Had he lived an easier life, Philip K. Dick might have lived to see today—what would’ve been his 91st birthday. But a different life might’ve meant an entirely different legacy, and certainly he’s achieved a kind of immortality as one of the gods of the science fiction pantheon. For evidence, look no further than the persistent availability of his backlist: nearly everything he ever published—44 novels and more than 120 short stories—remains in print in multiple formats. Add to that the fact that more than a dozen films have been adapted from his work, not to mention a trio of TV series, and his influence on the genre—and generations of writers who followed in his wake—in undeniable.
Dick wrote ceaselessly—perhaps obsessively—producing a whole shelf of novels that are frequently confounding. We’ve already suggested a few different entry points, but if you truly want to know Dick, these are the six books you positively need to read.
The Man in the High Castle
Widely regarded as the first turning point in Dick’s writing, this, his 21st completed novel, won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel and has since gone on to be one of his defining works. Set in an alternate universe wherein the Nazis and Imperial Japan won World War II and the United States is split into two puppet states between the two, the novel features a fictional novel describing an alternate-alternative universe where the Germans and Japanese lost Word War II, and concerns a flood of counterfeit antiques and resolves to the question of whether the reality perceived by the characters is the truth or not. It’s a near-perfect combination of Dick’s obsessions and taut, exciting sci-fi storytelling.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The classic that inspired Blade Runner is a masterful commentary on what it means to be human, what it means to have sentience, and where the modern-day lifestyle and approach might lead us. If all you know about this book is the film adaptations, strap in; while the basic frame of the plot—futuristic bounty hunter chases down a group of androids who have escaped to a nuclear war-ravaged Earth illegally—there’s a lot more world-building in the book than in the movie, and a mid-story twist with a perfect PKD introduction of a possible mirror reality that forces both the character and the reader to reassess everything they’ve read to that point. In a word, brilliant.
A Scanner Darkly
Multiple identities, questionable reality, police—yep, this is a PKD novel. It’s also somewhat autobiographical, drawing on Dick’s experiences in the drug culture after his divorce in 1970. In the complex story, an undercover policeman named Fred poses as Bob Arctor, who is addicted to Substance D. Arctor’s addiction is so powerful his double life has become literal, with policeman Fred unaware that Bob is actually himself. As Bob/Fred’s life unravels, he discovers that at every turn there are undercover agents pretending to be people they both are and are not, a sort of turtles-all-the-way-down concept of drug and law enforcement culture that feels just as relevant today as it did in the early 1970s. (See also: the quite brilliant film adaptation.)
You can divide Dick’s writing into three rough periods—his early sci-fi and attempts at mainstream literary writing; his breakthrough sci-fi period in the 1960s and 1970s; and everything that came after a “vision” he experience in 1974, during which he thought an alien intelligence was communicating with him and granting him powers. VALIS began as a different novel shortly after that event (later published as Radio Free Albemuth), later reworked into the first book of a planned, sadly unfinished trilogy that was truncated by his death at 53. The story of a man who believes his hallucinations reveal hidden facts about the world, and that he’s being directed by an alien satellite in orbit around the Earth, this dense novel mixes what Dick saw as reality with fiction, making it a dive directly into his mind.
The novels on this list are more or less interchangeable in terms of brilliance, but Ubik might present Dick at his utmost. Certainly it’s the novel which fully encompasses his complex swirl of signature ideas. It’s the story of a future where psychic powers are common and corporations employ anti-psychic “inertials” to protect secrets from telepathic snooping, and where the dead are kept in “half life,” a semi-conscious state allowing limited communication. A group of these inertials travel to the moon on a contract, but a bomb goes off, killing the president of their company—except that afterward, their reality begins to behave oddly, leading them to eventually realize they died in the blast and are all living in half-life/afterlife, linked to each other. Their leader, Chip, seeks out a product called Ubik which can reverse deterioration. With an ending that implies a multitude of possibilities, Ubik is a novel that ultimately asks you to question your own reality, making for a powerfully disturbing and upsetting reading experience.
The Philip K. Dick Reader
Though his novels are jagged and intermittently brilliant, it could be argued that Dick’s true skill with a narrative is best exemplified in his short stories—which is perhaps why so many of them have served as the basis for film and television adaptations. This collection, drawn from the early and most prolific part of his long career, includes the stories that inspired the films Total Recall (more poetically entitled “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”), Screamers (“Second Variety”), “Paycheck” (whose abysmal film adaptation shouldn’t be held against it), “The Minority Report,” plus 20 more.
What’s your must-read Dick list?