A quarter-century after his death, he is finally considered not just a serious American writer but one of the century’s greatest. At least, that’s one conclusion to be drawn from Dick’s inclusion in the Library of America: the first science-fiction writer to be so canonized in what is the closest thing to secular sainthood in American letters. Best known for collecting the works of such titans as James and Faulkner, the Library of America presents “America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions.” And Dick has been included not for his realist books, which finally started appearing in print posthumously, but for some of his most outlandish sci-fi creations.
Some may complain that a genre writer has beaten Hemingway and Upton Sinclair into the Library of America. But these four novels — The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik — are not simply outstanding examples of their form. With their haunting evocations of alienation, thoughtful meditations on reality and religion, and vivid prose style, they are among the best American novels written in the last century…
Look, I really genuinely love Philip K. Dick, but no. Just… no. Dick was the Immanuel Kant of sci-fi: A visionary, original, often brilliant thinker but, let’s be honest here, an absolutely shit writer. I’ve read and loved each of the books included in this new compilation; they are phenomenal and provocative stories. But at the risk of being pedantic, they’re not great novels, let alone “among the best American novels written in the last century.” The reason it’s possible for Blade Runner to be a better work of art than the book on which it was based is that the latter is a fantastic story, but a mediocre novel.
I’m not slagging on Dick uniquely here; I think it’s just generally true that what makes for great sci-fi is usually the ability to construct compelling worlds that ultimately serve as settings to explore weird and exciting ideas. It’s been said that much contemporary philosophy reads like bad science fiction, but good science fiction has always been at least as much about philosophy as narrative. It’s probably expecting too much to want the people who excel at this to also be great prose stylists. You can make a case for J.G. Ballard or William Gibson, and if you have a loose enough definition of sci-fi, I suppose Richard Powers is in just by dint of being one of the best living novelists, period. But these are exceptions. Saying this sort of thing invariably runs sci-fi fans (among whom I count myself) the wrong way, because we’ve become understandably defensive about the status of genre fiction as “real” or “serious” art. And it is. But trying to make that case by insisting on the quality of most sci-fi prose is like defending Picasso on the grounds that Guernica really did look kind of like that. It’s just not what makes the vast majority of the good stuff good.
Update: The mention of Ballard, Gibson, and Powers was not meant to be an exhaustive list, of course. Commenters have noted various other candidates, among whom Samuel R. Delaney is probably the standout. Jeff Noon might be another. (Much as I adore Iain M. Banks, however, I’m not sure whether I’d place him in this camp.)