Dick began writing in the 1950s, a decade haunted by the Cold War and a decade which witnessed the blossoming of science fiction. He understood that readers who witnessed the Cuban Missile Crisis must have felt that, despite its terrors, the Cold War was inevitable and preferable to the only historical alternative that could have prevented it. His books carried messages of acceptance, of balance, and yet such a stance may surprise those who do not see Dick in the context of the Discordian movement. Promoted by such writers as Robert Anton Wilson and William Burroughs, this movement oscillating between a tongue-in-cheek hoax and a profound spirituality sees Dick as something of a messianic figure, something the unabashedly mythologizing 2001 documentary, The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick, promotes. Even critics with no idea of this dimension to Dick instinctively refer to him as an 'SF guru', which is an unconscious recognition of Dick's fascination with the spiritual, a theme that he weaves into all his major works.
The decision by Ridley Scott and the screenwriters of 1982's Blade Runner to cut out the spiritual dimension of Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is probably the film's greatest flaw. In the novel, troubled bounty hunter Rick Deckard confronts old man Mercer-whose painful ascent of a hill worshippers can reexperience through the agency of the empathy box. The confrontation parallels Krishna's conversation with Arjuna, but instead of Krishna justifying Arjuna's choice in warring on his kin, Mercer bluntly tells a Deckard who is questioning his job of killing human-seeming androids: "You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."
During the book's finale Deckard experiences an apotheosis-he becomes Mercer by imitating Mercer's excruciating climb up a barren hill in the irradiated wastes north of San Francisco. And Mercer, the humble saviour, encourages worshippers in crisis, like Deckard, by mysteriously manifesting and presenting them with electric animals. The interesting logical doubletake involved here (i.e. if Mercer can magically appear and bestow electric animals, why not real ones?) is quintessentially Dick and demands-in a way that again shatters the "reality" of the text-that the reader simply accept.
Despite what might seem like a nihilistic fatalism, Dick has a great respect for life. Animals are treasured in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to such an extent that people who cannot afford a real animal, like Deckard, buy electric ones. When Deckard makes enough money "retiring" androids, he finally buys a real goat. But the android Rachael kills it, and Deckard takes the shocking and horrible act as the presentiment of his own death. In both this novel and Dr. Bloodmoney, where the horse Edward Prince of Wales is killed, the brutal killing of a helpless and innocent animal is a symbol of all that is wrong in the world.
Such meditations about life, specifically life on Earth, affect Dick's use of the theme of the human colonization of space, the early science fiction dream that was borne aloft on the shoulders of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. But the dream began to be questioned by writers like Dick: was the desire to leave the Earth not an abrogation of our responsibility to take care of the planet? Thus, the space colonies in Dick's work are often signifiers without the signified-the stories do not occur there. The off-world is a dream, a potentiality that threatens to become a nightmare. Dousing John F. Kennedy's rousing endorsement of space exploration, The Man in the High Castle dismisses off-world colonies that are flashy showpieces for a morally and financially bankrupt Nazi regime. 1969's Ubik is a rare Dick story that actually has a scene set in space. But the scene on Luna is brief-only long enough for an explosion which kills the main characters. The first of the Hollywood Dick films, Blade Runner, is true to Dick's skepticism about space-San Francisco is awash in advertisements for settlers to come to the colonies, but these garish signs and droning announcements are ignored by the characters. The only reality associated with the off-world colonies that we see are the Replicants, the deadly androids. Patrick R. Burger
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