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The Other SF Prophet Meat
December 1, 2005 6:16 PM   Subscribe

How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later is a speech by Philip K. Dick which he never delivered. In it he details his theory of time and reality. A complimentary speech, which he did deliver, is If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others. According to one account "people left the auditorium, it was later reported, looking as though they'd been hit with a hammer." Other essays by him in that vein are Man, Android and Machine and Cosmogony and Cosmology.

Here are some excerpts from his exegesis. Also, a collection of interviews with Dick.
posted by Kattullus (119 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read "How to Build a Universe.." about 6 months ago and I've been reading his stuff ever since. I think "Ubik" is my favorite so far but "The Three Stigmata.." is a close second.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 6:21 PM on December 1, 2005 [1 favorite]


Oh this is choice -- thanks for the links!
posted by undule at 6:31 PM on December 1, 2005


That second speech does come across like a hammer to the face. I have this vague and unsettling feeling that he was on to something with that non-linear-time-change concept.
posted by nightchrome at 6:34 PM on December 1, 2005


awesome, thanks.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:37 PM on December 1, 2005


He seems to be playing with many of the ideas that Baudrillard got to much later. Has Baudrillard written about Dick at all?
posted by mr_roboto at 6:44 PM on December 1, 2005


mr_roboto: yeah
posted by Kattullus at 6:48 PM on December 1, 2005


I wonder what sort of drugs Dick did, and what his day job was in the early years.
posted by snoktruix at 6:50 PM on December 1, 2005


excellent, thanks Kattullus. snoktruix, I think Dick ate dog food to get by in the early years.

Philip K. Dick Versus [Fredric Jameson]
posted by Treeline at 6:57 PM on December 1, 2005


hm. i actually expected this to be cooler than it was. maybe i'm just not in the mood. for the most part, the lesson i took away from these was: "philip k dick was crazy."
posted by spiderwire at 7:00 PM on December 1, 2005


Best post in recent memory. PKD is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. You can read Ubik, Scanner Darkly, and Palmer Eldritch over and over and over.
posted by xmutex at 7:02 PM on December 1, 2005


snotruix: Lots and lots and lots of amphetamines, mostly. If anyone's interested in Dick's life, Divine Invasions: A life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin is a great read.
posted by xmutex at 7:03 PM on December 1, 2005


He was truly an artist of ideas. I am glad you posted "If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others" I didn't know about it. I started reading him a long time ago, and then took a contemporary literature course, and was struck at how it mixed naturalism (nature defeats human) and postmodern (rejection of plot, characterization, time, and chronological sequence). Especially "the Transmigration of Timothy Archer" where someone remarked "he threw in the kitchen sink" (it had everything). But also I admired he wasn't doing it for the point of it (modernism) - but it was a way to float his philosophical hypothesis, his grand reaches on some perverted unified God theory. And not only that, but infused with heart and mind: the passion and heartache obviously drawn from real life, the tragic, broken down figure, that is cut down, or finds redemption; the deluded thought and deductions thought and brought by both mundane and fantastic -- but ultimately human existence. I think he had many great contributions, but what I enjoyed most was his reoccurring question, what does it mean to be human? For example see "Do androids dream of Electric Sheep"and its movie BladeRunner.
posted by uni verse at 7:04 PM on December 1, 2005


I once wrote a story about a man who was injured and taken to a hospital. When they began surgery on him, they discovered that he was an android, not a human, but that he did not know it. They had to break the news to him. Almost at once, Mr. Garson Poole discovered that his reality consisted of punched tape passing from reel to reel in his chest. Fascinated, he began to fill in some of the punched holes and add new ones. Immediately, his world changed. A flock of ducks flew through the room when he punched one new hole in the tape. Finally he cut the tape entirely, whereupon the world disappeared. However, it also disappeared for the other characters in the story... which makes no sense, if you think about it. Unless the other characters were figments of his punched-tape fantasy. Which I guess is what they were.

Wow, he's like a three year old discovering his own mind. Fascinating stuff. Not.
posted by delmoi at 7:04 PM on December 1, 2005


Great stuff. A film adaptation of Palmer Eldrtich is one of my dream projects. Same with Man in the High Castle. I'd say Scanner Darkly, as well, but I've been beaten to the punch.
posted by brundlefly at 7:05 PM on December 1, 2005


did you ever, like, really look at your hand, man?
posted by quonsar at 7:10 PM on December 1, 2005


snoktruix: Amphetamines

I suspect that amphetamine psychosis had a big impact on the development of his ideas about reality. I've known at least two otherwise seemingly intelligent and sane people who gradually developed incredible paranoia and delusional thinking over a period of a year or so.

The other theory about the cause of his visions is Temporal Lobe Epilepsy
posted by empath at 7:10 PM on December 1, 2005


Metafilter: like a three year old discovering his own mind.

Delmoi: You're a snarky iconoclast! Do you own the shirt yet?


posted by mecran01 at 7:11 PM on December 1, 2005


You know that feeling you get when you recognize somebody on the street, and you walk up to them and call their name, and they turn around, it it's not the person that you thought it was. You stand there staring at this person who is both the person you thought it was and the person who it actually is, simultaneously, and it takes you a second or two to get your world back into focus.

I have a feeling that PKD was in a state like that all the time.
posted by empath at 7:19 PM on December 1, 2005


mecran01: If being a snaky iconoclast means banging chicks who look like that, sign me up.

Orgasms are cliche.
posted by delmoi at 7:21 PM on December 1, 2005


Whoa, dude -- that is a weird coincidence. Clearly the only feasible explanation is that the Demiurge has trapped us all in 49 AD to forestall the otherwise-inevitable Second Coming.

He had a good faux-Hunter S. bit going there at the start, what with the Disneyland teacups and all, but really, all this reminded me of was the point in Waking Life where I realized that Linklater's Philosophy 101 professor deserves a good kick in the balls.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:23 PM on December 1, 2005


I like it!
posted by fidelity at 7:27 PM on December 1, 2005


All I know is PKD makes my brain hurt. In multiple dimensions.
posted by Parannoyed at 7:27 PM on December 1, 2005


If being a snaky iconoclast means banging chicks who look like that, sign me up.

I second that.
posted by c13 at 7:28 PM on December 1, 2005


I've Farkified teh blue. Forgive me.

this reminded me of was the point in Waking Life where I realized that Linklater's Philosophy 101 professor deserves a good kick in the balls.

If liking undergraduate-level philosophy means I'm intellectually immature, then honey I don't want to ever grow up.
posted by mecran01 at 7:34 PM on December 1, 2005


Dick was always a few steps ahead, especially where simulacra were concerned. Surely it's ALL a simulacrum anyway...?!?
posted by 0bvious at 7:42 PM on December 1, 2005


Let's see - he starts off very clearly warning us that weavers of fiction are dangerous, because they are capable of planting entirely false realities in your mind. Then, he proceeds to do exactly that, plant an absurdly-insane false reality in your mind, and by the end of the story, a bunch of the audience is actually on the side of the false story. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
posted by odinsdream at 7:44 PM on December 1, 2005


Yes, that second lecture was in '77, after Dick started having his "visions" in '74 and had his religion/spiritual epiphany. He started to sound increasingly like the poor guy he wrote about in Martian Time Slip a decade earlier, whose mind is in two times at once and is completely schizophrenic.

I love Dick's work, and find him really fascinating, but it makes me sad to read a speech like this, knowing how paranoid and sick he was becoming.
posted by Gamblor at 7:48 PM on December 1, 2005


My friend Gabe wrote a great book about Philip K. Dick as a theologian. Definitely a worthwhile read.
posted by afroblanca at 7:56 PM on December 1, 2005


As for temporal lobe epilepsy, I doubt it was the cause of his visions. I've got it and it doesn't do that to you. It messes up one's perception of one's own time, things one is percieving at the moment. It also only lasts a few seconds before fading, or before you go down with a big one.

I've given up trying to understand what was going on with PKD. I think you really do not need to know to enjoy what he did. Somehow he mixed the most utterly psychologically realistic characters and dialog with ideas and plot lines that were anything but. That's what really gives his work its power, the fact that his worlds are populated with some of the most realistic characters ever--you just cannot believe that such real people would live in a fake world.

I'll never forget the first PKD book I read as an adult, The Penultimate Truth. Each time he sets up a reality, you believe it absolutely. Despite the fact he continually does this, I was amazed to find that I never expected it to be torn down. You soon convince yourself that this was the last reality he was going to destroy--and of course he went ahead and did it again.

But by far the best thing he ever wrote was We Can Build You. The portrayal of the characters in that book are simply astounding. Anyone who has spent time around intelligent, mentally ill people can only be struck by the characters he created in that book. His reputation will only grow from here on out.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:04 PM on December 1, 2005


I find it interesting how some people have a vastly different reaction to the things he writes about than I do.
posted by nightchrome at 8:06 PM on December 1, 2005


Philip K. Dick was crazy, he wrote the same fucking story over and over again until he believed his own stories were true, and his prose sucks.
posted by interrobang at 8:12 PM on December 1, 2005


I'll add to the pile-on for Ubik, a book that still gives me a unique creepy sensation to think about, more so than the other handful of Dick books I've read.

While it's true that the man was batshit insane, it's also possible that he was onto something. What I find the most compelling about his writing technique is the constant insistence on making us aware of the filter of reality - the fact that reality can be filtered one way for one person and another way for another. There's a tragedy to this (and he obviously gets that) in that to a great extent humanity can never really inhabit the same reality because we are always relentlessly, inescapably bringing our own twisted perspectives too it - his fiction takes this concept to an extreme in different ways, but I wonder how much more extreme it is than the actual situation.
posted by soyjoy at 8:14 PM on December 1, 2005


afroblanca: Did you go to Hampshire? I was there as an exchange student one year and met Gabe at a party. Glad to know that his book is out. I'll have to procure a copy.
posted by Kattullus at 8:15 PM on December 1, 2005


Philip K. Dick was crazy, he wrote the same fucking story over and over again until he believed his own stories were true, and his prose sucks.

So there!
posted by mecran01 at 8:20 PM on December 1, 2005


Dick never ceases to amaze me, and he's been dead for over 20 years. Palmer eldritch, Ubik, Do androids dream... were all of equal genius. Portals into not just the mind of Dick, but the mind of 'god'. In the multiplying infinities of Dick's work true reality comes more into focus...

Not many authors can do that to their readers
posted by 0bvious at 8:23 PM on December 1, 2005


Hey, interrobang, delmoi -- if you don't have something intelligent to say, take it somewhere else, OK?

"His prose sucks" and "Fascinating stuff. Not." aren't really substitutes for logical reasoning, criticism or analysis. Perhaps you're both right, but since you don't bother to offer us any actual reasoning, we just write you off as morons.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:43 PM on December 1, 2005


I like his short stories. He was always willing to write the "bad" ending.
posted by smackfu at 8:48 PM on December 1, 2005


Perhaps you're both right, but since you don't bother to offer us any actual reasoning, we just write you off ...
and erase you out of our universe!
posted by uni verse at 8:53 PM on December 1, 2005


Didn't we just talk about this essay, like, a week ago or so...?
posted by klangklangston at 8:56 PM on December 1, 2005


Interrobang, please look over "Minority Report", its more paradox and less insanity --and much better than the movie.
posted by uni verse at 9:01 PM on December 1, 2005


klangklangston, "Now Wait for Last Year". Sorry, couldn't help it.
posted by uni verse at 9:02 PM on December 1, 2005


Hey, interrobang, delmoi -- if you don't have something intelligent to say, take it somewhere else, OK?

Okay, I'll take the bait. Deny that he spent his whole life writing stories that go:

"This is real... or is it? Actually, this is real... or is it?"

The guy had his major breakthrough after (as he puts it) the CIA made his dentist inject him with sodium pentathol (which he describes as a painkiller). He then had a "vision" of heaven, and a couple of days later, a fan came to his door, and was wearing a cross on her neck, which he took as a sign of a conspiracy against him.

He's as deep as "The Matrix". He was crazy. He's as deep as someone who's recently discovered that it's possible to think about thinking. Whoa, man!

And his prose does suck; his character names are consistently terrible (Anderton, anyone?), and anything good he ever did had already been done by John Brunner.
posted by interrobang at 9:04 PM on December 1, 2005


Umpteen-odd-years ago I had similar visions regarding multiverses and non-linear time. I lived in a miraculous world of infinite, technicolor amazement: praying for the past and predicitng the future. I had amazing powers of balance and concentration. I was an award winning illustrator and promising musician. I could staunch the flow of blood from minor wounds and used mirrors to see into other dimensions. I could summon OBEs at will, converse with higher beings, and even control the video rotation on early MTV!

Some healthy doses of 0-(3-dimethylaminopropyl)-2-chlorphenothiazine, Li2CO3, and a few weeks spent at "summer camp" with others in various similar stages of consciousness "cured" me of that kind of thinking. I now have the perfect mericun life with an IT 8-to-5 job, taxes, wife and kids! Wearing a different suit now I guess. For the most part I rarely even remember wearing the old set of clothes...and I would not change a thing.

Thanks for the flashback PKD!
posted by HyperBlue at 9:07 PM on December 1, 2005 [1 favorite]


Now your talking. His readers admit he writes strangely. I thought it was endearing. I guess some people find it like its personally annoying. And he was likely touch and go there for a while. But I thought he broke fresh ground, and was inventive. I'd like to find out more about Brunner.
posted by uni verse at 9:09 PM on December 1, 2005


Hey interrobang, you are much cooler and more significant than "crazy people". Feel better now?
posted by HyperBlue at 9:11 PM on December 1, 2005


uni verse, he doesn't write strangely, he writes clunkily. If you want to check out Brunner, read Stand On Zanzibar. It will kick your ass.
posted by interrobang at 9:13 PM on December 1, 2005


Didn't we just talk about this essay, like, a week ago or so...?

Yes, klangklangston, we did.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:15 PM on December 1, 2005


Interrobang 'paid his dues' up above so lets play nice.
posted by uni verse at 9:15 PM on December 1, 2005


The part on how to transcend duality might be useful here.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:17 PM on December 1, 2005


Kattallus : Hehe, no, I met Gabe and Gwynne in NYC. Good people.

Every time I see Gabe, I kidnap him for a little while and force him to talk to me about SciFi stuff. He's probably my favorite person to talk to on the subject.

He just finished another book - The Gospel According to SciFi. Don't know when it will be out, though.
posted by afroblanca at 9:17 PM on December 1, 2005


Philip K. Dick was crazy, he wrote the same fucking story over and over again until he believed his own stories were true, and his prose sucks.

I'm a big Philip K. Dick fan (Dickhead?), and actually I agree with all this.

Whenever I read something of his I haven't read before, I enter this Necker cubelike ambiguous state of mind, of "This is so weird/great/visionary" and "Same old Dick shit", frequently flipping back and forth on the same page.

Stanislaw Lem, one of our finest writers in science fiction, has written a bunch of literary criticism of sci-fi, mostly on grounds that too much of it is written to be disposable culture rather than attempting lasting literary merit. He singles out Dick, and his Clans of the Alphane Moon, for high praise.

And as I recall, he agrees that Dick's prose sucks.
posted by Aknaton at 9:18 PM on December 1, 2005


Hey interrobang, you are much cooler and more significant than "crazy people". Feel better now?

I don't feel cooler or more significant than anyone by saying that I dislike Dick's writing.

He's a terrible writer, and I feel that he gets more attention than other, better science fiction writers, simply because he appeals to the thirteen-year-old's discovery that it's possible to think about thinking, and there are an inordinate number of movies based on his books. This is because there's always a "gotcha!" ending to his novels and short stories.

Most good science fiction cannot be translated into movie-form, in the same way that "Watchmen" cannot be a novel, and it cannot be a movie. It simply would not work as anything but as a comic book.

They've tried to make "Dune" into a movie twice, and neither has really worked. Would anything by Robert Silverberg work as a movie? Probably not; there's too much sex.

Dick translates to the screen well because the ending is alway a "surprise". I have never been surprised by the ending of a Dick movie, because they are always the same story; once you've seen one, you've seen them all. Is Deckard a robot? Who cares?
posted by interrobang at 9:22 PM on December 1, 2005


"His prose sucks" and "Fascinating stuff. Not." aren't really substitutes for logical reasoning, criticism or analysis. Perhaps you're both right, but since you don't bother to offer us any actual reasoning, we just write you off as morons.

Every thought has a cost, in time and probably physical effort. A reasoned critique requires a lot more time and energy then a flippant dismissal, yet either one might motivate me to share my feelings on metafilter. All intellectual expenses will be weighed by their intellectual reward.

A man might do exhaustive research and experimentation to pick out the perfect dish soap, or he might simply buy the soap with most salient commercial. The one with bright colors and a smiling, beautiful spokesmodel. And why shouldn't he? He puts as much thought into the action as a mongoloid incapable of rational thought.

When I see paragraph like the one I quoted I see something that I find boring and trite. There's no reason to spend an hour reading a long, long speech to find out exactly how boring and trite the rest of it will be anymore then I might carry out lengthy experiments to find out exactly how tasty various colas might be.

A person's intellect should be judged by their actions only when it's clear that the outcomes of those actions are very important to them.

I'm not saying he's a bad writer. I may check out some of his novels sometime, they sound interesting.
posted by delmoi at 9:24 PM on December 1, 2005


If you people don't stop bickering, I am going to cut the punchcard tape running through my chest.
posted by Falconetti at 9:24 PM on December 1, 2005


Aknaton I second those feelings exactly -- inspired than occasionally finding repetition. However, I really enjoyed "We can build you" recently, even though it still had some suspiciously familiar elements. I can't get over the detached, yet grounded, but brooding Abe Lincoln brought back to life as simulcra.
posted by uni verse at 9:25 PM on December 1, 2005


Man, you guys sound extremely full of yourselves.
Even for Metafilter.
posted by nightchrome at 9:26 PM on December 1, 2005


Is deckard a robot? Who cares?
I'm mortified at your lack of geekiness.
posted by uni verse at 9:28 PM on December 1, 2005


fantastic post! thanks.
posted by 31d1 at 9:29 PM on December 1, 2005


Umpteen-odd-years ago I had similar visions regarding multiverses and non-linear time. I lived in a miraculous world of infinite, technicolor amazement: praying for the past and predicitng the future. I had amazing powers of balance and concentration. I was an award winning illustrator and promising musician. I could staunch the flow of blood from minor wounds and used mirrors to see into other dimensions. I could summon OBEs at will, converse with higher beings, and even control the video rotation on early MTV!

Some healthy doses of 0-(3-dimethylaminopropyl)-2-chlorphenothiazine, Li2CO3, and a few weeks spent at "summer camp" with others in various similar stages of consciousness "cured" me of that kind of thinking. I now have the perfect mericun life with an IT 8-to-5 job, taxes, wife and kids! Wearing a different suit now I guess. For the most part I rarely even remember wearing the old set of clothes...and I would not change a thing.
posted by HyperBlue at 9:07 PM PST on December 1


Hello Mark Leyner it is nice to meet you. :)

With respect to criticisms of P. K. Dick's work, there are authors I go to for solid prose, those I go to for interesting ideas, and those rare few who have both. Dick sits nicely in the middle category and we are lucky to have had him. Better to read a clunky yet fascinating PKD novel than 300 more pages about John Updike's goddamn penis, I always say.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:29 PM on December 1, 2005 [1 favorite]


Interrobang: If you want to check out Brunner, read Stand On Zanzibar. It will kick your ass.

You strongly criticize Dick because Brunner got there first and then hold up "Stand on Zanzibar" as brilliant? I take it you are completely unfamiliar with John dos Passos' USA trilogy?
posted by Justinian at 9:29 PM on December 1, 2005


interrobang: Is Deckard a robot? Who cares?

Philip K. Dick certainly didn't.

afroblanca: Man, Gospel According to Sci Fi sounds like an awesome book. Tell Gabe he's got at least one reader :)
posted by Kattullus at 9:32 PM on December 1, 2005


You strongly criticize Dick because Brunner got there first and then hold up "Stand on Zanzibar" as brilliant? I take it you are completely unfamiliar with John dos Passos' USA trilogy?

No, I'm totally aware that he formatted the novel based on those books.

Brunner, however--in that novel from 1969--has a proto-internet, genetically modified pets, and "muckers". And in "The Shockwave Rider", he invented the computer virus.

All of which are way more interesting than Dick's "this reality is real! No, wait, this one is! But, this one is! Actually it's this one!" business.

Also, Brunner's prose is cleaner.
posted by interrobang at 9:37 PM on December 1, 2005


I think the main problem with PKD was that he was both (A) a visionary and (B) a pulp writer, in the classic sense.

He stayed up all night amped up on speed, so that he could pop out books whenever he needed to pay the rent. As a result, a lot of his prose is hurried and sloppy.

Many of his books could use a "third act" to tie everything together. Very often, he would introduce a crucial plot twist or revelation, only to end the book 10 pages later. Once again, I attribute this to his being "rushed."

However, in my mind, none of this detracts significantly from his work. His stuff is mind-blowing and highly enjoyable to read. If you can overlook some of the bad prose, you may even like the fast-paced nature of his work. I know that I've finished most of his books in two days or less. Very engrossing stuff that will leave you thinking about it for days afterward.
posted by afroblanca at 9:38 PM on December 1, 2005


"One god there is, in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. He stays always motionless in the same place; it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that."

Reading the first speech was worth it just for this quote alone!
posted by kuatto at 9:39 PM on December 1, 2005


Dick translates to the screen well because the ending is alway a "surprise". I have never been surprised by the ending of a Dick movie, because they are always the same story; once you've seen one, you've seen them all. Is Deckard a robot? Who cares?

I would say that almost none of Dick's stories, thus far, have translated well to the screen (except possibly Blade Runner, which, as an exception, is so wildly different it's more like a complete revision - all for the best in that case, I say) *because* they are enjoyable stories for reasons other than simply having surprise ending.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:40 PM on December 1, 2005


Also... Aren't we forgetting Alfred Bester somewhere in here? He did Dick before Dick and without the "This reality/no-this reality!" syndrome that Dick explored. I think he actually built Dick in his garage.

And personally, I think an obsession, however unhealthy, explored over and over again over time is more interesting to read than a one-shot attempt at forever explaining or exploring something (in a particular writer's universe). But then that brings up the notion of the writer himself/herself being a part of the "art."
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:46 PM on December 1, 2005


SmileyChewtriain: about the obsession, I partly agree, in a different art form, William De Kooning comes to mind. Keep building the same thing in different ways.
posted by uni verse at 9:49 PM on December 1, 2005


There was a Jonathan Lethem essay I saw recently (I think it was from a newish book) that talked about Dick and Bob Dylan and some other folks, and how after years of exploring other writers and artists who created much more polished and well-constructed work, he kept returning to folks like these because they unceasingly asked questions (however personal or universal) without a (too much of) a veneer of posturing and pretension. Dick wrote about the same thing over and over - but he always found a different way to approach it, and to try and understand it.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:51 PM on December 1, 2005


It saddens me that there are people who get bent out of shape over how he wrote, rather than what and why.
posted by nightchrome at 9:56 PM on December 1, 2005


Dick reminds me of Rothko; someone who did the same thing over and over again, with nightmarish obsessiveness. Rothko killed himself; Dick pretty much did, too.
posted by interrobang at 9:57 PM on December 1, 2005


It saddens me that there are people who get bent out of shape over how he wrote, rather than what and why.

I just don't like how he wrote the same thing, over and over and over and over, and it was nothing more than a poorly-written treatise about how, like, reality might not be what you, like, think it is.

And Brunner and Bester and Vance and Silverberg and Farmer get no attention because of him.
posted by interrobang at 10:00 PM on December 1, 2005


Dick actually wrote quite a lot about the fact that he always wrote about the same thing. I think he called it the idee fixee (I'm not sure of the spelling or origin of that).

Again, going back to the idea of the writer as the art - it's fascinating watching him trying to come to any understanding he can regarding the way his body and mind deteriorated in front of him. It is very much like the story of the "Electric Ant" which he is quoted speaking about above - where the android cuts and pastes his own "reality tape" and experiences what it is like to alter reality and then flicker out of existence - in the end burning himself out.

And hey, if robots and reality tape turn anyone who wasn't previously turned on to thinking about thinking, then that's something. Dick's a gateway drug.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:02 PM on December 1, 2005


Dick reminds me of Rothko; someone who did the same thing over and over again, with nightmarish obsessiveness. Rothko killed himself; Dick pretty much did, too.
posted by interrobang at 9:57 PM PST on December 1


Considering Rothko hasn't even posted in this thread, that is pretty unnecessary.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:03 PM on December 1, 2005


(Interrobang: I found out about those guys because of him. Well, not Farmer. I found out about Farmer because of Vonnegut. Or rather, Trout. But that's another story. You have a point about Dick clouding other important writers - but a lot of that is recent fashion, too).
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:04 PM on December 1, 2005


Man, you guys sound extremely full of yourselves.
Even for Metafilter.


Woah. that's like god making a rock that even he could not lift.

(or could quonsaur make a statement so snarky that even he could not belittle it?)
posted by delmoi at 10:05 PM on December 1, 2005


Considering Rothko hasn't even posted in this thread, that is pretty unnecessary

You did click the link, right.
posted by delmoi at 10:07 PM on December 1, 2005


Some may be interested in R. Crumb's The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick.

(I used to see his brother from time to time on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. Sad, and yet somehow humbling.)
posted by trip and a half at 10:11 PM on December 1, 2005


Er... Crumb's brother, that is. Sorry.
posted by trip and a half at 10:12 PM on December 1, 2005


Why can't you like PKD *and* Brunner?
Is there something wrong with liking this kind of topic? I mean, the snarky comments about "thirteen year olds" and such really don't help. Sure, most people think about this sort of thing once in awhile in their life. But we don't all think about it the same way. That's why it's interesting and even useful to read this sort of thing, to see how other people think about the things that exist only in your own head.
posted by nightchrome at 10:18 PM on December 1, 2005


Optimus: lol
posted by aramaic at 10:21 PM on December 1, 2005


You did click the link, right.
posted by delmoi at 10:07 PM PST on December 1


ahahahahahahahahahah i'm a fucking idiot and i'm going to bed

i thought you meant metaphorically and i just jesus christ oh god i'm never living that down
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:25 PM on December 1, 2005


Great link, trip and a half, thanks.
posted by interrobang at 10:29 PM on December 1, 2005


Although it doesn't augur all that well for our Rothko that I thought of him first upon reading the phrase "nightmarish obsessiveness." Sorry, buddy. :(
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:31 PM on December 1, 2005


So...PKD is overrated and because of hollywood interest in his work he sucks attention from more worthy writers because his prose style sucks and he repeats his ideas over and over. I'll conced that his prose lacks syle. But I reject repetition as a valid issue. All writers repeat themselves. That said, reducing his ideas to the level of a 13 year old's spark of meta-cognition is not congruent with my own experience. I began reading him in my early 20s and enjoyed his two main themes (what is real? what is human? ) but felt he touched on other interesting ideas, too.

In particular, his exploration of time reminded me of Borges. Granted Borges was a much better stylist, but I don't care that much about style if the characters and ideas hold my interest. Some PKD novels succeed more than others in that area. As for Hollywood, I suppose they will keep butchering good science fiction novels as soon as they get done exhuming the DC and Marvel universes.
posted by aperture_priority at 10:36 PM on December 1, 2005


I just don't like how he wrote the same thing, over and over and over and over, and it was nothing more than a poorly-written treatise about how, like, reality might not be what you, like, think it is.

You could summarize a lot of stories in one sentence of stoner lingo and repeat it over and over, and I guess it would make them sound bad, too. You're being too reductionist here, and not giving the man enough credit. Your description doesn't sound much like the PKD I've read.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:39 PM on December 1, 2005


Brunner is some damn good shit, but I like PKD more. More claustrophobia, more dystopia, more of everything. Craft and style thrown by the wayside for breathless reelings and immediatism.

Brunner also has many of these qualities, but the texture is different. Perhaps it's just too real, or too polished, or too believable, and not weird feeling enough.

Where Brunner paints gorgeous Monet and Renoit Impressionism, PKD slashes at the canvas in thrashings of Pollockian Abstract Expressionism.

As a writer and an artist, I enjoy Immediatism. I enjoy de-mediation. Media is moderation, and more. Media is intermediate, intermediated. All media is at least once removed from the intent and will of the creator, and removed once more by the interpreter/viewer of said created media.

I really like it when there's as little fluff and cruft between my brain and the artist's brain. If I had my way, I'd be able to just plug my brain into other artist's brains and exchange at will in the purest of un-mediated creative exchanges.

As a writer and an artist, I'm well aware that even the best craft, the best polish, the most subtle and nuanced refinement of any given work will often wear away at the originally intended meaning, feeling, emotion or intention of the work in question.

This subjective opinion is - to be entirely clear - one end of a vast, non-exclusionary spectrum. It's entirely subjective, and I dare not call any one position or value on this spectrum superior.

But Theodore Sturgeon is better than both Brunner and PKD, if in prose alone, if not also in ideas both of flesh and stone, and even possibly even in historical precedent and innovation - and Sturgeon is so intensely human and humanist he makes Vonnegut read like a cranky Thomas Pynchon.

Q.E.D.
posted by loquacious at 11:33 PM on December 1, 2005 [2 favorites]


You know, it had been ages since I first read PKD (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and in the intervening years I heard again and again how he wrote awful prose and I kind of nodded along because, Jesus, I was reading Terry Brooks and Thieves' World and shit at the same time – but now, I recently read A Scanner Darkly, and I gotta tell ya, PKD reads better than most of Tolkien except the Hobbit. I think he compares pretty well, sentence to sentence, to the run of well-known science fiction authors. (There are, of course, better ones.)

Also, word about Updike's unit.
posted by furiousthought at 11:35 PM on December 1, 2005 [1 favorite]


Another PKD fan here... I grew up reading Dick. His questions helped me to make a lot of important realizations and decisions. I still think that the essence of "humanity", if there is one, is compassion, for example.

My favorite of his books is probably The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. I haven't re-read it for several years, but for a while, I'd read it pretty much once a year. I think it shows PKD kind of coming to terms with his religious experience, and trying to integrate it back into his life, and it might provide a model for some people on how to do the same. It also has one of PKD's best female characters (which, admittedly, isn't saying much).

Overall, though, I've come to more-or-less stable views about what goodness is, what reality is, etc. A lot of them are deeply informed by PKD's work, but I haven't been interested in going back to his work much recently. Now it's about how to keep living with these realizations, and realizations about other aspects of life: how people learn to trust each other & how relationships grow, how to balance the need for money and the need for goodness, how people make the consensus reality together, etc. Issues that PKD didn't deal with that much.

Different people get different things from his books. He dealt with a lot of heavy issues that, honestly, I wish more people would deal with. Being Philosophy 101 level isn't a bad thing. "Obvious" does not necessarily equal "unimportant". Too many people live the unexamined life, in my opinion.
posted by jiawen at 12:58 AM on December 2, 2005


David Hume, the greatest skeptic of them all, once remarked that after a gathering of skeptics met to proclaim the veracity of skepticism as a philosophy, all of the members of the gathering nonetheless left by the door rather than the window...except interrobang who left through the grizzly bear.
posted by johnny novak at 1:14 AM on December 2, 2005


I second loquacious' Sturgeon recommendation. His books have perfectness.
posted by It ain't over yet at 2:00 AM on December 2, 2005


[Joe Chip] vigorously strode to the apt door, turned the knob and pulled on the release bolt.

The door refused to open. It said, 'Five cents please.'

He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. 'I'll pay you tomorrow,' he told the door. Agin he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. 'What I pay you,' he informed it, 'is in the nature of a gratuity; I don't have to pay you.'

'I think otherwise,' the door said. 'Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.'

In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.

'You discover I'm right,' the door said. It sounded smug.

From the drawer behind the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt's money-gulping door.

'I'll sue you,' the door said, as the first screw fell out.

Joe Chip said, 'I've never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.'
- Philip K. Dick, Ubik
posted by Ritchie at 4:34 AM on December 2, 2005


Ritchie, thanks for that quote. Just what I needed to hear this morning.
posted by moonbird at 5:25 AM on December 2, 2005


I think his stories are very readable and engrossing, and am disappointed that they haven't generally translated well to screen (with the exception of Blade Runner). I don't think this is because the stories are inherently unadaptable, but more a fault of production.

I remember this perfect quote from Aintitcoolnews in a review of Paycheck: "Why does Hollywood hate Philip K. Dick?"
posted by joshshmenge at 7:23 AM on December 2, 2005


Once, while listening to a pastor speak, the student common room I was in disappeared. For one ultra-vivid fraction of a second I was in the desert. The night sky was a deep Metafilter blue and filled with stars. In this brief moment, the pastor was replaced with someone who had personally witnessed the ressurected Jesus Christ.

My amphetamine intake ended ten years prior to this. Subsequent doses of lithium and olanzapine have done little to sway the revelatory power of that moment for me. I was reminded of it by this post.

So I think Dick's on to something. I definitely appreciate his determination to make sense of his experience. Had he been a prose stylist, he might have left us with one massive literary tome dissected only by English majors. Count me out of that universe.
posted by Paddle to Sea at 7:54 AM on December 2, 2005


1) He was a tire-retreader in one of his novels.

2) Philosophers don't have to be great writers, but it's nice when they are.
posted by 31d1 at 8:00 AM on December 2, 2005


I just don't like how he wrote the same thing, over and over and over and over, and it was nothing more than a poorly-written treatise about how, like, reality might not be what you, like, think it is.

Y'know, I let this slide the first time, but now that you've written it over and over and over and over, I gotta say something:

Every artist throughout history does the same thing over and over and over. Some less obviously than others. Dick was obsessed with reality and consciousness and used them both as subject matter for his books and, quite often, a narrative device to give them a kick. Yes, since it was pulp, the two were not always organically intertwined. But your objection seems to be more to the narrative device, which he did not, in fact, use in all his work - nor, for that matter, did he always take this as the subject matter (have you read his short stories, by any chance?).

And if someone's going to have a topic they return to over and over in their work, well, I think the nature of human consciousness and its interface with reality is a pretty rich and important one. More so than Updike's, or latter-day Heinlein's, dick.

As to the prose itself: His books are eminently readable and enjoyable. So is, say, Tom Robbins, whose prose, I think it's safe to say, is the absolute antithesis of Dick's. Which one is the "worse" writer? Neither, they're different approaches to writing.

Lastly, his books are not just "about how, like, reality..." etc. First of all, it's easy to take any writer's favorite theme and do a parody one-liner about it; that in no way diminishes the actual work. But more to the point, there's much more to the books than this navel-gazing notion.

Just to take Ubik as an example, yes, it does use the reality-switcheroo gimmick as a punch line, but before that the story provokes a great deal of thought about our immersion in a dream-like world of consumerism, where the necessity of aquiring totemic products warps our notions of ourselves and of our environment. I find that a fascinating topic, and while it's by no means unique to Dick, the way he handles it and integrates it with his singular worldview makes the story a classic.
posted by soyjoy at 8:14 AM on December 2, 2005


I read Eye in the Sky and thought it was terrible, I'm interested in the idea of Dick, but is this book is indicitive of his body of work?
posted by I Foody at 8:21 AM on December 2, 2005


interrobang : "Deny that he spent his whole life writing stories that go:

"'This is real... or is it? Actually, this is real...
or is it?'"

Ok, I will: He spent much of his life writing stories like that, but they aren't all like that (Minority Report, as someone pointed out, has little to do with "this is reality...no it isn't", and much more to do with predestination vs. free will).

In addition (though this is not in denail of your point), the ways that perception differs from reality varies. Beethoven spent his whole life writing pieces that obey certain compositional rules, but its the variations within those rules that are what make it interesting. I find the same true with Dick: very similar bare bones conceptually, very different structure built on those bare bones.

SmileyChewtrain : "Dick wrote about the same thing over and over - but he always found a different way to approach it, and to try and understand it."

Very well put.

For reference, I like PKD, but I won't say his works are all of equal calibre (they aren't), or that his actual writing mechanics are exceptional.
posted by Bugbread at 8:23 AM on December 2, 2005


joshshmenge : "I don't think this is because the stories are inherently unadaptable, but more a fault of production."

I think (and I seem to be in a minority) that it's simply because most of his better work is in his short stories, not his longer works, and that it's too hard to pad out a good short story to fill 1.5 hours.

That said, I am looking forward to Scanner Darkly, as it feels very different than most PKD, and they are/were using a very different approach to making it (gimmicky as some may see it).
posted by Bugbread at 8:27 AM on December 2, 2005


I Foody,

Try A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth, VALIS, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Ubik, Man in the High Castle or the Transmigration of Timothy Archer instead.

I've not read Eye in the Sky but it's one of his earliest novels and IMO, his writing gets more interesting later in his career.
posted by lyam at 8:32 AM on December 2, 2005


I would say Dicks books are less about "what is reality" and philosophy 101 than exploring how humans' psychological quirks shape their perceived reality. Do Androids... is more about Deckard's searching for something real in a world full of ersatz.
In Martian Time Slip the inner torment of a child manifests itself by leaking into the world outside his head. Palmer Eldritch plays on deja vu, drug flashbacks, the human propensity for seeing design and symbolism everywhere.
posted by snoktruix at 8:33 AM on December 2, 2005


Eye in the Sky is not indicative of his major arc of work. It's a piece of the arc, for sure, but I wouldn't let it sway you. I agree with Iyam's list, but I'll add that I've always thought both "Ubik" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" were good introductory books - they're fun, a little pulpy, very easy to read and get sucked into- but explore deeper obsessions that show up in his more "focused" writing. I first tried reading "Man in the High Castle" years ago before anything else of Dick's and found I was a little bored and confused (having expected so much more of PKD) - but after a few other novels I returned to it and found it immensely satisfying. But, you know, it's different for everyone.

I'd also reccomend the short story "Faith of Our Fathers," which is one of the most terrifying things I've ever read.

As far as his early work goes - try tracking down a copy of "The Broken Bubble." Written in the 1950's, not published until the 1980's (and now out of print), it's a brilliant psychological game-study of a group of apathetic teenagers and adults who swap relationships. It surprised me, because I was under the impression that his prose started off shakey and got better - but it seemed he may have been writing in a simpler way to sell (he made his living mostly off of short stories and pulp novels for a very long time - a meager living, but a feat to be sure).

And I'll reiterate my own statement about why Dick's novels don't translate well to the screen: It's because no one has translated one to the screen (with the notable transmutation of Blade Runner). They've all been ersatz "versions". Fake fakes! Sweet helicopters and taxis with robots in them don't count as a proper translation of the themes so important in Dick's novel - you can't JUST have the fun and expect it to work below the surface (I'm looking at you, Paycheck. Goddamn you.). The fun is there to lure you in. Will Linklater's Scanner Darkly be a good translation? It'll certainly be about the more important themes rather than the flying cars and the blur suits, I'm fairly sure of that given his other work. Will it be a *good movie*? We'll have to wait and see, I guess.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:01 AM on December 2, 2005


"Deny that he spent his whole life writing stories that go:

"'This is real... or is it? Actually, this is real... or is it?'"


Won't bother. Don't care. There are other writers when I wanna read a story that doesnt' go like that. And I wish he'd written more, because after I've read all of his itterations of that story I still won't be sick of it. (See also what bugbread said)

I also won't bother defending his prose, because he did have very severe writerly limitations. I can't say I don't care this time, the fact is sometimes his prose bugs me. But it's worth it. He was an idea guy. And as above, I'm still allowed to read Updike after I've read PKD. (I'd like to see Updike come up with a telepathic slime mold named Lord Running Clam.)

Someone asked about his day job. The rumor around Berkeley has always been that he worked retail at Tupper and Reed, aka Stupor and Greed, a sheet music/band instrument/off-brand guitar store in downtown Berkeley.
posted by Eothele at 9:51 AM on December 2, 2005


Yeah, I'm looking forward to A Scanner Darkly as well. Looking forward with both hope and fear.

While Bladerunner was a satisfying feast for someone like me, it wasn't even remotely a strict following of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and PKD was even on the set helping out on that one.

Which is perhaps why all of the later PKD movies have sucked so bad. PKD is long dead. Good luck, Linklater.


PS: The Zap Gun is rapidly becoming one of my favorite PKD novels - and it's often argued that it is one of his worst. I think I just really like the drug-trance for designers and toys are cool themes.
posted by loquacious at 9:53 AM on December 2, 2005


As someone who mines PKD for inspiration (not necessarilly "ideas," but a spark or something equally intangible that gets my own creativity going), I found these quotes/excerpts from Thomas M. Disch's (a sci-fi writer I have not read) introduction to the short story collection "Eye of the Sybil" quite apt:

"The conventional wisdom has it that there are writers' writers and readers' writers. The latter are those happy few whose books, by some pheromonic chemistry the former can never quite duplicate in their own laboratories, appear year after year on the best seller lists. They may or (more usually) may not satisfy the up-market tastes of "literary" critics but their books sell. Writers' writers get great reviews, especialy from their admiring colleagues, but their books don't attract readers, who can recognize, even at the distance of a review, the signs of a book by a writers' writer. The prose style comes in for high praise (a true readers' writer, by contrast, would not want to be accused of anything so elitist as "style"); the characters have "depth"; above all, such a book is "serious."
... Philip K. Dick was, in his time, both a writers' writer and a readers' writer; and neither; and another kind altogether - a science fiction writers' science fiction writer. ....
..."It is significant, I think, that all the praise heaped on Dick was from other SF writers, not from the reputation makers of the Literary Establishment, for he was not a writers' writer outside genre fiction. It's not for his exquisite style he's applauded, or his depth of characterization. Dick's prose seldom soars, and often is lame as any Quasimodo. The characters in even some of his most memorable tales have all the "depth" of a 50s sitcom...
...Indeed, Dick's esthetic failings could become virtues for his fellow SF writers, since it is so often possible for us to take the ball he fumbled and continue for a touchdown."

Now, that's a bit of a cut up excerpt (there are many more compliments in the full intro, as well as a section on how he appealed to those looking behind meaning in their everyday lives), but I think it touches on a good point about the different "audiences" that Dick has captivated despite his shortcomings.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:14 AM on December 2, 2005


aw, necessarily. RILLY!
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:15 AM on December 2, 2005


Ritchie's UBIK quote is a perfect example of what people time and time forget about Dick (his critics and fans alike): he was, on top of everything else, freaking hilarious. The bit in Scanner Darkly where they discuss a way to smuggle hash through an airport (build a man-shaped object out of it that can speak via tape recorder) is one of the funniest things I've ever read:


"Barris had this other way to smuggle dope across the border.You know how the customs guys,they ask you to declare what you have? And you can't say dope because-"

"Okay,how?"

"Well see,you take a huge block of hash and carve it in to the shape of a man.Then you hollow out a section and put a wind-up motor like a clockworks in it,and a little cassette tape,and you stand in line with it,and then just before it goes through customs you wind up the key and it walks up to the customs man,who says to it,"do you have anything to declare?" and the block of hash says,"No i don't" and keeps on walking.Until it runs down on the other side of the border ."

"You could put a solar-type battery in it instead of a spring and it could keep walking for years.Forever "

"Whats the use of that? It'd finally reach either the pacfic or the atlantic.In fact, it'd walk off the edge of the earth,like-"

"Imagine an eskimo village,and a six-foot-high block of hash worth about....how much would that be worth?"

"About a billion dollars"

"More Two billion"

"These eskimos are chewing hides and carving bone spears,and this block of hash worth two billion dollars comes walking through the snow saying over and over "No I don't"

"They'd wonder what it mean't by that"

"They'd be puzzled forever.There'd be legends"


Say what you will about Dick's awkward (I'd use the word charming) prose, there are not many other American writers who can take you into such a unique headspace. Nothing else feels like reading a Dick story or book.

And don't blame him for the movies. They are all uniformly awful (except for Blade Runner which, like everyone has said, is so wildly different from Dick's novel it doesn't even really make sense to compare).
posted by xmutex at 10:35 AM on December 2, 2005


Considering the second speech, I wonder what Dick would think about the retranslation (reincarnation?) of his work, his ideas, into movie form. Frankensteinian?

I enjoy his ‘God’ concepts. At least he’s well read, but it’s nowhere near that simple. Metaphor only carries you so far. Of course, it’s the metaphors that are so interesting.

I’m not getting the “Don’t read Dick or you’re an idot” criticisms. Offering other authors seems more useful.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:01 AM on December 2, 2005


The bit in Scanner Darkly where they discuss a way to smuggle hash through an airport

Ha, that was good. I like the bit about the hysterical pregnancy.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:07 AM on December 2, 2005


his character names are consistently terrible (Anderton, anyone?)

A policeman named Anderton?

Unimaginable.
posted by Grangousier at 12:57 PM on December 2, 2005


Grangousier : "A policeman named Anderton?

"Unimaginable."


Exactly. No creativity. Everyone knows science fiction authors who are creative give their characters names like "Qizuyv" or "Bob 37295-alpha-75". And make them all from exotic alien planets where things fuck a lot more than earth.
posted by Bugbread at 1:10 PM on December 2, 2005


I like the bit in A Scanner Darkly, where one of the peripheral characters decides to off himself by drinking an amazing bottle of wine while eating taking barbituates.

What ensues...
posted by lyam at 1:14 PM on December 2, 2005


No, it's just that all the way through that film I was reminded of the ex-Chief of Police of Greater Manchester. I'm slightly bitter about it.
posted by Grangousier at 1:29 PM on December 2, 2005


he was, on top of everything else, freaking hilarious.

Thirded. For me, the kicker in A Scanner Darkly is when the drug agent is listening to the tapes of the stoners discussing the industrial spill outside the microdot factory. "What the fuck is wrong with these losers!!!" he wonders, fast-forwarding an hour. More people have come home, and the tall tale has grown considerably more baroque. "Argh!!!" fast-forwards another hour. Still going, with new storytellers having taken over. Delicious.
posted by Aknaton at 3:33 PM on December 2, 2005


If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.

Precient: where's Baretta now?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:14 PM on December 2, 2005


xmutex, thanks for that hilarious reminder.
posted by soyjoy at 10:29 PM on December 2, 2005


Has anyone here seen the Confessions of a Crap Artist-based movie? I'm curious if it's any closer to the original PKD flavor.

Personally, though, I still think Total Recall did a good job of encapsulating the PKD paranoia and reality-bending attitude.
posted by jiawen at 4:43 AM on December 3, 2005


Confessions of a Crap Artist-based movie

It was called Barjo, and no, it wasn't very good and I didn't think it held up to the book much at all. It had a VERY annoying song in it which played far, far too often. I saw the movie about 14 years ago and I still know the tune. (Ba-Ba... Barjo!...)

In my late teens I actually tried to secure the rights to Scanner Darkly in order to sell a screenplay I'd adapted from it. I spoke with his agent a few times and he asked for $250k, if I remember correctly. I thought that was ridiculous as, at that point, the author had been dead for almost a eight years, the book was out of print (in english) and the one film made from his writing (Blade Runner) was a box office and critical bomb.

So, not having $250k, I passed. Over the next 18 years I kept hearing that such and such filmmaker was going to make a movie out of it and each time I heard who it was I would cringe. Now Linklater's doing it and I'm interested to see what he comes up with though for the most part I don't like his films much. The animation for the suit looks great though.
posted by dobbs at 7:17 PM on December 3, 2005


Ba-Ba... Barjo!...

Oh, great. I had mercifully forgotten that tune until now. Thanks a lot, dobbs.

Not a lot to add about the movie as at the time I hadn't read any Dick, including that story. But I did generally like it except for that mind-bogglingly annoying song.
posted by soyjoy at 9:21 AM on December 5, 2005


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