When Hollywood wants a futuristic, paranoid thriller where nothing is what it seems, the studios reach for the work of one man. This week, Philip K. Dick continues his reign as Hollywood's idea spigot, with a remake of Total Recall. More PKD films are in the works, and there's no shortage of material out there.
But tastes change. What if Hollywood decides to pick on some other science fiction author, living or dead, to become its go-to movie source? Here are 15 authors who could be Hollywood's next Philip K. Dick.
Top image: Cover of The Whole Man by John Brunner.
A few things come to mind when you think about Philip K. Dick's reign as Hollywood idea-generator, which only began after his death. First of all, although Dick wrote plenty of stuff set in space and on other planets, the majority of his film adaptations have taken place on Earth, mostly in a recognizable near future. And for the most part, most films based on Dick's work have fallen loosely into the "thriller" category. More loosely in some cases than others, for sure. Oh, and Philip K. Dick was very prolific — despite one long period during which he didn't produce much at all.
So to be the heir to the PKD crown, an author would have to have created works that take place mostly on a near-future Earth, and have elements that could be adapted to the thriller genre, without taking too many liberties. And be hella prolific, either in short stories or in novels. Not too difficult, right? Here are our picks.
Sturgeon only wrote half a dozen original novels, but his collected short stories occupy 13 volumes — and many of them are weird enough for Philip K. Dick. And many of his best works take place in "our" world, only with one element of strangeness, like psychic powers added — and there's plenty of paranoia to be had in books like The Dreaming Jewels and More Than Human. As Samuel Delany wrote, Sturgeon was the master of near-future science fiction.
But suppose you want something a bit... weirder? Rudy Rucker is another author whose works frequently take place in a world that's just a few steps removed from our own — but freaky as hell. In particular, you could imagine Software becoming an utterly demented Dickian excursion into a world of strange drug trips, robot duplicates of real people, a robot uprising on the Moon, and a sinister ice cream truck. But also, Rucker has written a number of great short stories, and a few of his stand-alone novels also could spawn great movies, especially Mathematicians in Love.
And then there's another awesomely weird author. We actually nominated Murakami as the next PKD a couple years ago: "If you're looking for a Dickian storyteller who's got the pedigree to spawn some thought-provokingly weird movies, you don't have to look much further than Murakami, whose novels often include mysterious conspiracies, fantastical plot devices and alternate universes."
James Tiptree, Jr.
Alice Sheldon, a former CIA analyst, wrote a slew of great stories which examine the boundaries of humanity and frequently show a paranoid or dystopian vision of the future. "The Screwfly Solution," in which an epidemic of violence against women turns out to be part of a sinister conspiracy, is tailor-made for a Dickian thriller. And then there's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," where a "deformed," suicidal girl controls the brainless body of a perfectly beautiful star, on behalf of corporate interests. And there are several other great candidates among her work.
We've demanded a movie of Stross' Glasshouse for years now. But there are plenty of other Stross books that might come closer to the "Hollywood action adventure movie" model — for one thing, there's his acclaimed Laundry Files series, about a secret agent dealing with Lovecraftian threats. And then there are his Halting State novels, set in a near future that explores the changing world of cyber-culture and pervasive surveillance.
He's helped to perfect cyberpunk with novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. And most recently, his novel Reamde was acclaimed as a nearly perfect thriller. You could also make a hell of an action-adventure movie out of Interface, his collaboration with his uncle, J. Frederick George.
Maureen F. McHugh
Just her most recent story collection After The Apocalypse could provide plenty of dark, twisted looks at the near future. But you could also make a hell of a movie out of China Mountain Zhang or her other novels. McHugh has also been a pioneer of alternate-reality games, and you could easily see her creating a dystopian near future movie script similar to her Year Zero ARG.
Brunner became famous as the master of near-future dystopias with novels like Stand on Zanzibar, as well as the proto-cyberpunk novel Shockwave Rider. The Forteana Blog makes a strong case for Brunner being the "British Philip K. Dick," and points out some lesser-known works which sound intensely Dickian, including The Gaudy Shadows, No Other Gods But Me and Father of Lies.
Gibson is probably the most obvious choice — and indeed, if Vincenzo Natali manages to pull off a faithful, decent adaptation of Neuromancer, this could open the floodgates. Gibson's books and stories capture something essential about our lives in a networked, media-saturated 21st Century world — and we need more good Gibson films to put Johnny Mnemonic behind us.
Kress is another author whose work tends to focus on the near future, and how certain changes in technology affect everything around us. Her stories deal with topics ranging from rampaging artificial intelligence holding people hostage in their own homes to genetic discrimination. And her work frequently contains enough strangeness and dread to keep Hollywood happy for years.
Lethem has dedicated a lot of his career to celebrating Dick's work — so his inclusion here is a must. His early works, like the stories collected in The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, have a pronounced Dick influence, too — but many of his later works also offer possibilities for some pretty awesome noir action too, especially Gun With Occasional Music.
Silverberg's classic novels have been getting reissued in nice editions in the past few years, giving everybody a chance to appreciate the power of novels like Dying Inside, about a telepath who's slowly losing his power. And the much trippier Son of Man. Like a lot of classic SF authors, Silverberg has been incredibly prolific, writing tons of short stories over the years, and many of them are quite twisted indeed.
Ellis' amazing comics career has spanned many genres — but you could easily imagine many of his works, including Planetary, Global Frequency, Fell and, yes, Transmetropolitan, becoming stylish, intense films along the lines of Blade Runner. Although what we really want is a Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. movie, even if that wouldn't be very Philip K. Dick-esque at all.
Butler's work frequently deals with posthuman or transhuman outsiders interacting with humanity — but she also writes a lot about near future dystopias and near-future disasters. And a key theme in her work — people with strange powers, and how they take responsibility for ordinary people (including the ways in which power can be misused) could lend itself to a very Dickian interpretation in the hands of the right film-maker. The best bet would probably be the Parable novels, though. Image: Wayne Barlowe's cover for Wild Seed.
And last but not least, there's Doctorow, whose work spans post-scarcity strangeness and near-future "war on terror" horror stories. Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town could be the new Scanner Darkly, sort of.
Thanks to everybody who responded in the comments on this now-defunct poll from 2008, for suggesting some ideas.