Adapting Philip K. Dick

This week on the Kirkus Reviews Blog, I jump ahead from some of the older stories to a very modern author: Philip K. Dick and the adaptations of his works.

This was an interesting article to write, because I wanted to tie it in with the upcoming movie release of Total Recall. Prior to writing it, I was able to find a number of the films and watch through them over the course of a weekend, to get a sense of how they were adapted. Some were a pleasant surprise: Total Recall and Screamers were two that I particularly liked. Others, like Paycheck and Next, I didn’t like very much.

Dick’s works have translated interestingly into film, I suspect because the premise that he’s really known for – this world is not correct – is something that’s easy for a film to capture and challenge its characters with in ways that audiences can easily understand.

Here’s the sources that I used for this piece:

The Library of America Series (Four Novels of the 1960s, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, and Valis & Later Novels): This series examines notable works from American authors, seldomly looks at Science Fiction. These books are fantastic examples of the author’s works, but are also excellent for their in-depth chronological look at Dick’s life.

Minority Report Special Features: This is something that I watched way back, when Minority Report was the first DVD that I ever owned. It’s an excellent collection of special features, not the least of which the one that talks about the adaptation of the story and how it came to be.

Prophets of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick: This was a really neat one to watch, even as it glosses over much of Dick’s life and dramatizes some of it. The most interesting thing was Ridley Scott’s impressions of the man, whom he met at a screening. There’s also some interesting points about how Minority Report was going to become a sequel to Total Recall.

Internet Speculative Fiction Database: This large archive was useful for tracking down the original publications of each of the stories, which allowed me to string them out in publication order.

The films: I was able to track down almost all of the films, with the exception of A Scanner Darkly and Radio Free Albemuth. Watching each (and reading most of the stories that they were based on) really helped to see what exactly was adapted.

Usual Suspects: The Stuff Dreams are Made Of, History of Science Fiction and Trillion Year Spree each have sections about Philip K. Dick and his works, which provide good background material on the life of the author and his contributions to the genre.

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Brave New Worlds

John Joseph Adams has distinguished himself in the past with outstanding speculative fiction anthologies, from Wastelands to The Living Dead and others. His latest volume, Brave New Worlds, is perhaps one of the finest sets of short fiction that I’ve ever read, with a stunning table of contents and authors to tell their stories of oppression.

Brave New Worlds is a complete turnaround from Wastelands, an anthology that looks at humanity after the demise of civilization. Here, the focus is on societies where government has not only remained, but strengthened to the point where the people themselves become the enemies of the state. It’s an incredibly frightening future, and one that feels far more relevant to today’s world than most works. The argument between Republicanism and Federalism is a familiar one to anybody who has tuned into the news over the past couple of years.

Indeed, this anthology came to me at a time of personal political crisis. The past couple of years have been ones of discussion, learning and thinking about the differences in political parties, and what these sorts of things mean at the end of day and down the road. The idea of an overly strong state that impinges upon the rights of its citizens is something that is undesirable to me, and what our country represents. Numerous actions taken by the government have had a speculative-fiction feel to it, such as the detainees in Guantanamo Bay and the kill order against a radical cleric overseas, to the authority of the Transportation Security Administration following some terrorist attacks. It is a frightening future, but one that also needs to be balanced against the idea of a libertarian world where little order or government control exists to keep people from killing or harming one another. As such, Brave New Worlds is scary much in the same way that Wastelands (of what I’ve read and heard of it) was scary: it exists at the other extreme end of the political spectrum.

There are a good number of fantastic stories here. The anthology starts off with Shirley Jackson’s classic story The Lottery and continues to tell a great number of tales such as S.K. Gilbow’s Red Card, where people are assigned by their state randomly to kill lawbreakers, Ten With A Flag by Joseph Paul Haines that sees citizens given rankings based on their potential and Geriatric Ward by Orson Scott Card, which sees people who have vastly accelerated life spans. One of my absolute favorites is Jordan’s Waterhammer by Joe Mastroianni, a tale of miners valued only as tools. Many of the stories here were fairly new to me: I’d either heard of them by reputation or read them once long ago, while there were also a fair number of stories that I have read before, such as Carrie Vaughn’s Amaryllis (published on Adam’s online science fiction magazine Lightspeed), Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report and Paolo Bacigalupi’s disturbing Pop Squad. There are few of the stories that I didn’t get into, such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin and O Happy Day! by Geoff Ryman, simply not suiting my own tastes for any number of reasons, but these were few and far between.

What impressed me even more than the excellent lineup of stories and authors was that the anthology didn’t feel repetitive. There are plenty of short stories and novellas that fall into the dystopian category, but one could have easily told story after story of an intrepid citizen standing up and fighting the power, so to speak. That certainly happens, in their own ways, but there’s a broad spectrum of stories to be told. Jordan’s Waterhammer is a story that I expected to see more often in the anthology, but stories such as Amaryllis, The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away (Cory Doctorow) and the funny Civilization by Vylar Kaftan (a choose your own adventure style story) shows a diversity in the story types, but also the morals and themes behind the stories. While Brave New Worlds is scary, it goes out of its way to demonstrate the numerous ways in which fascism can manifest itself in society, in any location.

One of my favorite stories here was Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which I first read in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. Of all the dystopian stories that I can think of, the story and the film both demonstrate the core themes for any type of dystopian story: which is the greater evil, protecting the people from themselves, or allowing them to come to greater harm?

One particularly striking story that helped define the anthology was Tobias Buckell’s story, Resistance, on an asteroid colony that adopted techno-democracy, where everybody can vote on every decision. When the time required to vote becomes to much, their voting habits are taken over by a computer, which in turn creates a leader for them, based on their desires. The story demonstrated to me that in all cases, governance is the product of we the people. Society can certainly back the wrong people, as history has seen from time to time, with figures such as Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, but rather than a universal evil, supporters remain, for whatever reason: fear, threads, naïveté or blind obedience. Despite the uproar online over the TSA screening procedures enacted around the holiday period, a majority of Americans supported them.

Brave New Worlds isn’t a book that’s appealing because I see some imminent threat of a governmental implosion or change (although some might view it that way), it is appealing because it recognizes and points out that fascism is a continual threat to society from a particular political philosophy of a strong state, while the opposite philosophy spells danger in much the same way – presumably what Wastelands will tell a reader. The threat is present within us all, through our overreactions and our indifference to the world around us, and for that, I think Brave New Worlds presents us with a stunning cautionary group of stories that shows the limits of what people will tolerate. As it stands, it remains an exceedingly relevant and poignant book that should be an essential addition to any speculative fiction fan’s personal library.