Cold Equations

SFRA’2006 («When Genres Collide»), White Plains
(Nova Iorque), 23 de Junho de 2006, organização da
Science Fiction Research Association

in Thomas J. Morrissey e Oscar de los Santos (orgs.)

When Genres Collide
, Waterbury (CT), Fine Tooth Press, 2007, pp. 193-202.

Licença Creative Commons: distribuição autorizada para usos não comerciais; interdita a cópia, modificação ou qualquer tipo de uso que não mencione a autoria original.


Cold Equations*

Making Sense of an SF Writer’s Opus (The Case of Philip K. Dick)


The following analysis was motivated by the need to
certify if a logical structure can be applied – and, if so, to apply it
to the work of Philip K. Dick, the author I proposed to examine in my PhD
thesis. The initial presupposition was that, if one tries to make sense of
any writer’s oeuvre, particularly in the case of an author of genre
fiction, biographical and psychological details, however relevant, must be
subsumed to the themes that author chose to cover in his fiction, and even
those may be considered in the larger frame of the «supersets» of themes
that very same genre provides. This methodology was loosely suggested by
the reading of the earlier attempts to come to terms with K. Dick’s work –
Patricia Warrick’s Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick, and Kim
Stanley Robinson’s The Novels of Philip K. Dick, (as far as I know) the
first PhD thesis on the author –, and tries to avoid some of its
shortcomings while taking advantage of the potentialities of those

Patricia Warrick’s book, published in 1987, has been
promptly criticized by scholars as Gary K. Wolfe1, who accused her of not
contemplating almost any other sources apart from her own personal
conversations with Philip K. Dick. The book may also be devaluated on the
account of being too «psychologistic», i. e., on the fact that Dick’s
personal tribulations (especially his love life) are the single
explanation for his evolution as a writer.


«Chronologically Dick’s writing divides into five periods.
The divisions between these periods are somewhat arbitrary, determined as
they are primarily by new phases in his thinking. […] the broad shapes of
the periods emerge as clearly as mountains and valleys on a bright day and
they coincide with his various marriages (except for the first marriage,
which was brief and of little significance).

In his first or Apprenticeship Period when he was married
to Kleo, he practiced his science fiction art primarily in the short story
form […]. This period extended from 1952 to 1960. […]

In his second, or Mature Period, when he was married to
Anne, he wrote some of his greatest novels, beginning with The Man in the
High Castle
and including Martian Time-Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney, and
The Three
Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
. […]

The third or Entropic Period extends roughly from 1966 to
1973, and for the first half of these years, he was married to Nancy. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and
Ubik are the great novels of this
Entropic Period […].

The fourth or Regenerative Period began hen he remarried
once again, this time to Tessa and wrote his brilliant drug novel, A Scanner Darkly […].

It is worth noting that in the fifth or Metaphysical
Period when he wrote his religious novels, he was living essentially alone
and had been for a rather prolonged period, the first in his writing
career.» (Warrick, 1987, pp. 11-12, my emphasis)


However reproachable, this simplistic association between
his life and his work highlights the importance of looking at the way Dick
has shifted, throughout his career, across some distinct themes, from – in
Warrick’s nomenclature – the «apprenticeship period» (or «magazine era»)
to the «metaphysical period»2. But what may be accounted, in his or
someone else’s work, as a theme? Warrick’s proposal is dependent on a
psychological factor – it would never work with any other writer – and, in
any case, it looks rather arbitrary. Kim Stanley Robinson’s «Table of
Elements», a chapter of his PhD thesis (Robinson, 1984, pp. 25-37), tries
to avoid that arbitrariness by appealing first to themes that are agreed
as such in the field of science fiction studies; only after establishing
their relevance for his analysis he connects them with Dick’s own handling
of those themes.

These are, according to Robinson, 1) dystopias; 2)
postholocaust worlds; 3) aliens, robots and artificial humans; 4) psychic
phenomena; 5) time travel; 6) other planet colonies); 7) alternative
histories; 8) spaceships; 9) reality breakdown. Almost everyone would
agree that – with the exception of the latter, which Robinson himself
concedes that is specific to Dick, not a «universal» of SF – these are in
fact some (if not all) the defining themes of science fictional literature.
But – apart from «reality breakdown», as was just mentioned – is this
taxonomy, as Robinson seems to imply, a widely approved standard?

That is hardly the case. One thing is to identify a
narrative motif (e. g. «space travel») as an SF theme, something very
different to include that theme in a systematic classification. As soon as
we jump from the first – we could say naïf or common-sense – approach and
look for such systems, any hope of consensus falls apart. We need only to
take a look at a handful of some other attempts to acknowledge, no matter
how similar they may seem at first glance, the (sometimes irreconcilable)
differences that stand in the way of that consensus. To highlight both the
similarities and the discrepancies, Kim Stanley Robinson’s proposition may
be confronted with three others, more or less contemporary with it: Brian
Stableford’s «minimal» taxonomy (also from his PhD thesis, The Sociology
of Science Fiction
) (Stableford, 1987), Gary K. Wolfe’s five icons of SF (in
The Known and the Unknown) (Wolfe, 1979) and – the one which more closely
resembles Robinson’s, even though it doesn’t aspire to be more than a
somewhat tidy division of chapters – Paul A. Carter’s inventory of themes
in The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction3
(Carter, 1977).

The following table summarizes those four proposals, with
some adaptations4:







War and dystopias



Postholocaust worlds

Post-catastrophe society


Other planet colonies

Space travel and space conquest






Time travel

Time travel and time paradoxes

(Space)ship (?)

Robots and artificial humans

Cybernetic bodies and robots




Psychic phenomena

 Mutations, evolution, psychic powers

Alternative histories

«Reality breakdown»


Kim Stanley Robinson’s proposal is still the broadest of
these categorizations – maybe because it had been inspired by Dick’s work
as much as by those more or less agreed SF themes –, but, as the table
reveals, none should be taken as universal. All take for granted that the
reader will accept their classification, but the SF field itself seems to
elude those attempts. Even if the same fate ultimately falls on our effort,
I would like to suggest a different approach: instead of imposing «top-down»
a set of categories, we should build them «bottom-up», preferably from a
starting point that, however wide in its scope (which may, after all,
prove to be an advantage), can be accepted as canonical by the scholarly
field of «science fiction studies». Luckily, that canonical starting point
already exists: it is The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John
Clute and Peter Nicholls5.

The thick volume has over 1400 entries that could be
relevant for this purpose – a number that can be found by subtracting the
2900 author entries from the approximately 4300 that constitute the
encyclopedia. But the organizers have eased what seems at first a
Herculean task: of those 1400 entries, a subset of 210 comprise what they
have named the «Theme Entries», considered more relevant and thus, «substantially
longer (most over 1000 words, and some over 3000)» (Clute and Nicholls (eds.),
1993, p. xv); the others are merely what they chose to call «Terminology
Entries». As explained in an introductory section,


«The theme entries are the connective tissue of this
encyclopedia and constitute a quarter of its length. Through them it is
possible to derive a coherent sense of the history of sf
(itself a theme
entry) and of what sf is all about. […] Together, the theme entries form a
detailed lexicon of sf’s main concerns, its subgenres, the genres to which
it is most closely related, and the terms we use in talking about it.» (Clute
and Nicholls (eds.), 1993, pp. xiv-xv, my emphasis)


Only a collective work like an encyclopedia can afford to
claim such a wide scope, because, unlike a «system», does not need to
worry with being redundant or, otherwise, incoherent: systematic thinking
rationalizes ante factum, from an encyclopedia we should expect no more
than, at the best, that rationality will emerge post factum. That is, to
cut this story short, our goal6. To elude some arbitrariness or bias in
that choice, those 210 theme entries may be supplemented with the ones
found in two other similar (although more modest) works, The Mammoth
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
, by George Mann (Mann (ed.), 2001) and the
Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature, by Brian Stableford (Stableford,
2004)7. Confirming our initial intuition, most entries found in those
works have a counterpart in Clute and Nicholls’ – often the very same
terms –, although some others had to be added8, increasing the number to


Up until now, what we have is no more than a (long) list
of terms. The key steps are yet to be taken. But no more than a quick look
is needed to dismiss some of those entries as irrelevant to our purpose,
for several reasons. Please keep in mind that we are looking for narrative
themes, something that does belong solely to the diegetic universe of SF
works. Among that list of 264 entries, many concern SF «externally», i.
e., as a literary domain, either from the point of view of literary
studies or in the interdisciplinary connections with other fields of
knowledge. Some illustrations: «Absurdist SF», «Children’s SF», »Fix-up»,
«Postmodernism and SF», «Scientifiction», or «Tie-in» may be eliminated on
this first account9. A small set of other entries – «Astronomy», «Ecology»,
«Medicine», «Sociology», «Theatre» are suitable illustrations –, and can
also be ruled out on the second account. Yet others seem to be too
specific, and its scope is covered by another, wider, category. «Moon», «Mars»,
and «Outer Planets», for example, point to broader themes as «Colonization
of Other Worlds» and «Life on Other Worlds», while «Scientists» points to
«Discovery and Invention», and «Time Police» to «Time Travel».

This first stage completed, we are now reduced to 68
entries, approximately a fourth of the initial 264. We may call this the «Level
1 List», as it contains only the subset of entries that point to (sufficiently
broad) narrative themes that constitute science fiction as a literary
field. Some narrow-scoped entries have been already «absorbed» by the
remaining ones; however, another reduction of this kind is needed if we
want a more functional set of (wider) categories, a «Level 2 List». To cut
a long story short, some examples may clarify this new stage. Entries such
as «Aliens», «Hive-minds», «Invasion», «Monsters», «Parasitism and
symbiosis», and «UFOs» are usually instances – particular cases – of a
well-known category or cluster that all of the above-mentioned authors
consider relevant, the «Alien». Usually but not necessarily: «Hive-minds»
is sometimes an instance of another category we may call «Mutants», and «Monsters»
an instance of both «Mutants» and «Fantasy». To another category that had
to be renamed as «Artificial Life and Artificial Intelligence» belong the
«Level 1» themes «Androids», «Cyborgs», «Robots», «Artificial intelligence»,
«Computers», and «Cybernetics», none of which repeated elsewhere.


Aliens, Hive-Minds (also in «Mutants»), Invasion,
Monsters (also in «Mutants» and «Fantasy»), Parasitism and Symbiosis, UFOs
Aliens Alternate worlds, Parallel worlds Alternate worlds
Androids, Cyborgs, Robots, Artificial intelligence, Computers, Cybernetics Artificial life and artificial intelligence Cities, Dystopias, Media
landscape, Overpopulation, War (also in «Holocaust and after»)
Colonization of other worlds, Life on other worlds, Rockets (also in «Machines»),
Space flight, Space habitats, Space opera, Spaceships (also in «Machines»)
Space Travel Conceptual breakthrough, Drugs,
Entropy, Fantastic voyages, Paranoia, Perception, Pocket universe, Virtual reality
Automation, Cryonics, Discovery and invention,
Faster than light, Force field, Machines, Matter transmission, Rockets (also
in «Space travel»), Spaceships (also in «Space travel»), Suspended
animation, Teleportation, Weapons
Machines End of the world, Holocaust and
after, Nuclear power, Pastoral, War (also in «Dystopias»)
Holocaust and
Eschatology, Gods and demons, Golem (also in «Fantasy»), Immortality,
Messiahs, Mythology (also in «Fantasy»), Religion
Religion Pseudo-science,
Psi powers, Apes and cavemen, Devolution, Evolution, Genetic engineering,
Hive-minds (also in «Aliens»), Monsters (also in «Aliens» and «Fantasy»),
Mutants and psi powers
Fantasy, Golem (also in «Religion»),
Imaginary voyages, Magic, Mythology (also in «Religion»), Monsters (also
in «Aliens» and «Mutants»), Science fantasy
Fantasy Time paradoxes, Time travel Time


Thus, with this «Level 2 List» we hope not only to arrive
at a workable set of categories but also to get rid of some ambiguities
that still plagued the former list. We are now reduced to only 12
categories, which are, after some renaming: «Aliens», «Alternate Worlds»,
«Artificial Life and Artificial Intelligence», «Dystopias», «Space Travel»,
«Perception», «Machines» [excluding those in «ALAI»], «Holocaust and After»,
«Religion», «Mutants and Psi Powers», «Fantasy», and «Time». The
resemblance with the ones that were proposed by Kim Stanley Robinson and
the other authors may serve as an objection to our method: why bother
looking at almost 300 entries in three encyclopedias to arrive at a
similar result? My reply is very simple – we should not look at the
similarities, but rather at the differences: 1) there are 12 categories,
while none of the other classifications has more than 9 (one with a very
problematic status, as it seems made to fit Philip K. Dick’s work); 2)
since every writer is a singular case, one can always go back to a
previous stage, i. e., to the 68 themes of «Level 1 List», and rethink the
«Level 2 List» according to that particular situation10.


Now is the time to make use of that list of categories.
As said previously, the proposed goal was to study the work of Philip K.
Dick in the light of its themes. Every title he has written, from the
shorter stories to the novels, was «labeled» with one or more of these 12
categories. It wasn’t always an easy task, particularly for the novels: as
Kim Stanley Robinson has stated, K. Dick enjoyed «overloading»11 them with
almost all of these themes; some were minor details that had a residual
importance to the advance of the narrative and had thus to be purged of.

A helpful tool for the accomplishment of this task was
the usage of a software program called The Brain12, which allowed the
connection of every title with its corresponding themes. The result was a
somewhat complex network of associations showing, in a graphical and thus
almost instinctive way, how themes permeated each and every one of K.
Dick’s works. If another kind of data is added to that network – namely,
the date of composition of the titles –, we have yet another way of
extracting new information. A (very simple) statistical «mining» of this
data reveals, as expected, that some themes are more common in some
chronological periods13. More precisely, if we want to interpret Philip K.
Dick’s work through some kind of periodization, it is preferable that this
periodization emerges from the data itself rather that imposing it from
above or from some unexplainable «intuition», just as we said above about
the themes.

The results were revealing. Although there is no time or
space to disclose them here – that would be, more than another paper, the
substantial part of my PhD thesis –, a few words may be enough to give a
general picture. As soon as the 12 categories were reduced to 7 «super-categories»
the following periods emerge from the work of Philip K. Dick: «Aliens and
space travel» and «Dystopias» are, with a generous overlapping between
them, the dominant themes in the 50s and in the first years of the next
decade. Both then recede to the background – Kim Stanley Robinson would
say the dystopias were always in the background14 –, that is, although they
do not disappear, they give way to «Human vs. non-human» and «Perception
vs. reality» as his main concerns. These were already present in former
titles – Time out of Joint and Eye in the Sky are the best illustrations
of «Perception vs. reality» in his early works, while some short stories
were beginning to experiment with the opposition «Human vs. non-human» –,
but most of the time had a secondary role. During the 60s they simply
exchange places with «Aliens and space travel» and «Dystopias», an
exchange that may be read, à la Patricia Warrick, as the entrance in his
maturity as a writer: no longer concerned with emulating the clichés of
the genre (apart from a few «pot-boilers»), he has found his voice,
progressively less concealed by those clichés. Almost the same can be said
of «Religion»: the 70s and his unexplainable «2-3-74» experience mark a
patent shift to the theme of religion, but, as the theme was latent in
titles as Cosmic Puppets (from the early 50s) or A Maze of Death (60s), it
is not an abrupt shift as much as a gradual transition.

The most problematic of these 7 categories – when looked
at from a chronological point of view – are «Fantasy» and «Time». At first
it may seem, from their dispersion throughout his work – as if they are
mere genre devices that reappear now and then. A closer look shows that
both are some kind of «sidekicks» to other themes: «Fantasy», as some
early short stories as «The World she Wanted» or «Small Town» reveal, is
the mode that engulfs the narrative when there is no other way to
disentangle by a rational explanation the problematic rapport between
perception and reality – an escape that, instead of solving the enigma,
deepens it further. Something similar happens with the category of «Time»,
but in this case «Religion» comes, in his later works, to the rescue: as
Dick himself has suggested in his troubled essays «Man, Android and
Machine», «If you find this World Bad, you should see some of the others»
and «How to build a Universe that doesn’t fall apart two Days later», the
structure of time (especially when explored by the genre: time travel,
time shifting, etc.) is for him closely connected to the structure of
reality and can also be perceived as an illusion. Disclosing the «real»
structure of time is then not only a way to uncover reality but also its
fundament, i. e., God.

Although this complex relation between «Time», «Fantasy» and «Perception
vs. reality» may be considered a late attempt, made by none other than
Philip K. Dick, to rationalize his idiosyncratic use of SF’s themes – as
Pamela Jackson has noted in her PhD, The World Philip K. Dick Made15 –, it
is an attempt that should not be discarded, because it matches the
temporal ubiquity of those themes in his work.


A final word concerning the method I have exposed: as the
title of this paper implies, it is a method, not the method. It proved its
usefulness in pointing to some aspects of Philip K. Dick’s work and in
trying to confer it some sense of unity. Unity, of course, may be only in
the eye of the beholder; however, if we do not thrive to pursue it, at
least in a «weak» sense, literary criticism becomes a vain enterprise. As
to a deeper understanding of the aspects of his work this method has drawn
attention to, it is precisely at that point that its utility ends and
other analytical tools must come to the fore.



Carter, Paul A.

1977 The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction,
New York (NY), Columbia University Press.

Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter (eds.)

1993 The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Second Edition, London, Orbit,

Jackson, Pamela Renee

1999 The World Philip K. Dick Made, PhD thesis in Rhetoric presented at
University of California at Berkeley, mimeographed.

Mann, George (ed.)

2001 The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, New York (NY)/London,
Carroll & Graf/Robinson.

Robinson, Kim Stanley

1984 The Novels of Philip K. Dick, Ann Arbor (MI), UMI Research Press,
1984 (revised edition of a PhD thesis in Literature, presented at
University of California at San Diego, 1982).

Stableford, Brian

1987 The Sociology of Science Fiction, San Bernardino (CA), The Borgo
Press (revised edition of a PhD thesis in Sociology, presented at the
University of York, 1978).

2004 Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature, Lanham (MD)/Toronto/Oxford,
The Scarecrow Press.

Sutin, Lawrence (org.)

1989 The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and
Philosophical Writings
, New York (NY), Vintage, 1995.

Warrick, Patricia

1987 Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Carbondale and
Edwardsville (IL), Southern Illinois University Press.

Wolfe, Gary K.

1979 The Known and The Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction, Kent
(OH), The Kent State University Press.

1988 «Not Quite Coming to Terms» (review of Patricia Warrick,
Mind in
Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick
), Science-Fiction Studies, n. 45
(vol. 15, pt. 2), Montréal, SFS Publications, July 1988, pp. 234-236.



Texto realizado no âmbito de uma bolsa de doutoramento
da Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, ao abrigo do programa POSI.

1 Cf. the short review «Not Quite Coming to Terms», published in July 1988’s
issue of Science-Fiction Studies, a special issue on Philip K. Dick (Wolfe,
1988). In spite of some enlightening interpretations, namely the chapter
on Do Androids Dream…?, Wolfe acutely identifies some flaws on Warrick’s
book, which is, he argues, «a kind of freshman introduction to literature,
overexplaining familiar concepts» (Wolfe, 1988, p. 236).

To be more precise, even though there are five periods, Patricia Warrick
speaks of eight themes: «usage and abuse of power» (in the «apprenticeship
period»), «madness», «war and holocaust», «reality vs. illusion» and also
«good vs. evil» (in the «mature period»), «death» (in the entropic period),
«drugs» (in the regenerative period), and «religion» (in the metaphysical

A chapter is missing from our adaptation. It is chapter 7, entitled «The
Bright Illusion, The Feminine Mystique in Science Fiction», which deals
with the persistence of male/female stereotypes in SF. Although
transversal to themes (and nowadays an increasingly important approach in
SF studies), it cannot be considered as a narrative theme.

E. g., Kim Stanley Robinson’s category of «aliens, robots and artificial
humans» had to be sliced in two to fit the others, and extending, in Wolfe,
«(space)ship» to time travel may also be disputed.

5 We speak, of course, of the 1993 edition. The first one, edited only by
Peter Nicholls and published in 1979, has been largely superseded by the

6 The first step towards it, the first attempt to give some order to this
apparent chaos, was taken however by the editors themselves, by drawing
the above mentioned line between «Theme Entries» and «Terminology Entries».

7 Remarkably, Brian Stableford was one of the most prolific contributors to
Clute and Nicholls’ Encyclopedia.

8 Most of these were mere «terminology entries» in the Encyclopedia.

9 The elimination process isn’t always as easy as it seems from these
illustrations. Some provide an interpretative challenge, and only the
contents of the Encyclopedia can serve as a guideline.

10 Something I have not tried, as my subject was solely Philip K. Dick, but
the point of having an intermediate level is precisely to avoid incautious
generalizations. Only further researches may settle if the twelve «Level
2» categories are appropriate to other cases.

11 That is particularly emphasized by Robinson in the way Dick populated his
novels with characters with psi powers: «The element is never the
principal one in any of the novels, but is rather part of the overload
effect.» (Robinson, 1984, p. 30) We should however note that, while that
topos is definitely inconsequential in most novels of the 60s, it is
central in some short stories and novelettes written in the 50s (as «The
Minority Report»), and also at least in one novel (The World Jones Made).

12 The current version, «Personal Brain 3.0», is available at

13 The correlation wasn’t that patent in our first attempt. However, a new
clustering of themes – two categories from «List 2» (sometimes three, in
the case of «Artificial life and artificial intelligence», «Machines», and
«Mutants and psi powers») were combined in one new «super-category» – was
enough for that correlation to emerge more clearly.

14 I am thinking in the following excerpt from The Novels of Philip K. Dick:
«Some elements form the background or setting against which the action
takes place, while other elements are part of the foreground action. A
dystopia is an element of the former sort, and it is the most common
element in all of Dick’s work
. When those works that have utopian aspects
to them, The Man in the High Castle and Dr. Bloodmoney, take place in
worlds where nuclear was is imminent or has actually occurred, so there is
still something of the dystopia in them.» (Robinson, 1984, p. 27, my

As she said, «Dick’s quest for the Real takes him back, ironically, into
fiction. […] Has he fallen into one of his own novels? Or could it be that
his own novels have been telling the truth about our world all along – our
real world whose perverse, science fictional, even demonic nature is only
becoming evident? Either way, his novels are now acquiring, for him, the
“ring of revealed truth”. The writer begins to study his books like a
detective, looking for the cosmic secrets he now suspects might be encoded
in their science fiction surfaces.» (Jackson, 1999, p. 3)



© Jorge Martins

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Texto: 22/Jun/06
Actualização: 13/Mar/08