Last week’s ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ centered on Mary Shelley and how her imagination through her novel ‘Frankenstein’ has now attained reality (you can read the ‘Prophets of Science Fiction: Mary Shelley’ recap here if you missed it). This week, Ridley Scott introduces us to the works of renowned author Philip K. Dick.
In order to understand the workings of Dick’s mind, the show attempts to give us some understanding of his life. During his childhood, Dick’s constant companion and someone who influenced him greatly was his twin sister Jane. The twist was that Jane had died within 6 weeks after being born yet he always felt that she was with him. To him, she was real. It was said that he was able to actually “see” her visually in vivid detail.
Dick throughout his life was known to be a man who had actual visions. Whether these visions came from his schizophrenia, drug use or paranoia no one really knew, but it fueled his imagination to write the stories that are so well known today. This imagination led him to see dark future where science would change our perception of what is real.
An important event in Dick’s life occurred in the 70’s during which he was visited by a young girl giving out Christian literature. During their conversion, a pink beam of light went off in his head. He suffered hallucinations for the next 24-48 hours, but after that encounter he became precognitive. The pink lights continue to appear to him which he felt helped him with his visions and fore-knowledge. For example, one day he saw the pink light and was given “knowledge” that would save his son. This information told him to take his son to the hospital promptly as he had a hernia birth defect that would kill him if not taken care of soon. Much to the surprise of the doctors, Dick’s diagnosis of his son was extremely accurate. From these experiences, he would write about the consequences and ramification of fore-knowledge on reality.
Dick developed a writing style that can be best described as paranoid science fiction. His novels and stories are filled with characters constantly doubting the reality around them but always with a good reason and how technology is at the forefront of the cause of this doubt.
Below are some of his works and how his paranoia have eerily developed into our realism:
‘Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep’ (‘BLADE RUNNER’)
A running theme in many of Dick’s novels is technology’s impact on the human consciousness. His characters would always have the dilemma of discerning what was real versus what was a high tech facsimile. An excellent example of this “conflict of competing realities” was in the book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ where the line between man and replicants (humanoid androids) is blurred.
Now 40 years later, Dick’s vision of replicants is on the cusp of becoming reality using bio-inspired engineering. In a note of irony, a duplicate of Dick’s head has actually been made using this technology and has been programmed to have facial expressions based on the tone of what is being said. In fact, David Hanson who is at the cutting edge of this science is theorizing that in 20 years, artificial intelligence and bio-inspired engineering will achieve human level capabilities thus making androids indistinguishable from humans.
Also in this novel, Dick wrote about a device that would allow people to enter an entirely simulated world that would be hard to distinguish from reality. We now call that technology virtual reality. In fact, over at UC San Diego, there is a room known as the StarCAVE where you can physically immerse yourself in a virtual reality arena. For example, scientists have used this room to study protein structures. They would see the structure in 3D as though they were actually inside it and be able to see all around the molecule.
Engineers at UC San Francisco have used this room to study the stability of the Golden Gate Bridge and to look at structural inadequacies in a manner that couldn’t be done on a blueprint or in reality. Scientists are now working on allowing the user to experience StarCAVE with other senses like touch and smell.
‘We Can Remember It Wholesale’ (‘TOTAL RECALL’)
In ‘We Can Remember It Wholesale’ (which was made into the film ‘Total Recall’), Dick played with the concept of memories. What would be the effect if you can “buy” memories and have them implanted in you? Thus, technology can change the perception of truth and memories could be overwritten and replaced with new ones.
Fast forward to today and neuroscientists have now isolated a particular molecule that is responsible with memory storage over a long period of time. Alter that molecule and you can alter the information that the molecule is responsible for thus changing your memories.
‘A Scanner Darkly’
For years Dick had written short stories about mind altering drugs, police power, alternate realities, corporate cover-ups and he was beginning to feel targeted by the government. This paranoia led to the book ‘A Scanner Darkly’ where he writes about how the government uses invasive technology to monitor the population making privacy obsolete. The agents in the book are equipped with high tech gadgets and can collect an overwhelmingly amount of sheer data on a person.
Some of the technology Dick wrote about in this book is in use now in the present. There are now high tech surveillance cameras from satellites that can zoom in to the point where it can read a newspaper ad or a car license. Police officers now have fiber optic cameras, night vision and thermal vision to help them catch criminals. People can be located by turning on the GPS in their phone and every e-mail, key stroke, phone call or text message made can be digitally saved and placed in a digital storage for eternity.
Dick explored the ramifications of knowing the future in the short story ‘Minority Report.’ In the story, precogs are able to see a crime before it occurred. Dick’s twist to the plot was that the precogs see a cop murder someone he hasn’t met yet. He questions whether our fate is predestined or can it be changed.
Crime prevention techniques have now been developed where analytic software can take statistical data and probability to create a map where criminal activity can be predicted. In Memphis, this technique has been used resulting in a 31% drop in serious crime. With traffic cameras and satellites all around, pre-crime is at the cutting edge without having to use a precog!
‘The Man in the High Castle’
Dick always explores the concept of alternate futures and pasts. In ‘The Man in the High Castle’, Dick writes about parallel worlds. In the past, physicists would dismiss the notion of a parallel world but in the past 10 years, this notion has now changed and the physicists of today are now considering that parallel words do exist. If an electron can travel from parallel state (move from one atomic level to another) why can’t we?
What makes this episode so special is that Scott gave a personal insight about Dick as he worked with him, albeit briefly, while making ‘Blade Runner’. He stated that their first meeting was met with some irritation on Dick’s part as he thought the screenplay would oversimplify his novel. But when Dick saw the reel and some of the special effects, he was stunned by the look of the movie and how elaborate the settings look that he went away pleased. Unfortunately, months after this meeting, Dick passed away from a stroke never to see the movie that has become an iconic classic in the genre he helped create.
Philip K. Dick’s works have always confronted his readers with the simple question: What is reality? His works are so iconic that his name is even an adjective. Philip K Dickian is often used to describe “surreal science fiction” that is “deeply paranoid, deeply intelligent and funny. It is the moment when all technologies combine together to create a sense that reality is not the same as before.”
As Scott says at the end, “(Philip K. Dick) was a troubled soul. Aren’t most prophets troubled souls?”
Next week’s episode will explore the works of H.G. Wells.