‘The Literature of the Absurd’: Sci-Fi’s Beckett

“The Literature of the Absurd” is a reflection on prominent authors in the Absurdist tradition — Beckett, Camus and beyond — and the ways in which their writings can intertwine with life in sometimes surprising ways.

Spence Olham stands at the edge of a crater in the woods, surrounded by men with guns who tell him he’s already dead. This isn’t a figure of speech — he’s literally dead, having been killed and replaced by an extraterrestrial android with fake memories and a planet-destroying bomb inside its chest. Earth’s security forces give Olham one chance to prove that he’s innocent. As soon as he realizes he’s not, the planet blows up.

“Impostor” is quintessential Philip K. Dick. The short story is characterized by his typical sparse prose and whirlwind pacing, with the story reaching its climax and ending before readers have even had a moment to orient themselves to whatever highly imaginative world Dick has suddenly dropped them into. It’s not one of Dick’s most famous stories (although it did get a disappointing film adaptation in the early 2000s), nor one of his most highly acclaimed. But it remains one of my favorites for just how unexpectedly absurd the twist ending is, after we’ve spent the entire story inside Olham’s head as he runs around trying to convince everyone (even his wife) of the obvious fact that he isn’t a planet-destroying robot.

I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which the best writers meticulously build their worlds, intricately tying together various real or imagined settings and time periods to set up urgent, tense problems that can then be solved in ways perfectly consistent with the made-up rules of these made-up worlds. It’s hard for me to imagine the level of care and attention that must go into creating a world as expansive and rich as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Herbert’s “Dune” universe.

Dick’s work is nothing like this. He wastes no time on flowery descriptions or elaborate scene-setting. Most of his stories kick off with a barrage of ideas, with minimal packaging. Precognition, androids, artificial memories and emotions, time and space travel, and postmortem “half-life” extension are all common themes in his novels and short stories. He introduces all of these ideas in the first few pages, assumes that the reader will take it all in stride, and gets on with the story. When expansive worldbuilders like Tolkien or Herbert do this, you know it’s because they have a crystal-clear vision for their world’s deep-set mysteries and wonders. When Dick does it, it’s sometimes unclear whether he has any plan at all.

So what makes Dick’s writing special? Many would argue that it’s not just his grand ideas: it’s those ideas combined with a superbly grounded setting: a consequence not of those grand ideas but of the inescapable mundanity of daily life that Dick knows must exist in even the most imaginative of stories. The protagonist of “Ubik,” Joe Chip, works at Runciter Associates, a wealthy corporation that employs mutant anti-telepaths across the solar system to keep in check the large population of telepathic “pre-cogs” and mind-readers, who would ruin society for normal people otherwise. In this high-tech universe, everything is automated—from doors to lights to fridges—and everything also costs a quarter to open or close. This is a mild inconvenience to most—Dick excels in creating worlds of mild inconveniences—but Chip is inexplicably too broke to open his own door most of the time. While stuck in his apartment, Chip likes to sit at his kitchen table and have his “’pape machine,” which can give him any kind of news he desires, feed him only gossip. 

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” takes place in a world dominated by a sinister megacorporation, the Rosen Association. The protagonist, Rick Deckard, comes out of retirement to take on the dangerous job of eliminating escaped Nexus-6 androids, primarily to be able to afford a live sheep for his depressed wife after a global nuclear war has made most animals extinct. Meanwhile, J.R. Isidore, intellectually disabled due to the same nuclear war, spends most of his time clearing away “kipple,” the collection of junk mail and other clutter that seems to grow exponentially whenever he’s away.

Dick has plenty of other ideas too, ranging from strange to downright terrifying. In “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” parasitic sponges are used as lethal weapons, and certain drugs can cause unmet people to be transported to alternate realities. Additionally, U.S. democracy has collapsed and been replaced by a police dictatorship. Underground resistance exists only beneath former university campuses, the black population is nearly extinct and the age of consent is 12. Dick likes for his stories to take place in some depressing setting that comes as a result of current-day problems taken to the extreme — nationalism, consumerism, drug use. In “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” global warming has progressed to the point that New York is always 180 degrees and Antarctica is the best vacation destination.

All of this sounds very absurd indeed. It’s no wonder Harlan Ellison, another sci-fi great, called Dick “its Pirandello, its Beckett, and its Pinter.” In “Androids” there’s even a religion (possibly the only religion) centered around one man who endlessly climbs a hill while having stones thrown at him. His millions of followers use “empathy boxes” to simultaneously have this same experience. Sound familiar?

But to what extent can Dick’s writings be considered absurd? Do they fall in the tradition of Beckett, Pinter, and those other playwrights whom Martin Esslin saw as continuing the absurd tradition in literature? Would Camus consider Dick a part of his academic lineage?

In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus articulates one of the key principles for living the kind of absurd lifestyle that he advocates for: to him, the “absurd man” must see clearly the boundaries of his own existence and not hope to exceed them. But he must also simultaneously see the ways in which he can subvert those boundaries, by experiencing as much as one can in a single lifetime: by taking on the role of an actor who lives out multiple realities in one life, by living as the Don Juan who experiences many lives through his relationships, or by becoming the writer, who creates many lives in his stories.

Dick not only gives life to his characters — he goes above and beyond, often creating two, or three, or four lives for his characters, and weaving them all together into a complicated braid that pulls each character into a twisted maze of confusion. Identity is a central theme of his work — it’s obvious in “Impostor.” In “Androids,” Deckard hunts down androids who are indistinguishable from humans, but he spends the entire novel questioning whether he is himself human. Bob Arctor, the protagonist of “A Scanner Darkly,” lives in a household of junkies infiltrated by a narcotics agent codenamed “Fred.” Fred is getting close to putting Arctor behind bars, and Arctor suspects a mole, but both Fred and Arctor are unaware that they are one and the same person: a result of the mind-altering effects of the drug they take. In “Flow My Tears,” a famous pop star wakes up after a hospital visit to find that nobody knows who he is; in fact he seems never to have even existed at all. Dick is the absurd writer taken to the extreme.

Even though “Impostor” wasn’t the first Dick story I read, nor do I consider it one of his best, it’s always been the most memorable to me. When you think about it, if you were killed by an alien and replaced with an android with all your memories, how would you ever be able to tell before police kidnap you outside your door? It’s obviously implausible and not worth worrying over, but that’s why Dick has had the thought: so you don’t have to. Science fiction stories are often built on what-ifs, and Philip K. Dick is the king of what-if. As he plots out the lives of his characters in his grim, comically mundane doomsday settings, then overlays more and more lives onto those same characters, Dick covers every possibility, all at once. Even if you’re not a writer, and even if you’re not a fan of more “classic” authors like Camus, you can enjoy a tantalizing taste of the absurd through the short, whirlwind stories and novels of sci-fi’s Beckett.


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