Philip K. Dick’s Advice for Worldbuilding Science Fiction

The book The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings features several interviews and essays by author Philip K. Dick. In the following excerpt, PKD gives some helpful advice on worldbuilding for science fiction writers.

“This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society — or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or a bizarre one — this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.”

Philip K. Dick on worldbuilding a science fiction story

When writing science fiction—or good science fiction—it is not enough to simply include a piece of science fictional technology. The writer must build an entire world around the implications of that technology. That doesn’t mean you have to literally write down every aspect of your sci-fi world, but you must think deeply about how that technology or sci-fi concept will impact and change society (which it inevitably will). You must build a future world in your mind about how that technology will impact every aspect of society.

In PKD’s novella “The Minority Report” (later adapted into a movie by Stephen Spielberg) human mutants gain the precognitive ability to see crimes before they happen. This is the core science fiction idea, then Dick extrapolates throughout the story how that “dysrecognition,” the concept of precognition that cannot happen in our reality, might affect every aspect of a fictional future society, from law enforcement to the judicial system to the everyday lives of ordinary people—particularly when they get arrested for a crime they haven’t committed but are told they will. PKD paints a vivid and haunting portrait of that hypothetical dystopian future that, with artificial intelligence, could one day become a reality.

It’s easier and generally recommended for novice writers to focus on one sci-fi idea per story. If you introduce multiple different sci-fi concepts into a single story, then they will each impact the world in intersectional ways making the ramifications throughout society much more difficult to anticipate. This is the way society works in reality—thousands of new technologies are being developed simultaneously—which is why the future is impossible to predict. Some futurists can correctly envision aspects of future society but never the whole picture.

A credible sci-fi future is hard enough to plan when you’re only changing one thing. Each sci-fi idea you add makes that future world exponentially more difficult to build in your mind. Yet PKD often did just that. He would throw five or six sci-fi ideas into a single novel, when each of those ideas in isolation could have warranted an entire novel of its own. As a result, certain aspects of PKD’s future societies weren’t sufficiently fleshed out in some of his books.

For example, Dick’s 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth is set in a post-World War III wasteland (1) with robots fighting a war on an uninhabitable surface (2) while humans live in underground bunkers (3) and need to buy artificial organs to survive (4) while watching speeches from the president who is actually a CGI simulation (5), and on top of all that there is time travel (6). I recently read the novel, and while those are all fascinating ideas, the book felt like a half-baked mess and didn’t work for me.

Meanwhile, a tight short story of PKD’s like “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (aka Total Recall) that focuses on one idea—a technology to implant false memories—felt more fulfilling. That aspect of the world was fully fleshed out in PKD’s mind and it came through on the page as a reader. It might be why PKD’s short stories are more commonly adapted into movies than his novels.

It’s not that multiple sci-fi ideas cannot be done in one story. PKD’s 1966 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner) featured a post-nuclear war San Francisco (1), off-world space colonies (2), human-like androids (3), animals so rare that most people have robot pets (4), flying cars (5), a new tech-based religion (6), and “empathy boxes” that simulate suffering in VR (7)—all around the plot of a bounty hunter tracking down fugitive androids. That is a lot of ideas, but they all come together into a believable future and a great novel because each of those ideas were sufficiently explored. That novel was adapted into a great movie, but many of Dick’s fascinating ideas from the book had to be cut, such as the religion of Mercerism. PKD clearly spent more time worldbuilding Do Androids Dream than The Penultimate Truth, a book that he claims to have written entirely in two weeks while taking a heavy dose of amphetamines. That, as they say, explains that.

Less-experienced science fiction writers might want to narrow their focus to worldbuilding around one core idea, but you can expand to multiple speculative concepts in a single story—you just need to devote the time to imagine that world in detail before you write it (like Nikola Tesla).

For more science fiction worldbuilding, check out my Substack, Time Zone Weird where I am posting a series of micro-fiction pieces of “Future Fake News” reports that are vignettes from a science fiction future world that I will later build upon in longer works.

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