Libertarian History/Philosophy

Libertarianism, Phil Dick, and the New Yorker

|

What do those three things have in common? Eh, not much. However, a smart review essay on Dick by Adam Gopnik just appeared in the New Yorker. I think Gopnik gets Dick's virtues and faults pretty much right, and while doing so nails my own occasional old school SF geek resentment of Dick's "special" status in the past few decades among hipsters and literati.

The libertarian angle comes in in Gopnik's last lines. Though neither author nor topic are libertarian, this conclusion struck me as a poetic evocation of a certain spirit among radical libertarians, worth recording:

The vision of an unending struggle between a humanity longing for a fuller love it always senses but can't quite see, and a deranged cult of violence eternally presenting itself as necessary and real-this thought today does not seem exactly crazy. The empire never ends.

NEXT: A Glass By Any Other Name...

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. That’s a very good article, thanks for the pointer Brian.

    I discovered PKD just about the time of Blade Runner, when you still had to hunt out his stuff in used book stores. Like for Gopnik, it hasn’t aged well for me. But I can’t really imagine that time of my life with out it.

  2. Gopnik writes; In “Ubik” (1969), …
    A society of paranoids can work as well as Nixon’s America did and, perhaps, in similar ways.”

    What does that mean “Nixon’s America”?
    I stopped reading “The New Yorker” a long time ago because I realized how awful it was. How stuck it was in everything being a question of politics and then, stuck on the 1960s.
    This article proved it again with other references to Johnson-Nixon.
    Your last paragraph reminds me of my sophomore year in high school, which I think is the high point of interest in SF for most people.

  3. Brian, I’m puzzled by your comment “Though neither author nor topic are libertarian…”

    PD’s fiction (and essays) always seemed quite libertarian to me.

  4. The vision of an unending struggle between a humanity longing for a fuller love it always senses but can’t quite see, and a deranged cult of violence eternally presenting itself as necessary and real-this thought today does not seem exactly crazy. The empire never ends.

    One needn’t be a “radical” libertarian to see this continuing truth. It’s always been and, until we restrict it to only protecting against force and fraud, it will always be; Our enemy, the state.

  5. Terry, Dick was obsessed with Nixon. It would be inappropriate to write an article about Dick’s writing and not mention that the screwball petty autocracies within it aren’t to a degree reflections of Dick’s hatred of Nixon.

    I’m a little surprised that the writer discounts The Man in the High Castle so much, since it both has characters that aren’t the same characters from every other book, and since it contains within it the germ of the madness that dominates the later writing. The point wasn’t just to write a clever alternate history story where the Germans and Japanese won World War II. The point is that the novel within a novel reveals to the protagonist that the characters aren’t living in the “real” history – and that we aren’t, either. The “real” history revealed by the oracle is quite different from our own. I think Dick was starting to be convinced that he was living in a world that was “illusionary” even then.

    It’s certainly not very intellectually respectable, but it’s a nice diversion for an afternoon or two of reading.

  6. “Terry, Dick was obsessed with Nixon.”
    “Ubik” came out in 1969, so Nixon wasn’t in office a year yet, and Nixon was a Rhino, he expanded the Federal government.
    Sounds like Philip Dick was a lot more fucked in the head then most people know.

  7. There’s a lot of nonsense in that essay. Take this: At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences. I’ll be the first to admit that Dick could write some pretty horrendous prose; but he could write wonderful prose too, and A Scanner Darkly and VALIS and “Frozen Journey” (to name just two novels and one short story) are filled with eminently quotable sentences. (“If I bring back the ashtrays, can I have my prefrontal?”)

  8. The vision of an unending struggle between a humanity longing for a fuller love it always senses but can’t quite see, and a deranged cult of violence eternally presenting itself as necessary and real-this thought today does not seem exactly crazy.

    That is horribly offensive. Rather, we libertarians are a rational cult of violence presenting ourselves as necessary and real.

  9. All I know is that while I love the movies I’ve seen based on Dick’s work, the only novel of his so far I’ve tried to read was VALIS, and I wanted to pluck my eyeballs out after reading about 40 pages.

    Give me Heinlein or Spider Robinson.

  10. ‘”Ubik” came out in 1969, so Nixon wasn’t in office a year yet, and Nixon was a Rhino, he expanded the Federal government. Sounds like Philip Dick was a lot more fucked in the head then most people know.’

    And that’s a reason to think that Dick should have liked Nixon?

    No, I’ve always been under the impression that Dick thought that the entire political system was corrupt, and Nixon tended to embody the worst elements of the American system.

    And yes, Dick was fucked in the head; then again, I’ve always prefered madmen to the sane. They’re much more interesting.

  11. jf,

    Valis is the worst choice. Read Martian Time-Slip or 3 Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Man in the High Castle; a ny of the works those movies are based on too. Valis is typical late period crap and grossly over-rated. So called “lesser works”such as Our Friends From Frolix 8 or Counter Clock World are vastly better than Valis.

    Regarding the movies-(I havn’t seen A Scanner Darkly),”Screamers” is the most faithful to the source material(short story Second Variety).

    I havn’t read Dick in nearly 15 years but I would be shocked if I was any less impressed today.

  12. Dick battled temporal lobe epilepsy which causes non-convulsive seizures akin to bad psychedelic trips. It is thought that Van Gogh and Lewis Carrol, among other artists had this malady.

  13. ‘”Ubik” came out in 1969, so Nixon wasn’t in office a year yet,

    Which Office? He was Veep, the Governor of Dick’s State of California,and a Red-Hunting Congressman
    all well before 1969.
    Plenty of time to inspire justifiable paranoia in Dick , particularly as a “Native Son”.

  14. I think another good introduction to Dick is his short stories. There are a number of really good collections available. I can’t always get into his novels, but the short stories are generally well written (not that they are high literature, but that they are quite readable), interesting, and the perfect length to really get at his ideas.

  15. Your last paragraph reminds me of my sophomore year in high school, which I think is the high point of interest in SF for most people.

    Unless of course one enjoys reading the aforementioned genre, in which case one can study said genre well into college.

    I would say that of all the literature classes I took (which was many as an English major), Sci-Fi Literature was by far the most interesting. The genre has a critical mass of existential philosophy, practical science, and anthropology that I was unable to find in most other genres.

    That being said, the books most profound often didn’t involve aliens with ray-guns and flying saucers. For a good example, check out “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” by Cory Doctorow.

    When discussing Science Fiction in this sense, Dick was an innovator in that he really turned what used to be lab reports injected with a narrative into actual literature. (Not alone of course, props to Herbert and Heinlein)

    As a medium for discussing things that, in a real life context, are taboo to discuss (60’s race relations touched upon in Star Trek, for example), the genre allows some real discussion before the naysayers get wind of it.

    For instance, the show Firefly had strong libertarian elements that were not exposed until the subsequent movie was released. By then, fans of the show had enough ammunition that when the denouncers came along, they were able to fend them off.

    Damn, I gotta switch to decaf.

  16. And fantasy is NOT science fiction!!!

  17. And fantasy is NOT science fiction!!!

    Hallelujah, brother! Sing it out!

  18. For instance, the show Firefly had strong libertarian elements that were not exposed until the subsequent movie was released.

    What you talkin’ about, Willis? Don’t you recall lines like “That’s what governement is for–to get in a man’s way” during the show’s episodes? I caught the libertarian theme of the show before looking it up on the web and verifying Tim Minear’s political outlook.

    In fact, that’s why I looked it up, because I was so surprised to see a show with said elements.

  19. “What I’m saying is that the image rules the world. The hallucination has taken control. How do we take control of the hallucination?”

    -Mason Lang

  20. oddly enough i think valis and ubik are the best choices, and the more sci-fi material (the divine invasion, etc) isn’t nearly as interesting. valis is one of the most sad books i’ve ever read. the transmigration of timothy archer is a neat ending to that trilogy (of sorts).

  21. What you talkin’ about, Willis? Don’t you recall lines like “That’s what governement is for–to get in a man’s way” during the show’s episodes? I caught the libertarian theme of the show before looking it up on the web and verifying Tim Minear’s political outlook.

    In fact, that’s why I looked it up, because I was so surprised to see a show with said elements.

    To clarify, I don’t think they overtly said, “we’re libertarians,” but were able to introduce libertarian values without sounding like ideologues. To a libertarian, these jump right out, but to regular Americans, this sounds like simple American values.

    I think they got a little idealogical when they did the movie Serenity, and it showed.

    And yes, I do remember those lines; like any good browncoat, I have them all memorized.

  22. Hey, why the hate on Valis, I rather liked it. And Time Out of Joint was in my opinion one of the few Dick novels where he pulled it together to have a novel that was provocative yet coherent. Often a lot of what passes for PhilDickian ambigious genuis is, in my opinion, his not always deliberate incomprehensibility. Man in the High Castle in my opinion made little sense and needed to be re-worked a few times. I think people read it and say “oh, I like how he left x and y open and not really explained.” I think it more likely he wrote himself into corners and did not have the talent to get back out. I’m not hating on the guy, after reading his SF I find nearly all other writers lacking. But he had some serious faults.
    It’s been a while but I thought he had a short story which dealt with anarchism (if not libertarinaism) vs. government. This robot is the leader of a people and it decides to rebuild government (which is equated with technology and such). But it is defeated by this band of primitive anarchist zealots because they know the damage that will come. Anybody remember the name for that one? I do know that while Dick was a leftist and is all too easily adopted by such folks he was not in an ideological box. He had a very interesting anti-abortion story about “pre-persons” (kids) being rounded up…

  23. It’s been a while but I thought he had a short story which dealt with anarchism (if not libertarinaism) vs. government. This robot is the leader of a people and it decides to rebuild government (which is equated with technology and such). But it is defeated by this band of primitive anarchist zealots because they know the damage that will come. Anybody remember the name for that one?

    “Last of the Masters.”

  24. Thanks Jesse, props. Respect.
    BTW-I think Dick was at his best when dealing with his many “machine capable of many human things” stories that explored what it is to be human. I think this was dealt with rather well (if not perfectly) with Data from Star Trek Next Generation. I always wondered, how different are we from a machine which scans a database of “appropriate responses” to “so you come here often” and chooses the answer most suitable to one’s goal (probably getting laid)? Ron Bailey has some great stuff on what it means to be human in the pages of, where else, Reason…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.