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Philip K. Dick: Author extraordinary

To explore the place of fantasy in our lives.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To explore the place of fantasy in our lives.

Preparation and materials


  1. Have you ever looked at the world and found that this supposed ‘reality’ looks somehow . . . false?

    Disneyworld in California features artificial streets designed to look exactly like the classic American Main Street. Yet of course these streets lack the petty vandalism and social conflict which can sometimes be found in life. The Disneyland Main Street is inaccurate in the sense that it ignores the ugly truths about the real ‘Main Street’ in favour of a version that mixes fantasy and reality together: a perfected version of reality that remains pure fantasy.
  2. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, writers have struggled with the idea that the experienced world is not entirely real. The most famous example of this is the film The Matrix, in which the modern world is actually a computer simulation.

    The Matrix, which was released in 1999, took an idea into the mainstream that had been developing for fifty years. In the 1960s, a spate of books had begun to examine the possibility of a darker, hidden world behind the shiny opulence of modern American culture.
  3. Of the authors of these books, one of the most successful was Philip K. Dick, who died 30 years ago this month.

    Dick created characters who seem to be doing well for themselves, but then are forced to adapt to survive in changing circumstances over which they have no control.

    In his novel Minority Report, a policeman who uses psychics to help predict murders suddenly finds himself accused of a future crime.

    In We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (filmed with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Total Recall), an ordinary man, seeking to implant false memories in his mind, actually uncovers memories that powerful forces want to keep repressed.

    In Blade Runner, we do not know who are the real people and who are not – but those who do know have the power of life and death.

    In the above cases, we see the dark side of the system that the protagonist has supported.
  4. It is this recognition of the corrupting potential of fantasies that gives Dick his power. In his writings, the repression of an ugly truth benefits someone, and that person will use every possible means to keep that truth hidden. It is a truth about power, real or fictional, that power and control of the truth run side by side.
  5. In their novels and short stories, the best science-fiction writers tell us more about our own society and world than the future realms they create. Dick is certainly a part of this group. Although bizarre experiences and characters inhabit his books, the real dangers are all too human: power and fear.

    As the economic crisis continues to show the illusory nature of much of our affluence, there are lessons to be learned from such writing. As the fantasies are dispelled, ugly truths are emerging and those who have benefited from the myths find themselves every day more exposed.

Time for reflection

Pause and take a few moments now to think about any fantasies that you may have running in your life:
–  do you dream of becoming famous overnight;
–  of being a world-class sportsperson without years of practice;
–  of meeting someone rich, and finding financial security that way?

(Insert other fantasies that run strongly in your school culture.)

Are there ugly truths behind these fantasies, or are they just a nice place to escape to from time to time?

Do we recognize our fantasies as just that - make believe? Or are they beginning to become our reality?


Play the theme tune from one of the above films. The theme music for Blade Runner is by Vangelis. While sounding very much of its time, it is a powerful piece of music.

Publication date: March 2012   (Vol.14 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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