Course Notes — Themes from the Incomparable Philip K. Dick

by Daniel A. Kaufman


The end of the Fall semester is rapidly approaching, and it will mark the last time I will have taught the current iteration of my Philosophical Ideas in Literature course, devoted to five novels by Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962); The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965); Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968); Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974); and A Scanner Darkly (1977).

Novels and short stories are not explicitly didactic – or at least the good one’s aren’t – and their potential interpretations, consequently, are quite broad and depend, in good part, on what the reader brings to the reading experience.  Thus, the course has benefited tremendously from Missouri State’s policy of offering free credit hours to senior citizens, the result of which has been a multi-generational classroom experience, in which nineteen year-olds find themselves in discussions about the books they are reading with people in their sixties and seventies, not to mention their fifty-something professor.

It is difficult to decide when to change the readings for a course like this, but given its character, as just described, it is essential that the classroom experience be a discussion and not a lecture. This is hard to sustain under any circumstances, but becomes almost near-impossible once I have become too familiar with the material myself.  I have taught this version of the course three times now and had already read the books several times prior, which means that I have read every book on the syllabus between four and seven times. And while this semester has been a terrific success – perhaps, even the best of the three – it took a tremendous effort to keep myself from leading the discussion and to maintain the role of a prodding facilitator.  So, like The Police in 1983, after the release of Synchronicity, I’ve decided not to tempt fate and retire this version of the course, while at its peak.

As a farewell to this iteration of the course, I’d like to share with readers three highlights from this year’s class discussions on this remarkable collection of books, in this edition of Course Notes, which will be the last for this year.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer-Eldritch: Can-D and Chew-Z

We find ourselves on an earth that is suffering extremely high temperatures resulting from an ecological disaster.  So hot is it during midday that people must wear protective clothing when outdoors and even then, must not remain there for very long.  The cost of maintaining climate controlled interior spaces is wildly expensive, and a military-style draft lottery has been implemented for the purposes of selecting people to ship off-world, in order to establish colonies on a number of our solar system’s planets and moons.  Barely inhabitable and supporting only the most rudimentary lifestyle, below even subsistence-farming levels, people try to avoid being drafted, and like the draft during our own Vietnam war, the capacity to evade involuntary emigration depends in good part upon one’s social position and wealth.

A major corporation, Perky Pat Layouts, INC, produces doll-and-environment sets called “layouts,” which are sold to colonists along with a technically-illegal, though widely available drug, “Can-D” which, when chewed, allow the users to collectively “translate” into the dolls and their environments. There is a vigorous, quasi-theological debate among users as to whether translation is real – whether people really inhabit a Ken-and-Barbie style Earth – or a collective hallucination.  Beyond the obvious reference to the perennial division between Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox belief regarding the Eucharist and Communion, students found fascinating the questions that are debated by the characters in the novel over the moral status of acts performed while in translation, including, significantly, adultery, as users often have sexual relations with one another while in translation. They also thought prophetic the anticipation of virtual reality and the prospect of people increasingly inhabiting such unreal spaces, in order to escape the mundanities and disappointments of their real lives.

Palmer Eldritch, an entrepreneur and explorer, has returned from the Proxima Centaurus system with a lichen that he has used to develop a new translation drug, Chew-Z. Proxima is home to a powerful alien species, and there are rumors that the Palmer Eldritch who has returned to our system is not the same man who left it; that he has been transformed in some profound way. Some even suspect that he has become a puppet of the “Proxers” and has returned as prelude to an invasion.

Far more powerful than Can-D, Chew-Z requires no layout and translates the user into an entire world of his or her own making.  Disturbingly, however, every translation-world seems to include within it Palmer Eldritch, who now bears what are referred to as three “stigmata”: a mechanical hand; artificial eyes; and steel teeth.  Chew-Z becomes quite popular, effectively competing with Can-D among the colonists, and as more people use it, they themselves being to manifest Eldritch’s stigmata in the real world.  Eventually, even those who have not used the drug begin doing so.


My students – whom we must remember mostly hail from the heavily evangelical and fundamentalist southwest Missouri region – were absorbed and disturbed by the echoes of Christianity and specifically by the idea, promoted by the faith, that in consuming the body and blood of Christ, one is inhabited by his spirit and thereby born again and redeemed.  But is such “inhabitation” by a Deity salvific or something far more sinister?  Should we take God’s professed motives at face value?  Passages like this gave students pause and were the subject of sustained discussion:

All three stigmata, the dead, artificial hand, the Jensen eyes, and the radically deranged jaw. Symbols of its inhabitation… In our midst. But not asked for. Not intentionally summoned. And we have no mediating sacraments through which to protect ourselves; we can’t compel it, by our careful, time-honored, clever, painstaking rituals, to confine itself to specific elements such as bread and water or bread and wine. It is out in the open, ranging in every direction. It looks into our eyes; and it looks out of our eyes.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Al Jarry / Wilbur Mercer and Mercerism

In this thematically rich novel, just one plotline of which served as the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s popular and critically acclaimed Blade Runner (1982), Dick describes an earth irradiated by a nuclear war.  Most of the animals have died, and those people with means seek new lives on off-world colonies, aided by highly advanced androids, who surpass human beings in intelligence and physical prowess, but who are believed to lack the capacity for empathy. The dominant religion, Mercerism, is practiced by holding the handles of an “empathy box,” a device that transports all concurrent users into the body of William Mercer, who endlessly climbs a barren hill, under a barrage of rocks, sticks, and other small missiles thrown at him by mocking onlookers.

Students thought the Christ imagery obvious, a connection made even stronger by the mechanics of the empathy box, through which practitioners all share the experience of Mercer’s suffering collectively and thereby seem to gain a kind of salvation.


Later developments in the novel, however, led the class to reconsider.  We discover that William Mercer is, in fact, an actor, named Al Jarry, and that his mountain climb is performed and recorded in a studio.  He is, for all practical purposes, a fraud, and one might easily take from the story a moral regarding false prophets and false promises.

And yet, there is even more.  Late in the book, Mercer/Jarry speaks with our protagonist, a bounty-hunter of renegade androids, Rick Deckard, and offers him the following message:

You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.

The class discussed this at length, and a number of us described situations in which we’d found ourselves, where every option was bad and failing to act would also have been bad.  We discussed the Christian idea of being saved from one’s natural condition (i.e. native sin) and whether the idea makes any sense or offers any real consolation.  The students were visibly moved by what is suggested in the book: that there is no salvation from our condition, but only consolation in the sharing of its burdens with others; that most important, consequently, is solidarity with one another; and that it matters not one whit to the truth of this whether Mercer, Jesus, or any other savior-figure really exists or existed.

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said: Celebrity and Surveillance

Jason Taverner is the host of a popular TV show in which he sings, dances and interviews celebrity guests.  After a strange attack by a jilted lover that leaves him unconscious, he awakes to find that no one knows who he is and that he has no form of identification on his person.  The world in which his story unfolds is one in which there is ubiquitous police surveillance, by way of cameras and manned checkpoints every few blocks, and he soon becomes a hunted man, trying to avoid capture, arrest, and the inevitable incarceration in a forced-labor camp that follows. At the same time, he also is desperate to be known again; to regain the celebrity he has lost, and the social standing and perks that come with it.

flow my tears sanrio 1981

In the latter parts of the book, Taverner meets Alys Buckman, sister of Felix Buckman, a high ranking policeman who is pursuing him. The two Buckmans have a secret, incestuous relationship and live together, as a husband and wife would.  Taverner learns that his erasure from the public consciousness is the result of Alys’s having taken an experimental drug that causes the user and anyone who has come into contact with the user to share a common hallucination, in this case, a world in which Jason Taverner does not exist.  Alys subsequently dies from the drug, and though Felix knows Taverner is innocent of the crime, he nonetheless prosecutes him for it, both to assuage his personal grief and to obtain a conviction, so as not to expose Alys’s drug abuse.  At one point, musing on this, he thinks to himself:

All right, Jason Taverner, Buckman thought, you are known again, as you were once before, but better known now, known in a new way…As you go to your grave your mouth will be still open, asking the question, “What did I do?”

And I could never explain it to you, Buckman thought.  Except to say: don’t come to the attention of the authorities. Don’t ever interest us.  Don’t make us want to know more about you.

The class found this dimension of the book eerily prescient. Far more than in 1974, when the book was published, our existence and sense of self today depends upon our being noticed, because so much of our lives are lived and conducted online. Instant celebrity is just one viral Tweet or YouTube video away and is something we crave, especially the young.  And yet, such attention puts a person in tremendous jeopardy.  Not just from law enforcement, whose aim is to make arrests and attain convictions, not discover the truth or pursue justice (I introduced the students to a disturbing video, in which both a law professor and veteran police detective confirm this fact), but from feral, online mobs, whose purpose is to destroy a person’s reputation and livelihood, via so-called “cancellation.”  (For a microcosm of this phenomenon, one need look no farther than the online “community” of writers of young adult fiction. (1)) It is no surprise that the dominant, omnipresent sensibility of our age is one of anxiousness: that we should be visible, noticed, and recognized and that terrible things may befall us if we are.

Dick was nothing short of a genius. Ursula K. LeGuin called him “our homegrown Borges.”  More than any other author I have read, his work is bursting with thematically rich and humanly essential ideas that sustain philosophical discussion of the highest order.  I will miss teaching him, but hopefully, this little summary of my experience doing so might persuade others to try out this remarkable body of work with their own students.




20 responses to “Course Notes — Themes from the Incomparable Philip K. Dick”

  1. That sounds like a fascinating course. What’s next?

  2. Not sure. I’ve taught three previous iterations of the course, so I am choose some from the old versions, or I may choose entirely new books. Haven’t decided yet.

  3. In college back in the 80’s, I took a course called ‘Creative Minds’ which surveyed works from different disciplines of Western culture. We read a little Hume and Kant, studied the paintings of Georges Seurat, and read a couple of novels: ‘Les Liaisons dangerous’ by Choderlos de Laclos and ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ by Hermann Hesse. I was so fascinated by Hesse that I went on to devour the rest of his work. I’ve always felt there is a wealth of material for discussion in his novels.

  4. Agreed re: Hesse. In the past I’ve also taught Kafka and Burgess.

  5. That reminds me, I’ve been wanting to read ‘Earthly Powers’ since you mentioned it in one of your discussions on Sophia – I think it was one with Crispin Sartwell? ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is one of my favorite novels, but for some reason I haven’t read any others by Burgess.

  6. nannus

    I recommend Stanislaw Lem. It is originally not English literature, but that is an author with a lot of philosophical substance in his books. Read, for example, The Cyberiad, Solaris, His Master’s Voice, Golem IV, The Star Diaries, The Investigation.

  7. I love Lem. Definitely might use Solaris.

  8. davidlduffy

    Did you consider using the post-VALIS novels, or were they too explicitly theological speculative fiction? So the Mercer quote (did anyone mention Alfred Jarry?) fits in with the gnostic viewpoint. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer actually has a bibliography (Schiller, Plato…) – it works, I think, because of the limitations of the narrator, but a lot of it must be biographical.

    You could do a different five: The Cosmic Puppets (which is interesting as it shows him playing with the same ideas in the early 50’s), Ubik, Dr Bloodmoney, Martian Time-Slip, The Penultimate Truth or maybe Galactic Pot Healer.

  9. I’ve read almost all of them. These are the one’s I think work best in the classroom. I like Time out of Joint, Penultimate Truth, and some of the others, but find the post-Valis books a bit of a step too far.

  10. Björn Carlsten

    Your course sounds intriguing. I can certainly understand why reading science fiction can draw students into philosophical discussions. It was science fiction that sparked in me my (amateurish) interest in philosophy.

    I have only read two of the Philip K. Dick novels listed, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Man in the High Castle, and it was years ago. I don’t remember them having a very profound impact on me then. My failing, I’m sure. It seems a good time for a re-read! Perhaps I will get the others on the list as well.

    I wonder, are there any contemporary or near-contemporary science fiction authors that you can recommend for philosophical depth?

  11. “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell is probably my favorite sci-fi novel, with philosophical/theological underpinnings, in memory. It is distinguished by some fine prose with psychologically astute depth. Later in this century some mysterious musical signals are detected from the nearby Centauri system, prompting the Jesuits of all people (who seem to have re-marshalled their resources and initiative globally) to mount an expeditionary force there partly to test whether salvation is truly a universal concept and partly in the spirit of scientific inquiry. An interesting group of intellectual and artisitc sorts are selected for the journey. The novel nicely explores issues around cultural blind spots, faith in the context of Jobian misfortune, and the religious element (or not) inherent within inspiration. Great book. Has a follow-on novel too, which is decent but of lesser impact… the book may definitely be taken as a stand alone.

  12. davidlduffy

    The Sparrow is pretty good, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth because the world building seemed all aimed at forcing the particular conclusion (an axe to grind). I should mention that my tolerance for such mortmain is usually high. I might recommend A Voyage to Arcturus.[which one can download from] as as mind expanding as Dick.

  13. Some books I have used in earlier iterations of the course that I thought worked very well:

    C.S. Lewis, “That Hideous Strength”
    Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”
    Franz Kafka, “The Trial”
    Anthony Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange”
    Anthony Burgess, “The Wanting Seed”
    H.G. Wells, “The Time Machine”
    Arthur C. Clarke, “Childhood’s End”
    David Brin, “Startide Rising” / “The Uplift War”
    Ray Bradbury, “The Martian Chronicles”

  14. I’ve also taught a non sci-fi version of the course, focused on the American Dream:

    Nathanael West, “The Day of the Locust”
    Joan Didion, “Play it as it Lays”
    Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”
    Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly”
    Bret Easton Ellis, “Less than Zero”

  15. Didn’t receive that impression in the least. Neither about the forced nor the axe.

  16. davidlduffy

    It’s a while since I read it, I confess. Nevertheless, I have not had the same, I suppose aesthetic, response to other novels playing with similar ideas. I will again put in a strong recommendation of anything by Gene Wolfe (his final novel is coming out reasonably soon, I believe). His work is more complex than PKD’s in many respects, and he was also very interested in “cultural blind spots, faith in the context of Jobian misfortune, and the religious element…inherent within inspiration”, as well as free will, consciousness and identity, artificial intelligence, pagan and Christian virtue, old style philosophical cosmology, the lives of the saints, colonialism and slavery. Unfortunately, he does makes the reader work awfully hard, so he might not be suitable for Dan’s course

  17. Yes, fair enough. For me the writing quality in Sparrow is crucial — it leaves behind most sci-fi in the dust. In fact one comes away with the impression that the particular genre is totally incidental, she might just as well have been writing about 19th century labor struggles. I began Arcturus at your suggestion… am up to chapter 6 or so. Some interest but right away can see the mediocrity of the writing. Likely something I more would have enjoyed in younger days. Anyway, your points about Gene Wolfe (whom I admit I do not know of… I had at least heard of Arcturus before) call to mind yet another recommendation, a wonderfully compact and brief novella by Mark Salzman called Lying Awake. Far from sci-fi, but it piercingly probes individual conscience and searching in the context of a once young candidate nun esconced in a monastery in the rural southwest somewhere, who goes on to experience visions and epileptic fits later in comtemplative life, and must contend with doubts as to the the purely physical or spiritual nature of her experiences. You can tell MS is a good author when he is able to so seamlessly imagine the inner psyche of someone so different from himself. I first came upon him with his travelogue in the 1980s, Iron and Silk, which describes his year stay in a Chinese city teaching English and studying martial arts. Which prompted my own three visits there. Apologies for the oversharing & will complete Arcturus..

  18. davidlduffy

    I don’t want to go on and on, but A voyage to Arcturus is the model for Lewis’s Space trilogy, which Dan mentioned up-thread.

  19. J. Bogart

    Three suggestions:
    John Bruner, Stand on Zanzibar — politics and culture
    Samuel Delaney, Dahlgren — identity and social relations
    James Tiptree — deep politics, values, identity

  20. Thomas Jones

    Just curious: Have you read Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”?