Thanks to the release of the Blade Runner 2049 movie, as well as the series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams and The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s name has been prominent in pop culture lately.
2017's Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to the 1982 Blade Runner, which was loosely based on Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Electric Dreams is an anthology series that premiered in 2017; each episode is based on one of Dick’s sci-fi short stories. The Man in the High Castle is loosely based on Dick’s novel of the same name and takes place in an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II.
Given the recent influx of adaptations of his work, it's clear Dick's vision of the future continues to captivate us. Nearly 40 years after his death, his vivid dystopian worlds and messages about human nature still compel readers. Here are ten Philip K. Dick books that every sci-fi fan must read.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The inspiration for the movies Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in San Francisco in the aftermath of nuclear war. The Earth is largely barren and most animals have gone extinct. Naturally, any remaining animal is expensive, so companies build artificial animals for those who can’t afford the real thing. Likewise, on Mars, there are androids that can be acquired as servants or assistants. These human-like robots are banned from Earth, where humans fear their power.
Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who takes a mission in the hopes of making enough money to buy a real sheep to replace his electric ones. The mission is to kill six androids that went rogue and came to Earth — but the androids won't go down without a fight.
Joe Chip is a technician working for Runciter Associates, a company that sends teams of “inertials” to protect their clients from psychic spies. The company is run by Glen Runciter and his late wife Ella, who is suspended in a cryonic state that allows her limited consciousness and communication.
Chip, Runciter, and the company’s top team travel to the moon to secure a client’s lunar facilities, only to discover that the job was a trap. Runciter is killed and the rest of the team is thrown into an altered reality, where time shifts and objects morph to resemble Runciter. The race is on to find what’s causing this altered reality before it kills them.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
In an attempt to improve conditions on Earth, the United Nations has begun drafting people to send to colonies on other planets. But the quality of life is no better there. In fact, life is so bad on Mars that colonists have taken to using a psychedelic drug called Can-D to escape. Can-D users experience hallucinations, which they can share with other people, and take place in a simulated world inhabited by a character named Perky Pat.
Can-D has very little competition on the drug market, but when Palmer Eldritch arrives with a brand new drug, that monopoly is threatened. Eldritch’s drug, Chew-Z, transports you to an idyllic world as well but is far more addictive and holds the promise of bringing you closer to God. In a world where everyone is taking mind-altering drugs, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between reality and hallucination.
Clans of the Alphane Moon
Humans have housed their psychiatric patients on the third moon in the Alphane system for years. But when war breaks out between Earth and the Alphane system, the patients escape. The former patients set up their own society, which revolves around their mental illnesses.
Eventually, Earth sends a group of doctors to bring back order, but the new colony is not interested. Led by those suffering from schizophrenia and paranoia, the colonists view the doctors as dangerous invaders and will stop at nothing to protect themselves from the foreigners.
The Man in the High Castle
What would have happened if the Allies lost the War? That’s exactly what Dick explores in this alternate history novel. In 1962, 15 years after the end of the Second World War, what was once the United States is ruled by Nazi Germany and Japan.
In San Francisco, part of the Japanese-occupied Pacific States of America, Chinese residents are considered second-class citizens and African-Americans are commonly forced into slavery. The few remaining Jews fear for their lives and must hide under new identities. The Man in the High Castle is an unimaginable yet at the same time terrifyingly believable alternate history.
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
Jason Taverner is important. He’s a singer and the host of an extremely popular television show. Everything falls apart when wakes up one morning in a seedy hotel with no identification. Even worse, he seems to have never existed.
In the dystopian society where Jason lives, a totalitarian version of the United States, it’s illegal to go anywhere without identification. If he’s caught without papers at a police checkpoint, he will be sent to a forced labor camp, no questions asked. With nowhere to turn, Jason goes on the run but can’t seem to escape a terrifying fate.
Time Out of Joint
It’s 1959. Ragle Gumm spends his days winning a newspaper competition called “Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?”. In his free time, Ragle enjoys a simple life, although it’s a bit different than the 1959 with which we’re familiar. Most notably, there’s no Marilyn Monroe in Gumm’s world.
Then, strange things start happening: Objects disappear and in their place are left slips of paper bearing the name of whatever disappeared. Gumm also finds a magazine discussing Marilyn Monroe and a phone book that seem to have slipped from our world into his. When he tries to leave town, Gumm has a shocking revelation.
A Scanner Darkly
The basis for the 2006 film of the same name, A Scanner Darkly is set in a dystopian version of Orange County, California. Loosely based on Dick’s first-hand experience in 1970s drug culture, the novel follows Bob Arctor, who lives with a group of drug addicts. Bob is highly addicted to the psychedelic Substance D.
Fred is an undercover agent assigned to bring down Bob and his fellow junkies. It’s not as simple as it seems: Bob and Fred are one person. Substance D has split the hemispheres of his brain so he operates as two separate individuals, unaware that he is living two very different lives.
Radio Free Albemuth
In another alternate history, the United States is led by the corrupt Ferris F. Freemont. He was elected as president after Lyndon Johnson. Freemont uses his power as president to destroy civil liberties and disregard human rights. A member of a right wing populist movement, Freemont is obsessed with a conspiracy theory involving an organization called Aramchek.
Radio Free Albemuth is somewhat autobiographical. Dick himself is a character in the novel, demonstrating Dick’s blatant distaste for the Republican Party and Richard Nixon. This dystopian novel is a powerful criticism of the political powers in the United States, reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Now Wait for Last Year
In 2055, the Earth is engaged in a war with the planet Lilistar. Dr. Eric Sweetscent is an organ-transplant doctor who finds himself caught in the middle of the intergalactic conflict. Previously the personal surgeon for the wealthy president of a fur manufacturing company, Dr. Sweetscent’s services have recently been transferred to the Mole, the leader of the Earth.
As Dr. Sweetscent struggles to figure out his role as a doctor working for a man who can come back from the dead, his wife Kathy develops problems of her own. She’s become addicted to a powerful drug that sends its user back and forth in time–totally randomly. But Kathy's not willing to suffer alone. She’s determined to bring her husband down with her. Rife with the all-too-familiar struggles of balancing an imposing boss and familial obligations, Now Wait for Last Year presents a terrifying picture of what Earth might look like in the not-so-distant future.
Featured photo via Alchetron and Photoshop