Spent a chunk of this morning wrangling with the themes that define the work of Philip K. Dick. My entry point today was the remarkable lecture he delivered in September 1977 at the 4eme Festival de la Science Fiction in Metz, France: ‘If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.’ During the talk Dick covers all the key themes that permeate his work: visionary experiences, déjà vu, the simulation hypothesis, and the nature of reality. As a reader of his science fiction, I have at least a passing familiarity with these ideas, but watching this particular address really brought home how Dick might actually be describing just how it feels to be a fictional character in a narrative that is being redrafted.
You can watch the whole thing and see what I am getting at, and I would encourage you to. Over the course of forty minutes, Dick unpicks his own writing life and reality as he perceives it in a manner that had me, as a long-time reader of his novels, itching to return to them afresh. But I will summarise the key points that resonated with me this morning, key points that said something to me both as a writer in the midst of redrafting the dozen short stories written in response to my PhD studies and as a human being in the midst of the shit show that is 2020.
So, Dick begins by outlining the big concept of the talk, that reality as we experience it is not a straight singular linear reality but rather a ‘manifold of partially actualised realities lying tangential to what is evidently the most actualised one’. So far, so multiple worlds theory. But Dick quickly moves past that, relatively simple concept to a much more compelling one. In this ‘most actualised’ reality we are trapped in ‘the prison of immutable cause and effect’ as participants. If we could step outside time/reality though, we would see that ‘the creation and selection of such so called alternative presents is continually taking place.’ Dick proposes here that the other realities in the manifold are prior drafts of this one. And more than this, he argues that, with each successive alternate present that comes into being, reality is improving with each iteration. Hence his title: ‘If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.’ This creation and selection of alternative improved presents is part of the ‘programmer’s’ efforts to improve reality in a constant battle against an opposite antagonistic force that is seeking to make everything worse.
What Dick is describing here is a redrafting of reality. The ‘programmer’ is the writer reworking his narrative, striving for completion. Dick even goes so far as to make this metaphor explicit in this talk. Take a look at what he says around 16 mins 40 seconds in. What he is describing is the redrafting process. Those of us within the reality, within linear time are the characters. The programmer/author sits outside linear time reshaping events in a effort to improve them. So, in Dick’s model, as participants we experience reality like a character in a redraft of a story. According to Dick, when reality jumps tracks to a new improved version, vestiges of that track echo in our dreams, our memories and our fiction. He goes so far as to say that his classic novels The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said were both created from such residual memories of worse worlds existing prior to the creation of this improved but not perfected track of reality. Whether you buy into this theory of ‘partially actualised realities’ or not, for the fiction writer it does create a powerful image of the redrafting process.
According to Dick, each time reality has shifted to the new improved version ‘all of us carried on unknowingly yet dimly suspecting.’ You can imagine a character within a work in progress feeling this way within a redraft as events and situations, even their own actions, are changed within a narrative as the author tinkers with her story. Kate Atkinson plays with this very idea in her excellent novel Life After Life. Each successive story of Ursula Todd’s life that plays out within the pages of that book is in essence a redrafting of her reality. And it is a redrafting of reality that, if my memory of the story serves correctly, on the whole seems to trend toward improvement for Ursula. In each iteration she survives a little longer, lives a little more. Ursula also retains impressions of the previous ‘drafts’ of reality, and they are, just as Dick asserts in his talk, ‘almost certainly memories of a worse world than this.’As a theory of reality, Dick’s ‘manifold of partially actualised realities lying tangential to what is evidently the most actualised one’ remains impossible to prove, but Dick makes a compelling case for it in the forty or so minutes he has here.
From my perspective as a possible participant in the process, what strikes me now is how reassuring this is as an idea. Even as entropy itself works toward the destruction of everything, this concept proposes the possibility that reality might simultaneously be improving on a trend that leads, eventually, toward the best of all possible worlds. Yes, 2020 has been a shit show thus far, and by extension, all of history too, but, if Dick is to be believed, things could be, indeed have been, much worse. What’s more, they will, eventually, be better.
From my perspective as a writer, this concept suggests a way of thinking about the redrafting process that intrigues me. My laptop hard drive is full of redrafts of stories. Each one, I hope, an improvement on the last, at least as a story. But this may not necessarily be the case for my characters, as situations and events don’t always change to their benefit in the redraft. I’m not really sure where thinking about this will take me in my own writing. I am just intrigues by the image of the ‘manifold of partially actualised realities lying tangential to what is evidently the most actualised one’ that lies within my laptop’s hard drive. Which is enough for now. In the talk, Dick tells the audience that ‘ideas have a life of their own; they appear to seize a people and make use of them.’ I’ll wait to see what use, if any, this idea has for me.
One thing strikes me though, the external change that this model suggests does not make our actions within it meaningless. In fact, quite the opposite. Often, when redrafting a work, an idea for improving that work will come from something one of the characters does or says within it. If a fictional construct within a narrative is capable of inspiring change in their reality, perhaps we can too. By acting positively in the world we might ourselves inspire subsequent iterations of our improved reality. Which brings us back to Dick’s talk and the links between his programmer and more conventional theologies and beliefs. Yep, still so many questions here. But that’s fiction’s job right? To ask difficult questions, not answer them.
*If this is starting to sound like the entire plot of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles that’s because Dick is where he got many of his ideas from, right down to the insertion of ‘the programmer/god’ into his own reality. So too his run of Animal Man comics for DC, in which Morrison as the programmer/writer, inserts himself into his own creation.