The other day, I was in a bookstore, and I saw two teenagers fighting over a copy of The Philip K. Dick Collection, published by The Library of America. I have seen shoppers battle over an item of clothing on sale or nearly claw themselves to death over a hard-to-find toy for Christmas, but never over a book. The Philip K. Dick Collection, however, is not just any ordinary book. It is a collection of three hardcover tomes, each compiling a selection of novels by one of the greatest talents in speculative fiction.
The collection includes thirteen novels in three volumes that combined fit in the palm of my hand and together are not much larger or heavier than the latest Stephen King bestseller. Philip K. Dick is the first science fiction author to be featured in The Library of America’s handsome editions of the best writing in the history of the United States, joining such luminaries of fiction and non-fiction as Thomas Paine, William Faulkner, Philip Roth, Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and many others.
The fact that PKD (as he is affectionately called) is the first science fiction writer to be included in such esteemed company is a positive step in finally (and belatedly) acknowledging the genre as a valid literary category, and he is a worthy person for such distinction. Dick has written incredible tales of wonder, nine of which have been adapted into motion pictures, ranging from the brilliant (Blade Runner) to the fun (Total Recall and Minority Report) to the interesting (A Scanner Darkly) to the mediocre (Screamers, Impostor, Paycheck, and Next). Even the bad adaptations have moments of greatness in those rare instances that they stay faithful to Dick’s ideas and themes.
I am a huge fan of PKD’s short stories, but his longer tales are even more enthralling. The first volume features “Four Novels of the 1960s,” an amazing batch of classics. To have such an extraordinary quartet in a hardcover edition that is smaller than some trade paperbacks is a treat for any reader. The Man in the High Castle is the award-winning alternate history masterpiece about a world in which the Axis powers won World War II. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich delves into the nature of reality, a narrative trait that would become one of the author’s trademark topics. Dick’s most famous story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the basis for Blade Runner, the greatest film based on his work. Ubik is a witty farce that features some of Dick’s familiar paranoid visions of existence.
The second book is called “Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s.” It continues PKD’s streak of imaginative and thought-provoking adventures. Martian Time-Slip uses another one of Dick’s repeated subjects – schizophrenia. Dr. Bloodmoney is a post-apocalyptic tour-de-force. Like many of his novels, Now Wait for Last Year mixes some autobiographical elements, in this case mind-altering drug use, with sci-fi staples. The volume concludes with two of Dick’s best: the underrated but exquisite Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and the trippy A Scanner Darkly.
The final volume, “VALIS and Later Novels,” gathers another bunch of terrific fiction, showing Philip K. Dick’s evolution as a writer as he delves into more religious and philosophical speculations. A Maze of Death brings characters to a dangerous, psychosis-inducing planet. VALIS, which stands for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System,” is another one of Dick’s career benchmarks, dealing with a theological quest. The Divine Invasion imagines God as a living, breathing entity in exile on another planet who wants to return to Earth. Dick’s last novel is a great one: The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a powerful fable about a crisis in faith.
Editor Jonathan Lethem provides helpful endnotes for each story, but also includes an even more valuable chronology of Dick’s life from his birth in 1928 until his untimely death in 1982. The timeline is a fascinating look at how each novel fits into the events that shaped who PKD was and influenced is fiction.
Get your hands on The Philip K. Dick Collection (but try not to kill anyone if there’s only one copy left on the bookshelves – remember you can always order the books through an online vendor). Enjoy the words of one of the trendsetting masters of not only science fiction but literature in general. Hopefully, the success of these three wonderful volumes will encourage The Library of America to release compilations of other exemplary SF writers.