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the take

Philip K. Dick's Early Novels: The Sixties, Before They Happened

Courtesy of the Philip K. Dick Trust, Tor Books


What was one of the quintessential sixties writers like before the sixties happened? The mind-blowing novels of Philip K. Dick (A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and scores more) are often thought of as still-relevant artifacts of the sixties counterculture. But reading Dick's early novels from the fifties — in handsome new editions from Tor Books, which brings some of these books back into print for the first time in decades — we realize that a better measure of the sixties might be In Milton Lumky Territory, written by Dick in 1958. Why? Because you can't appreciate how profoundly paranoid and surreal Philip K. Dick's novels became until you read how square they once were.

If you're looking for avatars of extraterrestrial divinity, the epistemology of designer hallucinogens, or any of the other trippy themes that recur through the author's vast oeuvre, they're simply nowhere to be found. The novel, which was written before the author discovered drugs, runaways, and the Age of Aquarius generally, tells the story of Bruce "Skip" Stevens, a straitlaced young go-getter who wants to make a killing in sales. Skip meets a nice girl and they get married, and the bulk of the plot involves how he can get into the typewriter racket at a cost that will allow him and his wife to set up a business together. Not only are there no androids — there's no uneasiness about the American dream, no Beat-generation longings to break out of the trap, no doubts or qualms anywhere to be found. Though the book is beautifully drawn and poignantly persuasive, and though it even has a notably un-Dickian happy ending, it can be read today only as tragedy — a story of paradise lost, both to Dick and to the generation of writers who, like him, could never again equate a paycheck and a picket fence with lasting happiness. —Josh Ozersky