Ranking Philip K. Dick Books (Ones I’ve Read So Far)

Today is 40 years since the death of science-fiction writer Philip. K. Dick (1928 – 1982), an American author who created addictive dystopian worlds where advanced technologies compete with humanity, where space-travel is not only available and optional, but at times essential to evade planetary catastrophes, and where drug-induced hallucinations become a new reality for all. The science-fiction books of Philip. K. Dick may not be the height of mastery in terms of their execution and in some ways do remain products of their time, but no one can deny their unparalleled creativity in setting out intriguing worlds of the future where there are layers and layers of unfathomable realities just beneath the one you see.

I. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968]

Few people have not heard of this book, or if they have not, they have surely heard of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner [1982], which (and I would say it very frankly) is only loosely based on this sci-fi novel. In this story, set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, possessing a real live animal have become a social status akin to being one of the richest persons on earth because so few of them are in existence and, androids and humans co-exist in a world torn by the devastating effects of the recent nuclear war. Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, has a task of “retiring” a number of criminally-minded androids who have recently escaped from Mars. The success of this book, and the film, lies in a way it taps into the very essence of our humanity – what makes us – us? Our thoughts, our memories, our emotions? If all of these can be “replicated”, does our sense of humanity become redundant? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a great sci-fi full of irony and suspense that was unfairly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart.

II. A Scanner Darkly [1977]

This is probably the most “hard-hitting” books of all the author’s creations, dealing with the dark nature of reality from the perspective of drug addicts and their world. In future, people can be roughly grouped into “straights” and “drug addicts”, and, amidst all the undercover police operations and rehabilitation centres that are designed to “crack down” on drugs that simulate perfect happiness, there is this feeling that everyone may just be losing their grip on reality. A Scanner Darkly must have the most thought-provoking and emotional ending of all Philip K. Dick books. The animated film with Keanu Reeves was released in 2006.

III. Ubik [1969]

If I were to pick only one book from this list based purely on my enjoyment of it, it would definitely be Ubik. Where to start? In future, humanity finally managed to tap into psychic powers to reach unprecedented levels of power and control over others, and death is finally “conquered” – somewhat. Our main character is Joe Chip, an employee of a psychic agency, whose world turns upside down…again and again, as he tries to cling desperately to reality…or to a state he thinks is his reality. Ubik is a literary roller-coaster ride you would not want to end.

IV. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldricht [1965]

The success of PKD books lies in the fact that they almost always “hit the ground running” and present complex philosophical and psychological issues and ideas in a fast-paced and entertaining format. The Three Stigmata is no exception and is another crazy ride. Is perfect paranoia really perfect awareness? This story is set in distant future and follows Barney Mayerson, an employee of a company in business to make people enjoy fully their “drug trips”, which have become commonplace. Businesses compete with each other to simulate the most perfect reality for their customers, that is until Palmer Eldritch, a man who lived in another galaxy, returns to Earth and is said to possess the most potent drug yet. The Three Stigmata is a bit chaotic, a bit confusing, a bit caricaturish, but unmistakably visionary, and hence, unputdownable.

V. A Maze of Death [1970]

What do you get when you fuse Philip K. Dick’s psychedelic imagination that turns the concepts of time, identity and reality on their heads with Agatha Christie’s claustrophobic And Then There Were None one-location setting? A Maze of Death, a thrilling story of “fourteen people who find themselves on a remote and strange planet Delmark-O…and in danger – a mysterious force is also on the planet and is…killing them one by one”. This is an engaging story with that one big twist right at the end which certainly makes this book worth reading.

VI. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said [1974]

In this book, Philip K. Dick is concerned with personal identity, celebrity-culture and authoritarian society, focusing on one TV personality who awakes one morning and finds that he has become a “non-entity” (maybe falling just slightly short of the Kafkaesque meaning of this word), a man whom nobody now recognises and who cannot even locate his identity papers…so the “fun” begins. There is a lot of ideas here that were later successfully used in such films as Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception and Looper, but PKD was there first.

VII. Dr Bloodmoney [1965]

This book was a wild journey, indeed, presenting a post-nuclear-catastrophe world where humans still deal with the disastrous effect of radiation, trying to guess the location of one man who apparently brought it all about – Dr. Bluthgeld. Here, outcasts have a real chance of becoming heroes and a number of characters’ lives intersect leading to a dramatic climax. This book is both a fast-paced sci-fi about one dystopian society at odds with itself and “a thought-provoking satire on the survival of a community in times of a crisis”.

VIII. The Simulacra [1964]

In this multiple-perspective story, PKD welcomes you into the world where famous musicians can play their pianos by mind alone, where the supremacy of First Lady in White House is undisputed, where migration to Mars is commonplace, where a strict hierarchical structure means that you can be anyone (or anything?) from Be to Ge, where time-travel machines exist, where psychoanalysis is outlawed in favour of drugs, and where simulacra built by humans can really imitate live animals and people. This novel requires some patience at the start, but it soon transforms into a delicious thrill of imaginary dystopia and political satire.

IX. Martian Time-Slip [1964]

This book introduces us to a future society on Mars where people struggle to secure a water supply. Discriminatory practices abound and minorities are marginalised, as Mars’s tribe of hunter-gatherers coexists uneasily with high-flying businessmen determined to profit fully from their control over the red planet. Meanwhile, the society’s “anomalous” children may hold key to the future. This book may not have aged all that well, but Dick still presents an enticing world of a myriad of mind-boggling possibilities.

X. Time Out of Joint [1959]

In this story, the author introduces quiet suburban America and Ragle Gumm, a man known to repeatedly win lotteries. His ability to predict future accurately may be useful to lunar colonists who fight for independence from Earth. It is hard to guess reality in this brainy novel which also makes a pun on America’s culture of conformity and uniformity of the 1950s.

18 thoughts on “Ranking Philip K. Dick Books (Ones I’ve Read So Far)

  1. Great list! I really enjoyed reading it, although it made me realize that I’ve only read a small portion of PKD’s work (Man in the High Castle; Do Androids Dream; Simulacra and maybe one or two others). As you note, PKD isn’t a great stylist and some of his work is dated. I think, however, that you’ve put your finger on the root of his appeal, i.e., that wild creativity & ability to imagine frighteningly realistic universes that just pull the reader right into the story. I’d also argue that the strain of paranoia that runs through his work also accounts for his resurgence of popularity in our paranoid age!

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    1. Exactly, very true, PKD taps into our emotions and inner fears, and it is for this reason most! of his books stood the test of time (for the larger part!). Without any lengthy or boring expositions, PKD often puts his reader right in the middle of the futuristic world and all the ongoing action and does it with such confidence! It’s either “drown” or “swim” immediately for his readers, and most “swim” 🙂

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    1. Thank you! I love his short stories, too, and intentionally left them out from this list because there are just so many. I enjoyed those that were later made into film (Adjustment Team, The Minority Report, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, obviously), but also others, for example, The Impossible Planet (1953). Thanks for the Beyond the Door recommendation, I will definitely look it up!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read any of his books and they’re quite a long way from my comfort zone, but I’m going to put one on my next classics list for sure, so this was a very interesting list for me, thank you!

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    1. I think Do Androids is one of his more “accessible” books which compares favourably to the film. The film is a great classic but it also relies much on cinematography and the visuals, whereas the book is more philosophical, character-focused and narratively-engaging. The book has many key scenes and chapters (e.g. involving an opera singer and “real” and “fake” animals) which the film does not include, nor does it have irony and humour which makes the book enjoyable to read.

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      1. I’m sure you are right, I have only read the book once, and seen the film once, a long time ago! Even the change of name, Blade Runner, is very interesting… I doubt the film would be as successful had it kept the original, rather eccentric, title!

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