The Library of America (loa.org) decided it was time to honor Philip K. Dick and published four of his most famous novels in one volume. Good choice, since Dick's novels are in general quite short and publishing only one would have left the reader dissatisfied, given the tomes that are usually produced in the series.
The 60es were a crazy time by anyone's reckoning, at least in the United States (in Europe, the 70es would assume the same significance). Philip Dick, who was genuinely mentally troubled, works well as a paragon of the time – Dick and the Sixties, a match made in heaven.
The four novels in question are The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Ubik. They have some themes in common, yet they show a visible evolution in the writing and thinking of the author.
The four novels' common theme is that of loss of reality. In all of them, there is a fundamental challenge to some aspect of being. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, with the most conventional story line that made it easier to adapt it to a movie audience (Blade Runner), tells of the difficulty of telling robots from humans.
In The Man in the High Castle it is history that is at stake. A retelling of the period after the World Wars in which Germany and Japan have won, we are reminded of novels with similar concept (Robert Harris's Fatherland comes to mind). At the same time, the loss of reality is deeper than just a retelling of history and encompasses the protagonists, who lose sight of what's real and what is imagined.
Deeply similar despite vast differences in artistic value, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik deal with realities alternate to ours. The actors in both novels can transfer from one reality to the other and eventually lose sight of which reality they are in.
Once you read the novels together, especially if you leave out Androids as I did, it becomes quite clear that the author himself had some mental stability problems. The preoccupation with imagined reality becomes too obvious – the same kind of feeling the mentally stable reader of Burrough's Naked Lunch gets once you put down the book. There is something deeply unsettling in the narratives, not because they unsettle, but because they are the product of unsettledness.
Other major themes in Dick's novels surface here, too: Earth is typically destroyed or inhospitable; there are psionic powers at work; people constantly use hallucinogenic drugs. All in all, Dick's universe is a less than friendly place and being sentient always means being confused.
On the matter of the merit of the single novels, they seem vastly disparate. The Man in the High Castle suffers a lot artistically: it turns out the I-Ching was used to make plot decisions, and indeed the result is a fairly dishomogeneous affair. To make things worse, the plot scatters itself amongst several plot lines that converge and diverge liberally, without the orchestration you'd usually put in place in this kind of story.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge is a fascinating book. The theme of alternate reality comes to full fruition here, with the title character functioning as a reality anchor: whenever you see his marks (termed stigmata in the novel), you know there has been some mind alteration. All in all, though, the constant shift between realities becomes tedious to follow. Towards the end of the book, I confess I felt sorry for the author, who must have been plagued by similar confusion in real life. If it left me puzzled after reading, imagine how living through it must have been.
As mentioned, I skipped Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in this go. I read it long before, it was probably the first Dick novel I read, and I distinctly recall it as being much more conventional than the other three in the group. With reality not shifting under our feet, we can look at the unconventional crime novel plot, at the characters and at the philosophical musing. The novel is compelling, in that it mixes an exciting story with the central notion of the Turing test. Do androids indeed dream? How are they not human if they don't differ from humans? A question that has been taken on by the newish Battlestar Galactica series and that gives it its edge.
Of the four novels, though, Ubik stands out as an astonishing accomplishment that goes far beyond the other three. Collecting the themes of reality confusion, inhospitable environment, psionic powers, and suspense novel, Ubik is the story of a company of psionic inhibitors that get killed in a plot by their psionically gifted counterparts. Instead of dying for real, they are transported into half-life, a state in which their brains are kept alive while their bodies are dead.
Unfortunately, it is unclear to the poor participants that they are in half-life. They think they are alive, but their boss is dead. They soon notice, though, that there is something wrong with their universe: things regress to older, than ancient forms; the dead boss shows up everywhere, on coins and on TV; members of the group die a grisly death.
While the plot moves on, things get more and more confusing, with more and more possibilities joining in to create a strident crescendo of mind-numbing complexity. Unlike in the other novels that combine similar themes, though, the organ point is brought to a final conclusion of beautiful simplicity that reduces all the discord to a single tone: compassion.