To What Did Philip K. Dick Listen When Writing of Electric Sheep?
A visionary narrator took a quantum leap into the musical past even as he wrote about the future.
Philip K. Dick is still one of today’s most read and appreciated science fiction writers, at least according to Lekla Kucukalic, to whom the author of A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is nothing less than the Canonical Writer of the Digital Age. Dick’s views and speculation on totalitarianism, the uses of technology in everyday life, and on extra-terrestrial telepathic contact ensure his place as an original and stimulating thinker. But what was his relationship with music?
Kucukalic’s research found that, upon graduating from high school in 1947, Dick began working at the Berkeley University Music Store. The author himself recorded this in his diaries at the time:
Now, my longtime love of music rose to the surface, and I began to study and grasp huge areas of the map of music; by fourteen I could recognize virtually any symphony or opera. “Self-Portrait” 13
From the symphonies and the masses of Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Wagner’s operas, Dick’s musical tastes seem rather more conservative when compared to his literary work. Is this perhaps an effect of cinema? Or an association of futuristic elements with computerized music, environmental synthesizers and other kinds of sound that go beyond traditional harmony and melody?
As it were, Dick’s work hours were as filled with music as were some of his works. In “The Preserving Machine,” a 1953 story, a scientist invents a machine which encodes musical pieces and transforms them into living organisms, even animals, in order to preserve them from the imminent destruction of civilization. The scientist didn’t take into account (and here lies Dick’s mastery of the plot twist) that the “discs” encoded into these living creatures also evolve and adapt, such that the music they contain was entirely lost.
With information from several blogs specializing in Dick’s musical tastes, the OpenCulture website has created a Spotify playlist some 11 hours in length, with all the music that fans have tracked to the books and other works by Philip K. Dick. There’s no doubt that immersing ourselves in these possible futures we could also start diving into a history of music.
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