Saturday, 27 November 2010
From the Vauts - Philip.K. Dick article.
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. 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.""