First featured in Harlan Ellison’s groundbreaking sci-fi anthology Dangerous Visions– all the way back from 1967 (years before I was even born), Faith of Our Fathers is a maddeningly brilliant short story that showcases Philip K Dick’s abilities to tell both an intriguing tale while warping one’s sense of reality- it’s like taking a literary drug and hallucinating on every page, leaving the reader bewildered and subjected to withdrawal symptoms long after they read it.
Who was Philip K Dick you say? Ever heard of the movies Blade Runner (and its awesome sequel) or Total Recall? How about Spielberg’s Minority Report or the TV show Man in the High Castle? Each of these shows were based on his stories. PKD died from a series of strokes back in 1982, just as he was on the verge of mainstream recognition when the Blade Runner movie was about to be released- sadly it wasn’t a box office hit, and who knows how he might have taken it.
PKD had a reputation as an acid writer, science fiction’s own version of Hunter S Thompson. In his most prolific years, he would take massive doses of amphetamines and lock himself in a room to bang out sixty pages a day in order to make deadlines. It’s even possible that PKD may have been mentally ill, for he experienced hallucinations and paranoia in key periods of his life and these affected his works very deeply. If the best writers are tortured geniuses, then PKD exemplifies this. Dick was always living at or near poverty, for being a full time sci-fi writer in those days meant a literal hand to mouth existence. He had dreams of mainstream literary success, but it all came to naught when his unpublished manuscripts were returned to him in 1963. After that, he wrote for pennies, because sci-fi was too niche for the likes of serious money.
Mostly, he wrote of themes centered on the perception of reality- a metaphysical question on whether one’s senses were truly telling them that what they could see, hear, or feel. Dick believed that one’s reality is based on perception; altering one’s senses will change the universe. In a way, each of his fictional protagonists would go on a quest to try and find the heart of the matter as to what they were experiencing. To PKD, everything one sees or interacts with may just be illusions or hidden beneath something else, this even includes the entire world. What you think is real can change at any moment.
Faith of Our Fathers starts out innocently enough as just another alternate universe story, in which a typical government functionary in a world where the communists won the Cold War- and are busy conquering everybody- is stopped by a street peddler, a disabled war veteran who forces him to buy a seemingly innocuous herbal remedy. What follows afterwards is not one, not two, but rather three upending plot twists and ends up becoming so convoluted that I began to question my own sanity after finishing it.
PKD’s hallmarks of illusion and the warping of reality is on full display here, as the protagonist suddenly realizes the drug he took was in fact an anti-drug, an antidote to the hallucinogens he was already being exposed to from drinking the city’s spiked water supply that everyone consumes. This leads him to a meeting with the all-powerful Communist Party leader, who is at first suspected to be an alien, but is later exposed as God. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been worked to become as just a straight-forward story about the perils of a world being taken over by an oppressive economic and political system, but PKD didn’t stop there, he kept pushing it past the ordinary limit by introducing what could have been an extraterrestrial element before finally flipping the story on its head a third time by making the alien into the lord of all creation, and an evil one at that.
Its these kinds of mind-bending twists that PKD specialized in, and I believe this is why he is considered to be one of the all-time great sci-fi writers. Much of his work is being reprinted and digitized, so any serious fan of the genre should check them out.