"I am a fictionalising philosopher, not a novelist; my novel and story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception." This self-assessment by Philip K Dick echoes that of some of his critics, who view the sprawling mass of his work as a vehicle for his disjointed and outlandish speculation rather than a major body of fiction.
The critical disparagement of Dick's work has various sources, not least that of literary disdain for science fiction. Seeing the genre as being concerned with possible futures and imaginary worlds, these critics miss the central thrust of the best SF, which is to reimagine the world we live in. H G Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Stanislaw Lem and J G Ballard enable us to see ourselves differently, and this is what places them among the greatest modern writers.
Dick belongs in this company. In an essay first published in 1978, entitled "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later", he wrote: "The two basic topics which fascinate me are 'What is reality?' and 'What constitutes the authentic human being?'." These questions are at the core of his work and they are not just intellectual preoccupations. A highly strung character whose tensions were aggravated by prodigious drug consumption, Dick was intimately familiar with extreme states of mind. In early 1974, he had a series of anomalous experiences, seemingly involving contact with an other-worldly intelligence, which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand (he died in 1982 aged 53). He never decided what the experiences meant, but the interpretations he was torn between - that he had been in touch with a Vast Active Living
Intelligence System (for which he used the acronym VALIS), or was an unwitting subject of a mind-control experiment by human agencies, or else had simply suffered a psychotic breakdown - illustrate the view of the world that is revealed in his fiction.
Dick was enduringly attracted by philosophies in which the perceptible world is a veil concealing other realities. Nominally Anglo-Catholic, he was irresistibly drawn to Gnosticism - a dark version of mysticism in which human beings are incarcerated in a world created not by a loving God but by a demiurge, whose attitude to humans is malevolent or capriciously playful. Critics have suggested that Dick's Gnostic world-view was only his delusional sense that he was at the centre of a huge plot, inflated into cod-metaphysics, and there is no doubt that his interest in Gnostic philosophy was energised by his paranoia. But his strange brand of mysticism nevertheless fertilised his fiction, producing a body of work in which the framework of beliefs that underpins our sense of reality is systematically deconstructed.
Dick's most finely wrought work of fiction, The Man in the High Castle, is also the one in which his philosophising is most balanced. It is set in a parallel 1962 in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War. In Dick's alternative world, the US was defeated in 1948 and then divided into German and Japanese zones, with a racist regime established in the south by the Vichy French. The Nazis have exterminated most of the population of Russia and Africa, and extend their European genocide of the Jews to the US (though some Jews survive by living in secrecy).
With Hitler in the late stages of syphilis, the Nazi regime is divided: a powerful faction is urging a nuclear attack on its erstwhile ally Japan in order to secure global dominion. Part of the novel concerns the attempt by the Japanese trade commissioner in San Francisco to thwart this plan with the help of a dissident German counter-intelligence officer. There is also a subplot involving Hawthorne Abendsen, the "man in the high castle" and the reclusive author of a novel in which the Allies win the war and Churchill continues as the semi-dictatorial leader-for-life of the British empire, which remains the dominant world power.
The Man in the High Castle is an exceptionally subtle piece of work, with many layers of meaning. Far more than being an exercise in the dubious genre of virtual history, it explores the possibility that there is no single reality. The prevailing view of things posits one world, whose future human beings can to some degree shape by their actions. This modern world-view is, in effect, a kind of secular monotheism - a hollowed-out version of the Judaeo-Christian myth. There is nothing self-evident in the modern western belief that ours is the only world, or in the notion that human beings can shape the future through their choices. There have always been other philosophies, some of them highly influential. Platonism denies that time and change are real; true reality lies in a realm of eternal forms. Some strands of Hinduism and Buddhism view the human world as a kind of stage set, on which rival fictions are played out. Physicists are developing theories of the multiverse, which suggest the existence of many - perhaps even infinitely many - cosmoses alongside our own. None of these views is hospitable to the modern faith in a linear history that is open to indefinite improvement over time.
The prevailing belief in a single world is only one of many philosophies by which human beings have lived. In questioning it, Dick is continuing a tradition of metaphysical fiction that goes back at least as far as Cervantes, whose errant knight finds himself described in a book he stumbles on in a library. Writers in this tradition replace the dichotomy of appearance and reality with the postulate of multiple realities. Dick does exactly this when he recounts the trade commissioner, struggling desperately with the moral ambiguities implied by collaborating with elements in the Nazi state to forestall the attack on Japan, discovering himself momentarily in another San Francisco in which Japan has long since been defeated by the Allies.
In this indecipherable multiverse, the commissioner finds that even the I Ching, the ancient Chinese system of divination that he repeatedly consults, cannot guide him. "Mr Nobosuke Tagomi thought, There is no answer. Even in the oracle. Yet I must go on living day to day anyhow." Human beings think they have a rough understanding of the world in which they act. But, Dick seems to be suggesting, the truth is that they must live out their lives in a scheme of things that is finally unknowable.
Dick produced other metaphysical fictions, such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, published in 1968 and the inspiration for the 1982 film Blade Runner, and the semi-autobiographical VALIS (1981). But The Man in the High Castle is his masterwork, interweaving, in a single text, meanings as multiple as the pluralistic worlds that it describes. At one level it asks whether the world is intelligible; at another, whether human action can change the course of events; and at yet another, whether human beings are what they think they are. There is no need to accept Dick's answers to any of these questions; his mix of druggy Marin County mysticism and metaphysical paranoia is too personal to command assent. The earth is not a prison of souls, and there is no cosmic conspiracy to quash human freedom. Dick would have reached closer to the truth of things - however many-sided - if he had accepted that much that happens has no meaning. Instead
his writings sometimes show him choking on a surfeit of significance.
Even so, his fictions are powerfully thought-stirring. Like Borges and Calvino, Dick uses fiction to do more than portray the all-too-familiar ambivalences of human emotions. More ambitiously, he is challenging the ideas by which we interpret our experience. We think we are embodied minds, which conceive and execute plans of action; we believe our lives reflect these plans. We imagine that the theories we frame about the world are not only useful, but also true. These highly questionable suppositions are Dick's subject matter, and in freeing us from the false certainty that goes with the ruling view of things, he is one of the most liberating writers of the 20th century.
John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His most recent book is "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings" (Allen Lane, £20)
The Man in the High Castle
Philip K Dick
Gollancz, 256pp, £7.99