On the ‘Real’ in Philip K. Dick, by Charlotte Winter


Philip K. Dick frequently examined the authenticity and viability of reality in his novels and short stories. Within these explorations, he imagined the collapse of an objective reality into new layers, and he argued for the existence of multiple, subjective realities that gained their substance through the use of organic hallucinogens. Dick argues, then, that reality is created by the mind of the individual, through that which the individual attributes meaning to. This argument is incredibly valuable as it offers each individual private power over his or her life. Such a perspective would be highly important for an off-world human colony, as it would provide comfort for those who have migrated: when having to initially adjust to a new environment, Dick’s perspective would ensure that everyone would begin to rebuild their own lives, and also assist in the rebuilding of others’ lives too.  The perspective would also prevent a personal disenfranchisement from the new society during the transitory period, as it acknowledges that people must be active. By acknowledging the necessity for active colonists, this message could ensure that everyone in the new society contributes to its development, subsequently enriching and motivating each individual. In addition to this, the message encourages people to maintain hope and involvement in the early days of new society. By giving the colonists hope, it would strengthen their bonds and ensure the continuation of their progress upon other worlds.

Dick’s message can be found in his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, set in an off-world colony on Mars, which has been settled due to rising temperatures on earth. Reality is manipulated by two hallucinogenic drugs which simulate different subjective realities. Can-D provides an ontic, shared simulation which Dick describes as a space through which characters can escape to ‘another world’, a space that on the surface appears to be a hallucination. The characters also question ‘whether [these worlds are] a play of imagination, of drug-induced hallucination, or an actual translation’ (Dick, 2003, pp.41-126). Chew-Z differs as it creates counterfeit realities and raises ontological doubt in the mind of its users, as they are confused by these new realities that the characters describe as ‘authentic’ or ‘non-existent’ (pp. 80-7).

In the Mars setting there are artefacts from earth, mirroring colonists’ former lives. This presence of earthly artefacts shows that the characters are surrounded by real objects, and so are not simply pretending. Dick uses the character Mayerson to debate the legitimacy of this created reality through phrases such as ‘with Can-D you undergo a valid interpersonal experience’ (p. 94). The linguistic choice of ‘valid’ implies that what the characters experience is based in logic and reason, proposing that their experiences are based in a credible realm of existence (p. 94). Dick’s description of this new reality as ‘interpersonal’ suggests the character’s experience of Can-D takes place in a shared and communal environment (p. 94). This description gives the character’s experience more credibility as it is experienced by others rather than in isolation. Mayerson and Leo Bulero, who use the hallucinogenic drugs, describe their encounter with Can-D’s simulated reality as an ‘experience,’ which suggests that they have physical contact with reality within it, and that it is meaningful to them (p. 94).

Jean Baudrillard explores this blurring of simulation and experience through his assertion that ‘simulating is not pretending’ (Baudrillard, 2010, p.3). Baudrillard questions the validity of psychosomatic illness if it produces real symptoms but is not detectable within the body, as such simulation ‘threatens the difference between…the “real” and the “imaginary”’ (p. 3). Dick’s exploration questions the validity of the simulated reality as it argues that what the users experience with Can-D blurs the boundary between the real and the un-real. Dick appears to argue that the simulation is not simply a pretend world, as Can-D’s reality allows the characters to experience an interpersonal and therefore meaningful reality. Dick argues that although on the surface the drug induces a hallucinatory world, that which the users experience is another realm of the projected forms. The stability of reality is here problematized by Dick as he appears to argue that the world the users inhabit through Can-D is instead another version of reality rather than a false experience. This suggests, therefore, that absolute reality exists within the mind, created by the meanings each one of us generates individually.


Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Glaser, S F. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Dick, P K. (2003) The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. London: Gollancz.



Charlotte Winter is currently studying for her MA in Contemporary Literature at York St. John University, and she is due to graduate in November 2017. She hopes to continue with academic study through a PhD at the University of York in Toronto, Canada. Her research interests are in Science Fiction, primarily Golden Age writing that deals with scientific achievement, the vast space of the universe, and the foundations and representations of religious thought.

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