Philip K. Dick – Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, or not?

03Jun10

Sommaire : Philip K. Dick, un véritable génie qui a exprimé ses idées philosophiques, avec beaucoup d’humour et ironie, dans le cadre des histoires décalées de science fiction “pulp”, écrites sous amphétamines. À découvrir, mais avec un livre mieux que celui-ci.

At some point recently, I noticed a Philip K. Dick title on the Internet that I had never seen before: Humpty Dumpty in Oakland.

First, a little background. I started reading PKD (generally, people use his initials because it does not sound very nice to say “Dick”) a long time ago, at the recommendation of Dr. Frank. (Thanks, Frank!) I never liked science fiction (and still don’t), but I immediately latched onto a writer who was, in those days, cult.

Saying that PKD transcends science fiction is an understatement. His real ideas are about society and humanity, but don’t let that scare you. He wrote in the pulp science fiction domain in order to express himself, and indeed, this choice, combined with his sense of humor, makes his texts very entertaining reading. He made his living writing these short stories and novels, which were sold to pulp magazines and publishers for a pittance. He regularly took amphetamines in order to crank (excuse the pun) out enough words each month to pay the rent.

With the release of the film Blade Runner in 1982 (very shortly after his death), PKD began to be known to a larger public, after nearly 30 years of obscurity and marginalization. Other film adaptations have encouraged this evolution.

His texts generally fall into a few classic themes:
– What does it mean to be human? (e.g. Blade Runner = Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)
– What is reality/truth and how can we distinguish it? (e.g. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch)
– Paranoia/psychosis/drug abuse. (e.g. A Scanner Darkly)
– Control/freedom/war. (e.g. The Penultimate Truth)

Over the last 25 years, I have read, or tried to read, the majority of PKD’s vast output. There are about 60 paperbacks in my PKD pile, far more than any other writer. Almost half of my collection came in one block, when I bought a carton of books from Metal Mike. I did not ask why he was selling; any record or book collector knows that in this kind of situation, you just buy. (Thanks, Mike!)

I am particularly partial to PKD’s earlier works, and I have a difficult time with his later works (e.g. Valis): after years of amphetamine abuse, I feel that he started to lose focus.

Back to the book in question. Apparently it is from about 1960 (rather early in the chronology) and had never been published before. Apparently mainstream publishers were not interested.

I immediately noticed that there are no spaceships or topless receptionists with blue tits in this book. The story takes place in a thoroughly ordinary context around Oakland, California. The book features PKD’s usual talent for characters, dialog, and descriptions. But it is not couched as science fiction. It’s a rather ordinary, slightly twisted story about a few paranoid individuals in Oakland and their strange interactions. In typical PKD style, he uses this book as a way to present some of his ideas and philosophy about American people and their ignorance, racism and hatred in general.

The book was entertaining, and interesting to someone (me) who has read tons of PKD. As a “fan”, I was glad to have read it, but I would recommend that you read almost any of his other works first. There are some excellent short story collections, and I have mentioned a few titles above (under the classic themes). So get to work! (There are vast amounts of information about him on the Internet, so I have not gone to great lengths to put links in this post.)

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One Response to “Philip K. Dick – Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, or not?”

  1. 1 Dr. Frank

    Wow, I thought I’d read ’em all, but I missed this one! Thanks for the tip, Jon.


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