Very few sci-fi authors have as colorful a story as Philip K. Dick.
Not only was he tremendously prolific, churning out 44 novels and 121 short stories
in his lifetime — he died in 1982 aged 53 — but he was famously prone to hallucinations and paranoid delusions, even having something of a religious experience that revealed his son had a fatal birth defect. Doctors successfully saved his son’s life, but only after Dick told them what to look for.
He toiled in semi-obscurity for a large part of his career, but Hollywood later discovered his work, adapting story after story into numerous big-name movies. It’s why many consider him Hollywood’s go-to source for sci-fi (Minority Report, Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau).
Dick’s work addresses all kinds of topics, but it asks different versions of the same question over and over again: How do we know what’s real and what’s not?
As our world becomes increasingly virtual, the “real” can be easily threatened by the “not-real.” Imaginary Bitcoins have people questioning their physical dollars. Daily communication happens in ones and zeroes via email rather than through physical letters by pen and paper. This same type of tension proliferated Dick’s work and life.
He looked at a future where technology went unchecked by humanity, and he didn’t like what he saw.
A Science Channel documentary called “Prophets of Science Fiction” (available on Netflix) takes a look at Dick’s work through the technology he predicted and feared.
Let’s start with a story. One day Dick came home to find that his house had been burglarized.
Someone had ransacked his house and blown up his safe, containing a bunch of writing and documents.
Dick wrote extensively about the government, conspiracy, and abuses of technology. It had all been fiction, of course, but the incident didn’t mesh well with his paranoia — was he getting “too close” to something true?
This incident establishes the mindset that would come to govern Dick’s work — What is real? What is fake? How do we know the difference?
Even if you haven’t heard of the book you probably know it from the big screen, as the canonized sci-fi film Blade Runner.
In the movie, Rick Deckard is responsible for dismantling (read: killing) human-like androids called replicants.
By administering “empathy tests,” Deckard can determine if someone is a flesh-and-blood human or a replicant. The replicants are completely indistinguishable from humans save for their inability to empathize.
There’s a famous idea in robotics called the “uncanny valley” — the more human-like you make a robot, the more appealing it becomes. Once it gets “too human,” it’s repulsive. But once you push past that point where the robot is indistinguishable from real people, it becomes appealing again.
Pulling together all kinds of discipline from the medical and scientific fields, people are already at work to make — well — people.
Android builder David Hanson, left, shows off his Philip K. Dick android.
Now let’s ask another Philip K. Dickian question — how can you know if you are the real you?
Dick’s short story on the topic, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” became the classic film Total Recall. Main character Douglas Quaid can’t tell if he’s a regular person pretending to be a secret agent, or a secret agent pretending to be a regular person.
Modern neuroscience has discovered a molecule in the brain that’s related to storing long-term memories.
Manipulate these molecules and — the theory is — you manipulate the memories. On a long enough timeline, we may very well be able to change or control memories.
Neuroscientist Andre Fenton says that the chemical processes taking place in your brain when remembering something are nearly identical to the processes when you’re actually having said experience — looked at in a certain way, your memories make reality.
Dick is also slightly credited with coming up with virtual reality. The Empathy Box, a fictional device from “Androids,” plunges characters into a fake world that seems utterly real.
Surely a farfetched idea when he published the book in the 1960s, but VR is now the basis of an entire industry.
Thomas DiFanti works at StarCAVE, an impressive piece of imaging technology that makes use of virtual reality technology.
Inside the StarCAVE, every surface is rear projected, making it appear as though you are inside a 3D structure. Scientists use it for a number of purposes, such as studying the quirky shapes of proteins.
Then they dispatch police to make arrests on a crime scene before the crime takes place. The big twist occurs when Chief John Anderton is sent to arrest HIMSELF!
The story raises all kinds questions about surveillance and the law that are being asked today.
While we certainly don’t have the psychic “precogs” from Dick’s story at our disposal, law enforcement across the country make use of statistical and mathematical models to predict when and where crimes will take place.
Some precincts chalk this up to as much as a 30% decline in crime.