I have, and always shall be, a fan of Phillip K. Dick. I know that there were some questionable practices in his life, namely drug use, but his writing stands out as some of the most amazing and unique prose in the genre of science-fiction. I don’t believe that he wrote his novels while in a drug induced stupor, for writing like that does not come from an incoherent brain.
The evidence is in the text.
I wanted to spend a blog post discussing a pattern that I have found in his work. I think there is much we writers can glean from the incredible structure of his sentences, his tone, and the general plot structure of his text. There is a beauty to how his sentences fall together with so many kaleidoscopic images, quirky metaphors and carefully crafted witticisms.
This pattern, in my humble opinion, consists of three basic tenets:
- Humor is always floating in and out in unexpected places.
- Simply written text is masking greater philosophical and societal issues.
- Genre blending is often going to occur.
Take, for example Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the 1968 novel from which Ridley Scott did his best to reproduce in the film Blade Runner. In the opening chapter, Dick describes a scene between Rick Deckard and his wife Iran. The two of them wake and use a device called a “mood organ” to dial in the type of mood that they want to experience. They do this because life on Earth has become meaningless since everyone has “moved on” to colonies on other planets. People left on a polluted and war ravaged Earth live such dismal lives that they have to use a machine to give them feelings about not just happiness but also more negative feelings like being “irritable” or “greater venom” when arguing. They have an electric sheep which grazes lazily upstairs.
As can be plainly seen, the scene here is dripping with sarcastic humor. He and his wife cannot function without the stimulation of the “mood organ” which produces feelings that they cannot experience otherwise or more to the point, choose not to feel. This simple scene is also masking a greater philosophical message of whether or not we express our genuine emotions even in the most familiar and intimate settings. The entire novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world but at the same time is also a mystery which delves into the real question of what makes us human beings.
I would argue that most if not all of Dick’s novels display these three patterns throughout.
What we can learn from this as writers is that we need to be thinking about the depth of our writing. I just finished reading Michael Marshall’s The Intruders, another one of those best-selling novels that is soon-to-be-a-hit-tv-show. To be honest, the first three chapters of the book start out sounding very much like the pattern of a Philip K. Dick novel, but then Marshall drags a story out that could have been told in a short story format… for 40 chapters. In the first chapter, Marshall spins lines like: “She made you realize there must be an underlying rhythm to the universe, and you knew this purely because she wasn’t hitting it.” Then another line later in the second chapter: “Growing older, it appears, does not mean growing up”. He had several other gems throughout the first part of the novel, but then he started to lose focus and the novel became a real drag to read. It had to force myself to finish it. Part of that bought-this-on-kindle-gotta-finish-it syndrome.
Why can’t we strive to write stellar prose like Philip K. Dick. Not once have I been reading one of his novels and felt like putting it down. His thought provoking pattern of writing pulls me into the weird worlds he creates, from a policeman who in another reality was a famous celebrity to a place where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War 2 and people read an underground novel about the actual history…our version.
Reading masters like Philip K. Dick challenges us to write better, to try harder, to not just “phone it in” as a writer. Yeah, my day job is demanding, often calling on me to work 12 hour days, but I refuse to write something just to “get it done”. I want to plan it out, to think carefully about the plotting, to design the backstory of even the minor characters, to write according to a philosophical or spiritual theme.
You should, too.