Friday, 8 November 2019

Ranking the Philip K. Dick novels

Read over four years, I don't know whether the benefit of hindsight and fallible memory make this more or less reliable than the lists I recklessly improvise in real time while reading along. I can't trust that my memories are real anyway.

Here are my The Top 46 Philip K. Dick Novels.

Genre key:

Science fiction
Not science fiction

46. The Broken Bubble (a.k.a. The Broken Bubble of Thisbe Holt, 1988)

Dick had written at least one sci-fi classic by this point and was on a roll, so to keep returning to this less fertile ground of contemporary California is just a waste of time, not to mention financially unwise. This tale of age-gap swingers is pervier than most, but with repetitive character types and situations, the non-sci-fi has ended up being even more formulaic than the dystopias, so not the change of pace you might expect. It might be more polished than the earlier ones, I was too bored to pay attention, but the goodwill's run out.

45. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (1986)

I was hoping for more from the non-SF PKD apocrypha, but most have little going for them beyond providing a time capsule of American society and attitudes. By this point, the themes and characters feel recycled even more than in his most phoned-in dystopias. He wisely decided to concentrate on his more profitable genre strengths from now on.

44. Puttering About in a Small Land (1985)

If nothing else (I can't find much to appreciate), Dick's failed populist novels are a chronicle of the changing times, with the ubiquitous radio repair shop now offering TV repairs, more liberated sex talk and characters fussing over horror comics. The straying couples have children this time around, which might reflect Dick's own changing circumstances, I don't care enough to look it up.

43. Gather Yourselves Together (1994)

Even a bad Philip K. Dick book is usually worth reading for the throwaway ideas he packs in and Easter eggs reminding of better works. That's just one of many ways his debut novel fails to establish tradition. You can say that its vast emptiness mirrors the barren industrial setting, if you're feeling generous. There's some thoughtful amateur philosophising amid the tedious romance, but it's not worth the trouble of seeking out.

42. Mary and the Giant (1987)

A worthwhile exercise in writing a three-dimensional female character – not that he'd put those lessons to use in most of his books – this unpleasant soap opera is less a waste of time than his other early 'mainstream' books, but only because it's shorter.

41. The Ganymede Takeover (with Ray Nelson, 1967)

The more toxic of PKD's two collaborations, this is the most overlooked of his 60s work, with good reason. What could have been a classic if problematic SF civil rights allegory is derailed by B-movie farce, atypical pew-pew action scenes and requisite perviness. The authors seemed to enjoy it, but they were bad for each other.

40. Voices from the Street (2007)

Like many young writers, at least back then, part of Dick's learning curve was learning to cut down and not be so comprehensively dull. The semi-autobiographical character study is realistic but a chore to sit through for completion's sake. This failed novel didn't see generous publication for more than half a century, and he probably would've preferred it to stay that way.

39. Lies, Inc.

I need to refrain from making assumptions that I've read the maddest or trippiest Dick novel any time one turns out a bit weird, but it's surely justified here. The long-gestating expansion of his 60s novella The Unteleported Man, that PKD insisted was necessary but that never saw publication in his lifetime, the full version wasn't published until 20 years after his death. The new material is a literal acid trip that interrupts the decent story for half the book. I don't really know what to make of it, but it's no 2001.

38. Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)

I enjoy unhinged psychedelic PKD, so had high hopes for this tale set in an extraterrestrial madhouse that casts telepathic slime mould as a supporting character. Unfortunately, it falls back on simplistic caricatures of mental illness and our main story is another dull domestic dispute with no likeable side to root for.

37. A Scanner Darkly (1977)

I've been enjoying Dick's sci-fi-lite theological novels, but this similarly grounded tour through near-future-but-really-seventies drug culture didn't do it for me. I can tell it's more visceral and culturally significant, I guess I'm just more comfortable with the androids, virtual realities and zap guns after all. Pyew pyew, that's what I like.

36. The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1984)

A dark Californian Gothic tale of bitter rivalry, spousal abuse, race relations and remarkable skulls, this is one of his better realist novels, but we're back to being overlong and boring again.

35. Vulcan's Hammer (1960)

Whether or not it was really the first sci-fi novel he wrote, as Wikipedia's dubious bibliography claims, this is clearly a less assured writer expanding his prescient short story about AIs stealing AIs' jobs by throwing in generic sci-fi action rather than idisyncratic oddities. The uncharacteristically straightforward and methodical plot is refreshing, but lightweight.

34. Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970)

This stratified dystopia's so generic by this point, it could be computer-generated. The characters are annoying rather than sympathetic and the customary casual sexism tips over into perviness. As a parable against tyranny, the happy ending has no practical application in real life.

33. Counter-Clock World (1967)

Like Red Dwarf's backwards universe, the internal logic and consistency of this world where you eat through your arse is way off, and even annoying if you're the sort of person who gets hung up on things like that. Not as annoying as the rambling theology and tedious misogyny of the main story though. The short story it's based on was probably a lot more tolerable.

32. The Simulacra (1964)

One of the more outwardly satirical entries in the canon with its literal puppet presidents, though the fascist dystopia is too grim to permit chuckles. Because it was a short story stretched out to novel length, he throws in customary sci-fi digressions like telekenesis and time travel, with some extraterrestrial non sequiturs for good measure.

31. The Zap Gun (a.k.a. Project Plowshare, 1967)

This Cold War satire is possibly the 'zaniest' PKD outing, but it's no Robert Sheckley. Our everyday hero is a clairvoyant womanising comic artist, and that blend informs the style. I never fully got into it.

30. The Penultimate Truth (1964)

Like many (most? all?) PKD novels expanded from short stories, I feel I'd rather be reading the concise originals than this weird mash-up. It's conventional for these things to go off the rails as the story gets developed/padded, but this lost me when it brought in bizarrely low-key time travel schemes and inexplicable immortality. The 1984 stuff's all good.

29. In Milton Lumky Territory (1985)

Now that we've all got flying cars and android butlers, this tale of typewriters, small-town enterprise and pursuing the low-key American dream seems as exotic as the sci-fi worlds. More light-hearted and wholesome than his previous realist novels, this is one of the few that could serve as a welcome break in your chronological reading rather than a completist chore.

28. Nick and the Glimmung (1988)

Even by PKD standards, this is an odd one. A prequel to one of his strangest books, Galactic Pot-Healer, and more notably his only book for children, though initially buried and not exhumed until years after his death. A shame, as it's a successful experiment and I would have loved to have read his weird stuff as a kid. Maybe it somehow would have made a sort of sense back then.

27. Radio Free Albemuth (a.k.a. VALISystem A, 1985)

The graverobbed first draft of what would become VALIS (reworked as a film-within-the-more-interesting-book), this is less a hidden gem and more a biographical curiosity to see Dick struggling to deal with his own visions/hallucinations in semi-fictionalised form.

Unlike the tongue-in-cheek split personalities of VALIS, here the author cautiously offloads the mystical shit onto a stand-in character so he can remain upstanding and explicitly drug-free, until the sci-fi comes along to excuse things.

26. The World Jones Made (1956)

A particularly dark and philosophical work exploring moral relativism and determinism, lightened somewhat by compulsory aliens because it's the fifties.

25. Dr. Futurity (1960)

Heady themes like ethnic cleansing and euthenasia are the subjects of this early PKDystopia, dealt with in very trivial ways. Then our blacked-up hero goes on a pulpy time travel adventure featuring a literal time's arrow and it gets more fun.

24. Solar Lottery (a.k.a. World of Chance, 1955)

The first distinctively PKD novel, its pot-luck dystopia is more satirical than credible, but could have been a classic with more recognition in the lottery of fame. The disparate plot strands don't pull together all that well, but that's the case for a lot of his books, even with experience. It's a lottery.

23. We Can Build You (a.k.a. The First in Our Family, a.k.a. A. Lincoln, Simulacrum, 1972)

Written well before Androids, but not printed for the best part of a decade, this is more or less the canonical Blade Runner origin story as the Rosen company dallies with simulacra slavery for the first time through the medium of novelty Civil War droids for the trivial amusement of off-world colonists, unaware of the dramatic irony of indentured Lincolns.

With existential andys, mood organs and delectably familiar names you can draw your own conclusions about, this almost reads like the very rough first draft of the more famous work before PKD realised there might be a better way to tell that story if he started over and turned this into a different story for the remaining 75% or so.

22. The Man Who Japed (1956)

The satirical fascist dystopia is slowly maturing, but not as tangible as they'll be later, feeling much like the contemporary '50s but with interstellar travel and borrowing from Bradbury. You can probably read more into this tale of futile rebellion than the author concerned himself with when bashing out words for food.

21. The Game-Players of Titan (1963)

The game isn't the most important thing here, being more a gag to highlight the desolation and futility of life on this barren future Earth. The rules are simple, it's the plot that's complicated. Written during PKD's most prolific period, this might pack in more of his customary tropes than any other book. I'd think more highly of it if he hadn't kept going and improving.

20. Now Wait for Last Year (1966)

One of the denser PKDs, its epic backdrop of intergalactic war and disorienting dalliances with simulacrams, simulations and sideways selves are let down by a miserable domestic dispute and the customary stream-of-consciousness plotting ending up more random than coherent this time.

19. The Divine Invasion (1981)

This is the official "sequel" to VALIS only as far as its theme and date of publication. We're now back with the trappings of trad SF, in the future with space, robots, syntha-wombs and stuff, but as the dying author is still working out what he believes, it's still preoccupied with Biblical lore. More unimaginatively literally this time around, as the infant god returns from space to fight the devil for the sake of humankind. The rapture isn't so enrapturing, and the author/narrator doesn't even play a dangerous game with his sanity by putting himself in it this time.

18. The Unteleported Man (1966)

"A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!"

Don't believe everything you see in the brochure. Skilfully written to fit existing magazine art, PKD's shortest novel about a shady cover-up was later expanded/ruined as Lies, Inc.

17. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)

PKD was still contemplating the big questions in what would turn out to be his final book. Posthumously absorbed into the 'VALIS Trilogy,' its connection to VALIS is only a little more tenuous than its official sequel was, and while The Divine Invasion went full-on futuristic SF, this snaps back to unprecedented non-paranormal reality. Add a surprising female narrator – Dick's amends for (justified) criticism of old-time sexism – and this is far from a phoned-in whimper.

16. The Man in the High Castle (1962)

These multiple choice alternative histories are more credible and intricate than your average PKDystopia, and I was more interested in the setting than the political plot. Not sure why the occupying Japanese get the 'Jap' moniker while their Nazi buddies are more respectfully referred to as 'Germans' though.

15. The Cosmic Puppets (1957)

Like a precognitive audition for The Twilight Zone, this short early novel of suburban cosmic horror has very few of what would become established as PKD tropes, helping it to stand out in the canon if not the genre.

14. Deus Irae (with Roger Zelazny, 1976)

This complex satire of orthodoxy demands rapt attention and cross-referencing that I was too lazy to provide, what with finding it a bit boring in places and wanting to move on, but I'm glad I made the pilgrimage.

Zelazny's voice is clear in the more fantastical and theological digressions, which are some of the more interesting bits. It's also probably not a coincidence that it contains more bizarre and memorable imagery than your standard PKDystopia.

13. Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975)

The best of Dick's non-SF novels, this was the only one that made it to print during his lifetime, and we wouldn't have been much worse off if the others had been left in a drawer. Loveable kook Jack Isidore is probably one of his best characters and a rare positive treatment of someone with mental illness, at least in the early PKD canon, especially in contrast to the self-destructive neurotypicals he cohabits with.

12. Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965)

This post-nuclear soap opera featuring talking animals and psychic cyborg thalidomides is more Thundarr than Threads, but more Twin Peaks than anything. Apart from Dick's own Deus Irae, which I would have recognised as a knock-off if I'd been reading these the right way around.

11. Galactic Pot-Healer (1969)

Starting out in familiar dystopian doldrums, but with a more sarcastically satirical bent, a fixer of broken pottery living in a broken future follows his predestined Hero's Journey to Sirius V, summoned by a senile elemental being to help raise a sunken cathedral up from the hellish depths. It's not one of PKD's most inspired or insightful tales, but I had fun.

10. VALIS (1981)

I read a little PKD as a teenager, but I came to the conclusion that, if I preferred what trashy Hollywood did with his stories over the books themselves, there was no point bothering to try out more. (This mainly hinged around the Schwarzenegger Total Recall, which is the pinnacle of Western cultural achievement as far as I'm concerned). When I learned about the heavy shift towards the philosophical in his later works, I decided to give him another go, especially as books like VALIS should technically be unfilmable. The first half is the author's personal research and theories disguised as fiction before the actual story kicks off, and courtesy of mental and chemical get-out clauses it's the sort of multi-faceted omnimusing that can be enjoyed by the specifically religious, wishy-washy and hellbound alike.

9. The Crack in Space (a.k.a. Cantata-140, 1966)

Not one I've seen mentioned among the canonical favourites, I found it a more satisfying and sustained work than some of the more freeform novels Dick brainstormed out to the word count in the rest of the decade. The colonial and racist themes barely count as allegories, since they're explicitly called out, but they're more successful here than in his clumsier later attempts to cover similar ground. The imaginative solutions to the population crisis would have made a decent short story, but it's the twist involving a megalomaniacal space pimp that makes it one of the better novels.

8. Time Out of Joint (1959)

Most of PKD's novels are too chaotic in their stream-of-consciousness padding to deploy premeditated twist endings, but this prescient Mandela Effect novelisation is a notably coherent exception. Seeming like a low-budget Eye in the Sky most of the way through, the reveal cements it as an early classic.

7. A Maze of Death (1970)

Like its similarly surreal predecessor Galactic Pot Healer, this is more LSD-inspired speculative spiritualism from what must be PKD's maddest era, even before the author started seeing visions from space that definitely weren't related to immersing himself in worlds of fortune-telling gelatinous cubes and other weird shit. Describing the mishmash of styles would make it sound unreadable, but it's held together by tension and the power of electric prayer.

6. Martian Time-Slip (a.k.a. All We Marsmen, 1964)

A more cynical take on Bradbury's colonial Mars, with the focus narrowed to corrupt and paranoid bit players since this is Philip K. Dick. The outdated psychology is more distracting than the tech, but you can get over that initial awkwardness in time to enjoy things getting weird.

5. Eye in the Sky (1957)

More conventionally trippy than his later works after PKD met LSD, this odyssey through the bespoke nightmare universes of diverse caricatures would've made a great miniseries and is the stand-out of his '50s novels. By literally getting into their headspace, the author lets rip on religious fundamentalism, McCarthyism, Marxism and other -isms in a warped contemporary setting without the usual veil of allegory.

4. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974)

Arrogant big-shot entertainer is mysteriously unpersoned and on the run in police-state America. I hadn't read this before, but I've more or less seen it adapted by every sci-fi show, including about half of the Twilight Zones beforehand, and I always enjoy the mystery.

3. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)

Someone's taken LSD. Casually dropping satirical and ingenious ideas all over the place, this disorienting trip across space, time and mind would be one of Dick's best, if Ubik hadn't refined it.

2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (a.k.a. Blade Runner, 1968)

I first read the book before I saw the film, which is the right way around to appreciate some of the unspoken context. I've never rated the core action story all that much, mainly loving the film for its visuals and soundtrack and the book for all the psychological gadgetry that was too zany to adapt, from the Theatre of the Absurd domestic opening with the mood organ to the literally manufactured entertainment. Stone-cold sci-fi classic.

1. Ubik (1969)

Traditionally, realising you're in a simulation is the beginning of the triumphant ending. Other times you clock it much sooner, but that information doesn't prove to be of much practical use. Mysterious, spooky and characteristically kooky, this is my favourite PKD.

I bought the book as a teenager, after being impressed by Androids and seeing this recommended as another of the greats, but I didn't get far before inexplicably deciding it wasn't for me and eBaying it. Especially bizarre, since the phrase "I'll consult my dead wife" appears as early as page 2! I didn't deserve it.