Attack of the ‘Dickheads’

On the lasting appeal of Philip K Dick, godfather of the X-Files generation.

Patrick West
Columnist

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  • Attack of the Dickheads

Imagine a world in which the government locks up the innocent in the belief that they will break the law in the future. No, I’m not referring to David Blunkett’s attempt to have the mentally ill incarcerated in case they may commit a crime, but to Steven Spielberg’s new film Minority Report, released in the UK this week.

Minority Report is set in a crime-free America of 2054. The absence of crime is attributed to a team of ‘pre-cogs’ (psychics), who can pinpoint when a felony is going to occur and who is going to commit it, leaving the police simply to arrest the future criminal. A problem arises when Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise) discovers that he himself has been singled out as a future ‘perp’, and goes on the run.

Minority Report is based on a 1954 short story by arguably the master of science fiction, the late Philip K Dick. Dick has in recent years become a major source of inspiration for Hollywood. Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990) and Impostor (2002) are adaptations of his stories, while a big-screen version of his 1977 A Scanner Darkly is now in the pipeline.

So what facilitates Dick’s enduring appeal? PKD – as us ‘Dickheads’ call him – was a kind of prophet of our paranoid, new-age, conspiratorial, technophobic times. In his works reality is always called into question. Usually, ‘reality’ is an illusion created by the government and multinational corporations to prevent people from seeing what is really ‘out there’. To put it in journalese, Dick is Kafka on acid, or Borges on speed, or Joyce on jellies.

Consider two of his celebrated works. In Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) Jason Taverner is a genetically modified TV presenter who, after being administered a drug dose, wakes up to find all records of him erased. Far from being rich and famous, he is just a non-person in a police state. In the end, we don’t know which reality is true. Was his time as a celebrity a drug-fuelled fantasy itself, which an antidote took him out of? Far from having a nightmare he’s a nobody, was Taverner merely previously dreaming he was a somebody?

Or consider Time Out of Joint, published in 1959. The protagonist in this work believes he is living in the cosy world of 1959 America. Except he is not, and begins to realise that he is living in a synthetic village in 1997, and in the world outside rages an interstellar atomic civil war. The village, his character and memories have all been fabricated in order to trick him into performing wartime tasks for the government.

Many can relate to these dystopias. PKD is the godfather of the X-Files generation that dresses up credulous, conspiratorial paranoia as insightful scepticism. The appeal of his ideas can be seen in such solipsistic films as The Matrix and The Truman Show. Philip K Dick has been cited as the quintessential postmodern author.

Dick was very much in the mould of his more loony fans. Psychiatrists have pointed out that those who are seduced by conspiracy theories have often experienced a bereavement or personal trauma. They project their anxieties on to the outside world, believing in the fantastic as a way of coming to terms with their own inexplicable tragedies. Those who have experienced encounters with aliens, on the other hand, often suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy.

Dick was himself deeply traumatised by the death of his twin sister in infancy – which he blamed on his mother – and in February 1974 he also suffered a fit which his biographer, Laurence Sutin, attributes to temporal lobe epilepsy. This may have also been caused by his copious drug intake; he had been on tranquillisers and amphetamines since the 1950s.

Dick was convinced that the FBI and the KGB spied on him, and attributed the events of February 1974 as him coming into contact with an alien presence or a divinity of some sort. For two months, he experienced hallucinations and waking dreams that told him he was the reincarnation of an early Gnostic Christian.

Still, despite his unfortunate contribution to X-Files-esque imbecility, Philip K Dick was a good writer who came up with some wonderfully spooky stories. With the likes of home secretaries Howard, Straw and Blunkett, with their insatiable appetite for state interference, we should today cherish Dick’s anti-authoritarianism.

And, no, Minority Report has nothing to do with race relations, although Jack Straw clearly displayed he was a PKD aficionado when he agreed with the Macpherson report, which made the perception of racist intent an offence in itself.

Thoughtcrime! Welcome to the future.

  • Like, hello

As the TV comedy, Friends, enters its final series, can we put to bed the pervasive conceit that the Americans have no sense of humour? To those that say the Americans are not a funny people, I say Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Frasier, Woody Allen and the Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams films.

What sets Friends, and indeed The Simpsons, apart from the above is that it is a comedy suitable for all. The British haven’t produced a decent pre-watershed comedy since Fawlty Towers. And aside from The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge and Big Train, we have failed in recent years to churn out much that is good for adults. All we’re left with is such excrement as My Hero, The Vicar of Dibley and re-runs of Dad’s Army, which was never funny in the first place.

  • Kids’ charter

Children’s Rights. A 10-point manifesto:

  • More shouting and running around
  • A penny on income tax for more spaceships
  • A ban on grown-ups getting drunk and acting silly
  • Make animals speak
  • The torture and execution of all insects
  • The permanent segregation of girls and boys
  • Bring back the dinosaurs
  • Bring back the Second World War
  • Society to be divided into gangs
  • Compulsive bullying of those who look or act different, especially smelly, poor children.

Patrick West

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

Spielberg’s precognition, by Sandy Starr

spiked-issue: Film

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