Philip K. Dick's work has transformed the way we view science fiction. He published 44 novels and over 100 short stories, and 12 book to film adaptations, extending his influence even to today. In most of his works, the wall between reality and illusion fails to exist, leaving his audience to figure out what is and is not real. He touched upon deep philosophical issues. What does it mean to be human? What is an identity? Can I trust my own memories? As a long time science fiction fan, I can't list the following PKD novels in any particular order. To impose my own order would be arrogant of me. Each of the best Philip K. Dick books can be enjoyed by any fan of science-fiction.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Philip K. Dick's exploration of what exactly it means to be a person. The book was the inspiration for Ridley Scott's 1982 film, Blade Runner. In the neo-noir dystopia, androids are manufactured to perform dangerous and menial tasks on the colony of Mars. Some try to escape their fate by fleeing to Earth. Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, is charged with identifying rogue androids and decommissioning them. Can silicon-based machines be alive if they exhibit consciousness, or is something missing from their wires and transistors?
The meanings of humanity, morality, and empathy are all brought into question throughout the novel. Deckard struggles to determine whether he's taking a "life" or decommissioning a lifeless imitation. Is an electric sheep just as valuable as a living sheep? Cruelly ironic, Deckard uses an empathy test to determine whether human-looking forms are people or imitators, but who empathized with the machines? What empowers humans to pass judgment on whether or not something constitutes life? Viewers got a peak into how these themes will be explored further in the Blade Runner 2049 trailer, which was released in May 2017.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Considered one of the best Philip K. Dick books due to its imaginative nature, The Man In The High Castle takes place in an alternate universe where the Allies lost World War II and the United States is divided between Nazi Germany and Japan. This is the novel to recommend to friends who dislike science fiction, as its sci-fi foundation is rather loose beyond being a reimagined history. The novel rotates between characters from different facets of the Axis world: an antique dealer that sells Western goods to Japanese patrons, a German bureaucrat, and a Judo instructor.
Many of the characters consult the I Ching to make decisions, so that the book plays a crucial role in dictating the actions of characters. Japan's cultural influence has both Americans and Japanese characters consult it before acting. Even the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Hawthorne Anderson, consults the I Ching while writing his own counterfactual novel, one which depicts the climax of World War II as we know it in our own world. As with any Dick novel, the theme of shifting realities is at center, and both books shape characters perceptions of their worlds.
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
In a near-future dystopia a drug epidemic has pervaded the country. In A Scanner Darkly the war on drugs is lost thanks to Substance D, a fictional sci-fi movie drug that acts as a hallucinogen which distorts reality. To combat the drug law enforcement creates a network of undercover agents to arrest users and dealers. Detective Bob Arctor infiltrates the drug underworld but to remain inconspicuous he must also take Substance D, but soon loses himself to addiction. The more he uses the more reality around him crumbles. Where reality begins and Arctor's mind ends becomes impossible to distinguish near the end of the novel.
The novel is a semi-autobiographical account of 1970s drug culture in Orange County, California. Dick regularly filled his house with people from the streets, similar to the house Bob Arctor occupies in the story, and was surrounded by drugs. At one point in his life, Dick became dependent on amphetamines and ceased writing completely. In the afterword of the novel PKD dedicates the book to all of those he knew involved in drug culture. According to Dick, the novel is about "some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did."
VALIS by Philip K. Dick
VALIS is a semi-autobiographical about a profound experience Dick claims occurred. Horselover Fat (in Greek "Philip" means "fond of horses" and "dick" is German for "fat") believes his hallucinations reveal hidden truths about the nature of reality. He believes his delusions are being transmitted to him by an alien space probe orbiting the Earth that he calls "VALIS." The novel proceeds with Horselover Fat trying to understand what exactly the space probe wants him to do. It is a captivating because the reader doesn't know where "Horselover Fat" ends and "Philip K. Dick" begins. The line between the two wavers and seems to suggest that the events depicted were actually experienced by Dick and not fabricated for the sake of an interesting story.
While under the influence of sodium thiopental, Dick was visited by a dark-haired girl. As he stared at her golden necklace he was struck by a "pink beam." PKD believed the beam was a self-aware intelligence that imparted wisdom and clairvoyance upon him. He told journalist Charles Platt, "I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane." Throughout February and March of 1974, PKD experienced strange hallucinations. At one point he was convinced he was living two lives at the same time, one as himself and the other as a persecuted Christian in the 1st century AD, and because of this, Philip K. Dick's VALIS analyzes religious destiny, among other intriguing themes.
Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Ubik epitomizes a Dick novel for its journey to the absurd, forcing readers to go over passages to understand what the hell is happening. Business magnate Glen Runciter employs a team of anti-psychics to enforce privacy by protecting company secrets from telepathic spies. The team is nearly killed when ambushed by a rival company and placed in "half-life," something akin to a cryogenic tank. Unaware of their critical injuries they continue their mission but begin to question their reality when strange events occur, such as time-reversal and Runciter's face appearing on cash and coins.
Fast-paced and complex, Ubik can be difficult to understand at times (a theme common to all of the best Philip K. Dick books). Its weirdness adds to the depth of the plot and makes the reader as confused as the characters experiencing a warped reality. It is like trying to pirouette on ice, like trying to make sense of a dream. Once you feel you understand the book, Dick expertly distorts reality to ensure that nothing is certain, even once the novel has ended.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch takes place sometime in the 21st century when the global temperatures have risen so high that most parts of the Earth are inhospitable under normal circumstances. Antarctica has become a prime vacation resort spot. Under the United Nations draft, the humankind has colonized every habitable planet and moon in the solar system. However, the conditions are so horrific in some of these colonies, that some colonists have fallen prey to an illegal drug CAN-D, which provides an escape route from the grim realities of their lives. The epidemic of CAN-D has led to the creation of pseudo-religious cults. One day, a more potent drug Chew-Z appears and threatens to change the world as we know it. This book was one of first Dick’s work to explore religious issues. It deals with issues like alienation, realism, and despair. This books also packs a ton of laughs, and you will find yourself laughing on every page.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is based in a dystopian world where democratic institutions have failed in the United States and the country has become a police state following the second Civil War. The story follows a celebrity, Jason Tavener, who one day wakes up in a world where nobody recognizes him. Tavener, who was loved by everyone and belonged to the elite class, finds himself lost in the world without any identity and friends. The book takes Tavener on a nightmarish journey to find answers to his inexplicable questions. It also deals with the idea of solipsism. As in most of Dick’s other books, recreational drugs play a significant role.
Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick
This book is set in the post-apocalyptic future following the accidental explosion of a nuclear bomb. Dr. Bloodmoney had been testing nuclear weapons as precautionary measures against the Communist threats of USSR and China when a miscalculation on his part caused an atmospheric nuclear accident. The entire world now has to suffer the ramifications of this accident. Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb contains some very memorable characters such as Walt Dangerfield, who as a part of US Space program is supposed to leave Earth with his wife to colonize Mars. However, the bomb exploded soon after the blast-off, and now Dangerfield is stuck orbiting around Earth without his wife. Then there is a seven-year-old girl who has her brother lodged inside her, right next to her kidney. Both siblings are capable of carrying an adult conversation. It’s a whole lot of crazy!
Minority Report by Philip K. Dick
Like many of the best Philip K. Dick books, The Minority Report has inspired a blockbuster Hollywood movie. This story is based in a futuristic society, where three mutants can foresee all crimes. Based on their powers, Precrime division can arrest suspects before they could commit any crime. This practice poses a moral question: can you arrest someone for the crime he or she hasn’t committed? The story takes a turn when the head of the division is accused of murdering a person whom he has never met. This story was written in 1956 and is one of the earlier works of Dick. The short novel was written during the peak of Cold War, and it reflects Philip K. Dick’s anxieties. It also deals with the issue of the existence of free will.
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is the final novel in the trilogy which also includes VALIS and The Divine Invasion. It was Philip K. Dick’s last work and was released shortly after his death in 1982. This story is an investigation of the paradoxes of belief. It follows Episcopal Bishop Timothy Archer, who is dealing with the suicides of his son and mistress. The story deals with Archer’s quest for the identity of Christ. The character of Timothy Archer was very much influenced by controversial Episcopal Bishop James Pike, who died in Judean desert while researching for a book he was writing on historical Jesus.
Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
This book is set in a human colony on Mars. Humans have settled on the science fiction’s favorite planet, and they are running it as their own. Terran colonists rule the Red planet and have cast aside the native Martians called Bleekmen. Bleekmen are remnants of once proud civilization, but they are considered second-grade citizens at present. The natives are not green men like Hollywood movies and look very much like Humans. Martian Time-Slip has elements of science fiction like time travel, but it mostly deals with mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. The sci-fi aspect mostly plays a second fiddle to the mental and emotional facets of central characters, making this unique among the best Philip K. Dick books.
Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick
Radio Free Albemuth was written in 1976 but was only published posthumously in 1985. It tells the story of an alternate history, where right-wing and fascist President Ferris F. Fremont, who can be best described as a blend of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, has become the most powerful man in the United States in the 1960s. Fremont’s name represents the number of the devil - ‘666’, F being the sixth alphabet, and he is associated with the right-wing movement called "Friends of the American People." Meanwhile, the totalitarian government has led to the creation of a resistance movement, which is being led by a super intelligent, extra-terrestrial being named VALIS from a nearby satellite. This one keeps the readers on their toes and is a must-read for PKD fans.
Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K. Dick
The year is 2055, and our planet is caught amidst the interstellar conflict between two galactic superpowers. The main protagonist of Now Wait for Last Year is organ-transplant doctor, Dr. Eric Sweetscent, who thinks that our planet might have sided with the wrong power in the war. There is a lot going in the life of Dr. Sweetscent; his wife Kathy is addicted to a powerful drug that appears to cause time travel, and he has been handled the duty to take care of the most powerful man on Earth- UN Secretary General Gino Molinari. Molinari, who is on the cusp of death, has strange health issues, and they left Sweetscent to wonder if these issues and his wife’s addiction are related. This Philip K. Dick book is full of mystery, humor, and there is never a dull movement as one mistake could push humanity towards extinction.
The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick
The Divine Invasion is the second book in this trilogy which also includes VALIS and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. It takes place a century or so after the events of VALIS. Following the fall of Masada in AD 74, God, or Yahweh, has taken exile in a distant planet. While the spirit of darkness, Belial, rules the Earth, God, renamed as Yah, is intent on taking back his creation and is planning a second coming. The book could be considered as an alternate version of Jesus Christ’s second coming and contains many references and quotes from the Bible. Dick also deals with Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Eastern philosophies in the book. The story can put off fundamentalists, but it is one of the best Philip K. Dick books.
Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
What is real and what’s not? Time Out of the Joint deals with the nature of reality. It deals with the difference in the world as we see it and what it actually is. Ragle Gumm thinks that he has served in World War II, and he is living in the year 1959. But in reality, the current year is 1998. Or is it? After a series of disturbing hallucinations, Gumm starts to doubt his version of the world and begins to think that in some disturbing way he is the center of his universe. It is an intelligent and though-provoking book, which starts off slowly, but in the end, it turns out to be vintage Philip K. Dick. This book is said to have inspired Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show.