With the Channel 4 series of dramas based on his short stories starting, Philip K Dick has cemented his reputation as one of the most adapted science fiction authors of the modern age.
The most famous big-screen outing of recent years was Ridley Scottâ€™s Blade Runner, released in 1982, the year the author died. But there has also been Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (and its 2012 remake); Minority Report (2002), with Tom Cruise; the Richard Linklater â€œrotoscopedâ€ version of A Scanner Darkly, which overlayed animation on live-action footage of Keanu Reeves; and 2011â€™s The Adjustment Bureau.
PKD, as heâ€™s usually known, most recently came to prominence thanks to the Amazon TV series based on his 1962 alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, which posited an America controlled by the Nazis on the east coast and the Japanese on the west after the second world war.
Electric Dreams, the 10-part Channel 4 series, features adaptations of PKDâ€™s short stories, each with a different screenwriter. The contemporary appeal is obvious. His stories often deal with themes of corporate greed, authoritarian control, artificial intelligence, drugs and how technology can be used to both elevate and subdue individuals and populations.
Charlie Brookerâ€™s phenomenally successful series Black Mirror owes a big debt to PKD and his dystopian visions. Indeed, life seems to become more and more like a PKD story; in the days before Electric Dreams is aired weâ€™ve had shrill news stories about sex robots that could be hacked to carry out murder, and the unveiling of a new iPhone that unlocks itself through facial recognition. Increasingly it feels as if this is PKDâ€™s world, and we just live in it.
Two complaints often arise in any conversation about the author, though. One, he was awful at titles â€“ at least, marquee-friendly titles. Blade Runner (an aside; the forthcoming film Blade Runner 2049, while not based directly on a PKD work, is eagerly awaited for continuing the story of Deckard, played in the original by Harrison Ford) was called in its novel form Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Total Recall was We Can Remember It for You Wholesale; and the 1995 Screamers was based on a short story called â€œSecond Varietyâ€, while The Adjustment Bureau had only just a slight tweak from the original title of Adjustment Team.
The other point is more contentious: that PKD actually wasnâ€™t a very good writer. There will be protests from the self-confessed Dickheads who adore him and, personally, I think the criticism is a little unfair. Thereâ€™s a sparseness to his prose, for sure, and some of his dialogue is clunky and awkward. He certainly doesnâ€™t have the narrative flair of contemporaries such as Ray Bradbury. But what PKD had, and what Hollywood has known for decades and TV is switching on to now, was ideas.
Weâ€™re often more forgiving of beautiful literary prose with little substance, or that rehashes old ideas in a fresh way, than we are of writers who turn out new concepts but perhaps in a less stylish manner. PKD was a high-concept writer, and sometimes it feels as though ideas were bursting out of his mind at such a pace that he didnâ€™t have time for the intricacies of wordplay.
His UK publisher Gollancz has republished the Electric Dreams stories in an anthology with introductions by the writers who have brought them to TV. What stands out in almost all cases is that theyâ€™ve taken PKDâ€™s central idea and built a narrative around it. This is typical: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report â€¦ they all have at their heart the original concept from the source material, but PKD adaptations that slavishly follow the text are rare. The Man in the High Castle has already stretched to two seasons, far outstripping the original book.
Ronald D Moore, the writer behind the Battlestar Galactica reboot, has adapted PKDâ€™s â€œExhibit Pieceâ€ (retitled â€œReal Lifeâ€) for Electric Dreams, and he says: â€œVery little remains of this story in the show, but the heart, and perhaps more importantly the brains behind the episode originate in this tale.â€
Should we think any less of Dick for this? Is writing just words assembled in a pretty order, or is it ideas and concepts and things that no one has ever thought of before? The answer, of course, is that the best writing is both.