuff.

It was meeting Boucher whom he considered intelligent and respectable that changed everything for Phil. Without that meeting there may never have been a Blade Runner. That is when Boucher invited Phil to his weekly Thursday night workshops. For a one-dollar fee Bay Area genre writers gathered at Boucher’s home on Dana Street in Berkley to share and critique stories. Phil was so shy that he often would send his wife Kelo or his mother Dorothy (who started to attend on her own) with his stories and they would return with Boucher’s notes.

In 1951 Boucher bought Phil’s first story for his newly formed Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which is still publishing today. “Roog” was Phil’s first professional sale but the writer was inspired. From 1951-58 Dick wrote eighty short stories, thirteen novels; of those novels seven were attempts at mainstream fiction and six were sci-fi. After selling four stories on his own he signed with the Scott Meredith Literary Agency who never had trouble placing his genre work, but struggled to publish a single one of his mainstream novels until the ‘70s and the rest were not published until after his death. He had to be prolific since he quit his job at the record store. He focused on short stories and in 1953 produced the bulk of the classics that became movies and episodes of Amazon’s TV anthology Electric Dreams.

Phil avoided science fiction conventions that he considered to be populated with “trolls and wackos,” but when the 1954 Worldcon came to the Bay Area he attended anyway. There he made life-long friends including Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad. Most importantly, he met one of his heroes, the author of the 40s classic novel The World of Null A* – A.E. Van Vogt.

A E Van Vogt

It was his hero who told him that he needed to start writing novels. If the mainstream novels were not working, sci-fi was the ticket. His first attempt to write a science fiction novel was Vulcan’s Hammer. Unfairly maligned as one of his worst novels by many of his critics, Vulcan’s Hammer ended up published in 1960. However, it was 1955 when Phil became a novelist and his debut remains underrated.

Ace Books and the New Voice

The man who first published a Philip K. Dick novel is as important to the genre as a whole as he was to the career of Phil. Donald A. Wollheim was a member of the Futurians, a New York City based sci-fi club with famous members like Judith Merril, Fredrick Pohl and Isaac Asimov. It was Wollheim who first printed the words science fiction on a book cover with the 1943 Pocket Book of Science Fiction. According to his daughter, Betsy Wollheim, who we interviewed on Dickheads just before she oversaw the 50th year of publishing at DAW books “He [Don Wollheim] said he was brilliant but the least commercial writer he had ever encountered.”

Donald Wollheim

The first novel Phil sold to Wollheim was a novel originally called Quizmaster Takes All. This began a tradition of Wollheim changing Phil’s titles to the ones we remember. During the ‘50s Ace were known for publishing two short novels together and many of Phil’s early work was published this way. The novel shared the binding with The Big Jump by Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Leigh Brackett.

Solar Lottery is an intensely political novel that is very similar to his hero Van Vogt’s classic Null-A novels. It is amazingly forward thinking; I can't imagine that many of the readers in 1955 who bought the Ace Double for the latest Leigh Brackett space opera were prepared for the message that PKD was laying down.

The novel takes place in the year 2233, and human society has slowly started to spread to the stars. To avoid the chaos that can come by letting voters decide who becomes president, the ruler of humanity is chosen by a computer overseen by someone called the quizmaster. The idea is everyone submits a profile and the computer chooses the person most likely to do a good job. After the last couple elections and the lack of good choices it is hard to imagine that there might not be a better way.

This is where the Dick streak for paranoia shows up. Part of the job as the new president elect is to star in a reality show style game where an assassin is sent to kill the President-Elect. This is all a setup to make the new leader look like a hero. He has a force of psychic police that protect him. That would work except a new assassin in a robot shell is an avatar for a team of twenty-four rotating minds that control it remotely. You may be thinking, “Shit, that sounds like a great movie.” You would be correct. However, Solar Lottery remains unproduced.

His second novel, The World Jones Made is a wild one and it is easy for readers to miss the depth hidden under what Phil himself called a mess with various story threads that fail to come together. Each of the storylines would be strong on their own and thus it leaves the novel a failed but interesting experiment. Released the same year that Elvis had his first hit single The World Jones Made is a story about eugenics and the breeding of Venus test-tube babies, a society based on relativism, and a circus with sex-changing performers. Jones was a stand-in for Hitler and the single-celled drifter aliens in the novel were a clumsy analogy for Jews in Germany. It was done in an awkward way but the novel was making a point about Nazis and racial politics. Keep in mind the Nazis were only a decade from defeat and this country was still more than a decade from the first serious civil rights laws.

While Dick is remembered for telling paranoid and weird stories his humor is greatly underrated. PKD’s third novel, The Man Who Japed, is one of his most hilarious books. It is the story of Allen Purcell, who discovers the head of his nation’s glorious leader’s statue in his closet. It appears he pulled a prank but he doesn’t remember doing it. This dystopian tale takes place after a nuclear war and the museums that document the pre-war era by referring to our time as the Age of Waste. Some of these passages are laugh-out loud funny. It is never spelled out directly but PKD is clearly savagely satirizing the relatively new (at the time) Communist party in China and its attempts to build a morally controlled society. This means your apartments are owned by the state and people can lose their lease if they are deemed morally unacceptable to the block community. In weekly meetings, reports on the morally-suspicious behavior of building residents are investigated in public inquisitions.

These early novels show growing pains. Vulcan’s Hammer is pure pulp about a power-crazed super computer; as simple as it is, I think there are worse novels in this era. Dr. Futurity is a time travel story that had grand ideas he had explored in a 1953 novella called Time Pawn. The expansion was bold in ideas and convoluted in execution. Interesting for completionists but ultimately a failed experiment. The novel that the three of us at Dickheads most disliked was PKD’s fourth novel The Cosmic Puppets. The novel has its fans and might be the closest Dick has gotten to the small town feel of Bradbury when the small California town of Milgate becomes the battle ground for duel of ancient Zoroastrian gods.

In the ‘50s however Philip K. Dick wrote two bonafide classics that broke new ground and still to this day are recycled in modern work.

The First Master Works

While he would later perfect the idea of novels set in a private cosmos with classics like Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, that revolution began in 1957 with PKD’s first masterwork, Eye in the Sky.

The science is outdated and the novel suffered from editorial overreach but the twist in the second act was absolutely mind-bending. Both these novels depend on the twists, so I would not be offended if you stopped reading here and got the book. It is the story of a group of people visiting a Bevatron, and when there is an accident with the particle accelerator the people are sent to an alternate universe.

They journey to a universe where America is ruled by a super extreme religiously fundamental state. Think of something like The Handmaid’s Tale. Through the progression of radical changes they go from one universe to another that is radically different from each other. It is not too different from the levels of dreams in Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception. The twist is that the characters are moving into each other’s minds and perceptions. They are in another dimension, just one entirely of one person’s perception.

This might not be considered a mind-blowing twist now but for 1957 it was quite revolutionary. In my opinion it is PKD’s first true classic despite suffering from egregious yet understandable changes from the early drafts. It is clear that PKD had meant to be critical of far-right Christians in America, but Don Wollheim didn’t think that American readers or his parent company could handle that at the time. As such the novel was re-written to focus on an extreme form of The Bab and the Bahai faith. This took some of the sting out of the novel, and to me is the greatest argument for adapting it in film where Phil’s intentions could be restored.

To an audience today the private cosmos story may seem to be an old twist. Films as classic as The Matrix to ones as recent as Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen were inspired by the theme. It was all a dream is a twist done many times with literary origins as far back as 17th Century Korean novelist Kim Manjung’s The Nine Cloud Dream. Eye in the Sky is more than just a story about a dream or someone already dead. While those stories in a sense are private cosmos tales, this novel is the first of the many times PKD expressed the idea that everyone’s mind is a universe itself. Eye in the Sky presents a twist and weaves multiple storylines together. It certainly shows signs of its age but that is a reason to update the story in other media.

PKD’s other undeniable classic of the era is his first novel rejected by Ace and Wollheim and published elsewhere. Things worked out for the better when Lippincott published the first PKD hardcover, Time Out of Joint. Strangely not marketed as science fiction but simply as “A novel of Menace” whatever that means, it was indeed science fiction. The confusion may have been a result of the structure that doesn’t reveal its fantastical elements until the final act of the story.

To modern readers you may feel this novel has a similar plot to The Truman Show, however it was written decades earlier and has a nastier edge. Ragle Gumm, the main character, is living in a fake town filled with actors all there to convince him they are real and that it is 1959. The purpose is to trick him into planning their war in the far-off future of 1998 with a colony on the moon. The first act is slow and pastoral for a reason. It plays with idea of nostalgia and mixes it perfectly with hints of paranoia. Gumm knows something is just slightly off, but has no idea what that could be. The descent into reality beginning with a journey from a mundane pastoral facade to the reality of a brutal global war, is one that could have great potential on the big screen.

While not as solidly written as later classics like Man in The High Castle or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, these two novels are excellent examples of the storyteller coming into his own.

Time to Celebrate PKD in the 50s!

How do we as critics, fans or as a multi-media industry celebrate this era of the author’s work?

The first step is simple, critics and fans alike need to stop judging this era as lesser or under developed compared to his later work. There is more to a novel than flawless execution. Like the raw energy of a polished rock band’s early, passionate work these novels have a hunger and edge to them. PKD was struggling till his death. He was never rich or famous; the accolades came after he was gone, outside of a rabid fan base in Europe. His hunger in those early days was to publish and express new concepts, to push the envelope with ideas.

We know Philip K. Dick comics, movies and TV can find an audience. Solar Lottery, Eye in the Sky and Time Out of Joint are just begging to be adapted. With pitches like The American President meets Running Man, and Truman Show meets Edge of Tomorrow, it seems like the movies are almost there. The fact that the novels of this era remain untouched is too bad. The concepts are so strong, a modern adaptation with an eye towards modernization could produce some of the best most faithful adaptations yet.

I may be biased but after taking this journey with Philip K. Dick from the beginning of the podcast, I think there is a value in reading his work in order. Certainly there is no value in writing off this early period of his work.

David Agranoff is a novelist, screenwriter and a Horror and Science Fiction critic. He is the Splatterpunk and Wonderland book award nominated author of 8 books including the novels Punk Rock Ghost Story and Goddamn Killing Machines. As a critic he has written more than 1,100 book reviews on his blog Postcards from a Dying World which has recently become a podcast, featuring interviews with award-winning and bestselling authors such Stephen Graham Jones, Paul Trembly, Alma Katsu and Josh Malerman. For the last three years David has co-hosted the Dickheads podcast, a deep-dive into the work of Philip K. Dick reviewing his novels in publication order as well as the history of Science Fiction. His novels are available on Amazon or