Moral Conundrum Across the Ages

'Philip K Dick and Philosophy: Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits?'

by Gabrielle Malcolm

19 March 2012

The critique of transcription, adaptation, and commercialism in Philip K Dick's work is set beside that of technologies, morality and society. Rather like Blade Runner.
cover art

Philip K Dick and Philosophy: Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits?

(Open Court)

Philip K. Dick and Philosophy … Surely PKD is philosophy? In disguise—masquerading as science fiction—but philosophy, nonetheless.

Now, there were times when I reckoned I was something of an aficionado of sci-fi as a youngster. I had seen the Star Wars trilogy, even read some Isaac Asimov, kept up with the transition of Star Trek from TV to film. So when the opportunity arose to catch a rare late-night showing of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I dosed myself with ample black coffee and settled in – especially as I would get me some Harrison Ford in the bargain!

But was I ever disappointed! Best description of my 14-year-old self’s response: ‘… Huh?’ I can describe it in a more graceful fashion now, however, by explaining that I was completely mystified by Blade Runner, but equally intrigued.

This is about right for the effect of the work, especially when you consider the interface between Dick’s universe and centuries of philosophy and how he fashioned his fiction to dovetail with the difficulties of moral conundrum across the ages. As technology advanced throughout the 20th century, we were made more and more aware of the pertinence of Dick’s vision and just how right he was when he composed questions such as: ‘What if - we could predict a person’s future behaviour and therefore prevent them from committing a crime? What if - we could enjoy a holiday or sexual encounter tapped directly into our brain without leaving the comfort of our armchair? Where does the moral responsibility in those situations now reside? Or have we made ourselves exempt from that imperative?’ After all, philosophy is as much about knowing the right question to ask as it is of finding the answer. His ‘what if?’ scenarios are second to none.

In Philip K. Dick and Philosophy: Do Androids Have Kindred Sprits? the contributors offer the reader as much help as possible, giving us in equal measure to Dick’s fiction, the bridging mechanisms of the film adaptations of his work. Across the board these essays are informative, baffling, and immensely useful as a means into Dick’s lesser known works. They all revolve around a defining factor that Ross Barham helps to introduce in one of the opening chapters: ‘… while Dick may not have written typical academic philosophical works, nonetheless the world, characters, situations, and imagined zeitgeist his writing evokes all speak volumes about what makes us human.’ (20) As the20th century unfolded Dick’s examinations of what it meant to be human in a world of evolving technological complexity gathered relevance and now stand alongside previous analyses, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

More evidence of the writer’s edginess in his scrutiny of modern morality and its relationship with emerging technology is found in the chapter ‘Dick Doesn’t Do Heroes’ (Dennis M. Weiss and Justin Nicholas). Weiss and Nicholas look at how Hollywood has taken Dick’s original ideas and settings and created different versions; safer, more beguiling, and less threatening. Especially Paul Verhoven’s ‘take on Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”.’

In Total Recall (1990) we are made familiar with the developing persona of Douglas Quaid. By contrast Dick’s character is named ‘Quail’ – there’s your first clue. The two narratives represent technology in wholly different ways. ‘While in the movie, technology is cast as the savior of the oppressed, something we can activate confident in its benevolence, in the story, it is the technology itself that oppresses. Such a difference is not mere coincidence. It hints at the philosophical commitments that specific filmmakers, and perhaps filmmaking itself, have inscribed upon Dick in an attempt to place him lucratively on screen.’(31) Elegantly and succinctly put.

The critique of transcription, adaptation, and commercialism is set beside that of technologies, morality and society. Rather like Blade Runner, it’s a slow burn, but worth persevering with. (Now I get it … sort of).

Philip K Dick and Philosophy: Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits?


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