A Philip K. Dick Primer, Ranked in Order of Difficulty

In 1982, Ridley Scott loosely adapted Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into the classic science fiction film Blade Runner, a detective story that kept the novel’s dark aesthetic, odd symbolism, and meditations on empathy. With sequel, Blade Runner 2049 on the horizon, there’s no better time to get acquainted with the author of the original. But where to start?

Over the course of a prolific career, which often involved writing non-stop for weeks at a time, and nurturing a penchant for mindbending plots and unusual religious imagery, Dick assembled a staggering body of work, including countless short stories and a whole bookshelf full of novels. Needless to say, he can be a little daunting for a neophyte. We’re here to help—but we’re not just going to tell you where to start; we’re ranking the standout works in his ouvre in order of difficulty.

Beginner

These books and stories allow readers to explore Dick’s pet themes and stylistic quirks without falling too far down the rabbit hole.

The Short Stories
Over the course of his life, PKD wrote somewhere in the range of 150 short stories. Naturally, it would be silly of us to dump all of them on you at once, but undeniably, the shorter format allows the big ideas of Dick’s work to come through more clearly, and even the screwier stories conform to relatively coherent shape, making them an excellent jumping off point, especially for an author who wrote almost nonstop throughout his life. His stories run the gamut from paranoid horror tales that wouldn’t seem out of place on an and existentially focused episode of The Twilight Zone, to mindbenders involving time travel and alternate realities. He even penned the occasional purely comedic short. Almost all of them are worth reading.
Standout Stories: “Beyond Lies the Wub,” “In the Days of Perky Pat,” “The Minority Report.”


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The inspiration for Blade Runner—and a great deal of Marlowe-meets-neon wonderland SF detective fiction in general—Do Androids Dream should be every reader’s first Philip K. Dick novel. The plot is relatively straightforward, following Los Angeles Department of Justice employee Rick Deckard from his morning argument with his wife over their respective mood presets, to his attempt to hunt down six “replicant” criminals—androids whose only distinction from humans is their complete lack of empathy. That isn’t to say the book doesn’t get deeply weird and philosophical along the way—in many ways, the entire thing is a consideration of humanity’s capacity for empathy in a future in which people must rely on “empathy boxes,” religion, and pharmaceuticals if they hope to experience genuine feelings toward each other. It also features the most affecting instance of a scantily clad woman pushing a sheep off a roof in the whole of science fiction.

Clans of the Alphane Moon
In the future of this novel of insanity, arms deals, and death, the moon of Alpha Centauri was once used as a psychiatric facility for those on Earth who could not function in society. The moon was eventually abandoned, leaving the patients and their descendants to form their own bizarre, clan-based social order. Fearing the former patients might eventually figure out a way to exact retribution on those who exiled them, the CIA sends its best agent and roboticist, Mary and Chuck Rittersdorf, respectively, on a mission to investigate. Unfortunately, Mary has enacted ruthless divorce proceedings against Chuck, and the ensuing depressive episode caused Chuck to spiral into murderous revenge fantasies he might have the means to carry out. Chuck’s nosy telepathic neighbor from Ganymede tries to blackmail him out of his depression, while a communist spy might be setting up a clandestine arms deal with the Clans and the Alphane natives. While the premise offers up a weird cross of SFnal spy thriller and domestic drama, Dick infuses the book with a wicked and surprisingly light sense of humor, transforming it into a dark-tinged comedy about mental health, human relationships, and the nature of “sanity” in an increasingly insane world. It also contains possibly the best line about the overlap between politics and religion ever written.

The Man in the High Castle
Possibly Dick’s most famous book, this unusual alternate history is both a good entry point and an ideal gateway into the weirder side of his work. It’s set in an alternate timeline in which Nazis developed the atomic bomb and used it to nuke Washington, forcing an Allied surrender. In the mop-up, the U.S. was divided between the Japanese, who occupy the western half of the continent, and the Germans, who stake a claim to the east, with Colorado serving as a kind of autonomous zone ruled by a Nazi marshal. We follow various characters as they come into contact with a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts an alternate reality in which the Allies won World War II, and whose author, because of the book’s subversive nature, lives in a heavily fortified house known as the “High Castle.” But that’s only scratching the surface—the novel deals heavily in alternate realities, and considers the possibility of an abstract or divine source of inspiration. At one point, a character is even briefly shunted over to our own reality. It’s a heady read, but still accessible enough for beginners, while giving them a taste of what’s to come.

Intermediate

These are the books to pick up once you have the basics of what makes a PKD novel down. They’re obtuse enough to hit a little heavier, but don’t provide the full dose of surrealism Dick was capable of serving up. This is also good spot to jump in if you’ve experienced weird fiction before.

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
Here’s where things start to get a little mind-screwy. Dick’s unusual story of a genetically enhanced celebrity on the run from the forces of a nationwide police state features weaponized parasitic organisms and a constantly a warping reality. The plot involves Jason Taverner, a pop singer and late night talk show host who, after a jilted lover throws an attack parasite at his face, wakes up to discover his existence has been erased. While the story is in some aspects a plot similar to one of the arcs in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it showcases Dick’s talent for blurring the lines between realities, particularly during several hallucinatory drug trips that suddenly and violently cross over with the real world—most notably when someone takes mescaline and wastes away into a skeleton. It’s not the most challenging book in the Dick canon, but it’s far from the easiest, making it a nice choice for the intermediate reader.

Time Out of Joint
The story of a man around whom reality begins breaking down as he slowly goes sane [sic], Time Out of Joint follows Ragle Gumm, a man living in a small, idyllic 1950s town. When things start vanishing and reappearing around him, magazines suddenly feature his picture on the cover, and people on news broadcasts appear to mention him by name, he believes something might be slightly off about his idyllic surroundings. It’s an early, but very well written foray into manufactured realities—something Dick would give a great deal of thought throughout his career. With a government conspiracy afoot and character who begin to doubt their own minds, it’s a relatively accessible book that also deals with the sense of unreality and surreality Dick’s more challenging works are built on.

Ubik
Ubik is both entirely readable, and among the strongest works in Dick’s canon. It’s a book in which God might be talking through advertising jingles for a mysterious and omnipresent product, in which there is an alternate dimension where someone consumes consciousnesses, in which there is a general sense of paranoia and unease bordering on existential horror. Ubik relates the story of a group of anti-psychics (including one able to rewrite the past to destroy precognitive predictions) who, after a disastrous mission, find themselves experiencing intense shifts in reality as their members begin wasting away. It’s possible they could be in suspended animation, trapped in a collective dream, or imprisoned in the mind of a psychic—but none of that explains the way reality also warps for the other characters, or the omnipresence of “Ubik,” a product that slows down the characters’ deterioration (but only when used as directed). One character’s comatose wife quotes the Tibetan Book of the Dead and might be reincarnating as her body slowly dies, among numerous other bizarre events. As a whole, its an uncompromising work, wildly open to speculation, and perhaps not the best place to start reading PKD.

Difficult

These section comes with a caveat: within these novels you will encounter numerous hallucinations, drug trips, an entire trilogy about gnostic spirituality and mental illness, and more than a little unabashed nightmare fuel. It’s normal to get tangled up in what goes on in these books. It’s also normal to be weirded out. But with proper grounding, you’ll make it though with your faculties intact. Probably.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
Trust a book built around the myriad drug trips and hallucinations of its protagonists to end up here. Palmer Eldritch is about a godlike cyborg who peddles a mysterious reality warping substance known as Chew-Z. It’s not clear whether or not Eldritch is actually a god, or an alien, or simply knows something about Chew-Z that others don’t. For most of the book, it’s equally unclear whether the main characters are on a drug trip, if strange things are actually happening to them, or even what’s happening to them at all. It can be difficult to adjust to get on Dick’s wavelength, and the visuals reportedly scared the author so much, he had to get someone else to proofread the galleys for him, unwilling or unable to revisit what he’d written. It’s not hard to see why, given the numerous instances of body horror in the form of evolutionary therapy, an inhuman assimilation plot by Eldritch himself, the drug-induced nightmare states, and the general bleak feeling of dystopia throughout.

The VALIS Trilogy (VALIS/The Divine Invasion/The Transmigration of Timothy Arthur)
Considered by many to be Philip K. Dick’s magnum opus, this towering work takes on religion, paranoia, the nature of self, the nature of reality, and everything else that preoccupied Dick throughout his life. The first novel begins when a schizophrenic named Horselover Fat tries to stop his friend from overdosing on sleeping pills, only to break the fourth wall and tell everyone he’s writing the story in the third person. It doesn’t get any easier from there, tying together a fictional film about a “Vast Active Living Intelligence System,” a pink laser beam that induces visions from alternate realities, a fictional version of Nixon who might or might not be the literal devil, and a gigantic prison for human souls. The second book is no less zany, as it involves a man lucid-dreaming through past experiences with a divine being as Earth’s religions are misled by the a dark god named Belial. The third novel also plays on gnosticism, though in a much more straightforward way, but the trilogy as a whole is a difficult distillation of 8,000 pages that outlined Dick’s thoughts and research on life, the universe, and everything. None of this exactly screams “easy read,” does it?

A Scanner Darkly
Not so much difficult because it’s difficult to understand, as it is difficult because it’s an unrelentingly dark anti-drug novel, even laced, as it is, with traces of black humor. Scanner involves an undercover drug officer named “Fred” who is placed among a group of drug users with the mission of sourcing and stopping the flow of Substance D, a drug that eventually causes almost complete brain death. “Fred” is eventually told to inform on his cover identity of Bob Arctor, whose suspicious payoffs and unusual interest in the drug make his supervisors wonder what’s really going on. Complicating matters, Bob and Fred’s personalities are entirely separate from one another, so it’s entirely possible Bob doesn’t know what Fred is doing, and vice versa, despite occupying the same body and brain. It’s Dick at his most cynical, showing all the horrible ways drug use can go wrong, and, in an extensive afterward, even listing the various health problems his own addictions caused both him and his friends. While it’s a compelling book, among the best Dick ever wrote, it’s not necessarily a good way to get acquainted.

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