I've been far too busy to keep this thing up, so in the way of a "Greatest Hits" album to buy some time, here is a reproduction of an old article I wrote for "The Guardian" back in the mid 90s. As a dyed-in-the-wool Dick Head it was fantastic to actually talk to Dick's agent. I also had the opportunity to chat to Brit SF legend and renowned Dick fan Brian Aldiss and Fay Weldon, author of "Life and Loves of a She Devil" amongst many others. Weldon in particular was great. After about an hour of interview (over the phone) she said she had to go but she'd ring me back. Now clearly, I thought she was just making her excuses. But no, an hour later she did ring me back. I'll always remember my Dad answering the phone and saying, "Who? Oh. It's for you." "Well, who is it?" "Fay?" "Fay. I don't know any.... oh great.....", and just knowing that my cover as a freelance journalist for a national paper had been blown and I was exposed as a stoner who had just moved back to his folks'. Ah well, she carried on regardless (in some ways we just chatted about our mutual love of PKD's work - it was hardly a professional interview) and she even agreed to look at some of the early "Ugly Stories" (which she, ahem, loved of course)...
Anyway, here it is. Can't remember what the spur for it was now. Could have been a new PKD film adaptation. Anyway, enjoy:
"It's a sad fact of life that as far as the arts are concerned, success and fame is often accorded to the artist posthumously, the said artist usually dying in poverty unaware of his or her later status and influence.
And so it was with Philip .K. Dick, SF writer, counter-cultural figurehead, Intimate of God, and, according to Timothy Leary "a fictional philosopher of the Quantum Age". Dick, whose work has been influential on all manner of artists from Terry Gilliam, Robert Crumb, REM, and Elvis Costello to William Gibson, Philippe Starck, and Fay Weldon (who called him "my literary hero"), emerged as a champion of the 60's counter-culture and the European Avant-Garde, many of whom were enamoured by his strange stories of drug-like reality displacements and distortions.
His best known creations are probably the films based upon his books, films in which his creative role was negligible to say the least. These include the highly influential "Bladerunner" (1982) and "Total Recall" (1990). Now, with the news that "Screamers" a big-budget science-fiction epic starring Peter Weller (of "Robocop" and "Naked Lunch" fame) is to be released it seems that Dick's media profile is set to rise, and attention will again be focussed on his forty novels and two hundred stories. Based on one of Dick's less-philosophical 1950's stories, "Second Variety", "Screamers" is about robotic weapons that learn to develop themselves into humanoid forms and then rebel against their human masters. However, while the original story was one of the first ecological horror stories that also examined one of Dick's most obsessive themes of "what is human?", the film appears to be a special effects blockbuster that is expoiting the current boom in science-fiction. But with the news that Bladerunner's director, Ridley Scott, is to direct "Bladerunner 2", and that Francis Ford Coppola is to direct a $30 million adaptation of Dick's 1965 classic "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch", one must ask why a writer who spent much of his life working within the much-derided literary ghetto of SF, is suddenly such a powerful creative force some fourteen years after his death.
Until the release of "Bladerunner", Dick was a well-respected writer within science-fiction circles, yet despite his prodigious output and many attempts at breaking into the literary mainstream, was virtually unknown outside it. "Bladerunner" was released only months after Dick's death in March 1982, and he never saw the film in its entirety, although he had seen some clips and was astounded by the similarity of the film's visuals to his own conception of the future.
Based loosely on his 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", "Bladerunner" was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Harrison Ford, Darryl Hannah, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer, and had a score by Oscar award-winning composer Vangelis. It was touted as the next "Star Wars" - the next mega-grossing SF film that all of the studios were praying for.
Unfortunately it wasn't.
Despite it's $25 million budget it barely broke even on its initial release, and the merchandising line based upon it was a complete flop. However, in the long-run it established itself as a cult-classic. When the usually poor-selling "Director's Cut" (unusual in that it was actually slightly shorter than the original film) was released on video, it topped the charts, as did the Original Soundtrack that was released some months later.
"Bladerunner" re-established Dick's literary reputation worldwide, and virtually single-handedly spawned the whole cyberpunk explosion of the 1980's in the process. "Godfather" of cyberpunk and inventor of cyberspace, William Gibson recently claimed that he saw "Bladerunner" (a term borrowed from William Burroughs) whilst halfway through writing his seminal novel "Neuromancer", and had to quickly leave before the end, his vision of the future splashed across the screen. Indeed, the impact of "Bladerunner" can't be underestimated. For many the visuals of the film are the future, spawning many imitators, from "Akira" and the Japanese Manga explosion (the film was particularly popular in Apocalypse-obsessed Japan), to the 'Warriors of the Wasteland' look and sound so beloved by musicians like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry et al.
Dick was unhappy with the screenplay for the film, however, thinking the dialogue and the handling of the characters were poor. Despite this, in the years following the film's release, Dick underwent something of a Renaissance, many people discovering his works (some 35 novels and 6 short-story collections), as well as his skewed sense of reality, through the film. In 1990, eight years after his death and with his reputation as a 'cult' author safely established, "Total Recall" was released. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, the film was a box office success, although (perhaps because) the elements of the original PKD story "We Can Remember It For You Wholeasale" were hidden or erased under piles of corpses and hours of gunfire; the remaining sliver of plot "Is this real, or a schizoid delusion?") being reduced to little more than an interesting side-issue. This typical Dickian obsession was rendered meaningless when the film itself wasn't interested in the answer. After all, who cares if reality is genuine or not - Arnie could still shoot it.
Hooray for Hollywood.
Nevertheless, Dick's reputation continued to grow, his lifetime's production of stories being collected together into a five-volume 900,000 word set, and with many of his earlier unpublished novels finally seeing the light of day. However, it is only recently that Dick has started to be seen in a different light, and he has started to rise from the SF ghetto to the point where his work is mentioned in the same breath as Burroughs, Pynchon, Pirandello, and Huxley, his novels, despite containing spaceships, ray-guns and other science fictional staples, now being regarded as rare examples of Twentieth Century Metaphysics. Indeed, many of Dick's works were so ahead of their time that it is only now, some thirty to forty years later, that they can be fully appreciated and understood.
Despite his massive output, Dick generally concerned himself with only a handful of themes, usually reworking solutions to the questions "What is real?", "How do I know that this is reality?", and "How do I know that you're human?". Indeed Dick was obsessed with the concept of authenticity, and frequently made use of such plot devices that only SF could provide him with in order to investigate the idea. His stories and novels are littered with talking automata and simulucra, Dick often making his "fake" humans more human than the actual flesh and blood protagonists. In "Bladerunner" for example, the lead character is a man who kills androids for a living, and yet he falls in love with an android by the end of the novel, discovering that it is nothing more than empathy that seperates man from machine. Similarly, in the stories "The Electric Ant" and "Imposter" both characters lead happy fulfilling lives until they discover that they themselves are machines, their previous lives being nothing more than false implanted memories. However, it is not only the authenticity of humans that Dick questions. As he himself said, "The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of "My boss is plotting against me", it would be "My boss's phone is plotting against me!", and believe it or not he did in fact write many stories using this premise - only Dick could seriously describe homicidal toasters and washing machines. One of his best stories on this theme is "Colony", where a group of colonists are attacked by fake alien objects disguised as towels, belts, and so on. Eventually the colonists climb aboard their rescue ship, only to realise too late that it too is a fake, and that they have wandered inside a malevolent alien.
Another of Dick's favourite themes, and one that was perhaps reinforced by his own personal experience, was that of small honest men being held prisoner in a giant Orwellian Governmental machine. (Interestingly however, this man usually succeeds or comes close to succeeding, in bringing the Government down). It's not hard to see why this idea pre-occupied Dick. He was writing many of his admittedly strange stories in McCartheyite America, and his second wife was involved in radical student politics. In the fifties his letters to a Soviet scientist were intercepted by the FBI, and he was frequently visited by FBI agents who questioned him for hours and also offered him a free University education if he would spy on other students for them, although typically for Dick, he ended up taking driving lessons from one of them. Things didn't improve in the sixties. Dick's work, drug use, anti-Vietnam war activities and involvement with the counter-culture meant that he was frequently under observation. Indeed, many think that Government agents were responsible for the break-in at his home in which only documents and manuscripts were stolen. In "The Penultimate Truth"(1964) Dick described a world where most of the population live in underground bunkers believing that a nuclear war is raging on the surface. In reality the Government officials live in beautiful, massive estates beaming the false images of destruction down to the bunkers to keep the people from discovering the truth. In this novel Dick cleverly captured most American's attitudes to the Korean, and then later, the Vietnam wars - bloodbaths that simply took place in their television sets.
In "The Zap Gun" (1964) both the West and East have stopped expensive weapons research, but instead develop weapons that look powerful but are in fact useless, in order to dupe the populace, whilst in the story "The Mold of Yancy" he describes (yet again wildly ahead of his time) how computers generate the image of the perfect leader, a man who doesn't actually exist, who lectures his people on everything from cookery tips to economic policy.
His novel "The Simulcra" cleverly combines both themes - in this story the President is just an android, and his beautiful, seemingly-ageless wife is nothing more than a series of actresses, the real power being held by a Council of whom the people are wholly unaware.
However, whilst many of Dick's fans were, according to him, "wackoes and trolls", he was very popular amongst the European Avant-Garde and the American counter-culture, possibly because many of his stories seemed to resemble an hallucinogenic experience. His popularity amongst the counterculture grew during the sixties, and he was swept up by the "New Wave" of Science Fiction (a period in the late sixties where SF writers experimented with different literary styles and techniques, including many pioneered by the Surrealists and Modernists at the beginning of the century), although he actually changed his own style very little. His involvement with the Group as well as many rumours concerning his drug use, consolidated his status as almost a Poet Laureate of the drug-scene.
Born prematurely in 1928, Dick was a surviving fraternal twin - his sister dying six weeks after their birth. He blamed his mother for his sister's death, as he claimed that she had been neglected, and his obsession with his sister was to prove to be the focal point in both his life and work - critics point to the frequent dualities that his novels and stories express - real/fake, real/unreal, human/android, and SF/mainstream amongst others.
His father left home when Dick was aged six, and it's possible that Dick could have been sexually abused at this time. But for whatever reason, he developed a number of psychological problems, including panic attacks, swallowing difficulties, and bouts of vertigo so debilitating that he would be left bed-ridden. As a result, he had to withdraw from High School, and academic study at University also proved to be near-impossible. Dick was in his teens and working as a TV salesman when he started to write stories, both SF and mainstream. His mainstream literary work languished, but his SF proved popular. In 1953 thirty Philip .K. Dick stories were published, including seven in July alone, and in 1954 he published 28 more.
For much of the fifties he continued to produce interesting but pedestrian pulp-work as a means of supporting his family - between 1955 and 1960 he had six SF novels published and wrote eleven mainstream novels which remained unpublished. The unexceptional nature of his work at this time wasn't helped by Ace Books, his publishers, who would frequently change the stories and titles of novels without informing the writer.
As Karen Anderson, the wife of writer Poul Anderson noted, ["In the fifties "if the Bible was printed as an Ace Double (a paperback containing two novellas by different writers) it would be cut down to two 20000 word halves, with the Old Testament re-titled as "Master of Chaos" and the New Testament as "The Thing with Three Souls"." In 1959 Dick married for the third time, and started to write on a nine-to-five schedule to support his then-wife's taste for an affluent lifestyle. At the same time the dosages of amphetamines which he had been taking for a medical problem since he had been a child, increased. Yet it is without doubt Dick's sixties work which made him famous, and it is his capturing of the sixties zeitgeist whilst setting much of his work in the future that makes it so interesting. Novels such as the Nebula award-winning "The Man in the High Castle" which featured and was written using, the I Ching (the first American novel to mention it, and the work that was most influential in elevating the I Ching to cult status amongst the counter-culture), the aforementioned "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch", "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", and "Ubik" (which resulted in Dick's being elected as an honourary member of France's "College du Pataphysique") caused him to be recognised as virtually inventing the SF novel as a means of investigating reality rather than simply as a form of entertainment. Indeed, many novels utilising the alternate world ("What would the world be like if the Nazis had won the war?") theme that Dick pioneered in "The Man From The High Castle" have been written, including Robert Harris' bestseller "Fatherland". Unfortunately, Dick's effort, while critically acclaimed, was perhaps written, like much of his work, thirty years too soon, and its sales weren't spectacular.
In 1963 and 1964 alone Dick wrote eleven SF novels. He said of his prodigious output, "I'd like to be able to say I could have done it without the amphetamines, but I'm not sure I could have done."
Predictably, his drug intake, which by this time also included hash, acid and mescaline, as well as mountains of speed, both prescribed and street-bought, started to take its toll, both physically (he experienced hypertension and kidney failure that hospitalised him) and mentally (he became so paranoid that he would be bedridden for days, convinced that the FBI, the KGB, the Black Panthers, the police or even former housemates were out to get him). There may be some truth to many of his fears, however. As his marriage ended he turned his house into a haven for all and sundry, and it eventually became known as a safe place to score or sell drugs, attracting various addicts and neurotics. It was then burgled in 1971 with only files and manuscripts being taken.
However, there was some truth to his claim that drugs helped him to write. He wrote 140 pages of "Flow My Tears the Policeman, Said" (1970) in one 48 hour burst. In 1972 he went to live in Vancouver, but after a year there, he claimed he had been kidnapped by men in black suits who asked him lots of questions he couldn't remember. He then had a two week memory lapse, awaking to find himself committing suicide.
He survived and after a stay in a rehabilitation centre he returned to California. Much of his work in the seventies was, as he said himself, an attempt to get rid of the bad karma he felt he'd picked up in the sixties, and novels like "A Scanner Darkly" (1973) are classic analyses of the sixties drug-scene in the U.S.A. However, in 1974 he underwent an experience that was to forever change his life - he believed he had been contacted by God through a beam of information-rich pink light. The communication with the Divine Being continued on and off until his death in 1982, and every day Dick would examine and analyse his experiences in his hand-written journal which he termed his "Exegesis". The voice warned him about an illness that his son had (a malady that was later confirmed by a Doctor), and also caused the radio to play even when not plugged in - a phenomenon that his then-wife also remembers.
He spent much of the rest of his life trying to come to terms with his experiences, and many of his novels of the late 70's and early 80's reflect his concerns - "Valis" and "The Divine Invasion" are very much novelisations of his experiences with God and his subsequent researches.
He wasn't unaware of the strangeness of his life, however. As he said himself, "My God, my life is like the plot of any ten of my novels or stories....I'm a protagonist from one of PKD's books!" But, despite his many personal problems it was around the late seventies that Dick rose out of poverty for the first time in his life, due mainly to reprint fees of his dozens of novels, his overseas popularity in Japan and Europe, and because of a number of screenplay options that had been bought. Unfortunately, in March 1982 Dick experienced a number of strokes and then a fatal heart attack, only months before he planned to visit New York, Paris and Belgium in his search for Maitreya, the future Buddha (now apparently living amongst the Asian community in London and, of course, getting increasingly active as the Millenium approaches).
However, if Dick's work experiences another post-film upswing in popularity, two things will remain certain. Firstly, even though Dick's work is rapidly rising from out of the SF backwater and into mainstream literature, it is more than likely that his full cultural and literary impact will not be recognised for several more decades, when the critics eventually catch up with him, and other writers have stolen even more of his ideas. And secondly, it's also certain that most peoples' perceptions of Dick himself will remain unchanged. Indeed, it is highly probable that they will react in exactly the way that Dick himself predicted in a 1980 letter. ....."He's crazy. Took drugs, saw God. Big fucking deal.""
"Burr's stories are hard to categorize, as they're not strictly horror or fantasy per se. However, all are imbued with a dark flood of macabre images that continue to disturb and haunt long after reading. The stories carry a core psychological reality (even the more surreal), layered with pathos and fatalism wrapped in punkish sensibilities. Each narrative in Ugly Stories feels like a complete and nuanced world inhabited by isolated souls walking a dark, lonely road.As difficult and uncomfortable as it is to see ourselves sometimes in the darker aspects and recesses of art and literature, we are somehow compelled to stare into that abyss. Burr's collection just happens to make it all worth the pain."
Read this review in full at THE HARROW.Garvan Giltinan, The Harrow
"This is a collection of short stories that steadfastly refuses to be shoehorned into any genre niche, though those who enjoy horror will assuredly find much of what they like within its pages. If you pinned me down and asked for a writer James Burr is similar to, my answer would be Russell Hoban, though even that may be stretching a point, with perhaps a hint of the early Vonnegut. These stories are not ugly, though they often touch on aspects of life that are, and you don't need to have model girl/boy looks to read them, just an open mind and a willingness to embrace a young writer whose work is that little bit off the wall, but refreshingly so."Peter Tennant, Peter Tennant's Case Notes, BLACK STATIC.
Burr is not merely a "new" voice, he is a fresh voice – a different and disturbing voice - and one deserving of your attention. His work is not easily categorized, which may, or may not, be a good thing. There are certainly horrific elements to Mr. Burr's fiction, but also what can be more readily described as "dark fantasy" and even, perhaps "Bizarro" fiction. .....There is also a dry, sardonic, and often satirical humor running through much of the stories in the book. The stories in this collection worked, for me, because they were not merely "different," but because they truly were disturbing to me, as a reader, and many of the stories stayed with me long after I'd finished reading it. Be forewarned - these stories ....... require, perhaps, a bit more effort on the part of a reader; but those looking for something a bit different and challenging, will be handsomely rewarded. This book is highly recommended.
Read this review in full at HorrorworldNorm Rubenstein, HORRORWORLD
"Ugly Stories for Beautiful People feels like a book in its own little world. I don't mean to suggest that its stories never joined the party – a glance at the list of previous publication credits will reveal that they did – but there is a certain sense that this book stands to one side, that it's doing its own thing, as it were. The collection begins and ends with a story called BobandJane and its postscript, about a couple who are so very much in love (Burr's prose conveys this superbly) that, yes, they don't perceive reality as it is – and, at the very end, their bubble may just be starting to burst. Not just a neat story, it serves as a summation of the whole book, a book which covers a range of human emotion, precarious relationships and equally precarious realities (and there may not be much difference between the two); and whose intriguing constituent parts form a complete, intriguing entity."
"This reviewer has read countless collections of fiction, in many genres, many eras. That being said, Ugly Stories has got to be one of the oddest. That could be a negative, yet in this case, Burr's strong imagination and plaintive, yet very effective prose manages to pull it off. Odd, unique, very cool, and extremely readable, this collection is recommended for anyone looking for something different - or for one of us who isn't one of the beautiful people!"
Read this review in full at Hellnotes.David Simms, HELLNOTES
"It's always a pleasure to find an anthology that's well written and unique and that strikes a chord long after turning the final page. Ugly Stories For Beautiful People is just such a collection.These loosely linked stories begin with Bob and Jane, A Fable in Two Distinct Parts, about a couple whose adoration for each other is all-consuming. Foetal Attraction is deftly narrated by a pregnancy kit that wants nothing more than to deliver the happy news of impending motherhood to its rather unsavory owner. In The Dada Relationship Police, a man discovers that a shadowy group seems to know every aspect of his life and his relationships. In The Byronic Man, a man must decide how far he'll go to make himself attractive to the opposite sex. Burr takes a satirical look at what could happen when humans' proclivity for pretentiousness suddenly runs amok in It. And in the "postscript" story, Bob and Jane make a final disconcerting discovery…From the darkly twisted, to humorous to stories filled with illuminating social commentary, Burr's innovative speculative fiction is an insightful, and sometimes disturbing exploration of the human psyche. Read Ugly Stories For Beautiful People in its entirety for its full effect -- James Burr's work exemplifies what a well crafted short story is all about." Rating -- 3 out of 3 books
"Burr brings to life an almost zoological variety of characters, a sweeping menagerie of insipid drug dens, high art soirees, faltering romances, madness, and the ever-present reggae. Burr convincingly weaves together the various societal strata of London and Barcelona from beggar to bureaucrat, acid-head to activist, and brings them to life to co-exist side by side in the same heartbroken, disillusioned universe.Ultimately, Burr's view alternates between the sentimental bitterness of failed romance and a sweeping image of modern life in all its sickness and beauty. Burr's writing, like his characters and his world, fluctuates from the simple to the complex, from the vulgar to the sublime. It is as if Burr cannot decide whether he wants to indict society or glamorize it.And because that's the point, Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is worth a read."
These stories offer a wry sideways look at modern life and culture, twisting and turning the quirks of everyday life into something recognisable and yet entirely odd - like a caricature, perhaps. There are common themes: is what we call reality really real? How can our own minds fool us? Can simple statements and thoughts help use see the true reality from within our mindless everyday haze? There is also an obsession with relationships - and specifically what happens when they come to an end.....Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is a good collection of entertaining speculative fiction, which I would recommend without reservation. "
The most interesting thing about James Burr's stories, in my mind, is the use he makes of urban fantasy. In Burr's stories, the mundane creates the fantastical. When a real-life issue is loaded enough, when the mundane pressure grows and grows, then reality will twist and expand, and the impossible will occur. What Burr really pulls off well, then, is resonance. His stories are powerful because they are about pain, conflict, and emotions, and he tries to pick the ones that will be so powerful the reader will believe they are strong enough to warp reality. The impossible happens because the characters desperately want it to—and so Burr grants their wish. The bleak, depressing nature of these stories shows us full well how much confidence Burr places in humanity's desperate desires."
Ziv Wities, THE FIX
"Burr's short stories defy categorization. The stories vary in length and range in type from a tale told from the point of view of a pregnancy stick to the story of two people who are so in love with each other that they literally become one. The format of the book is also unusual. It has no table of contents, and the stories just sort of flow into each other. If there is a theme to the collection, it is about how the characters' perceptions prevent them from seeing the reality around them. Burr is a talented storyteller with an impressive imagination. His stories will be appreciated by readers of horror, bizarro fiction, and those who just like good writing. Recommended."
"The majority of the book is brilliantly written, with the basis for many of the stories involving relationships between wives/husbands, boyfriends/girlfriends, people/drugs, that range from the perverse (BOBANDJANE) to the bittersweet (Ménage Á Beaucoup). My personal favourite is probably ‘Life Is What You Make It’, involving as it does a woman dealing with grief in such a bizarre way that she’s fundamentally altered the structure of reality. [...] It might not be too bold to say the world needs more writers with fresh and weird ideas, and James Burr falls firmly into that camp."
"This collection could just as easily have been called Ugly Stories For Unsettling Contented People, for to enter the world of James Burr is to step into a region where reality is fluid and to be happy, or at least settled, is to be in incomplete possession of the facts. Once you enter, reality fractures in surprising and innocuous places. It was the shortest tales which for me had the greatest impact -- the delusions and, ultimately, kindness revealed in Mutton Pie; the pace and linguistic inventiveness of The Byronic Man; and best of all from this collection, It, which is a gem of a story, at once hilarious and horrific, a story which leaves you envying the author its premise while admiring the perfect balance with which that premise is developed. The best test of such a collection is the success with which the author inveigles you into their world. In this case, I finished the book in the food court of a shopping mall, put it down, looked around me, and waited for the cracks to show. "