Question for you – what do Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and The Adjustment Bureau all have in common? Anyone? They were all Hollywood movies? Sort of a grab bag. Some were regrettable, others became cult classics. They’re all Sci-Fi you say? Yeah, pretty much true.
How about they were all based on the writings of Philip K. Dick. Yep. It’s funny how sci-fi never gets any sort of real artistic cred – it’s pulp, it’s banal, it’s popular stuff for the masses. Only recently did the Pulitzers start taking science fiction seriously – literary writing and genre writing were seen as being at odds.
Here we have Philip K. Dick who was straddling both lines before anyone would admit it was possible. A guy that has grabbed the attention of Hollywood not once, but eight plus times and rumor has it several more of his stories are slated for film adaptations (Ubik is on the list, a must read for, well, anyone.) Ubik, a case in point, written in 1969 only recently has been showing up on “greatest literary works” lists compiled by Time, and the Library of America Series.
Funny thing though. According to some, Phillip K. Dick wanted nothing more than to be a literary writer. He penned dozens of literary works, many of which went unpublished when his surrealist, science fiction works that so amazingly explored the nature of reality started to take off.
I recently finished one of these books: Puttering about in a Small Land. I checked it out well before I knew Dick had written such works. The entire first chapter, I kept waiting for the hammer to fall. For reality to warp in some trademark Dick way. I was perched on the edge of the rabbit hole, arms stretched out, palms flat, knees bent.
It never happened. What did happen however was a masterful character study. A story literally about people puttering about; going about their normal lives that was told in such an engaging, powerful way, I couldn’t put it down. There are three major characters in this story set in a post-war California where factory jobs are drying up and new promise is on the horizon. Each is so unique and brought to life on the page in such a striking way, when you delve down into their perspective, they feel like living, breathing people.
One character in particular, Liz, is mostly a catalyst for the action between husband and wife Roger and Virginia, but at the one key moment when the writing takes a close perspective, zooming down into her jumbled brain, it completely floored me. I felt like I was eavesdropping on someone’s brain – a person, not a fictional character.
Sure, it isn’t perfect. There seem to be some unanswered questions at the start and a touch of surrealism leaks in which isn’t quite adequately explained in my opinion. A few of the minor characters come to develop a strong presence at the end of the book and the summary passage of time doesn’t seem to adequately explain the circumstances. Still, I’d definitely put this on a reading list if you have the time. As a writer, the lessons on characterization alone are worth the read