“Alive in the Now”: Art and Authenticity in Philip K. Dick and William Gibson

Antoinette LaFarge


There is a long literary tradition of describing works of art within fiction, a rhetorical strategy known as ekphrasis. This essay considers its function in the work of two American science fiction authors who have made extensive and robust use of the trope: Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Both deploy ekphrasis as part of their consideration of the relationship between art, craft, and techne, and as a way to interrogate what counts as authenticity and authorship in worlds where various forms of reproduction and replication abound. Dick's use of art as a signifier of the human and a litmus test for spiritual truth in a degraded culture is elucidated through an examination of several short stories and two novels (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle). Gibson's rather different use of art in the novel Count Zero is analyzed for its use of an art world taboo, forgery. Gibson centers an important plot arc around a set of art fakes, assemblages in the style of the 20th century American artist Joseph Cornell. The Cornell fakes and their surprising creator (whose identity is withheld for much of the novel) allow Gibson to examine the boundaries of what counts as art, how art is entangled with experience and physical being, and how art intersects with late capitalism. In both authors, ekphrasis provides a way to unsettle specific ideas on which their novels otherwise depend, notably cyborgism in Dick and ubiquitous virtuality in Gibson.

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