Philip K Dick

Authentic American History: Arizona


I've been reading more of Philip K. Dick's stories lately. Mostly his short stories, but also The Man in the High Castle. Thinking about Dick's stories, my impressions of Arizona are filtered through the lens of historicity. What is the "authentic" Arizona experience? Is it one steeped in history, or that which reflects the current reality?

A view of the Superstition Mountains from the Goldfield Ghost Town.

The Phoenix Skyharbour Airport is similar to most other airports in North America: security checkpoints, slow moving lines, and long distances between where you are and where you need to be. It's not until I was on the shuttle to pick up a rental car that I was exposed to the external environment. As expected, it's hot. It's dry. It's very different from home. Yet the same sun sets over Arizona as does here.


Many areas near the highways in Phoenix, Tempe and Chandler that I visited are meticulously landscaped. Reddish brown gravel covers the side of the highway, where I'm familiar with unkempt green grassy weeds. From this grow a number of hardy shrubs and red flowering plants. Everything is well maintained: I frequently saw ground crews doing roadside maintenance. Any greenery was an olive colour: well adapted to the dry environment.

The highway overpasses were painted a tan colour, instead of the grey concrete. Embossed designs are a complementary purple. Most of the palm trees in these areas were well groomed, and there were also a number of cacti.

One gets an impression of the local economy, which appears to have weathered the financial crisis relatively well.

Stepping just outside this core area, towards the Apache Junction, things became significantly more naturalistic. Overpasses were no longer painted. Palm trees, while plentiful, looked ragged, with rough bark. Along the roads were scrub desert. Highway signs warning of flash floods.

A view of the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, with scrubland desert and cacti

Which of these represents the "authentic" Arizona?

I visited the Goldfield Ghost Town, as a bit of local tourism. I dont' think that I've every truly appreciated the term "tourist trap" until now. From the outside, things have an air of history. They're an outer shell of respectability. But step inside the saloon, and you quickly see how the building has been completely gutted and rebuilt, with new framing from the second floor up.

A view of the inside of the Mammoth Saloon, with reconstructed interior.

There was a small museum, for which a small entry fee was required. Within were several items of questionable provenance, and limited description. Near the end of the tour was the most interesting artifact: a dinner jacket purportedly worn by Doc Holliday. It has a plaque, mentioning that it was purchased from the Wells Fargo Museum in Tombstone, which was closed down and auctioned off in 1985-86. While this artifact is of course of interest to Arizona history, it felt out of place here, a three hour drive from Tombstone.

A dress coat worn by Doc Holilday

A plaque reading "Doc Holiday's Dress Coat. This no doubt was worn many times to the Bird Cage theater. Purchased from the sale of the Wells Fargo Museum, Tombstone, AZ by Goldfield Ghost Town in 1985. Charles F Dickerson Auctioneers"

Not nearly as out of place as the pottery shop. While the artist in residence could very well be from Arizona, the clay from which these trinkets were made was imported from California.

I could not help but think of Robert Childan, from the Man in the High Castle. These artifacts, passed off as authentic, holding only the bare veneer of truth. But was this location any different from Tuscon itself? Nestled under the Superstition Mountains, I felt both closer to history, yet also keenly aware of the alien nature. Reality is a relative construct, as in much of Dick's work.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick's works have been quite popular for film adaptations, starting with Blade Runner, an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? starring Harrison Ford in 1982. Sadly, Dick died from a stroke four months before the film was released. Total Recall followed in 1990, based of Dick's story "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale", starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Screamers, based on the short story "Second Variety" was released in 1995, starring Peter Weller. Minority Report, based on the short story of the same name, was released in 2002, starring Tom Cruise. A smaller film, Imposter was released in 2002, starring Gary Sinise and Vincent D'Onofrio, based on a short story of the same name. The Ben Affleck movie Paycheck was released in 2003, continuing the more recent trends to leave the name the same. In 2007, Nicolas Cage starred in Next, a loose adapation of Dick's short story "The Golden Man". Before Next was A Scanner Darkly. While I have a particular fondness for Blade Runner, it's more clearly an adaptation than Scanner, which stays much closer to the novel. The movie is rotoscoped, each frame was originally shot on film with the cast, including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochane.

This is not the first of Richard Linklater's films to do so, he previously directed A Waking Life, which was done in a similar - albeit simplified - style. The visual style of the film is in a very large part what makes this such a compelling adaptation.

The story follows Bob Arctor/Fred, a junkie/undercover narc undergoing a steady drug-induced dissociate identity disorder. A combination of the drug, Substance D, and his dual roles as dealer and undercover agent cause him to lose his grip on reality. Particularly important is the so called "scramble suit" in which Arctor "cannot be identified by voice, or by even technological voiceprint, or by appearance" as it renders him "like a vague blur and nothing more".

The breakdown of reality in the story is perfectly suited to the visual style. The rotoscoping of the film acts in many ways like the scramble suit, carefully masking the reality beneath. Both of these effects are of course substituting for the "mors ontologica", the death of the subject experienced by those addicted to the drug Substance D.

Both the novel and the movie treat an important issue, as relevant in today's society as it was in 1977. It's in many ways one of the most humanizing of Dick's stories, and is clearly based on very personal events in his life. The story is one of my favourites, and I think the film is a very worthy adaptation.

Books Received

In the wee hours of the morning on Thursday, I placed an order with A day later, my books arrived. The Pocket Essential Philip K Dick by Andrew M. Butler, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick, and A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed

I really didn't know much about Butler's book before ordering it, but it does look interesting. Butler covers each of Dick's novels in chronological order. Although listed by their published names, Butler includes any working titles, the dates associated with the writing and editing of the works, and where it was originally published. In covering the stories he provides a brief synopsis, what other Dickian works it draws upon, any Dickian archetypal characters it uses, a list of recurring ideas in the work, as well as a brief note on subtextual items. Each entry is then finished with a rating out of five. A few of Dick's more well known short stories are also reviewed. It looks to be a useful book for cross-referencing themes between Dick's novels. The Pocket Essential Philip K. Dick isn't exactly what I was expecting, but looks to be worthwhile. 

I'll review Seed's companion at a later time, once I've had a chance to review it in detail.

Science Fiction at Waterloo

The University of Waterloo is sadly lacking in science fiction literature courses. The only course offered is English 208B, which does provide a good introduction to the field of science fiction in literature. Sadly, it is just an introductory course. It has a very high enrollment, from multiple disciplines. There may have been more engineering and physics students in the course than English majors. Since there are no further courses offered by the English Department at Waterloo, I'm preparing a "Selected Reading" course. This is an independent study course, supervised by a member of the faculty.  I've been working with Assistant Professor Aimée Morrison on the content of a course studying the work of Philip K Dick. The primary texts I will be studying will be

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Ubik
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said

As well as some short stories

  • "Minority Report"
  • "Imposter"
  • "We Can Remember it for you Wholesale"
  • "The Electric Ant"
  • "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon"

This isn't just a "reading" course. There is a significant literary theory component to this course. I've selected a number of articles and book chapters regarding PKD's work. Some of the more notable texts I will be using include The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, A Companion to Science Fiction edited by David Seed, and the Pocket Essentials guide to Philip K Dick, written by Andrew M Butler.

I'll be meeting with Professor Morrison tomorrow to work out the syllabus for the course.

I'm really looking forward to this course, and it will wrap up just before my trip to the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal.