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Philip K. Dick

Profiled by Galen Strickland

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) - born in Chicago, but a resident of California for most of his life. One of the most unique writers in the genre, the majority of his work can best be described as psychological and metaphysical, with the predominate themes of paranoia and the questioning of reality. He is perhaps the perfect example that there is sometimes a very thin line between genius and insanity. It can easily be argued that his troubled psyche was the main impetus behind his fiction, as a form of therapy to analyze the conflicting and puzzling images that tortured his brain.

NOTE: This is one of the earliest articles posted on the site, so some of the links for books may be out of date, plus there have been a few other posthumous works published since then and a couple of more films adapted from his work, but any updates will have to wait for now.

Never a great stylist, he still can be considered one of the most humanistic of SF writers, more closely identifying himself with the common man and his social plight that he ever did with science and its practitioners. Unlike hard-SF writers such as Clarke, Asimov, or Clement, PKD was more concerned with how people are effected by whatever circumstances form the framework of his stories. Several events in his own life were perhaps responsible for these preoccupations: born in a set of twins, his sibling died within six weeks; his parents divorced when he was six, and he and his mother moved to California and he had little contact with his father afterwards; throughout most of his adult life he suffered through many bouts of depression, being variously diagnosed as schizophrenic and megalomaniacal, and attempted suicide on more than one occassion; he became addicted to various drugs, mostly through prescriptions, primarily methedrine and methamphetamines; he was married and divorced five times; and lastly, in the latter part of his life he devoted a great deal of time and energy in attempts to analyze messianic visions he claims to have witnessed.

He attended the University of California at Berkeley for only one year, managed a record store and also hosted a radio program devoted to classical music. He began writing in the early '50s, with his first sale being "Beyond Lies the Wub" in 1952. In spite of all of his emotional problems he was extremely prolific for long periods of time, with only occasional bouts of writer's block. His first published novel, Solar Lottery, came in 1955, although a couple of others printed later were actually written earlier. The Cosmic Puppets (1957) was an expansion of the short story "A Glass of Darkness," and was written in '53 or '54. Likewise, Dr. Futurity (1959), was based on the 1954 story "Time Pawn." Solar Lottery was just the first in a long line of books which featured preoccupations with self-styled messiahs, and it predated by approximately twenty years Dick's own purported messianic visions. Even though he began his career in the genre magazines, he also attempted to enter the mainstream fiction market with several early novels. This effort was totally unsuccessful, with only one of these novels, Confessions of a Crap Artist, seeing print during his lifetime, although that came more than fifteen years after it was written. The others did not emerge until after his death; Mary and the Giant (written in 1953, published in 1987), The Broken Bubble (1956/1988), Puttering About in a Small Land (1957/1985), In Milton Lumky Territory (1958/1985), The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1960/1984), and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (1960/1986).

In spite of this seeming failure, Dick continued his assault on the SF markets, producing many short stories, all of which would later be collected in five volumes which suffer from the confusion of several variant titles. Here is a list of those collections, citing their title as of the current editions, but with notes concerning other editions which you might be able to find either in used bookstores or through an online bookseller:

1. The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford (originally printed as "Beyond Lies the Wub")
2. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (original edition did not have that title story, but rather had another and was titled "Second Variety")
3. Second Variety (original edition did not have that title story and was called "The Father Thing")
4. The Minority Report (originally "The Days of Perky Pat")
5. The Eye of the Sybyl (various editions have been titled "The Little Black Box" and in the U.K., with the addition of one story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale")

In the late '50s and throughout the '60s he produced the bulk of his best novels. The World Jones Made (1956) and Vulcan's Hammer (1960) continued his fascination with messiahs. Time Out of Joint (1959) was the first major novel in which he began to explore the question of which reality was the most important, that of the mind or that of the material world. In it a man is confined to an artificial pocket-universe, created by a society at war in order to manipulate his precognitive abilities in an attempt to solve their dilemmas. In content, but certainly not in style, it can be seen as a possible influence on Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.

Dick's most famous and widely-read novel came in 1962, and it won him the coveted Hugo Award. The Man in the High Castle (full review) is one of the best examples of the alternate history sub-genre, as it portrays an America at the mercy of the Axis powers who were the victors of World War 2. The main part of the action takes place in Japanese-occupied California, and revolves around the discovery (utilizing the I Ching) of the possibility that the true reality is one in which the Allies won the war. The title character is a novelist, more than likely an embodiment of Dick himself, who has written a book revealing the supposed true nature of that reality. This questioning of reality, and the possibility of multiple realities continued in Dick's work throughout the '60s. Martian Time-Slip (1964) explored the realms of schizophrenia and the prospect of time travel through a transcendental mental state. Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), while not specifically dealing with alternate realities, did focus on the different characters' shifting perceptions of each other and the future in which they have found themselves. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), which is my own personal favorite of his novels, Martian colonists cope with the dreariness and monontony of their lives through the use of hallucinagenic drugs, which enable them to mutually inhabit surrogate personalities. Ubik, from 1969, concerns a group of people killed in an accident, but whose personalities have been preserved in a machine, the purpose and final result of which is never made quite clear.

In 1968, Dick produced a novel for which he his perhaps best known by the general public, even though many may only know it by the title of the film derived from it. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was later adapted into the film Blade Runner, which is regarded by many, myself included, as one of the best examples of SF ever filmed. This time the questioning of reality is in regards to what constitutes being human. In a near future devastated by war, and on an Earth deprived of its brightest intellects due to off-world migrations, the remnants of humanity cling to a fragile hope of nature's renewal by cherishing the last remaining animal species. A person's social status is determined by whether they are able to afford a real animal as a pet, or if they have to settle for a mechanical simulacra. The book's protagonist is a bounty hunter, whose duty it is to track down and eliminate rogue androids which have been created for hazardous off-world occupations. This novel is one of the best examples of the fact that Dick was a brilliant idea man, but a somewhat awkward literary stylist. Many of the ideas presented could keep scores of other writers busy for decades exploring their various permutations, but for the most part it reads as a very amateurish and derivative effort. Another novel from this period, A Maze of Death (1969), is cited by Brian Stableford (in the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) as having been described as being his single finest work. He does not say who has thus described it, and unfortunately I have not read it to either confirm or deny that contention.

During this same period, Dick also produced quite a few other less than successful books, both in terms of critical and readers' response. If it had not been for the ones previously mentioned, he could have been dismissed as an untalented hack. Weak and derivative plots suffused We Can Build You, Now Wait For Last Year, Clans of the Alphane Moon, and The Zap Gun, among others. I have not read all of his work by any means, but I seem to have a different opinion of some of them than others. Even such critically praised work as Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, is one of the most awkwardly written books I have ever experienced. Don't get me wrong, I still think PKD is one of the major figures of SF, easily ranking in the Top 10 of significant writers, but that is solely based on some of the ideas he presented, not in the way he presented them. For writers who dealt with the same types of plot devices, but with more successful results, I would recommend Norman Spinrad, John Sladek, or Thomas Disch. I must point out, however, that I think he was much more successful with his shorter works than his novels. One novel of this period which I can heartily recommend is A Scanner Darkly (1977). Whereas before PKD had presented positive views of drugs that enabled transcendental mental states, this novel dealt mainly with the negative aspects of the drug culture, and verged on fantasy with its vivid scenes of paranoid hallucinations.

Then late in his career, Dick really went off the deep end, concentrating almost all of his time and literary effort in the explorations of religious revelations he claims to have experienced. Even though Valis (1981) is one of his better literary efforts, it is not one I would recommend to the average reader. It did not appeal to me, and I have yet to read his follow-ups, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. All three were later collected as The Valis Trilogy. One of these days I may return to them, since they might go a long way in explaining this complex and disturbed writer. Regardless of my less than high opinion of some of his work, it is evident that PKD is still a very influential writer in the field. Since most all of his novels were originally printed in paperback editions, the Philip K. Dick Award was established - at the urging of Thomas Disch - to honor the best novel of the year published as an original paperback. And Michael Bishop has honored at least a fictionalized PKD in his novel Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas (which has also been published under the title "The Secret Ascension"). A biography by Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, should also interest most PKD fans.

Hollywood has continued to express an interest in his work as well, with at least three other films adapted from his stories and another in production as of this writing so far. Total Recall, which I liked at first but lost interest in as time went by, was loosely based on the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," and Screamers was taken from another short, "Second Variety." Last year PKD was brought back to the forefront of the world's attention with Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, based on the story of the same name, and starring Tom Cruise. This year it is John Woo directing Ben Affleck in Paycheck. Also, a recent documentary has received several glowing reviews. The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick has had a very limited theatrical release, but is now available on video.

In summation, Philip K. Dick is among the most thought-provoking writers in genre history, one whose influence is probably as great today as when he was at the peak of his craft. It is my opinion that he is the primary example of why the SFWA should revise their rules and allow a posthumous presentation of the Grand Master award. Only five other writers had received that award prior to Dick's death, and without naming names, I think at least three of them were less deserving of the honor than him. Viewed solely on their literary merits, most of his novels would not compare well to some of my other favorites, but for the volume of ideas he invoked he will long be in the top echelon of authors, SF or otherwise. At times his work was the most terrifying, at others the most humorous, but always human and vulnerable.


"What makes his work so enduring is the
universality of his writing, his ability to touch
the humanity in his readers, by showing them
that they, too...can muddle through, can be
all right, even though life seems terribly difficult
and at times dark with terrors imaginable or quite real."

[James Frenkel, from his afterword to Dr. Bloodmoney]

 

Related Links:
My review of The Man in the High Castle
philipkdick.com
A study guide to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/Blade Runner
Two excellent, in-depth essays on Dick's work at:
webcom.com and themodernworld.com
Dick's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com
Wikipedia

 

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Born
December 16, 1928
Chicago, Illinois

Died
March 2, 1982

Official Website

Awards
1 Hugo
BSFA
John W. Campbell Memorial