The Horse’s Mouth: How Philip K. Dick Expands Conversation


By Before My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Perhaps my favorite novel is Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Cary’s main character, Gully Jimson, is an ageing artist with very little to show for his life’s work: Though he has a painting hanging in the prestigious Tate gallery, he has no money and is largely forgotten. When he died, I thought that Philip K. Dick was going to suffer the same fate as Jimson, who went out in a burst of glory, his final great work, painted on the wall of a condemned building destroyed and, in the act, destroying him. Dick’s burst of glory, the movie Blade Runner, I thought, would destroy him as well, in retrospect. He would only be a creature of the movies.

That did not happen, of course. Since his death in 1982, Dick has morphed from a somewhat crazed science-fiction writer who could hardly make a living to an esteemed and internationally lauded chronicler of the condition of an age he did not even live to see. True, a lot of his fame comes from the movies and television shows that have been made from his work—and continue to be made—but his real value—and it is substantial—is found when we look into his fiction—when we learn from him straight from the horse’s mouth and forget about the walls that have been erected around him.

Dick was strait-jacketed, for much of his career, by the genre he made his living in—but that was never all of his writing. He is strait-jacketed still, by his new reputation and by the movies and TV shows which rarely do credit to his complex work but, fortunately, plenty of people now read him—more than in his lifetime. During his lifetime, though he was successful within the science-fiction community, only one of his non-sf novels ever reached print, and that in 1974, well over a decade after it was written. That novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist, however, still has not received the recognition it deserves, in part because it pushes readers in ways that most of us resist and, in part, because it crashes the barrier we still use for encasing Dick, the concept of genre, of science fiction.

Dick always tried to push the boundaries, to tear down the walls. Fortunately, as long as his fiction lives, he will continue to do it—and to inspire us to crash barriers of all sorts, including academic disciplines.

At about the time Dick was writing Confessions, the eminent British scholar C. P. Snow was penning his influential lecture The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Like Dick, he was trying to breach barriers that, they thought, were limiting just the sorts of intellectual explorations human beings should undertake.

Science fiction, of course, is a genre that long ago attempted to crush the barriers between the scientific and the literary—and between avant-garde and kitsch (which it was mostly considered). Dick was seen as a part of that last. Snow was a part of another attack on a barrier, this one between science and the humanities.

Snow’s lecture, though quite outdated in many of its aspects (its depictions of the needs of developing nations and its dismissal of what Snow calls “Luddites,” just to name two), makes points as completely applicable today as those, as we’ve been discovering, in Dick’s science fiction. Snow said that it “is simply that technology is rather easy. Or more exactly, technology is the branch of human experience that people can learn with predictable results.” This is not a passage often pulled from the lecture, and it is not one that, today, people in the STEM fields really want to hear—but it is true, nonetheless.

Science has been lauding itself for its superiority over the humanities for so long that we’ve come to think of the humanities as hardly worthy of any attention at all. Yet it is precisely because they’ve ignore the humanities that Google, Twitter and Facebook have gotten themselves into so much trouble concerning the moral and gatekeeping aspects of their enterprises. Had their leaders any background in history, they might have been aware of Benjamin Franklin’s 1731 “Apology for Printers,” a not completely successful attempt to explain why a printer should print almost anything someone is willing to pay for (the “almost,” by the way, is what get’s Franklin’s argument into trouble). Franklin, of course, never imagined a barrier between a scientific and a humanities culture; he participated in both without any sense of discrimination. Contemporary tech leaders, if they had looked to his example, might have long ago started to grapple with the fact that you can’t simply provide a platform for anyone and anything, that other responsibilities go with technological possibilities.

By the same token, if he had read Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Nicholas Negroponte might have saved himself the embarrassment of his One Laptop per Child project, something that was to change the developing world but that accomplished nothing. He also could have benefitted from Snow, who said that the technologists heading into the developing world “need to be trained not only in scientific but in human terms.” The developers of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, could have learned something, too, and may not have embarked on their much-ballyhooed but generally ineffective quest to change higher education.

In an essay written during the 25th anniversary year of Snow’s lecture, novelist Thomas Pynchon asked “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” He argued that the distinction between the two cultures, more imagined than real in the first place, had come to the point of meaninglessness. He also went back and investigated the word “Luddite,” arguing that Ned Lud’s rage probably wasn’t against the machine, which simply suffered it. Unfortunately, events of the last 30 years have allowed the gap to widen again, to the point where we fetishize STEM and the digital and are ever ready to ignore the humanities—even when working within them.

Pynchon, later in his essay, writes something that, when I read it on the day it was published in The New York Times, made me jump up, jab my fist in the air, and yell, “Yes!”:

These genres [the Gothic, romance, westerns and whodunits], by insisting on what is contrary to fact, fail to be Serious enough, and so they get redlined under the label ”escapist fare.”

This is especially unfortunate in the case of science fiction, in which the decade after Hiroshima saw one of the most remarkable flowerings of literary talent and, quite often, genius, in our history. It was just as important as the Beat movement going on at the same time, certainly more important than mainstream fiction, which with only a few exceptions had been paralyzed by the political climate of the cold war and McCarthy years. Besides being a nearly ideal synthesis of the Two Cultures, science fiction also happens to have been one of the principal refuges, in our time, for those of Luddite persuasion.

Dick was an important part of that flowering and, in the years since, the most brightly remembered. Dick synthesized the two cultures, but from a Luddite perspective that ultimately raised his work above the peculiarities of a particular era.

It’s comparatively easy, as Snow admitted, to develop the skills for manipulating technology. It’s comparatively difficult to do what Dick does, which is try to understand the ramifications of that technology. For this reason, as Snow says, when the cultures of the sciences and humanities “have grown apart, then no society is going to be able to think with wisdom.” Our society certainly isn’t thinking with wisdom today, not at any level.

Which is exactly one of the points Dick is trying to make in Confessions of a Crap Artist. His crap artist, Jack Isidore, believes in science, but he knows so little that his comments become ludicrous—knows so little, that is, about people. Isidore is obsessed with facts, but he has no idea what to do with them. Isidore speaks, at the start of the book:

I am made out of water. You wouldn’t know it, because I have it bound in. My friends are made out of water, too. All of them. The problem for us is that not only do we have to walk around without being absorbed by the ground but we also have to earn our livings.

All true. But all, also, crap. Isidore is a prototype for the conspiracy-theory nuts surrounding us today. Even when they get the facts right, they can only draw nonsensical or irrelevant conclusions from them. Mostly, they can’t even get the facts right. In 2016, Edgar Welch walked into a pizza parlor in Washington, DC and shot it up because he believed that a child-trafficking ring was operating out of it.

Welch is a crap artist par excellance. Each of us knows one personally. They talk of pernicious contrails, of the dangers of vaccines, of aliens walking among us, of ‘fake news’ and of who knows what else. They think they are logical and scientific, but they have been so walled in that they cannot imagine anything beyond the bricks in front of them—or that their names are Fortunato. Narrowly educated, if educated at all, they cannot imagine a way out of the silos they now inhabit.

Snow can help them get out, but Dick can, too.

So can an education that refuses to confine itself to disciplinary boundaries, even ones so simple or that seem so obvious (though, as Pynchon says, ultimately meaningless) as science versus humanities.

At the end of Confessions, Isidore has inherited money to be used for psychotherapy. He heads to San Francisco to spend it:

As the bus drove along, I considered how I would locate the best analyst. In the end I decided to get the names of every one of them practicing in the Bay Area, and visit each of them in turn. In my mind I began putting together a questionnaire for them to fill out, telling the number of patients they had had, the number of cures, the number of total failures, length of time involved in cures, number of partial cures, etc. So on the basis of that I could draw up a chart and compare which analyst would be the most likely to give me help.

It seemed to me that the least I could do was try to use Charley’s money wisely and not squander it on some charlatan. And on the basis of past choices, it seems pretty evident that my judgment is not of the best.

No, it is not. In fact, he still doesn’t understand. He doesn’t get that data itself is not viable information, or that the numbers he wants to collect are meaningless without his first considering what “cure” means, among other things. The irony of his last line should be obvious but, I fear, in today’s climate, it is not. He is thinking that, if his own judgment is not so good, he can supplant it by numbers. Yet numbers can’t judge. In fact, numbers mean nothing unless the ability to judge has already been developed.

Science does not provide that ability; the humanities does. Holding up numbers or data of any sort only indicates relationships with other sets of numbers or data. The act does not provide understanding of the situation the numbers and data are meant to represent—not alone. For that, we need much more. That is why technical training alone does not create decision-makers.

Reading the work of Philip K. Dick leaves a lot of people reeling—which is why he fascinates so many and repels so many more. Which is why it took so long for Confessions of a Crap Artist to be published. It hits too close to home. In Dick’s science fiction, the situations are conveniently removed by the conventions of the genre, allowing the challenges to be considered at a remove.

And Dick does challenge. One of his books, V.A.L.I.S. has even been described as the only example of an autobiographical science-fiction novel. He uses science fiction to explore questions of religion, and did so from his earliest days. He challenged the genre’s 1950s focus on science, making it take in Luddite views, too. He often crosses into political philosophy and into anything else that happened to catch his attention.

So how did Dick expand conversation? Simply by ignoring barriers.

We could all learn a lesson from that.

After all, how many other thinkers from his time are still seeing their reputations grow? How many others do we look back to as providing the truth, useful truth straight from the horse’s mouth?

This is a talk given this morning as part of The Second Annual City Tech Symposium on Science Fiction: Extrapolation, Interdisciplinarity, and Learning.