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A Philip K Dick-tionary, Not Wrapped in Wub Fur

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Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was a prolific writer, mostly of science fiction, with a unique philosophical and theological approach to his subject. Although the author was not famous outside the world of science-fiction fandom in his lifetime, Dick's work has become increasingly better known since his death. The cult classic film Blade Runner is (very) loosely based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? His Hugo-award-winning alternate-history novel, The Man in the High Castle, has been adapted into a much more faithful series for Amazon Prime streaming video – as Philip K Dick would have said, 'Available on a vidscreen near you.'

Philip K Dick's characters talk like that. They inhabit uncanny worlds which are somehow strangely familiar to us at first read. As readers, we are often uncomfortable with how comfortable we are in societies where our Perky Pat layouts contain minned versions of hotly-desired home requisites, where news clowns tell us all about the latest pronouncements by everybody's favourite president, Yance, and where we make our way from our conapt (after dutifully paying the talking door to let us out) and hail a passing flapple. Philip K Dick was good at making up language like that: appropriate, instantly recognisable, and catchy. Fans love that kind of talk – and some of it has made its way, via science fiction, into general discourse. It might be helpful to have a wordlist.

Here, then, is a brief, unofficial dictionary of some Philip K Dickisms, with notes on their use.

I Not Kid You1: Words to Experience the Future By

  • artiforg: An artificial organ. In various PKD short stories, these innovations are said to prolong human life – for those humans rich enough to afford them. It is probably needless to point out that this sort of technology wasn't around in the author's day.

  • autofac: An automated (or autonomous) factory. PKD stories often feature these humanless factories, particularly if they are set in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States. Sometimes, the factories continue to churn out consumer goods long after the human population has exterminated itself. Autofacs can be belligerent and dangerous. In the 1955 story, 'Autofac', PKD describes the struggle of human survivors to wrest control of the means of production away from these fully-autonomous machines, which are further ravaging the landscape in search of raw materials for their now-useless products.

  • CAN-D and CHEW-Z: Highly addictive chemical substances that enable users to bond telepathically. The drugs are used by devotees of Perky Pat (see below) to project themselves into the fashion doll's 'layout' and imagine themselves living in an idyllic, 1950s-style world. Dick first introduced the concept in his 1963 story, 'The Days of Perky Pat'. In his 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the drug CHEW-Z proves to have the power to alter reality itself – such as it is, given that it's a PKD novel.

  • conapt: A condominium-style apartment. Conapts sound cool, but they're often rather slum-like. They are also prone to infestation by coin-operated talking appliances which harass conapt dwellers for spare change.

  • flapple: A small airborne vehicle or taxi. This is not an abbreviation: more a derogatory description. Flapple taxis tend to be operated by robots who greet passengers with, 'Good evening, sir or madam...', which does not inspire confidence.

  • homeopape: A homeostatic newspaper. Homeopapes come to your conapt through a printer. PKD was a radio broadcaster. He had record store experience, too. So he was no doubt well aware of the history of the fax machine. In fact, radios that could transmit newspapers to printers had existed as early as 1938, although they weren't very successful. In other words, homeopapes are relentlessly steampunk.

  • kipple: Useless paper that accumulates in your office or living space. According to PKD in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 'Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself.' According to the same source, the First Law of Kipple is that 'kipple drives out non-kipple.' Truer words were never spoken.

  • Mercerism: A religion based on empathy. Every good science fiction corpus requires a religion, and PKD made up at least two or three. Mercerites use an interactive 'empathy box' to connect with one another while experiencing the passion of Wilbur Mercer, a substitutionary messiah who is continually being stoned. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Mercer is outed as an alcoholic actor. This makes absolutely no difference to the Mercerites.

  • minned:  Min(n)iaturized. This happens to artefacts produced by artisans in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Minned items are sold as add-ons to the Perky Pat layouts. A popular minned item can make an artist's fortune, which is the dream of one of the characters in the novel.

  • Morec: A Moral Reclamation idea, as illustrated in a piece of popular entertainment. Morecs are the goal of the TV writers in the deliciously satirical The Man Who Japed. Think Up With People! with a bit of Lawrence Welk thrown in, and you have Morec. We will not tell you what the Man Who Japed japed about, because that would constitute a serious spoiler.

  • news clowns: What it says on the tin. In PKD's world, the news is read by clowns in red wigs and white makeup. One actually runs for president of the US. We won't belabour the point about the connection between science fiction and prophecy.

  • Perky Pat: The consumer goddess of the PKD universe2 Perky Pat began life in the 1963 story 'The Days of Perky Pat'. Her 'layout' was a temple that focused the longings of suffering Americans in a post-apocalyptic world:

    Perky Pat's wardrobe, for instance, there in the closet of the house, the big bedroom closet. Her capri pants, her white cotton short-shorts, her two-piece polka-dot swimsuit, her fuzzy sweaters... and there, in her bedroom, her hi-fi set, her collection of long-playing records...
    In later stories, Perky Pat's worship spreads to the 'hovels' of Mars3, and even becomes involved in the convoluted tale of Palmer Eldritch, the mysterious being who returned from Proxima Centauri, but may no longer be human. The theology of Perky Pat is a subject of endless, solemn, and completely Philip-Dickian discussion: in other words, ironic, but also perfectly serious about such concepts as transubstantiation and divine parousia.

  • precog: A precognitive individual. Precogs are frequently employed in businesses. In Ubik, they are opposed by inertials, anti-precogs who throw out dampening fields. Precogs employed by the fashion, entertainment, or toy industries are called pre-fash consultants.

  • swibble: A future device of indeterminate provenance, function, and utility. In the 1955 short story 'Service Call', a human living in the 1950s is contacted by a service technician bent on repairing his swibble. It is revealed that the man doesn't own a swibble, did not call a technician, and has never even heard of a swibble. Hilarity does not exactly ensue. The story is a parable of Cold War paranoia at its finest.

  • Ubik: A Ubi(k)quitous substance that stablises reality. In the novel of the same name, reality degrades and regresses to a life-threatening extent, until hero Joe Chip manages to contact Ella Runciter and receive the life-giving substance in aerosol form. The book is littered with adverts for Ubik in various forms, but later gets needlessly paracletic4:

    I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds...
    Ubik is very handy stuff to have around.

  • vid: A video. Also used in combination with anything 'video', such as a 'vidscreen', 'vidphone', etc. A PKD fan watching Star Trek might be convinced that what the crew are staring at on the bridge is properly called a vidscreen. Vidscreens are ubiquitous in PKD's work (though not supplied with Ubik, see above).

  • wub: A magical creature with transubstantiational powers. In other words, it's another religious symbol, although a very amusing one. The Martian wub appeared in PKD's first published science fiction story, 1952's 'Beyond Lies the Wub'. The wub in this tale weighs about 400 pounds, resembles a pig, talks, and is eaten by a heartless starship captain. The captain gets his comeuppance here: the wub, once eaten, takes over the captain's mind and continues its intellectual conversation with a sympathetic crewmember.

    A later story, 'Not By Its Cover', concerns the effect of Martian wub fur on literature. Books bound in Martian wub fur undergo an editorial process sub specie aeternitatis: the wubs want people to know there is an afterlife. Copies of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, when wrapped in wub fur, come out blank, with one word printed on the middle page: bleh. The Martian wub: the visionary editor's dream.

  • Yance-man: A ghostwriter for the immortal, animatronic President of the United States, Talbot Yancy. Yancy and the Yance-men (think Don Draper, the Madison Avenue advertising executive, equipped with a political viewpoint) turn up in several short stories, and play a key role in the novel The Penultimate Truth. Yancy enables the power elite to stay in power – in The Penultimate Truth, the subterfuge allows the elite to live above ground in palatial demesnes while housing the rest of the population in underground shelters, where they mass-produce robots for a fictitious war.

  • zap gun: From the novel of the same name. A 'zap gun' in this context is an imaginary weapon dreamed up to fool people into believing that the government is manufacturing weapons of mass destruction – and that these dangerous weapons are subsequently 'plowshared' into useful items. In reality, the mediums who design the weapons are channeling a comic book artist. As an acid comment on the 1950s-1960s arms race, this novel is practically unique.

Polish philosopher and science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) wrote of Philip K Dick that he 'does not so much play the part of a guide through his phantasmagoric worlds as he gives the impression of one lost in their labyrinth'5. In a way, though, Dick has supplied useful vocabulary for us, the denizens of the dystopian future he imagined so clearly only a few short decades ago. As we sit in our conapts, staring at our vidscreens in horror at the news clowns, only to be interrupted by the nagging call of a household appliance, we might well murmur, 'Philip K Dick, thou should'st be living at this hour.'

For Further Reading

If you are unfamiliar with the works of Philip K Dick, you will no doubt wish to remedy this alarming situation. We recommend the excellent bibliography at The Philip K Dick Bookshelf as a starting point.

1'I not kid you' is a phrase actually used in Philip K Dick's Ubik.2It will come as no surprise that Perky Pat was inspired by the Barbie doll. In a note to the anthologised version of 'The Days of Perky Pat', Dick wrote:
The idea was that the purchase of countless new clothes for these dolls was necessary if Barbie and Ken were to live in the style to which they were accustomed. I had visions of Barbie coming into my bedroom at night and saying, 'I need a mink coat.'... I was afraid my wife would find me and Barbie together and my wife would shoot me.
3Dick's Martian hovels could be read as a critique of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, in which Martian living is sort of North American 1950s suburban.4Like 'needlessly messianic', only in reference to the Holy Spirit, aka the Paraclete.5In his essay 'Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans'.

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