What are Philip K. Dick's best works?
April 28, 2005 10:56 AM   Subscribe

To all Philip K. Dick fans: Dick seems to have published a formidable amount of work, and rather than trying to read all of his novels/short stories, I'm wondering if any MeFites are familiar with his books and could recommend his best 5 or so.

I recently read Dr. Bloodmoney, and while I highly enjoyed the premise, I believe on the whole, there were as many -if not more- flaws as there were strong points. I'd really like to be able to experience Dick's best works without having to wade through the "mixed-bag" material. While I do enjoy reading a flawed novel from time to time, my books-to-read list is already quite lengthy, and I'm trying to get to the meat-and-potatoes of all of the greats that I can. So can anybody here suggest 4 or 5 of their favorite Dick books?
posted by Malachi Constant to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: heheheh, Dick books
posted by Malachi Constant at 10:58 AM on April 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Man in the High Castle
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
posted by kenko at 11:03 AM on April 28, 2005

For me, the two best are The Man In The High Castle and Martian Time-Slip; the latter gives such a convincing picture of what schizophrenia feels like that it scared the bejezus out of me for days.
posted by languagehat at 11:04 AM on April 28, 2005

Try reading his short stories. I've read four of his novels, and 80% of his short stories, and I like the short stories much better. The novels I read were mostly just expanded versions of the short stories, anyway. Dick is very good at bringing interesting concepts to life over the course of just a couple dozen pages.

Dick's short stories are all compiled into a five-volume set. My local library had the first four volumes, and I read all four of them. I'd recommend this collection as a starting point.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 11:08 AM on April 28, 2005

I've read a bunch of Philip K. Dick. Some of his work feels like light reading, and some of it is dense, dark, and, yeah, scary. You feel like you can't think straight for a couple days after. My only recommendation is to start with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which is my favorite book.
posted by xammerboy at 11:09 AM on April 28, 2005

I went through my PKD phase 10 years ago, but the one book I've made sure to always have a copy of since is A Scanner Darkly.
posted by sohcahtoa at 11:14 AM on April 28, 2005

sohcahtoa: A Scanner Darkly was my favorite of the novels I read, too.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 11:17 AM on April 28, 2005

I would avoid Valis like the plague. It annoyed me to no end.

The collection The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford and other stories is great.

So's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I read it 'cos I loved Blade Runner. and the book is Blade Runner + lots more. The stuff with the empathy box and Mercer, etc, it's just about a hundred extra dimensions that the movie did not even bother with. Amazing little book.
posted by xmutex at 11:25 AM on April 28, 2005

Ubik, Martian Time-Slip, Radio Free Albemuth, Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
posted by Dean King at 11:37 AM on April 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd read The Man in the High Castle and then stop. But I'm not a big fan of Dick's work.
posted by Justinian at 11:42 AM on April 28, 2005

His short stories are great -- there's a set of blue paperbacks, five volumes, and the first two or three of these are his best work. "The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford" is one of those. My favorite Dick novels are Ubik, and the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (one of my favorite books); The Man in the High Castle is over-rated but still pretty good; his other books, like a previous poster suggested, just feel like padded-out short stories.
posted by evinrude at 11:45 AM on April 28, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks muchly everyone. You've all been quite helpful. Right now I have it narrowed to

Scanner Darkly
Man in the High Castle
Martian Time-Slip
Short story collections

What CrunchyFrog said stuck with me, because that's sort of what I felt with Dr. Bloodmoney. He really established the concept well early on, and I felt like the remainder of the novel was just propping up the scenario with less attention put into character development and plot. I definitely felt immersed in the world he created, but he never seemed to do much with it. I hoping the novels listed don't suffer from the same problems. Thanks again everyone for your input. Hopefully I'll get to all the suggestions some day.
posted by Malachi Constant at 11:48 AM on April 28, 2005

I can't remember the name, but the one I read that has stuck with me the best is a story about a man who lives in a small town and does crossword puzzles, but whose reality starts changing from the idyllic hallucination of his life to a more stark reality.

Maybe it was just a short story, but it typifies "phildicikian" to me. Anyone know the one I'm talking about?

As for The Man in the High Castle -- I never cared too much for it. Aside from the interesting "what if the axis won the war aspects, I don't recall there being too much there. (Admittedly, it's been years since I read any of his stuff. I prefer Rudy Rucker these days.)
posted by crunchland at 11:49 AM on April 28, 2005

I'd add Time Out of Joint to the list. It involves the actualization of written language. Also, newspaper puzzle contests.

P.S. - a good reason not to try reading all of his novels is that most of them are trash. I had never read any of his books until a couple of years ago when a friend lent me a few. I liked them after all and grabbed a random 10 or so from the library. The good ones were good, I thought, and the mediocre ones were unbearable.
posted by nobody at 11:52 AM on April 28, 2005

P.P.S (on lack of preview)- Time Out of Joint is the book crunchland mentioned above.
posted by nobody at 11:54 AM on April 28, 2005

A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Man in the High Castle (in that order)
posted by advil at 11:54 AM on April 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

FYI, the "Brown Oxford" collection was reissued under a Paycheck title, to tie into the movie. I'm still making my way through all the volums, but I thought the one under the "Minority Report" title was excellent.
posted by smackfu at 11:56 AM on April 28, 2005

Second Martian Time-slip, i really enjoyed the Paycheck and 24 short stories collection.

I also recall a book but not the title, dealt with San Francisco post-nuclear war. Talked of a satellite radio deejay (with strange powers, IIRC) among other things...if anyone can identify the novel, that is one of my favorites.
posted by schyler523 at 11:59 AM on April 28, 2005

You are forgetting "Confessions of a Crap Artist". You should never forget "Confessions of a Crap Artist.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:06 PM on April 28, 2005

Response by poster: schyler523: that's Dr. Bloodmoney
posted by Malachi Constant at 12:11 PM on April 28, 2005

I have about 15 of his novels, and read a few more. The ones i'd recommend (in order):

- man in the high castle (make sure to read the preface)
- a scanner darkly
- ubik
- the game players of titan

And i agree with the hit or miss sentiment, some of his works are just annoying.
posted by escher at 12:14 PM on April 28, 2005

*slaps forehead

thanks malachi.
posted by schyler523 at 12:18 PM on April 28, 2005

Where on earth are the other recommendations for Flow My Tears the Policeman Said? Am I alone here? Other than that: Ubik, Man in the High Castle, Three Stigmata, and I'll throw another curve and say Now Wait for Last Year.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:34 PM on April 28, 2005

I've read all his novels (including his non-sf ones) and recommend A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, VALIS, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Man in the High Castle, UBIK, Martian Time Slip, and the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (though this one and Tears a lot of people hate).

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick is an excellent biography
posted by dobbs at 12:36 PM on April 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

PKD is better at ideas than really creating unified novels, so I think you simply have to be a little bit generous when reading his books. I've only read a few myself (martian time-slip, clans of the alphane moon, penultimate truth... some others, can't remember now; long time ago) but in my experience even the good* ones are uneven, and even the bad* ones have interesting bits, so I dunno how much it matters that you find the "right" books as that you adopt the right attitude toward them. Which I guess also backs up the premise that he's better suited to be a short story writer than a novelist, so that's prob. good advice...

* In other words, I'm not sure there really are "good" and "bad" ones...
posted by mdn at 12:38 PM on April 28, 2005

PKD is better at ideas than really creating unified novels...

Agreed, so I'll also recommend The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings.
posted by Dean King at 12:42 PM on April 28, 2005

I think PinkStainlessTail and dobbs have offered the best lists. Three Stigmata and Flow My Tears are must-reads, in addition to the more common recommendations.
posted by macrone at 12:45 PM on April 28, 2005

My favorites:

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
The Simulacra
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
A Scanner Darkly

I also liked these, but you may want to put them lower on your "to read" list:

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
posted by mischief at 12:55 PM on April 28, 2005

"A Scanner Darkly" and, for sheer paranoia, "The Unteleported Man".
posted by signal at 12:57 PM on April 28, 2005

Personally, I'd avoid his later, religious novels which are utterly inpenetrable as far as I'm concerned. My faves are Ubik & The 3 stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, as well as all his short stories, especially the one about the hamsters - priceless!
posted by kenchie at 1:12 PM on April 28, 2005

I liked Confessions of a Crap Artist. I'm not a SF fan in general, and I thought it had only the barest veneer of SF, which was fine with me. I also read The Broken Bubble, one of his non-SF novels, which was plenty trippy all the same. After I finished it I said to myself, "Now what the hell was THAT all about?" (This is not a criticism.)
posted by scratch at 1:36 PM on April 28, 2005

My favourites: The Man in the High Castle, Flow My Tears..., A Scanner Darkly. I also enjoyed the Shifting Realities non-fiction collection, and a volume of his later short stories collected under the title of I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.
posted by misteraitch at 2:03 PM on April 28, 2005

Dear fans of Valis:

If you really didn't like Valis, would you like the second two in the trilogy, Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer? Are they really that connected, or are we talking trilogy in some sort of loose thematic sense?
posted by xmutex at 2:48 PM on April 28, 2005

I'm seriously awed that no-one has mentioned his short story, The War with the Fnools, in the fifth (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale [adapted to film as Arnie's Total Recall]) collected stories volume. It made me fall in love with him as a sardonic, darkly hilarious writer.

If you spend another hour reading Dick, read Fnools. Please.
posted by armoured-ant at 3:04 PM on April 28, 2005

I would say that if you didn't like VALIS, then you wouldn't like Divine Invasion or Transmigration. At that point of his life, Dick was getting crazier by the month, and those last two probably qualify as the ravings of a madman. I didn't like DI, btw.

As I recall, the trilogy is not tightly connected, but I recommend that they be read chronologically.
posted by mischief at 3:14 PM on April 28, 2005

...and follow the VALIS trilogy with Radio Free Albumuth.

At one point, according to the Shifting Realities book mentioned above, A Scanner Darkly was Dick's favorite novel.

He was also rather fond of Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and The Man in the High Castle. Not to mention Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I find the books Dick felt strongly about, whether positively or negatively, tend to be the best.

He was terrified of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, but I find it in some ways foreshadows his breakdown and the VALIS trilogy (especially Divine Invasion), plus it has an interesting and well researched philosophical premise.

Of those three VALIS books, VALIS is pretty good, Divine Invasion is spotty, and Transmigration is surprisingly good. They're only loosely connected, in that you've got to read them with a basic sense of Gnostic beliefs as Dick understood them. I'd also suggest first acquainting yourself with the specifics of Dick's 2-3-74 experiences.

I was disappointed with The Zap Gun. Ubik is memorable. Martian Time-Slip is enjoyable and does offer what I can only assume is a good sketch of schizophrenia. Dick was always scared he was schizophrenic, after a psych evaluation when he was a kid...
posted by jbrjake at 7:25 PM on April 28, 2005

I don't have five, I have four, and I think they're the four that are least controversial in terms of quality:

The Man in the High Castle
A Scanner Darkly
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I will advise you, though, not to read them back-to-back. Leave a month or so between these books -- they mess with your dreams.
posted by jjg at 8:51 PM on April 28, 2005

Stick with his 1962-1977 novels, the best of which is A Scanner Darkly (1977). It's the edgiest, funniest and most heartfelt of the Dick I've read, and is one of the best novels about drugs I've read from any author. Ubik (1969) is a hoot, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) is great, too, with the drug Can-D and its associated Perky Pat dolls.

Whatever you do, *don't* read Valis (1981) and its offspring first. Valis is at best a marginally coherent book that reflects very well Dick's confusion about the moment when, uh, God took over his brain. It was hugely disappointing as a novel, although I suppose interesting as a window into the mind of an author I'd previously been enamored of. The best analogy I can think of is mid- vs. late-period Coltrane; while some folks love the later shrieking stuff, it's a small minority that spends more time with that than the earlier material which made Coltrane's reputation.

There's a reason Dick is considered one of the most astonishingly inventive authors in sci fi, and that reason is found in the books he published between 1962 and 1977.
posted by mediareport at 9:48 PM on April 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

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