The Simulacra by Philip K. Dick – Classics of Science Fiction

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How do literary scholars of Philip K. Dick’s fiction determine which of his novels are masterpieces and which are his hackwork? They all seem equally bizarre, and even confusing. Library of America selected four novels for their first volume in 2007 devoted to PKD. The years given are when they were (written, published).

  • The Man in the High Castle (1961,1962)
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964,1965)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1966, 1968)
  • Ubik (1966, 1969)

The second volume came out in 2008 recognized:

  • The Martian Time-Slip (1962, 1964)
  • Dr. Bloodmoney (1963, 1965)
  • Now Wait for Last Year (1963, 1966)
  • Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1970, 1974)
  • A Scanner Darkly (1973, 1977)

The third volume in 2009 highlighted:

  • A Maze of Death (1968, 1970)
  • VALIS (1978, 1981)
  • The Divine Invasion (1980, 1981)
  • The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1981, 1982)

Are we to assume these are Dick’s best novels? My personal favorite, Confessions of a Crap Artist wasn’t included. Neither was The Simulacra which I just read and found fascinating and fun. I think some of the Library of America selections are better than The Simulacra, such as The Man in the High Castle, The Martian Time-Slip, and VALIS, but I’d also claim The Simulacra is not a lesser novel to the others. However, using our citation database system, it gets only one citation. Twelve of the twenty-seven PKD novels in our database only got one citation. The novels in the first LOA volume received 9 to 32 citations, which supports the LOA editors.

The only reason The Simulacra received one citation is because it was part of the SF Masterworks series. All the science fiction magazine reviewers ignored it when it came out. As far as I can tell, none of the reprint editions got reviewed either. The Simulacra just isn’t well-known. It’s often disliked when I see it mentioned.

I liked it. And I want to make a case that it’s worth reading. However, it will be hard to even describe. I’m afraid most readers will be turned off by The Simulacra because it has multiple plot lines with over a dozen main characters. And I can imagine many readers calling it stupid too — but that could be true for a lot of readers coming to PKD work. However, if two of the five novels Dick wrote in 1963 made it into the Library of America, why shouldn’t the other three? What divides them? What makes one novel “good” and another “bad?”

The Simulacra‘s complexity might keep readers from liking it, but that complexity might hide many novelistic virtues. Just because I admired this novel, doesn’t mean others will. I’m writing this essay hoping people will read The Simulacra and give me their opinion. I’m curious if I’m a total outlier. I got a big kick out of the story.

According to Samuel Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Dick complained in several 1963 letters found in The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick: Volume One: 1938-1971, that his wife Anne constantly hounded him to make more money. On the other hand, Dick wrote eleven literary (non-genre) novels from 1952-1960 hoping to become a recognized mainstream writer. All were rejected. He then wrote The Man in the High Castle in 1961 which bridges the literary and science fiction world and won a Hugo award for best novel. Dick then wrote twenty-one science fiction novels from 1962 to 1969, five of them in 1963 alone. He obviously needed money and had to crank out the manuscripts.

After 1970, Dick only published six more novels before he died in 1982. Five of which are included in the Library of America editions. That suggests that the novels he took more time writing fared better with the critics. So, the five novels written in 1963 were among the fastest he wrote, suggesting they shouldn’t be as good. Yet, two were selected for the Library of America.

As much as I like The Simulacra, I do see that it’s flawed. It doesn’t have a main character which most readers prefer. Nor does it jump back and forth between two main characters, which can be quite successful with some readers. And it’s not even one of those experimental stories where we follow several unrelated characters that all come together in the end. Readers find that structure confusing but forgive it if the ending brings everyone together in a satisfying way. I’m not sure The Simulacra wraps up nicely.

We might call the plotting of The Simulacra an example of characters doing parallel play. Dick might have aimed for creating a collage of future American scenes. My guess is Dick banged away on his typewriter, vomiting up The Simulacra onto typing paper. The results are fascinating because the novel is one big pile of imagery from PKD unconscious mind — and what a mind! It begs to be psychoanalyzed. And I’m sure, it parallels his personal life, especially regarding insanity, psychoanalysis, and troubling wives and women.

The Simulacra is not satire even though it often feels like the film Dr. Strangelove, nor is it a fantasy even though everything is unbelievable. And I wouldn’t call it surreal or dreamlike, or avant-garde even though it was written in 1963 when trendy artists were creating pop art and post-modern fiction. It’s straight science fiction, meant to be taken as realistic, even though it’s bonkers. The Simulacra has the existential absurd horror of The Tin Drum or The Painted Bird. I don’t even think Dick was making fun of science fiction with its comic book level wild ideas. Dick had crazy ideas, and he saw the world being just as crazy.

The Simulacra pictures future America where psychic abilities are accepted as real, that time travel has been perfected, where people and animals can be artificially created and the results indistinguishable from real people and animals, that colonies exist on Mars and the Moon, and alien lifeforms can be commercialized. In other words, all the crap ideas that science fiction fans and fans of the occult believed in the 1950s. Everything they thought possible, became possible.

The hardest part of this essay is describing what happens in The Simulacra. I wrote about that trouble already for my Auxiliary Memory blog, where I explained I had to read the book and listen to the audiobook to get the most out of The Simulacra. In fact, I’m still picking up the book, or putting on the audiobook, and enjoying random parts of the novel. I can’t seem to leave this story. I’m still finding new insights into whatever scene I stumble upon. I’ve decided the best way to describe the story is by mind mapping the characters. The number given is the number of times the character is mentioned in the story.

I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot. Each of the first level characters involves a subplot. For example, Dr. Egon Superb is the last legally practicing psychiatrist after the pharmaceutical industry pushed through the McPhearson Act that made drug therapy the only legal form of treatment for mental illness. One of his patients is Richard Kongrosian, a psychic pianist who uses telekinesis to play the piano instead of using his hands. Nat Flieger is a sound engineer who wants to record Kongrosian, but he and his crew of Molly Dondoldo and Jim Planck can never track down the man. Ian Duncan and his old friend Al Miller want to perform classical music as a jug band at the White House for Nicole Thibodeaux. Nicole Thibodeaux, the First Lady, but maybe the true ruler of The United States of Europe and America (USEA) wants to negotiate with Hermann Goering via a time machine to get the Nazis to not kill the Jews. Vince and Chic get involve with making the next president, an android, which will replace Nicole’s current husband. Wilder Pembroke, Anton Karp, and Bertold Goltz all vie for power behind the scenes.

If the novel has a main character, it could be Nicole Thibodeaux. Dick’s original draft was called The First Lady of Earth. Since this book was written in the summer of 1963, I assume Dick was inspired by Jackie Kennedy because Nicole spends most of her time charming people, decorating the White House and gardens, and putting on nightly cultural events. Everyone loves Nicole. Yet, out of the public eye, Nicole is also ruthless enough to have people summarily executed. Evidently, she wields unlimited power because of her access to time travel.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future, decades after China attacked the U.S. with missiles with atomic warheads. This gave rise to a population of mutants, similar in appearance to Neanderthals. People ride in self-driving cars. Ads are living creatures that can invade your home and car and must be killed. Richard Kongrosian believes he has a terrible body odor because a deodorant ad infected him with a jingle. The Sons of Job are a neo-fascist political party. People live in giant communal apartment complexes and are required to take civics tests to stay in them. Many people want to escape this totalitarian society by immigrating to Mars. People buy android nuclear families just to have normal friends.

I could go on. There are several layers of political and corporate intrigue in The Simulacra. Dick evidently thought there were conspiracies everywhere. Later in life, Dick would get into Gnostic religion, which is a very paranoid belief system. This novel has many traits of Gnosticism. The Simulacra was written after The Man in the High Castle, We Can Build You, Dr. Bloodmoney, and The Martian Time-Slip, and before The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There are many similar themes and obsessive ideas that run through all of them. I wish I had the time and energy to study all those novels and plot all the connections. Why did PKD fixate on certain ideas repeatedly? Was it a lack of imagination to explore unfamiliar territory, or were they ideas PKD just could let go of?

James Wallace Harris, 1/5/24

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