Philip K. Dick is getting renewed attention [I wrote in 2007] as part of the publicity blitz for the film A Scanner Darkly. Dick wrote the novel upon which the science fiction movie is based. The director, Richard Linklater, is rightly enthusiastic about Dick’s work. “I think he’s a great novelist,” Linklater tells the Sacramento Bee. “He has such great feel for his characters, and he has deep metaphorical thoughts.” I couldn’t help wonder whether Linklater, who has usually been drawn to offbeat stories about contemporary life, had ever read any of Dick’s non-SF, “mainstream” novels. They were where Dick, unfettered by the conventions of science fiction, fully explored his characters and their relationships to society.
These novels, despite being written by one of the most famous authors of the last century, languish today in nearly complete obscurity. Their readers seem to be almost entirely SF enthusiasts making uncustomary forays into realistic fiction. So even when they are sympathetic, as in this piece by Bruce Gillespie, they basically see the books as early aberrations from Dick’s true path to science fiction greatness. The novels, however, can be read and judged on their own terms.
Most of Dick’s mainstream novels were written between 1953 and 1960. All but one of this group are set in California, where Dick lived throughout his adult life. No publisher would touch them when they were written, apparently not so much because the writing is sometimes a bit ragged (which it is) but because the world-view is almost unrelentingly bleak. Of course, for some people the 1950s were bleak, and efforts to find satisfying work and happy personal relationships were disheartening and fruitless.
What makes Dick’s California novels unusual is their focus on the middle-class, especially the lower middle-class. The books often depict the owners of small businesses and the people associated with them. Some of these folks are doing fairly well, with houses in the suburbs, for example, while others are just barely making it. But all suffer internal turmoil of some sort.
Altogether, Dick wrote seven novels set in California during the 1950s:
Mary and the Giant, set in an unnamed town south of San Francisco, was completed in 1955 and first published in 1987. The book had a paperback edition and has recently been reissued by Gollancz in Great Britain. Many used copies are available.
The Broken Bubble, set in San Francisco, was completed in 1956 and published in 1988. Used copies are available starting at $25.
Puttering About in a Small Land, set in Los Angeles, was completed in 1957 and published in 1985. New copies are available directly from the publisher but not from retail booksellers.
Confessions of a Crap Artist, set in in the exurbs of Marin County, was completed in 1959 and published in 1975. It has been reissued as a Vintage paperback and can be found in bookstores along with Dick’s SF novels. (Don’t bother looking for it where it actually belongs –- in the literature section next to Dickens.)
The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, set Marin County, was completed in 1960 and published in 1984. Used copies start around $40
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, set in Oakland and completed in 1960, was not published in the United States until 2008. Better late than never, Tor Books has finally issued an American edition.
In addition, Dick wrote three other mainstream novels: Gather Yourselves Together, completed in 1952 and set in China; In Milton Lumky Territory, completed in 1958 and much like the California novels but set primarily in Idaho; and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, completed in 1981, set in Berkeley and San Francisco and telling the story of the life and death of a famous religious personality.