Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)

By Richard Behrens
& Allen B. Ruch


“We are served by organic ghosts, he thought, who, speaking and writing, pass through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart.”
Ubik (1970)

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
VALIS (1979)

PRELUDE

Philip K. Dick was a complex man about whom many things can be said. Immensely talented, he was arguably a genius; and yet he was deeply troubled all his life. Prone to psychosomatic disorders, he also suffered from agoraphobia, depression, suicidal tendencies, and exhibited violent behavior to at least one of his wives. He was a religious visionary whose theology was articulated in his science fiction novels, a Gnostic thinker who doubted the reality of the world around him, a paranoid who believed the CIA was tapping his phone, a pill addict who wrote anti-drug novels, a literary philosopher who read James Joyce while pumping out sci-fi pot-boilers, an award-winning genre novelist who yearned for the accolades of the mainstream market, and a profound lover of women who couldn’t keep a marriage together. Philip K. Dick was a husband to five wives, a father of three children, a brother obsessed by the loss of his twin sister, a son who blamed his mother for her daughter’s death, and a father figure to countless addicts and petty criminals who crashed at his California home. To his friends, he was a warm and gentle man, always laughing and holding everything together, and yet those closest to him recognized him as the unhappiest man they had ever met.
But perhaps above all, Philip K. Dick was an American writer of astonishing uniqueness, author of more than 30 novels and over 100 short stories, most of them falling under the spacious umbrella of science fiction. And while it’s true that many of his novels were sci-fi pot-boilers, designed to earn a paycheck by exploiting all the trappings of the genre – space ships, Martian colonies, alien life forms, zap guns, androids, and so on – they stand out as unique in the field because of their deeply personal nature, as well as Dick’s literary approach to social, philosophical and religious issues. Today Philip K. Dick’s novels are recognized for this startling originality, and are widely acclaimed by readers with more a taste for Borges and Calvino than space opera and pulp fiction.
But Dick had little presentiment that he would one day have such an audience. Working with the assumption that each novel would entertain a very select audience for a few brief months and then fall gracefully into oblivion, Dick wrote quickly, often repeating himself in both theme and character, never pausing to explain some of the more outrageous futuristic features of his imaginary worlds (How is it possible to turn a nuclear warhead into an oracular child’s skull as in The Zap Gun?), and often stepping over the line into absurdity (How do you account for an intelligent Ganymedean slime mold called Lord Running Clam as in Clans of the Alphane Moon?) As a result, many of the novels have the atmosphere of a crazed comic book – another disposable genre that rarely drew attention from literary critics. To further increase the difficulty of his being accepted as a distinguished literary voice, almost all of his “mainstream” novels went unpublished in his lifetime, and his last works were dense forays into mysticism, often lacking his characteristic humor, and frequently lapsing into esoteric musings on Gnostic theology. Between the spaced-out surrealism of his pot-boilers and the obscure vision of his final works, during his lifetime Philip K. Dick only found fame amidst the ranks of science fiction fans and the psychedelic subculture.
So it’s not hard to imagine that Dick himself would be shocked to find that in the two decades after his death in 1982, his popularity has only increased. Most of his books are still in print, and all of his mainstream novels – which he despaired of getting published in his lifetime – have been made available in hardcover editions. Major Hollywood movies have been filmed based on his stories – Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report amongst others. And perhaps most significantly, Philip K. Dick has emerged as not just a cult figure among readers of science fiction, but has been gaining acceptance and respectability among serious literary circles, which academic postmodernism has made more open to genre fiction and science fiction in particular.
The reason why Philip K. Dick’s books have not only endured but have grown more popular lies in their remarkable nature. Of course, his novels are cleverly written and fun to read (many of the more outrageous novels read like a Star Trek script submitted by Kurt Vonnegut). But more importantly, Dick at his best offers a unique and wildly creative blend of science fiction, mysticism, religion, personal experience, metaphysics and pulp drama. His works are written in a clear language with a beguiling sense of honesty, and yet beneath their direct style and standard sci-fi trappings lies a deeper world of intense emotions, metaphysical speculation, and frequently shocking ideas.
Highly personal and occasionally quite idiosyncratic, Philip K. Dick’s work cannot be fully decoded without biography; yet at the same time his work transcends his own personality and hits upon profound spiritual, religious and political truths. Behind all the space ships, Martian colonies, alien life forms, zap guns, and androids is a writer struggling to understand himself, the world around him, and the worlds within us all. His science fiction, mainstream novels, philosophical essays and Gnostic diaries form a body of work that prompted Ursula K. LeGuin to call its author “our own home-grown Borges;” and yet to many people he is merely “the guy who wrote the book that Blade Runner is based on.” So let us begin the decoding process.

YOUTH

 Philip Kindred Dick was born in Chicago on December 16, 1928 along with a twin sister named Jane Charlotte Dick. The twins were six weeks premature; tiny, fragile things, they barely survived the delivery. Indeed, Jane died a little more than a month after being born, and Dick irrationally blamed himself for her death for most of his life – until he learned that she died of malnutrition, after which he shifted the blame to his mother. The sense of loss and feelings of guilt that he suffered as a result of his sister’s death would not only influence his psychological development, his troubled relationships, and his personal spirituality, but would become a fundamental theme in all of his collected fiction. Later, when Dick would become deeply influenced by Gnostic thought, the memory of his sister became inextricably linked to Sophia, the sister/bride of God who represented Wisdom, and in some traditions experienced exile into the very fabric of the material world. He would later write in his novel VALIS (1981):

The changing information which we experience as world is an unfolding narrative. It tells about the death of a woman. This woman, who died long ago, was one of the primordial twins. She was half of the divine syzygy. The purpose of the narrative is the recollection of her and her death. The Mind does not wish to forget her. Thus the ratiocination of the Brain consists of a permanent record of her existence, and, if read, would be understood that way. All the information processed by the Brain – experienced by us as the arrangement and rearranging of physical objects – is an attempt at this preservation of her; stones and rocks and sticks and amoebae are traces of her. The record of her existence and passing is ordered onto the meanest level of reality by the suffering Mind which is now alone.

In this sad demonstration of his obsession with his dead twin, Dick also cleverly reveals the motive and methods of his own writing process. His sister, or “traces of her,” will appear and reappear in his work until the end of his life.
Dick’s parents divorced when he was six. After moving about the country for a while with his mother, they settled down in Berkeley, California, where he would grow into adulthood. Suffering from the distance between himself and his physically separated father and his emotionally removed mother, Dick’s adolescence was predictably troubled. Two problems especially plagued him. The first was a swallowing disorder so serious it prevented him from eating in public. (One wonders if it was a psychosomatic manifestation of the guilt he felt over his malnourished sister?) The second was a severe vertigo that gave him the strange sense that he was dislocated from real life. He confessed to attacks where he doubted his own existence and felt that the world around him was a thin façade over some unnameable reality. It was a sensation he would later develop into the idiosyncratic paranoia found in much of his writing.
As a teenager, Philip K. Dick first discovered science fiction in the traditional manner of his day – through pulp magazines. Though sci-fi was a genre that was enormously popular, it was looked upon with suspicion by parents and literary critics alike, and Dick hesitated at first to fully embrace it, displaying an uneasiness with the genre that lasted his entire life. He was already getting his short fiction and poetry published in local journals, and although he showed much promise, his attacks of vertigo and numerous phobias placed an increasing strain on his academic career. At age 15 he got a job working for Herb Hollis, a local Berkeley “character.” A would-be writer, Hollis surrounded himself with a group of creatively-minded people, enjoying the status of an offbeat father figure of sorts. He owned a pair of stores in Berkeley specializing in radios, televisions and recorded music. His shops represented the kind of small, respectable business that nurtured personal relationships with its customers, and young Phil blossomed there, working as both a salesman and a repairman. It was a job he would hold for many years, and outside of his career as a writer, it was the only legitimate job he would ever retain. His experiences appear and reappear all throughout his work, in particular Mary and the Giant, The Broken Bubble of Thisbe Holt, Radio Free Albemuth and Dr. Bloodmoney. In these novels many of the characters are record store clerks or work in radio or television repair. Through his writing Dick could also express his love for hi-fi records and stereo equipment, and his vast knowledge of popular and classical music finds its way into many of his books. (Herb Asher’s passionate description of Mahler’s Second Symphony to a traffic cop in The Divine Invasion has prompted more than a few readers to seek out a recording, and Horselover Fat’s struggle with Wagner’s Parsifal is essential to the theme of VALIS.)
During his teenage years, Phil shared an apartment house with a collective of artists that included the poet Robert Duncan. Socializing with serious writers for the first time was an inspiration to both his creativity and artistic ambition, and he read omnivorously, absorbing a large quantity of literary culture from Greek classics to James Joyce. It was an atmosphere that fostered a desire become a “serious” novelist. His earliest attempt at writing novels produced mainstream character studies, unpublished works hinting at the fervid imagination that was to mature into his life’s work.
It was with the sale of several short stories to Anthony Boucher, the editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that Philip K. Dick exploded into his science fiction self, publishing over 70 short stories between 1952 and 1955. Perhaps more than any other style of literature, science fiction seemed the perfect vehicle to express Dick’s interior life, its stories of parallel universes and shifting realities giving form to his anxiety attacks and his strange, telescopic sensations of being “removed from the world.” Themes of disjointed reality and hallucination recur throughout his career, forming leitmotifs of paranoia, alienation and displacement. In Time Out Of Joint, a young man living in a small California town discovers that the world around him is an illusion, and that he is in actuality a subject in a military experiment. The main characters of Ubik learn that they have died in an accident, and that the reality they inhabit is disintegrating with the dispersal of their life-forces. In the companion novels Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS, the main characters have reason to believe that their everyday reality (Berkeley in the 1970s) is actually the Ancient Roman Empire during the persecution of the early Christians. (As we shall see, Dick himself came to suspect this ostensibly insane notion about himself.) These themes are also evident in his masterwork, The Man In The High Castle, albeit in a somewhat inverted form. Set in a parallel “occupied America” where Germany and Japan have won World War II, the novel hints at some “alternative” reality where the Axis powers have been defeated by the Allies. This notion, while accepted by the characters as science fiction, nevertheless contains some pervasive sense of truth that profoundly affects their lives.
Dick’s early stories are concise and simple, written in the pulp style of 50’s science fiction, but they disclose a very complex political agenda and a reveal a visionary glimpse of the mature Philip K. Dick. One of the better examples is “The Defenders,” which Dick later expanded into his 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth. In the original story, mankind lives underground while machines fight over the cities of the earth. An accidental discovery leads to a human expedition tunneling to the surface. There they find that the robots they’ve dispatched to fight the wars have been living a peaceful existence, working to heal the ravaged planet while keeping humans underground to prevent further destruction. This story is flavored with the concern for nuclear holocaust that haunted much post-war literature, but it also reveals a very strange vision of technology. In traditional 50’s sci-fi, robots are usually void of human emotions, and therefore more prone to warfare and genocidal mentality. But Dick’s robots are stewards of the earth, distrusting the irrational human nature that created the war in the first place. Additionally, while much genre fiction traditionally delineates clearly between the good guys and bad guys, between heroes and villains, here the hero/villian dichotomy is deconstructed, casting a rather pessimistic light on human nature: the American expedition that reaches the surface meets a similar Russian expedition, and the robots are forced to halt both sides from continuing their psychotic mutual destruction. “The Defenders” also contains an early appearance of the Dickian trope of belief in a false reality: the underground humans are fed false television broadcasts of nuclear war, created by the robots to discourage them from returning to the surface.
With only a dozen published stories to his credit, Dick signed up with the Scott Meredith Agency and began to write for a living. His rise was so sudden that he had a short story collection in print even before his first novel, a highly unusual move for the publishing industry. Upon becoming an “established” writer, Dick renewed his attempt to write mainstream fiction; but failing to find a buyer, he turned to full-length science fiction in the hopes of earning more than $25 per story. With the support of Ace Books editor Donald A. Wollheim, Dick finally began to publish novels. But his ambivalence towards the sci-fi genre distanced him from his accomplishments. When Solar Lottery appeared in 1955, he seemed depressingly removed from it, embarrassed that his first published novel was an Ace Paperback original, and sci-fi on top of that. This sense of detachment continued over the next few novels, and he rarely admitted to new friends at the time that he wrote works of “genre” fiction. Dick often referred to himself as a fantasy writer in the vein of Kurt Vonnegut, who during this decade wrote Player Piano and Sirens of Titan; both “science fiction” in spirit, but obviously concerned with universal subjects.
With a few science fiction novels under his belt, most noticeably The World Jones Made (p. 1956) and Eye In The Sky (p. 1957), Dick devoted the next few years to another stab at mainstream fiction, finishing almost ten novels by 1960. With the exception of Confessions of a Crap Artist, which wasn’t published until 1975, none of these novels went to print in his lifetime. The best of this period were Mary and the Giant, The Broken Bubble of Thisbe Holt and Puttering About In A Small Land. They are in many ways superior to his early science fiction output. Often drawing from Dick’s personal experiences, they portray tragic relationships and failed marriages amidst the backdrop of 50’s California, and are populated by numerous record store employees, radio dejays, and confused Berkeley youths. Upon their publication several decades later, they appeared as time machines, sweeping the reader back to a lost time and place, the world of the young Philip K. Dick. They are tender, emotionally complex and very human works.
After this final failure to establish himself as a mainstream novelist, Dick returned to science fiction once and for all with Time Out Of Joint (p. 1959). But his style had changed, profoundly influenced by what he’d learned writing novels about a lost California. While the subject of the book – a man discovers that he is part of a military experiment, and that the town he lives in is an hallucination – is nominally science fiction, his vivid portrayal of a Southern Californian community and his superbly drawn characters point to a deeper literary accomplishment. Though the book was initially publicized as “a novel of menace,” it was soon reprinted as an Ace paperback with a garish sci-fi cover sporting astronauts and hurtling moon rocks. Alas, the author had fallen back into the gravitational orbit of his native genre.

ARRIVAL

Dick’s writing had been steadily maturing throughout the 1950s, and in 1962 he published what many critics consider to be his most important work, The Man In The High Castle. The strong appeal of this novel lay not just in its irresistible “alternate WWII” milieu, but in the vividly drawn characters, politically sophisticated themes and authoritative knowledge of German culture and Japanese ethics. Musings about the nature of good and evil in a politically and culturally corrupt world threatened by nuclear destruction, and the realistic portrait of foreign occupation and its effect on American culture, make The Man In The High Castle one of Dick’s most stimulating, thought-provoking and complex works. At the center of the story lies a fictional novel, a banned book bearing the mysterious title The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Outlawed by the fascist governments, the book describes a world in which the Allied powers were victorious, and is authored by a reclusive figure situated in the last free areas of the former United States (and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Philip K. Dick himself.) The search for this author drives much of the plot, and hints at some mystical revelation that propels the novel into metafiction and places the book firmly in the postmodern tradition of self-reflectivity and indeterminacy. Unlike other science fiction tales that use an alternate Axis-dominated reality as a background for various “what-if?” plots, Dick’s occupied American serves as a mirror for our own conceptions about morality, power, and sense of identity. Narrative itself is questioned, with history, fiction and perception emerging as unstable yet related elements.
The Man In The High Castle earned Philip K. Dick the coveted Hugo Award, the highest honor within the science fiction community. It was just the shot of adrenaline he needed, and in the following three years he wrote over a dozen novels in a burst of creative energy. Although during this period he certainly penned a few underachieved pot-boilers that merely rehashed old themes, none of them lacked that unique Dickian voice, nor the strange religious and philosophical musings on the nature of reality and the consensual illusions bolstered by established powers.
During this period, Dick suffered a painful falling out with his second wife, Anne, who was hospitalized and treated for mental illness. He poured a lot of this angst into the bizarrely comic tale Clans of the Alphane Moon (p. 1964), the novel featuring the aforementioned Ganymedean slime mold, Lord Running Clam. Although the story is apparently about a war between Earth and lunar colonists, the subtext of the work is not hard to read, and is saturated by his ill-fated marriage, Anne’s mental decline, and doubts about his own sanity. (The lunar colonists are tribes descended from mental patients, with each tribe representing a particular form of mental illness such as paranoia, schizophrenia, etc.) It is perhaps Dick’s most wacked-out plot, and the obvious transformation of personal events into a science fiction conceit is bitterly hysterical; one can just hear the author howling with laughter and crying with rage as he turns his own messed-up marriage into a comic-book space adventure.
Not all was rehashed plots and personal exorcisms served up as outlandish sci-fi thrillers. It was during this time that Dick also wrote two of his middle-period masterpieces: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (p. 1965) and Ubik (p. 1969). Two novels heavily inspired by the growing drug culture, part of their genesis sprang from Dick’s own pharmaceutical experiments beyond his usual fondness for amphetamines. In Palmer Eldritch, povertized Martian colonists become preoccupied with Perky Pat Layouts, small sets representing penthouse apartments inhabited by a Barbie-Doll like figure and her Ken-like mate. When combined with the use of an hallucinogenic drug called Can-D, these sets can give the colonists – who live in miserable hovels – the illusion that not only that they are living in Perky Pat’s luxurious apartment, but actually inhabiting her perfect body as well. A crisis is sparked when Palmer Eldritch, a missing space adventurer, is rumored to be returning to earth after being stranded on Pluto. His new hallucinogenic drug, Chew-Z, takes the form of a mystical revelation, and threatens to wipe Can-D off the market. A psychic war erupts that amounts to no less than a battle for human consciousness between Palmer Eldritch and the manufacturers of Can-D.
The novel is complex and suitably zany, leading the reader through a maze of psychic marketing men, talking suitcases that act as therapists, psychedelic Barbie dolls possessed with the ability to invade consciousness, imaginary drugs that change reality and identity, and communal hallucinations where multiple people merge into one. At the time Dick wrote this novel, he was becoming increasingly obsessed with Gnosticism, an involuted subject that would eventually dominate his life. Basically stated, Gnosticism teaches that our world exists as an illusion, and contends that it was created by a lesser deity known as the Demiurge. Various Gnostic sects differed in their belief about the nature of this Demiurge – at best it was seen as God on a lower level of consciousness; at worst it was seen as a Satanic force meant to deceive and enslave the human spirit. Dick’s Gnosticism was characterized by a fundamental split between the mundane world and the spiritual world, where the course of one’s life was an obsessional desire to bridge the gap between the two. In Palmer Eldritch, he created a strange, surreal comical vision of Gnostic beliefs with all the trappings of science fiction.
Likewise in Ubik. In this comic novel, a group of people witness their employer, Leo Runciter, get killed in an accident, and subsequently believe that he is communicating to them from beyond the grave. Soon, they are shocked to realize that it was they who have actually died, and Runciter is attempting to prolong their ties to the real world through the use of a drug called Ubik. As in many of Dick’s novels, there is a mystical dimension even to the wildest science fiction conceit. In this case, the moratorium where the newly departed are kept in order to prolong their after-death existence is inspired by the Bardo Thodol of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an ancient Buddhist text describing the journey of the soul from the deceased physical body to the next incarnation. As Runciter guides his dead employees through a weird landscape that seems to be moving backwards in time, their life-forces gradually begin to diminish. Only Runciter’s mystical Ubik, which he introduces into their hallucinations in the form of spray-paint and snake-oil unctions, can keep their minds and souls from completely dissipating into the void.
Dick modeled the core ideas of several of his books from sources as arcane as the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Nag Hammadi collection of Gnostic texts. But rather than merely mining such texts for superficial structures or plot devices, Dick engages in a dialogue with their ideas, and seeks to apply other systems of insight to very modern situations and anxieties. This tireless questioning and sense of spiritual struggle elevates many of his novels above their comic-book plots and traditional science fiction tropes. Like Kurt Vonnegut, whose Slaughterhouse Five combined space aliens, time travel, and autobiography to support reflections upon the spiritual condition of the human race, Dick’s best novels escape the trappings of genre and stand firmly in the wider field of modern literature. Dick’s own contribution back to the science fiction genre was an unrelenting analysis of the question “What is Real?” Also central to his literature was the equally important question of “What Is Human?” From his early short stories to his final masterpieces, he asks these questions over and over again, often coming up with answers as deceptively simple as “What makes us human is our ability to feel empathy for other living creatures.”
This concept is best explored in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (p. 1968), which thanks to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, has become Dick’s most widely read novel. Here, the android replicants are distinguishable from other humans only through the Voigt-Kampff scale, an empathy test which poses questions largely concerning the suffering of animals. When Rick Deckard, a professional android hunter, fails to feel any empathy for the artificial humans that he tracks and kills, doubts are raised about his own humanity. Androids also includes the religious movement Mercerism (sadly left out of the film), a Gnostic-flavored cult that also appears in Dick’s short stories. Mercerism combines doubts about reality (Wilbur Mercer, whose presence is experienced in trance-like states by his followers, is rumored to be an actor in a television studio) with a subversive force, much like Palmer Eldritch, the VALIS system, and the verboten novelist of The Man In The High Castle. The novel raises questions about identity, memory, and morality; questions that are not easily dispatched and remain haunting the reader long after the book is finished.
From High Castle to Electric Sheep, the 1960s saw the arrival of Philip K. Dick as one of the few American science fiction writers who was truly grappling with the concerns and anxieties of modernity itself.

TRANSMIGRATION

The early 1970s were a traumatic period for Dick, with all the personal problems of the sixties further complicated by his growing status as a cult figure. His third wife had left him, and his Northern California home had become a crash pad and commune for junkies and runaways. His fragile sanity fared no better than his relationships, and he became buried in his own paranoia, hiring hit men to protect his drug-addicted friends and becoming convinced that the FBI was watching his every move. He began experimenting with a variety of pills, and continued pursuing a string of relationships with neurotic or broken young women, many of whom he seemed to identify with his dead sister. Eventually, there was a break-in at his home. His filing cabinet was forced open and many papers, including all his tax records and cancelled checks, were stolen.
Rumors that Dick himself orchestrated the break-in are legendary, spurred by the basic plot situation of his brilliant novel A Scanner Darkly (p. 1977). In this convoluted work, a schizophrenic police agent goes deep under cover as a dealer of a new and powerful hallucinogen, developing an addiction to the drug along the way. So successful is he at forging a secret identity, he eventually lands the assignment to begin investigating himself. The resulting story is a nightmare journey through a world of fractured identities and paranoia; made more sharply poignant by Dick’s closing dedication to fifteen friends lost as drug addicts and acid casualties.
Whether or not Dick himself was both victim and perpetrator of the break-in, his mental state was becoming increasingly more unstable. Planning to attend an international sci-fi convention, he fled to Canada where he tried to fraternize with the science-fiction community, but he couldn’t escape his problems. After a suicide attempt, he was admitted to a drug rehabilitation center.
Philip K. Dick had hit bottom.

But in an instance that could have come from his own fiction – and indeed, would eventually dominate it – a very strange series of events would soon immeasurably reshape his life, becoming the idée fixe of his last decade and giving birth to his best and most mature work.
In the early months of 1974 Dick experienced hallucinations, dreams, synchronicities and Gnostic visions that he collectively referred to as “2-3-74,” shorthand for “February/March 1974.” Dick would spend the rest of his life attempting to unravel the meaning of these events in a thousand-page handwritten manuscript he came to call the Exegesis. Even when his fictional output slowed, he continued to work on the Exegesis every night, analyzing, interpreting and sorting through 2-3-74 as well as his published novels and short stories. Besides its function as mystical exegesis, it also served as a daily diary, a prolonged self-analysis, and a dream journal. Very rarely in the history of literature do we have such an open window into the mind of a writer, penetrating his deepest spiritual and psychological space.
Dick came to believe that an alien intelligence/technology (that could quite possibly also be God) was communicating to him through an interface he called the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, or VALIS. This system took the form of a ship in outer space, delivering highly concentrated doses of information to him through beams of pink light. Dick himself described it as an “invasion” of his consciousness “by a transcendentally rational mind.” He also came to believe that coexisting within himself was a “plasmate.” Dick believed that his plasmate was an early Christian, who, though very much alive in the First Century, was simultaneously interpenetrated into Dick’s body and mind-space. Like many of the protagonists from his own novels, Dick believed in the possibility that he was hallucinating his current life, and was really living in another place and time, in this case the Roman Empire. (This is the origin of the haunted phrase frequently found in his later writing: “The Empire Never Ended.”) He also experienced a series of voices that fed him information, telling him things that he couldn’t possibly know otherwise, including a just-in-time medical diagnosis of his new-born son – whose life was saved by an emergency hernia operation.
Dick was well aware of how insane this all sounded, and he wrote endlessly in his Exegesis about different explanations, and why he finally came to believe in the veracity of his spiritual experiences. One “proof” of his sanity was his claim that crazy people don’t doubt their own sanity. Those who knew him at the time, living in Santa Ana in a modest apartment, considered him eccentric, disheveled, personally unhygienic, intense, gentle, arrogant, emotionally hair-triggered and religiously bizarre, but quite possibly the most brilliant person they knew, and certainly not a delusional schizophrenic. Despite his numerous psychological problems, his friends considered him to be quite “sane.”
Four astonishing novels came out of the whole experience. Radio Free Albemuth was his first attempt to grapple with VALIS through fiction. In the novel, Dick bestows his own 2-3-74 experience onto a Berkeley record store employee named Nicholas Brady. After being exposed to the pink beams of compressed information, Brady turns to his friend for advice and help, a science-fiction novelist named Philip K. Dick. Following clues passed to them by VALIS, the two begin to unravel a conspiracy hatched by a politician named Ferris Freemont, a thinly veiled Richard Nixon. In an attempt to oppose the police state Freemont wishes to impose upon the country, Brady and Dick encode secret messages into the lyrics of pop songs. The novel is colored by the manic and paranoid political atmosphere of California during the Nixon years, and in many ways serves as an elaborate counter-culture response to Watergate. Filled with mystical interpretations of rock music, schizophrenic delusions of alien technology, and biting political satire, Radio Free Albemuth is Dick’s most daring work, and one of his most autobiographical. However, when his publisher returned it with suggestions for a rewrite, Dick made the odd decision to scrap it completely and start over again.
VALIS (1980) was the result, a complete reworking of his 2-3-74 experience. The protagonist who now undergoes Gnostic illumination is Horselover Fat, a schizophrenic twin of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. (Philip being Greek for “Horselover;” and Dick being German for “fat,” or “thick.”) The basic themes of Albemuth are intact, but the mood is less playful, more solemnly immersed in Gnostic considerations and theological debate. Although less easily mapped onto his exact 2-3-74 experiences than Albemuth, VALIS is also sharply autobiographical, incorporating Dick’s experiences in mental clinics, his suicide attempts, and the most personal aspects of his spiritual life.
His fiction was drifting more into the labyrinth of Christian Gnosticism, and with The Divine Invasion (1981), he attempted to drive the ideas back into the sheath of science fiction, but with a more refined vision and literary mastery than ever before. In this book, God causes himself to be reborn into the womb of a female astronaut; but trying to smuggle her child back to a hostile earth, she is killed. Mentally damaged from the accident, the young boy has to struggle to remember that he is God, and has been exiled from earth for two thousand years. By befriending a little girl, he manages to restore the spiritual balance of the earth – the girl is non other than the Greek goddess Diana, and not surprisingly, his spiritual twin. Despite the presence of such divine principals, the protagonist of the book is really one Herb Archer, a comfortably Dickian character with passionate obsessions for Mahler and Finnegans Wake. His spiritual growth and reflections form the heart of the work, one of Dick’s most hopeful.
Dick’s final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (p. 1982), is a thinly veiled account of the last years of Episcopalian Bishop James Pike. A personal friend of Dick’s, Bishop Pike became briefly famous in the 60’s when he claimed to be in psychic contact with his dead son. On a personal voyage to the roots of his own changing faith, the Bishop perished during an ill-prepared hiking expedition in the deserts of the Dead Sea. The novel gave Dick the chance to reflect upon the pain, sadness and religious pleasure of death, perhaps as a form of therapy after a decade of watching several close friends die.
“I am terribly frightened of death,” he writes in this, his final book. “Death has destroyed me. It is not Sri Khrisna, destroyer of all people; it is death, destroyer of my friends. It singled them out and left everyone else undisturbed.”
Shortly after writing these lines, Philip K. Dick died of complications brought about by a series of strokes in 1982. He never lived to see the completion of Blade Runner, the first Hollywood movie based on one of his novels. The romantic legend attached to his death is that it was brought about as a logical ending to his spiritual quest, just as Jim Pike, his friend, died in the desert searching for the origins of Christianity. It is more likely that his death was the logical ending to his years of physical and emotional self-abuse.

LEGACY: LITERATURE, FILM and MUSIC

Philip K. Dick started as a pulp science fiction writer with aspirations to serious mainstream novels. What he eventually achieved was a unified body of work in which all the genres that he mastered merged into a literary portrait of the spiritual life of its author. Despite the tragedy of his phobias, depressions, addictions, failed marriages and early death, he managed to create a consistent and visionary legacy that has carried his name and his work into the new century.
The influence of Philip K. Dick on contemporary culture is widespread. On the most obvious level, there are countless projects drawing direct inspiration from his works. While the most famous of these is undoubtedly Ridley Scott’s seminal film Blade Runner, there’s also the Philip K. Dick award for science fiction, Tod Machover’s electronic opera VALIS, and numerous fictional homages set in “Dickian” worlds, such as Michael Bishop’s Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas or David Bischoff’s Philip K. Dick High. But on a more profound level, Philip K. Dick’s writing has virtually inscribed its own literary niche, a combination of stylistic tropes and recurring themes occupying the space between genre science fiction and the postmodern literature of the “technological sublime.” Like Kafka, Borges, or Pynchon, Philip K. Dick is an author whose name has come to describe a subtle but pervasive set of literary notions. Where once Dick was dubbed a “homegrown Borges,” now Haruki Murakami (Wind Up Bird Chronicle) is labeled a “Japanese Philip K. Dick with a sense of humor” (Newsday), and Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music is called “a high-octane blend of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick” (Boston Review).
Murakami and Lethem are just two of a new generation of non-traditional science fiction writers to have drawn inspiration from Dick’s use of simulated realities, his probing explorations of identity and memory, and his questions on the ethical use and moral implications of technology. As progress in computer power and artificial intelligence advances at an exponential rate, we have become more concerned with manufactured realities and their relationship to human consciousness. The entire “cyberpunk” movement and its many offshoots also owe Dick a debt, with writers like William Gibson (Neuromancer) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) exploring these themes with increasing levels of complexity.
Dick’s ideas have taken root outside of literature as well, and in one case have produced a film every bit as influential as the work of Dick himself. While Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner departs significantly from the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it is widely considered a masterpiece in its own right, and has endured over the decades as a critically acclaimed watershed in science fiction cinema. (The fact that it’s developed a fanatical cult following no doubt helps its longevity.) Copied by countless other science fiction movies, Blade Runner’s “future noir” look and feel, use of ethereal music, and stunning inner-city set design have come to serve as virtual templates for the cinematic depiction of earth’s dystopian future.
Another popular film based on Dick’s work is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, based on the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although Total Recall shares more in common with the big-gun genre perfected by the Austrian body builder turned actor, its anxious universe of rampant paranoia, treacherous relationships, and confused identities is pure, unadulterated Philip K. Dick.
Most recently, Steven Spielberg has given us Minority Report, based on the Dick story of the same name. Although its focus on film-noir plot conventions and (admittedly very impressive) action sequences removes it from the more cerebral realm of the original story, it is still a remarkable achievement. Set in a seemingly benign police state where one’s identity is constantly tracked, Spielberg’s vision of the future is both beautiful and terrifying, painted in saturated colors and as breathlessly modern as Blade Runner is run-down and seedy. Still, one immediately recognizes the Dickian hallmarks of paranoia and mistrust; and in some ways, Spielberg’s more subtle and insidious depictions of a police state – where submissive citizens are scanned by robot spiders and the invasive barrage of advertising is relentlessly personalized – sits even more uneasily than the corporate hegemonies of Blade Runner or the overt fascism of Total Recall. While selecting Tom Cruise as the lead continues the trend of casting action heroes as Dickian protagonists, Cruise is still a recognizable Dickian character, directing his computer to the sound of Schubert and developing an addiction of a sensory enhancing drug called Clarity. Still, despite its many achievements, Minority Report fails to register on the same depth as the more poetic Blade Runner. By skirting some of the more heady issues raised by its own plot, Minority Report never transcends its genre, and the Spielbergian optimism of its conclusion strikes a false note.
A few of the more minor films that have been based on Philip K. Dick’s work include Screamers with Peter Weller, and the somewhat limp but watchable Imposter. More significant are the spate of films that markedly incorporate Dickian themes, if not drawing direct inspiration from his actual stories – The Matrix being the most important, with its artificially created reality and ultra-hip characters a natural evolution of Philip K. Dick through William Gibson. In a similar vein we find the criminally underrated film-noir fantasy Dark City, the truly awful The Thirteenth Floor, David Cronenberg’s delicious brain-twister eXistenZ, and Vanilla Sky, which approaches the level of a shameless Dick rip-off. In The Waking Life, Richard Linklater’s rambling, animated conversation about metaphysics, Philip K. Dick is invoked at length to provide context for a disintigrating sense of reality. But perhaps the most Dickian of all is Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey stars as Truman, a man who gradually discovers that his entire world is a massive set, filled with actors, scheduled events, and fake weather. The fact that Dick’s Time Out of Joint was not mentioned in the film’s credits seems to border on plagiarism, no matter how well-made and entertaining the movie!
One of the most popular television shows of 1990s has also drawn inspiration from his books. The X-Files has matched Dick’s brilliance in portraying political paranoia, extraterrestrial conspiracies, and hallucinated realities created by drugs and mind control. Agent Fox Mulder of the FBI has even been obsessed with finding his sister, who disappeared decades before in a possible alien abduction. The loss of the sister is what explains Mulder’s fanatical obsessions and single-minded drive to uncover the shifting realities in which he is entangled. The spirit of more than a few episodes can be mapped to a Dick novel or short story.

CONCLUSION

On a spiritual level, Dick’s novels are just as relevant today as they were when they were published. They portray the singular individual attempting to peel back layers of consciousness to catch glimpses and arrive at some understanding of the transpersonal nature of humanity. When confronted by the dehumanization that occurs through a dependency on machines and in the face of disintegrating realities, Dick’s characters often turn to religious thought, primarily Gnostic, to navigate their way through the treacherous oceans of self. This is how Dick himself lived his life, as witnessed by his huge Exegesis, in which he meticulously psychoanalyzed himself, his novels and his dreams, and tried to interpret the fragments of reality presented to him by VALIS as they threaded their way through his haunted life.
In his book The Age Of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurtzweil has exposed a possible future that is both shocking as well as exhilarating, and bears an uneasy resemblance to the world of Dick’s novels. According to Kurtzweil, our own machines are forcing us deeper into the problem of defining what makes us human. We will need to redefine our humanity, defend our challenged spirituality, and try to reshape our moral centers as human beings to grapple with our subservience to the digital life forms that we ourselves create to serve us. In a future world of quantum computing, human minds mirrored in computer memory, machines writing poetry, and digital chips with the raw power of a billion human brains, we may all be faced with the moral dilemmas of Rick Deckard, anti-hero of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
The life work of Philip K. Dick may take on more philosophical and artistic importance as we enter this new world of cybernetics and artificial intelligence. His ultimate answer of “empathy” to the question of what makes us human sounds less like a sci-fi plot device, and more like a well-considered lifeline as we explore the uncharted space of our evolving technologies. In all ways, the writing of Philip K. Dick stands among the most visionary and creative bodies of work in post-war fiction.

–Richard Behrens
& Allen B. Ruch
28 March 2003

Credits

Richard Behrens is a staff writer and assistant editor for The Modern Word. He is a native New Yorker whose fiction, poetry and film criticism has appeared in Parabola, Blue Light Red Light, Forbidden Lines, Chakra and Bogus Review. He has also been published in such on-line publications as InterText, Planet Magazine, Dark Planet, Aphelion and Road of Shadows. Richard lives in denial in New Jersey with his three cats Leopold, Stephen and Molly and his impossibly large book collection which keeps following him wherever he goes.

Allen B. Ruch is Editorial Director for The Modern Word. While Richard considers him his own personal Ape of Thoth, ready to be cast off like offal now that the work is done, Allen wishes to remind Richard that his Pink Beam Generator is nearly completed, and nothing is stopping him from downloading the complete Nancy Drew library into Richard’s mind at any time. Allen is author and editor of numerous Libyrinth sites.