Saturday, 6 November 2010

Philip K Dick on Science Fiction

I am a huge Philip K Dick fan, I would go as far as to say he is my favourite author of all time. I would also say that I am a big science fiction fan in general, but for me Philip K Dick goes far beyond the genre; his novels explore metaphysical and existentialist themes, as well as sociological and political ideas. Dick actually described himself as a 'fictionalizing philosopher'.

 In the preface of "Beyond Lies The Wub" (volume 1 of his collected short stories), there is a fantastic piece of writing from 1981 in which Philip K Dick explains his definition and ideas on what is science fiction and what makes good science fiction;

"I will define science fiction, first, by saying what it is not. It cannot be defined as "a story (or novel or play) set in the future," since there exists such a thing as space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sf: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology. Why, then, is it not science fiction? It would seem to be, and Doris Lessing (e.g.) supposes that it is. However, space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient. Also, there can be science fiction set in the present: the alternative world story or novel. So if we seperate sf from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called sf?
We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternative world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society - or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one - this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result new society is generated in the author's mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader's mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.
Now to separate science fiction from fantasy. This is impossible to do, and a moment's thought will show why. Take psionics; take mutants such as we find in Ted Sturgeon's wonderful 'More Than Human'. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon's novel as science fiction. If, however, he beleives that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel. Fantasy involves that which genral opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgement-call, since what is possible and what is not possible is not objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the author and of the reader.
Now to define good science fiction. The conceptual dislocation - the new idea, in other words - must be truly new (or a new variation on an old one) and it nust be intellectually stimulating to the reader; it must invade his mind and wake it up to the possibility of something he had not up to then thought of. Thus "good science fiction" is a value term, not an objective thing, and yet, I think, there really is such a thing, objectively, as good science fiction.
I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is good sf the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the reader, it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that the mind, like the author's, begins to create. This sf is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream sf by-and-large does not do. We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create - and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient in science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.

(in a letter)
May 14, 1981"

Below are a few scans of some novels that were published during the 1970's:

Art by: Bruce Pennington

Art by: Chris Moore

Art by: Unknown

Art by: Chris Moore

No comments:

Post a Comment