Four Novels of Terror and The Irrational: On Omnibus Editions

I recently sat down to read (for the first time) Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, wanting to experience the novel before trying out the Amazon series adaptation. There’s much to consider here about how this and other adaptations work—how Dick is a natural fit for cinematic interpretation, with his hallucinations and nested realities and strikingly imagined tech; how in adaptation his novels-within-novels often become films-within-films; how storylines and characters are trimmed or added in order to dial up (or down) Dick’s paranoia and complex world-building.

But I found myself struck most by a different, accidental element of reading—my edition of The Man in the High Castle was the first title in a Library of America Philip K. Dick omnibus (Four Novels of the 1960s), and, as I often end up doing by default when reading a single-author anthology, I just kept going. That week I read my way through all four of the short novels included in my edition—The Man in the High CastleThe Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ubik.

Reading omnibus editions is interesting because it gives us maybe the closest literary approximation of binge-watching—besides, that is, coming late to a series and having all the volumes stacked before you, which is perhaps a variation on the same phenomenon. A few times I’ve found myself powering through an omnibus without anything I could call real pleasure—I recall once mainlining a three-novel volume of James Bond novels, the whole time feeling at least slightly offended and more than a little bored, but powerless to stop because I “needed” to see Fleming’s structure play out all three times, needed that sense of symmetry and completion the edition seemed to suggest would be ideal. I didn’t particularly enjoy the books themselves, but I did enjoy the experience of reading them. Consuming an omnibus edition can be satisfying in itself, for the opportunity to hold the individual works up next to each other and appreciate (or criticize) the way they’ve been arranged by editors, or else the way themes and questions repeat and strengthen across works.

In this more recent case, part of the reading experience was the chance to watch Dick’s style and themes marinate across books—his questions about what makes humanity human (or not); his evolving, revolving doubt about reality vs. hallucination; the sheer number of stacked, bottomless premises his characters wade through. The LOA volume’s editor, Jonathan Lethem, has said that Dick “engaged in the most direct and distinctive way with the undertow of terror and the irrational in contemporary technological society.” Although at times the reading experience of layering many works by the same author can be a little exhausting—particularly when they’re as dystopian, paranoid, and fearful as Dick’s work can be—there was something that felt remarkably right about keeping myself in the grip of his narratives for so long, falling through four linked but distinct Philip K. Dick universes in a row. I was like one of his characters, tumbling by familiar elements (the same slang; the same steady evolution of space travel, telepathy, malleable visions of the past and future; the same distrust of reality) in a quartet of inarguably different worlds. By the end I was shaken, worried about the present and the future, questioning reality and elements of my own existence. It has since worn off, in a way I suspect it never quite did for Dick or for his characters, but it felt like a way for me as a reader to do justice to his work, and a mental plane I wouldn’t have achieved by one novel alone.