Sunday, September 24, 2006

Philip K. Dick sucks!

Whne I was in college, I read a few Philip K. Dick novels and stories. Recently, as part of my "books on audio during the long commute to school" kick (which I hope will last for many more hours of aural enjoyment), I listened to a few PDK stories for the first time in about thirteen years.

God, I'm old.

Anyway. Kurt Vonnegut has a stock character, a penniless science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout. Trout has only two fans, has never published a book with the same company twice, and has never seen one of his books for sale. He is a man who has terrific ideas, but is a terrible writer.

Listen: Philip K. Dick is Kilgore Trout. He has great ideas, but he sucks at executing them.

He has all the typical pulp writer flaws --- the characters all talk the same way; they react unblinkingly to bizarre, life-altering events; they have paranoid suspicions, but not reasonable ones based on what is actually happening to them --- but he goes a step beyond, to the point where his stories don't bear any scrutiny whatever.

Take, for example, the story "Paycheck," which apparently is being made into a movie. In this story, Jennings, an engineer, is hired to work for a mysterious company. After a two-year stint, his memories of working there are erased (so he can't reveal company secrets). Bizarrely, he further finds that he's agreed to exchange his paycheck for a handful of apparently useless trinkets. And as soon as he steps outside, the secret police detain him and try to question him about the company. He escapes, using the trinkets, and realizes that his past, pre-brainwiped self has left him a series of clues to something to do with the company.

Okay. This is a perfect example of one of Dick's great ideas dressed up in shoddy writing. This whole story is one huge plot hole: either the super-secretive company took the two seconds necessary to actually glance at the trinkets Jennings left himself (including a key card to one of the company's supposedly off-limits doors!) before letting him go, in which case they wouldn't allow him to leave himself those things. Or they didn't look at all --- in which case Jennings could have just left himself a lengthy written report on what he was to do and how in order to get one over on the company, saving himself a lot of worry and trouble.

Yes, I know time travel is an absurd concept, but when the story is supposedly dramatic, these things ought to be fixed a little.

Or another story, "Second Variety." After a devestating world war, soldiers find that robots originally desgined as weapons have become self-replicating and can now design themselves to look exactly like humans --- and now, they're hunting all of humanity's survivors! Again, a good idea, and there is some drama here, but let me just suggest this. If four people suspect that one among them might be a robot, how about finding some very simple method of proving one's humanity, such as, say, cutting yourself a bit to show you have blood and not wires inside?

Another thing that I found amusing, and this applies to PDK's stories in general, is how the premise will be based on one mind-bogglingly advanced future tech like a "time scoop" or "pre-crime" or implanted false memories, but the rest of the world will be one in which music and computer data are inscribed onto tape and there are coin-operated phones and stereos, gas-powered cars, carbon paper, and typewriters, and women exist only as secretaries or housewives. Way to envision mankind's glorious techno-future, Philip!

Maybe it's just me, older and more used now to reading the classics, or at least intelligent historical fiction. Maybe I've outgrown imaginative fiction altogether. (I have always found Tolkien to be boring.) But maybe it's just that Philip K. Dick is a terrible writer.

3 comments:

daveawayfromhome said...

No, it's just Dick. Try Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) or William Gibson. Or if you want a really different take on the modern world, try Tim Powers (start with "Expiration Date")

nick said...

Yep, the problem's gotta be with Dick... Mind you, there are plenty of other examples of bad "speculative" writers (Asimov, for example). And allow me to congratulate you on one of the few times I've seen "Dick" and "sucks" used in a decent sentence...

Chance said...

I used the phrase to increase google hits and disappoint web surfers.