3 Techniques for Writers from a Philip K. Dick Novel

Philip K. Dick

I just finished reading The Man in the High Castle by the late Philip K. Dick, and if you like to read science fiction (or write it, like me) this book is for you.  For those of you not familiar with the novel, it is an alternate reality story set in a world where the Axis powers won WWII and an underground black market novel circulates this world chronicling the actual history (with some interesting changes).

First of all, this book is considered Dick’s masterpiece by many and there are many reasons why it reaches beyond the ordinary in storytelling.  Dick is a master of the philosophical epic, weaving deep thought and consideration of our current state of affairs with every word.  Great science fiction will use the genre to comment on the human condition, and if you are writing a science fiction novel you would be good to emulate these five techniques to greater enhance your efforts.  These are only suggestions, however, but they are fantastic examples of Philip K. Dick’s style.

  1. Character-centric Diction – Dick’s characters are many, but not too many to confuse, and each of them speaking either English, German or Japanese as a first language.  The novel is told in third person, but each character is centered for their own scenes, and when they are we see sentences tailored for the character in the spotlight.  For example, when Dick writes about the Japanese trade missioner Nobosuke Tagomi his sentences are missing determiners and are very short and choppy.  When he is writing about the life of Frank Frink, the Jewish man in hiding, he uses Yiddish phrases now and again.  He uses German phrases and even entire sentences in German when writing about the Nazis who control the eastern seaboard of the U.S.  This creates a feel to the novel that really gives a sense of the culture behind each character.
  2. Research – Of course, the novel was written in the early 1960’s, but Dick’s version of the world of “if” includes an Adolf Hitler who went mad from Syphilis, an assassination of FDR during his campaign that led to a prolonged Great Depression and a United States that never entered the war.  When this book was written, of course, these were postulations that seemed reasonable.  Recent evidence shows that Hitler was actually a virgin, that Roosevelt’s policies were not the most important factor to ending the Great Depression and that the United States would have entered the war for global economic reasons anyway.  This novel may seem dated by our standards today, but Dick had obviously done extensive historical research in order to accurately speculate what might happen if the Axis won the war.
  3. The Story Isn’t the Story – The thing about this novel that is most striking is that it is not merely an alternate reality story, but like all great science fiction it is a commentary on the governmental systems and culture in which the novel was written.  When this novel was written, the threat of a totalitarian state much like what was the perception of the Soviet Union by the United States floated through everyone’s mind on a daily basis.  Another thought is that he was commenting on the idea that Britain was on the decline and the United States was on the rise as a super power, a reality that Britain did not want to face.  This leads to probably the biggest thematic element in the novel which is the questioning of reality versus truth.  This novel includes a counterfeiting ring that makes fake artifacts from before the war, a Jewish man who has changed his name and gone through extensive plastic surgery to hide from the Germans, and an author of a book that is an alternative history from their own which is actually our own history.  The point is that along with making a novel an exciting read, one must infuse that novel with some type of thematic element that gives that novel more weight as a piece of art that comments on something important.

One interesting tidbit about this novel that will blow your mind is that Dick uses the I, Ching throughout the novel to guide his characters.  They all seem to be drawn to it to help them make decisions, and even at the end when the author of the underground book asks “Why did I write this novel?” the I, Ching‘s consultation reveals Hexagram 61 which means “inner truth”, a theme that is found throughout the novel.

I’ll probably be digging in to one of Dick’s final novels, Radio Free Albemuth (In between writing my own sci-fi novel), but until then I suggest that if you write any type of genre, pick out a few books in that genre by great writers and find out what makes them tick, what makes them sing, and then try to do some of that yourself.

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4 thoughts on “3 Techniques for Writers from a Philip K. Dick Novel

  1. I picked this book up, actually bought it for my Kindle, and find that the $1.99 I paid for it was well worth it, even when I realized that I already had a copy of it in my Kindle library that I inherited from someone else. Not trying to confuse you, really. Anyway, I want to thank you for the recommendation and I think I will be trying some more of those variant history novels you mentioned in an earlier post.

  2. I can’t believe this is a book I’ve never picked up. I will read and report back.

    I like your second point. I’ve read many alternative history books and struggled to really get into some because that alternative is simply too far fetched or has no grounding in logic. Yes, imagination is important, but for me the imagination really sparkles when its born out of a logical extrapolation of real events. Too many rely on a simple premise without following through what would actually have happened.

    Fascinating post.

  3. Both Hemingway and Gaiman used to emulate writers they respected. They eventually found their unique voices through this process. Many others writers did the same (and are doing), I’m sure. A beautiful article, thanks, Roger.

  4. Nice analysis, Roger. Dick was a phenomenal storyteller. To the points you make above, I’d add that Dick never made the mistake of explaining the social and technical machinery of the worlds he created in lumps of excruciating detail. Instead he let just enough context unfold slowly and naturally through dialogue and action, and used his wry sense of humor to enliven the telling. An example from The Man in the High Castle shows both of these skills at work: “To inspire himself, he lit up a marijuana cigarette, excellent Land-O-Smiles brand.” That single sentence delightfully says more about this society and this character than a page of exposition.

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