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Channel Your Inner Dick

March 7, 2014

There’s nothing so valuable for young writers than the feeling that we can create works rivaling those of heralded masters. As such it pays to read authors whose styles we find the most approachable, like Hemingway. Steinbeck. Twain.

Lovers of genre fictions will have different lists. Personally it started with Kurt Vonnegut; reading Cat’s Cradle in ninth grade English was an revelatory event. The simplicity with which he told his story; the way he brought his characters to life; the shortened paragraphs, so unlike any literature I’d ever seen; all made me want to toss the rulebook aside and create my own worlds on paper.

Sometime in my twenties I read my first Philip Dick story. It was Second Variety, the short that eventually turned into the B-movie Screamers. True to its time, in the battle between Soviet Russia and the good ol’ United States smart weapons had been created that eventually built weapons of their own which looked and acted exactly like human beings and had no purpose but to infiltrate and destroy them – and eventually each other. The characters and the dialog served little purpose but to push forward the plot, which – when you finally reached the end and saw Dick’s vision in full – was all about an idea. A question. What if our weapons turned into us?

What if? It’s the question at the heart of his writing. It’s science-fiction’s main attraction. Dick has been accused of many things from gross unprofessionalism to mental instability; his critics have claimed he would be so intent on making some specific point that he’d leave entire storylines behind; stories that could have been books in their own right. And yet – decades later – he is finally being recognized for the genius that he was. His books, never printed in hardcover and difficult to find for many years, are finally available in trade paperback. PKD classes are taught in the Universities. Eleven movies have been made based on his works.

When I read Second Variety I thought, I can do this. It wasn’t quite the revelation Cat’s Cradle had been because by that point I’d made my way through much of science-fiction’s venerable library. I’d chosen my models. I wasn’t going to write hard sci-fi or space opera. Dismissed were the realms of fantasy and steampunk. Nobody could entertain me like a Vernor Vinge or a Neal Stephenson, but we lived in different worlds.

When I need a boost of confidence I read Harrison Bergeron. If it’s really bad I visit Powell’s for a used Dick novel. Any of them will do.

 

 

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