Warning! Possible spoilers follow (though I will try to keep them to a minimum).
Philip K Dick is one of the more influential science fiction writers, probably ever. His stories have been the inspiration for a number of popular movies, including the Minority Report and Total Recall. They envision a technologically advanced world where what it means to be human is blurred. Many of his stories explore a post-apocolyptic world in which humans are struggling to survive.
The collection Selected Stories of Philip K Dick presents some of his best short stories, including the ones the two movies above were based on. All of his stories cause one to think. Dick lived during the height of the cold war, when the possibility of human self-destruction was at its highest and on the minds of nearly everyone. That, combined with some drug use, led Dick’s imagination to places that are incredible and mind-blowing. Some of his stories are just plain weird. This was epitomized for me by “The Days of Perky Pat”, a story of adults after a nuclear war who spend their times reliving their pre-war lives through the board-game adventures of a doll. The story is just so odd that I could not imagine thinking of such a premise. I mean, some stories, both by Dick and by others, involve a simple premise which the author then explores. The premise isn’t always too radical, it might be something that anyone could dream up. But “Perky Pat” isn’t one of those, at least to me. This story is the product of a mind that just plain sees the world differently.
Not only have Dick’s stories directly inspired mainstream movies, but there are obvious influences his stories have had in a lot of science fiction. The human-looking Cylons of Battlestar Galactica bear an uncanny resemblance to the machines of “Second Variety”, in which a human soldier, at the end, muses that the end of his race might be ok because the robots are already killing one another, already becoming human-like. Some of his stories, such as “Paycheck” (which also inspired a movie), are interesting adventure romps. All of Dick’s stories, though, convey a unique view of the world, human’s place in it, and the ultimate fate of humanity.
That Dick’s stories provide such an incredible perspective on the human condition begs the question: how instrumental was his drug use in his ability to devise these stories? It seems to me that many of the great artists, not just authors but painters, musicians, and so on, throughout history used drugs to some extent. Does this allow a normal human mind to access thoughts and regions of the brain otherwise unaccessible? Does it allow a person to make connections between otherwise seemingly random ideas to create something new? If all drug use were completely eliminated, would art suffer? I personally don’t advocate the use of drugs, but it seems to me that the connections between mind-altering substances and art are pretty strong.
I really enjoyed all of Dick’s stories, even those that start exploring more religious themes. At least a couple of his stories involve direct interaction between humans and God, with less than predictable results. But, I was more interested in his commentary on technology and the future of human kind. I tend not to be a science fiction type of person. I prefer fantasy. But, I do enjoy what is termed “cyberpunk” (such as William Gibson and Max Barry) and Dick is a precursor to the cyberpunk genre. He explores a more immediate future than a Star Wars or Star Trek universe does, though, unlike Gibson and Barry, he does allow aliens in his world. And the role that aliens play in his world tends to be very disturbing.
I’ll close by saying that a lot of the stories in this collection deal with identity: what it means to be you, what it means to be human, what separates humans from machines, etc. These will be important questions as our machines become smarter and smarter and start getting aspects of personality, intelligence and identity. He also addresses the issues of the individual in society and what role each of us plays in an increasingly technological world. Again, these questions will become only more important with time. It thus seems that Dick and his work will continue to reverberate for quite some time.