Saturday, August 2, 2014

“Is This Concrete All Around Or Is It Just In My Head?” The Point of Diminishing Returns For Paranoia-inducing Fiction


Most of the patrons I bar tend for in Edmonton, Alberta are laborers returning from long shifts in Fort McMurray. My bar banter revolves more around movies and television rather than sports (shocker), and one night, after a commercial played for Guardians of the Galaxy on the televisions, I mentioned that I couldn’t care less if Disney is raking it in with their Marvel franchise because I’m enjoying the seemingly endless wave of mindlessly fun action films they’re dishing out. One guy at the bar, a welder’s apprentice back from a month long stint up north, pricked up his ears, looked at me in the eyes, and said, “You know they’re gonna kill us all, right?”

I looked back at him.

“Uh. What?” I replied, although, in the recess of my mind, I already knew where this conversation was going. I’ve had it before.

“The goddamn Illuminati. Fucking Disney. We’re all dead within ten years, man. The bastards.”

In my life I’ve come across, and had close relationships with, my fair share of conspiracy theorists. As ridiculous as they may seem, I find it depressing to see someone, who under different circumstances could have been a great critical thinker, wallow in endless self-pity, convinced that any and all tragedies and injustices in their life is the product of hostile forces operating beyond their control – thriving only in a state of self-perpetuating hopelessness.

“I know things I’m not supposed to know, man. I’m telling you, they have it all planned – the world’s biggest secret. There’s no way out. We’re all dead.”

Without contributing positive, progressive responses to the negative observations they perpetuate, interacting with such an individual is exhausting and emotionally draining. Unfortunately, this is exactly the same feeling I get after reading too much of my favorite sci-fi author, Philip K. Dick.

Dick is one of the most prominent sci-fi authors of all time, widely known for his extensive catalogue of novels and short stories, a number of which major Hollywood blockbusters are adaptations thereof, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990 and 2012), Minority Report (2002) and The Adjustment Bureau (2011). More than just mindless action set in space, his stories revolve around two principle questions: what is real? and what is human?; they are his philosophical, political and religious skepticisms and fears set in speculative futures and realities, where cybernetic individuals may be completely indistinguishable from us; where reality itself may be a memory-implant controlled by a malevolent, totalitarian government.

But as intriguing as is to question notions of reality, free-will, humanity, etc. through fiction, I have a personal limit, a point of diminishing returns, for stories that are doomed to end with bleak, pessimistic, no-win-scenarios – the norm in Philip K. Dick’s worlds. I didn’t think this is the effect Dick wanted to have on his readers, but hey, I read somewhere that Martin Scorsese didn’t intend to make dropping quaaludes, having endless amounts money and unlimited sex look like a good time, either. The point is, sometimes an artist’s intent isn’t the one the audience takes home with them.


Adaptation, however, offers an opportunity to emphasize and develop certain of a story’s themes while deemphasizing others, and it wasn’t until I read about Dick’s response to Blade Runner in Jason P. Vest’s Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick At the Movies that I knew, despite his all his pessimistic fiction, Philip K. Dick did not intend to elicit only hopelessness and despair.

Vest contrasts the relationship between Deckard and Rachael in Blade Runner and it’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – the former’s success contributing to Deckard’s salvation, while the latter’s failure providing his motivation to retire the remaining androids. “[Dick’s] pessimistic appraisal of Deckard and Rachael’s intercourse is a fascinating literary analysis of Electric Sheep’s sexuality that underscores significant differences between the novel and Blade Runner” (22). Instead of


condemning the alterations made to his source novel, Dick showed enthusiasm for the film’s retention and arguable advancement his philosophical and spiritual theme of what it means to be human. Indeed, perhaps the most drastic of changes made to the replicant’s humanization in Blade Runner, and Deckard’s behavior towards them, is manifested in the film’s rooftop climax. Wherein Electric Sheep, Deckard retires the Batty-android, Blade Runner’s memorable ending sees the replicant save the Blade Runner from death. “This sequence, despite its differences from the novel, also pleased Philip K. Dick. Although the


author considered the androids of his novel to be ‘deplorable,’ ‘cruel,’ ‘cold,’ ‘heartless,’ and ‘essentially less-than-human entities,’ he also thought, after reading a late version of Blade Runner’s screenplay, that: ‘the final Batty/Deckard confrontation [is] a moving sequence.’ (25) Vest quotes Dick again later as feeling that “ ‘the book and the movie do not fight each other. They reinforce each other’ ”(27). Dick not only asserts that his thematic intentions are to inspire more than depression and paranoia, but by applauding an adaptation that differs so much from his original vision, he displays progressive attributes of adaptation theory – those of judging an adaptation not by the degree to which it differs from the original, but by the story’s success or failure as a vehicle to convey a theme.

Although I will argue that Dick’s catalogue fails as a motivator and for social change because it comes off as a broken record of social critiques and fears without suggesting ways to solve the problems he brings attention to, I am not demanding that adaptations of his work be forced to have Disney-story endings. 2010’s The Adjustment Bureau, the film adaptation of Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Team, serves as such as example. Where Dick’s ending is, as usual, unsettlingly depressing (the protagonist simply accepts the fact that his fate, and everyone else’s, is controlled by The Adjustment Team), the film’s nice, neat, happy wrap-up that sees the Adjustment Team restore humanity’s freewill after making its viewers aware of the concept of a perfect, but fabricated reality, seems counter-intuitive. Blade Runner’s ending is ambiguous – hardly fairy-tale quality. If all of Dick’s works were adapted like Bureau, complete with spliced-in happy endings, my critique would be the same.

Smart science fiction, smart fiction in general, should capture an audience’s imagination and intrigue them, but not dwell on eliciting just emotion. Giving rise to feelings of paranoia and depression do not solve the issues from which they generate. Commanders of mediums that can capture the attention of people who would not otherwise question social, political or economic issues have an obligation to educate and motivate these audiences.

Then there’s times when I just wanna watch a CGI raccoon blow shit up. You can’t take yourself too seriously all the time – that would be inhuman.



Blade Runner. Screenplay by Hampton Francher and David Peoples. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Michael Deeley. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young. 1982. Warner Bros. DVD. 2007.

Dick, Philip K. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Doubleday, 1968. Print.

Vest, Jason P. “Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick At the Movies.” Westport CT, Praeger Publishers, 2007. Print.


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