A Question of Reality

I’ve read three books and a couple of stories by Philip K. Dick, most recently The Man In the High Castle, and in each and every one of them there is some debate over what is and is not ‘real.’ This occurs most famously in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, upon which the film Blade Runner was based, wherein the protagonist lives in a near-constant state of confusion over who – himself included – is an actual human and who is an android.

The idea that the world that we perceive may be no more than that – perception – is both an old and a popular one and Dick handles it well. My complaint here is that he perhaps he handles it well because he handles it so often, maybe even too often. Though each of his works functions well in isolation, having read a few now, I can’t help but feel that this reality twist – that moment where the characters wonder, “Wait, is this real?” – is almost cheapened by its repetition across works.

The Man In the High Castle
The Man In the High Castle

In The Man In the High Castle, this question is saved for the book’s final pages as something of a revelation. In some of Dick’s short stories, especially ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,’ this kind of fractious relationship between the characters and reality is, in essence, the entire story. So, having read some of Dick’s other works previously, that the reality of High Castle‘s universe is ultimately subjected to doubt and questioning was only surprising in that, so close to the end of the book, I was kind of hoping that maybe there would be no such debate this time around.

For all that criticism, though, I think that my favorite of Dick’s works, and the one in which he handles this question of reality best, is Ubik. (It’s also entirely possible that Ubik gets preferntial treatment because it was the first Dick book I read.) Unlike High Castle, where reality is left untouched until the final moments (although the entire book itself is set in an alternate reality, so…), or ‘We Can Remember’ whose examination of reality is limited to one character’s history, Ubik‘s entire narrative revolves around the degradation of not just one but every character’s understanding of reality. The whole book – which is admittedly, rather confusing to read – is about whether or not anyone can ever know that something is real. This focus on the question of reality makes it one worth asking and the novel’s disjointed narrative and structure only reinforce the confusion that Dick’s characters are feeling. It is, ultimately, a book that I enjoyed and would recommend. It also, I think, makes the skepticism of some of Dick’s other books extraneous.

Although perhaps I’m biased simply because I think that there’s a better answer to Dick’s constant question of “Is this real or is it in my head?”

Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

That quote was penned by J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and put in the mouth of one Albus Dumbledore. As usual, I quite agree with Albus.

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