If Philip K. Dick’s Writing is Terrible, Then Is Sci-Fi Terrible?

One of the most popular sci-fi writers of all time is often accused of being a bad writer. But is it true? 

Philip K. Dick’s characters have seen things you wouldn’t believe: from telepathy, to time-slips, to replicants among us, to waking dreams of the far future and trips into alternate pasts. And yet, in the numerous film and television adaptations of Dick’s work – like the forthcoming new anthology series or the ongoing TV version of The Man in the High Castle – the characters seldom speak with the author’s exact words. One explanation for this is simple – adaptations change things all the time. The other explanation is potentially more damning: Philip K. Dick’s actual prose is too awful for public consumption, and the only way to make his cool concepts palatable is to rewrite them.

Still from the TV version of 'The Man in the High Castle'


Whenever I find myself in a crowd of science fiction readers and PKD is mentioned, all the same bullet points will usually surface; Dick’s stories have unparalleled imaginative properties, but the writing itself is bad or at the very least, basic. Often, I’ll even hear myself comparing PKD to Kurt Vonnegut’s made-up sci-fi author, Kilgore Trout, a writer with supposedly great ideas but terrible writing. (Vonnegut allegedly based Trout more specifically on author Theodore Sturgeon, not Dick. So it goes).

Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of books. This isn't even close to everything.

These generalizations about the divide between PKD’s ideas and style don’t come from nowhere. Even Philip K. Dick’s biggest advocate, Jonathan Lethem – admitted infamously in 2007 that some of the passages in PKD’s novel Ubik are “howling bad.” In 2010 an article for The Guardian Darragh McManus called PKD’s prose “dreadful,” even though he believed the stories and novels contain “brilliant imagination.”

If we buy into these common generalizations, Philip K. Dick is sitting dead center in a form/function Venn diagram: between the best-o- all science fiction writers and the-worst-of-all writers in general.

But are these oft-repeated digs remotely true?

Anthony Ha – a journalist for Tech Crunch and one of Brooklyn Magazine’s Most Influential People” – knows his PKD backwards and forwards. Along with noted-author Alice Kim, he even taught a class on Dick in 2005 at Stanford.

“I don’t think Dick was all that bad when it comes to style,” he told Inverse. “He often wrote too quickly, which meant that his style could be flat and unremarkable, with sentences and scenes that feel repetitive or shoddily constructed. And yet, he could make a simple sentence carry a crazy amount of emotional weight. For example, I still think the opening of Martian Time-Slip –”From the depths of phenobarbital slumber, Silvia Bohlen heard something that called.” – is a perfect introduction to that world.”

Ha dubbing Dick’s writing “flat and unremarkable” or even “shoddily constructed” isn’t even close to the Lethem diss of “howling bad. While not every single reader on the planet would agree with Ha about loving a novel where the first sentence contains the word “phenobarbital,” all of this is a perfectly good and true example of PKD’s style and themes. Because the drug phenobarbitone is used to treat sleep disorders and so much of PDK’s writing is about altered states, waking dreams, and the nature of what constitutes “reality” all of this checks out: it’s written this way, because it’s supposed to be written this way. Nearly everything about the vast majority of Dicks stories is designed to upend conventional realistic structures, so, maybe the writing isn’t “bad,” it’s just “weird.”

Let’s take a look at this “weird’ opening passage from a 1954 PKD short story called “Upon the Dull Earth”:

“Silvia ran laughing through the night brightness, between the roses and the cosmos and Shasta daisies, down the gravel paths and beyond the heaps of sweet-tasting grass swept from the lawns.”

A critic of naturalistic fiction would probably have a problem with “night brightness” because it’s contradictory: how can it be “night” and “bright” at the same time? Similarly, being between the “roses and the cosmos” is fairly strange. For the literalist, the problem with this opening line is simply trying to figure out what the fuck is actually going on. But, if you’re a reader of science fiction you might be used to stuff that doesn’t immediately make sense. In fact, you may even understand that contradictions or confusion on a language level are part of the experience of this particular genre.

In his book of science-fiction criticism Microworlds, novelist Stanislaw Lem heads sharply in this direction and even further, by claiming Philip K. Dick’s textual inconsistencies are intentional, claiming that “the impossibility of imposing consistency on the text compels us to seek its global meanings not in the realm of events themselves, but in that of their constructive principle, the very thing that is responsible for lack of focus.”

Is Lem claiming the brilliance of Philip K. Dick is actually found specifically in the realistic inconsistencies? It’s pretty meta, and almost like saying the special effects are better in old science fiction movies than in newer ones because you can see the strings. Seemingly, Lem believed PKD was only just using the trappings of science fiction to deliver stories about entropy, altered states, social and cultural disillusionment. To this end, any tool in PKD’s box was the right one. If there was clunky prose or inconsistent narrative threads, that was all part of the artifice, too.

“[Dick’s] prose style is more effective at conveying his subject matter than a “better” prose style would be,” says David Barr Kirtley, author and co-host of the popular podcast, Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Dick’s work is all about fractured realities and disordered states of mind, and the straightforward bluntness, jerky rhythms, and awkward repetitions of his prose style are uncannily effective at conveying psychological instability and existential dread. Smooth, poetic prose full of apt turns of phrase, telling metaphors, and carefully crafted sentences would convey a sense of control and assurance that have no place in Dick’s universe.”

Dick’s universe, it should be noted, came from a tradition of science fiction which became less popular while Dick continued to write. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the so-called “New Wave Movement” in science fiction happened, which essentially favored language over plots. (I’m aware this is a huge and possibly reductive generalization). So, even among his contemporaries – like Samuel R. Delany or Ursula K. Le Guin – PKD’s writing (while true of his aims) might have seemed a little antiquated at the time.

To make a completely unfair analogy: imagine if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were to have written Holmes stories side-by-side with James Patterson. It wouldn’t be wrong, but it would seem off. In fact, if Conan Doyle was a contemporary of James Patterson, people might think Conan Doyle was a bad writer! Philip K. Dick wasn’t exactly a dinosaur trying to pass as a human among caveman — if you’ve read Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics then you know what I’m talking about — but, I believe, his stylistic appropriation of pre-‘50s sci-fi was part of the superficial vehicle of his writing. This has the effect of making his writing seem clunky, even if the ideas were wonderful. For his time, Philip K. Dick was both way better than his contemporaries and way worse. Better because he didn’t really care about the “beauty” of his sentences (like Barr Kirtley points out), and worse, because that approach did, and still does, alienate all sorts of readers.

But maybe it’s in the generosity of readers themselves that a lot of this can be rendered moot. “A novel doesn’t have to be amazingly written for me to love it,” says Electric Literature’s Editor-in-Chief and genre-bending short-story writer Lincoln Michel. “But the novel is a written form no matter what genre – and the writing is fundamentally important. To me, this is like asking, Do you care about acting or camera shots in noir movies? Or something.”

As Michel says, the writing does matter, and in talking about any writing, as Susan Sontag points out in her essay “On Style,” it’s very “hard” to pretend like there isn’t at the very least – a perception that an ongoing war between style versus content doesn’t exist in the nature of this kind of conversation. So, though some of us may disagree with the premise of such a conversation, we can all admit that the notion of an insightful and brilliant science fiction writer who was a poor prose stylist is common enough to be a cliché.

If we’re defending Philip K. Dick’s right to be a “bad” stylist, are we, by proxy, defending all of science fiction? In some ways yes, but in other ways, not at all, In his essay “Science Fiction” Vonnegut wrote “Along with the worst writing in America, outside of the education journals, they [sci-fi magazines] publish some of the best…” But, Vonnegut was primarily talking about science fiction published before the 1960’s, a kind of writing which pre-dates New Wave Science Fiction, and thus, could be generally characterized as less “literary” than the science fiction after it. If we think of Vonnegut’s perception of the field of science fiction as a good cipher for Philip K. Dick, and Philip K. Dick as a representative of how science fiction is still perceived by mainstream literati, then the persistence of the “bad writer” clichés start to make sense, even if those clichés are fairly misguided.

In 2011, Mike Rowe wrote a comprehensive essay for The Millions titled “Philip K. Dick and the Pleasures of Unquotable Prose,” thus establishing himself as an expert of this specific tension.

“Science fiction” is different from “literary fiction,” there are definitely different standards,” Rowe explains to Inverse. “It’s the rules that make soccer and basketball different — two distinct ways of getting a ball into a net — and so genre fiction likewise is expected to be, first of all, less like “art.” Second of all, genre fiction is expected to prioritize certain imaginative qualities over and against the dictates of beautiful style.”

Art by Jeff Drew

While we could say Rowe is focusing on a perception of science fiction which started to dissolve in the ‘60s, but, even so, the phantom of a Sontag argument reasserts itself here: no matter how hard we try to say that style and content are the same thing, the more we prove they’re kind of different. If discussion of any kind of art – like Philip K. Dick novels – is to yield any truth at all, we have to start with the firm belief that all of this could be easily solved by generating a telepathic link with the artist. There, we’d get everything: what the author intended along with what they choose to do stylistically to accomplish those goals.

If there’s a verdict in the trail of Philip K. Dick’s “bad” writing, I’d say we’re dealing with a hung jury. For me, PKD’s actual writing is a mixed-bag of a prose styles. Both intentionally mocking old science fiction, which was somehow unaware of that appropriation. All of this seems very close to how Philip K. Dick actually thought and viewed the world and his work. Meaning, perhaps the greatest truth about Philip K. Dick’s prose is this: it’s about as close as we’ll ever get to real-deal telepathy splashing across the page. And telepathy on the page was never going to be pretty.

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