Philip K. Dick: A Tribute To The Man Behind Blade Runner, Total Recall, And More

He dreamed of electric sheep.

By Joelle Renstrom | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

DickFeatPhilip K. Dick would have turned 85 this past Monday. So let’s listen to his favorite writing music and honor the man who wrote some damn fine science fiction.

PKD’s works such as A Scanner Darkly and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (which became Total Recall) have been translated to screen, and his best known work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was published in 1968 and then, nearly 15 years later, made into a little movie you might have heard of called Blade Runner. The book and movie give PKD a venue for pondering the same questions that occupied Alan Turing, about an artificial intelligence’s ability to think and pass for human. Turing’s test involved conversational skills — if a human could converse with a machine and not know it was a machine, the machine passed the Turing Test (a current version of this test is conducted in the annual Loebner Prize competition). While PKD remained interested in machine capability, he thought Turing was a bit short-sighted, since it focused solely on intelligence. Dick believed that a true test of humanness involved emotion and empathy, rather than sheer smarts, so he reimagined a Turing Test that gauged those qualities — Electric Sheep’s Voigt-Kampff test.


By the time Electric Sheep was published, PKD had been publishing sci-fi for 17 years and had already won a Hugo for The Man in the High Castle, a fantastic alternate-reality yarn that explores what the future might have looked like had the Axis won World War II. I’ll give you a hint: life in a fascist, totalitarian society is not particularly awesome and involves, among other things, the assassination of FDR.

Later in his life, PKD had some pretty weird experiences with hallucinations that he came to believe were religious or spiritual in origin. “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,” he said, before his life split into what he characterized as two parallel trajectories. In addition to being Philip K. Dick, he was sometimes Thomas, a Christian trying to evade religious persecution just after the death of Jesus. He also said at one point that the prophet Elijah’s spirit was in him. I’m not sure anyone really understands what happened to PKD here — theories range from medication side effects to a psychotic break to extrasensory suggestions — but whatever they were, they had a profound impact on his work.

While PDK had explored religions themes in books such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which I really enjoyed, after his hallucinations and visions he began writing some pretty out-there stuff which incorporated many of his own experiences. The only one of these books that I’ve read is The Divine Invasion, which is the second book in the VALIS trilogy (oops — didn’t know that at the time) and which chronicles God’s (Yah) exile from Earth to the far reaches of the universe and Yah’s subsequent fight to regain control of earth from the spirit of darkness.

PKD Android (version 2)
PKD Android (version 2)

PKD died in 1982, after suffering multiple strokes, and while his DNA isn’t going into space like Arthur Clarke’s, he will live on through more than his works. Back in 2004, robot designer David Hanson began the Philip K. Dick project. Hanson had already made great strides in robotic development, including the synthetic yet incredibly realistic skin he designed called, of course, “Frubber.” Hanson’s emotionally demonstrative K-Bot was modeled after his ex-girlfriend, and the even more expressive Einstein bot was modeled after…oh, you know.

The principles Hanson brought to fruition in those robots can be evidenced in the Philip K. Dick android, which has been programmed to speak as though it were the man himself. It has a vast databank of interviews and responses so it can answer questions as Dick, and if no such Q&A exists in its database, it constructs the most likely answer given the data it does have. Sadly, in 2005 Hanson left the PKD android head on a plane (I so wish I could have seen someone find it!), and it eventually disappeared. Hanson was heartbroken, but his team was able to rebuild the head in 2011. The newer head is more realistic (and hairier) than the first version, and possesses even greater conversational memory skills. Now that’s a robot I’d love to talk to.