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 (who founded the "Cyberpunk" movement with his novel "Neuromancer"), 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 cult-classic Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall(1990). Now, with the release of Bladerunner 2049, it seems that Dick's media profile is set to rise, and attention will again be focused on his forty novels and two hundred stories.
In the years following the original Bladerunner's release, Dick underwent a Renaissance, many people discovering his works (some 35 novels and 6 short-story collections), and 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 Wholesale 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 a side-issue. After all, who cares if it`s reality or not - Arnie can still shoot it!
Hooray for Hollywood.
Nevertheless, Dick`s reputation continued to grow, his lifetimes` production of stories being collected together into a five-volume 900,000 word set, and bands as diverse as R.E.M., Elvis Costello (who appeared on a BBC documentary on Dick in 1994), The Fall, and Sonic Youth all name-checking him as an `influence`. Robert Crumb wrote a comic-book biography of Dick, and Fay Weldon refers to him as "my literary hero".
In the intervening years Dick's reputation, in both pop cultural and academic circles, has continued to grow and it is likely that mainstream interest in him will again grow with the release of Bladerunner 2049 and the Channel 4 TV series Philip.K. Dick's Electric Dreams.
But just what is it that separates Dick from the mass of other SF writers who embarked upon their careers in the 1940's and 1950's writing 'bug-eyed monster' stories for the pulp magazines of the era, such as "Weird Tales" and "Astounding Science Fiction"?
Philip Kindred Dick and his fraternal-sister Jane Charlotte were born six weeks prematurely, on December 16, 1928, although Jane died six weeks later, a spiritual trauma which tormented him for the rest of his life, and which, as is apparently common amongst 'surviving' twins, manifested itself in hypochondria and a fear of death, guilt at having survived, difficult relationships with the opposite sex, an urge to place himself in difficult situations, and an his case, an obsession with resolving dualist dilemmas - SF/mainstream, real/fake, human/android, and the two-source cosmology described in Valis. Many of his novels dealt with dualities or twinning, but perhaps one of the greatest examples of Jane's "vestigial experience" as Dick felt it, is described in his other 1965 novel, Dr Bloodmoney. (He would frequently write three or four novels a year; plus stories, essays, letters and journals - he was an astoundingly prolific writer, capable of typing at 100 words per minute).
In the novel seven year old Edie actually carries her twin brother Bill within her, on her left side near her appendix.
Dick was an intelligent if unhealthy child who was frequently ill. By the age of six he had been prescribed, amongst other medicines, ephedrine (an amphetamine) for his asthma. It was at this time that his parents divorced. In the years following the separation he may have been the victim of sexual and physical abuse, possibly perpetrated by his grandfather.
As a child Dick contributed poems and stories to the "Young Authors' Club" of the "Berkeley Gazette", as well as from the age of 13 a self-published newspaper called "The Truth". However, he had to be withdrawn from school when he started to experience difficulties swallowing food, panic attacks, and bouts of vertigo so serious that he had to spend time bedridden at home, these fears and paranoias eventually resulting in a female voice telling him the answers to a physics exam - a foreshadowing of his later mental problems in the 1970's and 1980's. As a result, he attended weekly psychotherapy sessions at the Langley Porter Clinic in San Francisco.
However, his psychic turmoil was calmed somewhat by his job at 'University Radio' in Berkeley, where, from the age of fifteen he worked as a sales assistant, selling radios, T.V.s and records. The owner of the shop, Herb Hollis, was a positive influence on Dick, an influence that never entirely faded, even when Dick was communicating with God in the seventies, indeed, many of his characters are based on Hollis and the times he spent with him in the late forties, including the boss-employee relationship of Leo Bulero and Barney Mayerson in "Palmer Eldritch".
However, by 1944 Dick was still a virgin, and worried that he might be gay. And so, he married for the first time; he was in his early twenties and she was in her late twenties. They also had nothing in common.
Needless to say, it was over before the year was out.
Meanwhile, he had been steadily producing a number of mainstream pieces throughout the late forties, but he wasn't published until October 1951, after his mother gave Anthony Boucher, the editor of "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction", one of Dick's stories to criticise on her Thursday evening writer's workshop. Boucher liked the story although his response to his mainstream work was cool, and he encouraged Dick to write more SF, and to take advantage of the boom in SF 'pulp' magazines. By May 1952 he had sold four more stories, and was taken on by the newly established Scott Meredith Agency, a relationship that lasted until his death.
In 1952 four Philip.K.Dick stories appeared. In 1953 there were thirty including seven in June 1953 alone. In 1954 he published twenty-eight more.
However by 1954 the pulp explosion was over, due mostly to the collapse of the American News Company, one of the biggest distributors in the U.S.A. This added to his extreme poverty (he himself noted, "You might get $20 for a story and $4000 for a novel. So I decided to bet everything on the novel.")
And he was as good as his word. Between 1955 and 1960 he had six SF novels published, Solar Lottery (the first, and with sales of over 300,000 one of his most successful), The World Jones Made, The Man Who Japed, Eye In The Sky, The Cosmic Puppets, Dr. Futurity and Vulcan's Hammer, most of which, despite good reviews at the time, generally don't rise above hack-work in quality. Noticeably surreal and 'Dickian' in their view of reality, they betray their pulp origins, a situation not entirely made any better by his publishers, 'Ace Books' who would frequently change stories and titles without telling the author. As Karen Anderson, the wife of writer Poul Anderson once 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 20,000 word halves with the Old Testament retitled as "Master of Chaos" and the New Testament as "The Thing with Three Souls".
However, despite his output, Dick continued to write his massive mainstream novels (in this period he wrote eleven), abandoning SF altogether in 1956 and 1957 in order to concentrate on his literary efforts.
But it was in 1958 that he wrote his breakthrough SF novel. After all of his mainstream work had been rejected, he started to write Time Out Of Joint, a novel in which all the characters believe it is 1959, until the hero, Ragle Gumm, "goes sane", and realises that it is really 1996 and the Earth is at war with its lunar colony. This 'finding of sanity' is ingeniously described. In one 'episode' Ragle is standing at a soft-drink stand, when he turns to look at something. When he turns round again the stand is gone, replaced by a piece of paper with the words
written on it.
He got the idea for the novel from a time when he reached for a light cord in his bathroom only to realise that there wasn't one, and there had never been one - he had always had a lightswitch (an episode he also includes in the novel). He decided that one possible explanation for this was that he perhaps had a subliminal awareness of an alternate world where he did in fact have a bathroom that had a light-cord.
However, at this time he was simply writing 40 - 50,000 word novels for the money, expanding previously published stories or even coming up with proposals for novels off the top of his head so that Ace would send him an advance. Then, buzzing away on amphetamines he would bang out a novel. Unfortunately, by this time he'd have spent all of the money already, and so would have to start all over again. This combined with his lack of interest in SF as a genre resulted in some of his poorer novels of the fifties.
Time Out Of Joint was an attempt to break this cycle. While it is an interesting novel, it didn't get a paperback release for another five years, and he had to return to writing for the pulps.
By March 1959 Dick's affair with Anne Rubinstein had ended his second marriage, and he and Anne were married on April Fool's Day in Mexico.
However, Anne, the daughter of a stockbroker, and by her own admission "bourgeois with expensive tastes" persuaded Dick to change his writing schdule from late-night/early-evening to 9 to 5, so that he could spend more time with the family. For a while he lived the good life of a middle-class family man, but soon he started to experience out of the body experiences, and chest pains that were possibly caused by Sexoxydrine. Then, Anne had an abortion, an act which, bearing in mind his obsession with his unborn twin sister, caused him to hate her, resulting in a string of 'evil-female' characters in his sixties novels, and a much weakened marriage. One of the characters based on Anne is Emily Hnatt in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, who, instead of evolving like her husband, because of the now-dubiously named 'E-therapy', regresses into a slow-witted husk. This could be Dick's analogy for their different responses to Stelazine or, of course, it could just be an obvious insult.
In the early 1960's he discovered The I Ching, or Book of Changes, the 3000 year old Chinese Oracle so beloved by hippies everywhere.
And so, in 1961, whilst helping Anne with her jewellery business (the economic threat of which to his own career resulted in his third nervous breakdown), Dick started to secretly write his Hugo Award winning novel using questions posed to the I Ching to help plot the novel. The I Ching also has an important role in the actual story of the novel, which is about an alternate world in which the Axis powers won the Second World War and then split the U.S.A. between them.
"The Man in the High Castle" was the first American novel to mention the I Ching, and many of those who elevated it to cult status in the sixties first learned of its existence from it. However Dick accused it of being a "malevolent spirit" because of the unresolved last chapter of the book - even though the characters see the Chung Fu (Inner Truth) Hexagram and realise that in reality the Allies won the War, the book doesn't really reach a conclusion, and he frequently planned new chapters or sequels to it.
Despite this minor weakness, it was a critical success, and marked a turning point in his career because he realised he could bridge the gap between SF and the experimental mainstream novel. Thus the success of "High Castle" and the continued rejection of his mainstream pieces resulted in him concentrating more on the genre-defying material that was still labelled as SF, but which featured robots, spaceships etc more to help readers used to SF to digest his distorted world-view, more than anything else.
Thus in 1963 - 1964 he wrote eleven 'SF' novels including The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The novel, written while fueled on various amphetamines, was one of the first of Dick`s truly great novels to deal with the nature of, and the distortion of, reality. It was also his first to receive the honour of being published in hardback.
The action in the novel takes place in the early 21st century, on an earth so ecologically damaged that the temperature in New York in May is 180 degrees. The main protagonists are Leo Bulero the owner of a company called Perky Pat Layouts; one of his employees, Barney Mayerson who uses his precognitive abilities to determine if there is a market for the Perky Pat products; and the Palmer Eldritch of the title, a renegade industrialist who has been away in the Prox system for ten years, and who has recently returned to Earth, although he is in hiding.
Perky Pat Layouts produce miniaturised ("minned") 'Barbie'-style "layouts" - penthouse apartments; convertible cars; luxury kitchen units etc, basically, enough consumer goods to put the "Generation Game" to shame. The Martian colonists who are generally the sole consumers of these products can then be 'translated' into the layouts if they take the illegal drug
'Can-D' i.e. they can become Perky Pat (if they are women), or her handsome boyfriend Walt (if they are men), and then live their perfect lives for the half-hour or so of their drug experience. Strangely, any number of people can participate in this experience, the actions of Pat and Walt being determined by a majority consensus. Needless to say Dick doesn't ignore the fun that a 'two-bodied' wife-swapping orgy can present.
However, Leo Bulero, the owner of PPL, is also the main dealer of Can-D to the colonists on Mars, who have grown to treat the Can-D experience like a religion.
It is into this situation that Palmer Eldritch returns to Earth after ten mysterious years in the Prox system, with a rival drug - Chew-Z - which threatens to drive Can-D off the market, as it needs no minned accessories, and the experience can last as long as the user wishes, even if, subjectively that is a lifetime. Their slogan: "God Promises Eternal Life. We Can Deliver It."
Eldritch doses Bulero with Chew-Z, a horrific experience in which all reality becomes suspect. (Does he escape Eldritch? Does he confer with his future self? Does he see a monument dedicated to himself, as 'saviour of the universe, and conqueror of Palmer Eldritch?'). Confusingly, eventually everyone, whether they've taken the drug or not, takes up the Palmer Eldritch 'stigmata' i.e. they have stainless steel teeth, slotted artificial eyes, and a black mechanical arm. These 'stigmata' become the signs of a pervasive hallucinatory reality controlled by Eldritch - in essence he becomes a God in everyone's reality. The novel ends with a business memo dated after the narrative that assures readers that Bulero will eventually overcome Eldritch.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritchwas a turning point book for Dick. Whilst confusing and delighting the SF audience, and being ignored by the literary mainstream, the novel was welcomed by both the growing numbers of the mid to late 60's counterculture, and by the intellectuals of the European Avant Garde alike. However, the book itself terrified Dick - he refused to read the proofs of the novel, and actually based the appearance of the Eldritch character upon a face which he saw half-filling the sky for several days in 1963. )
He was, rather unsurprisingly, rumoured to have been taking what were referred to alternately as "certain chemicals" and "psychedelic drugs" during this period, as well as taking astoundingly large quantities of speed, (as he did continually for several decades of his life).
Dick said of his prodigious output, "I'd like to say I'd have been able to do it without the amphetamines, but I'm not sure I could have done it without the amphetamines, to turn out that volume of writing."
There was however a cost. His feelings of paranoia, agoraphobia and his mood swings increased to the point that his and Anne's marriage grew more violent (on both their parts), Phil claiming several times that she wanted to kill him, and he eventually had her committed for a short time, although he always felt that it was he who should have been 'locked up'. It seems that he was right too, because it was at this time that he saw the evil face in the sky that helped shape his description of Palmer Eldritch.
Rather unsurprisingly his third marriage was soon over, and he returned to the city, to a small house in East Oakland.
Dick became known as a drug-user and experimenter, not just hash and speed, but also many prescription drugs which he would mix and match. He rarely took L.S.D. despite rumours to the contrary. (On one occassion he felt he was reliving the life of a Roman Gladiator, speaking in Latin and experiencing a spear thrust through his body.)
In 1964 he met Nancy Hackett, a 21 year old girl who had had a nervous breakdown the previous year. He courted her furiously and they eventually married in 1966. His domestic circumstances now more stable, he started to write again, after a writing slump that had started after he'd left Anne. His next novel was one of his best, Ubik. It was because of this book that Dick was elected as an honourary member of "The College du Pataphysique" in France.
Ubik is about a group of people who are accidentally thrown into a different reality which may or may not be controlled by any one of the other characters.....or something else. Is the main protagonist half-dead, or is it just one of the other characters hallucinating, etc? Characters find coins in their pockets that bear the faces of the other characters, they try to make direct contact with the others through cheap T.V. adverts, messages appear on walls, inside books of matches, and so on. Eventually, the being called Ubik declares itself, "Salvific information penetrating through the 'walls' of our world."
After Ubik came a string of novels, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?(1968), a book that was later adapted into the film Bladerunner, Galactic Pot-Healer (1969), and A Maze of Death (1970), although by this time he felt that he'd exhausted himself as a writer.
In March 1967 Nancy gave birth to his second child but Dick grew increasingly worried about his drug intake, not just prescription drugs, but drugs that he had to score from dealers on the street. But despite his fears he continued to take them because he thought that they helped him to write; he wrote 140 pages of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1970) in one forty-eight hour burst.
But from 1967 to 1970 he experienced a number of traumas. Nancy was unfaithful, three close friends died, the IRS announced a major audit, and the dosages of speed he was taking increased, as did their mental and physical toll. He was hospitalised for a while with pancreatitis and kidney failure.
But it was a mescaline trip in 1970 which he said at last gave him genuine insights into reality - he said that he felt an overpowering sense of love, and it was this that was reality. He used this insight to write Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which is an exploration of various types of love.
However by late 1970 Nancy left Dick taking the children with her, leaving him in their Santa Venetia house. In a bid to fight off boredom he opened it up to anybody, and it eventually became known as a haven for any dealer or stray that happened to be passing. Dick would speed and stay awake for days on end as he chatted to whoever was around, drinking milkshakes to line his stomach. Needless to say his paranoia increased - everybody was after him, the IRS, the Black Panthers, the FBI, the police, even previous members of the house. One of these (a speed-freak who kept loaded rifles under the bed) he feared so much he went to a bar and hired a couple of contract killers to protect him. However, it does seem he was right - in 1971 his house was broken into, and his files either stolen or destroyed. A 1975 interview with "Rolling Stone" made this a cause-celebre, but those responsible were never caught.
He deteriorated after the break-in, his paranoia becoming near unbearable, but just as he reached his lowest point, there was a spark of good news. He was invited to a Conference in Vancouver where he was feted by fans and (more importantly to Dick, perhaps) single women, and his speech was received enthusiastically, as it had been at a luncheon held by the University of British Columbia a few days before. Unfortunately, after almost a year in Vancouver, he claimed to have been kidnapped by men in black suits who drove him around in a limousine asking him questions he couldn't remember. This resulted in a two week memory lapse. As he awoke, he was killing himself. He was seated in a running car, its exhaust connected to the interior of the car, he had taken an overdose and he had slashed his wrists. Somehow, however he had managed to survive, and drained, he was taken to a drug rehabilitation centre where he stayed for three weeks as he pieced his life back together.
In April 1972 he flew back to Fullerton, California where he lived with some teenage students, and in July he met eighteen year old Tessa Busby at a party. Within a week she had rented the apartment next door to serve as their new home. He finished Flow My Tears...., and started work on his classic analysis of the sixties drug scene, A Scanner Darkly. However, he contracted double pneumonia and was lucky to survive.
Once he'd recovered he started to write, drawing on his experiences as a drug user in the late sixties. A Scanner Darkly is about an undercover policeman who lives with a group of "Substance D" users. In order to pass himself off as a user he has to take Substance D, which in turn seperates his left brain from his right brain. This means that his personality splits so that when he is assigned to investigate a new drug user he doesn't realise that that person is himself. Scanner Darkly was well received, and his year was made complete when his son Christopher was born on July 25, 1973.
However, by early 1974 he was worried about the IRS seizing his assets, and he feared going to jail for 15 years because of 'civil disobedience' in the sixties, and he was very stressed despite his novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said winning the John.W. Campbell Memorial Award and being nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
In February to March 1974 (2-3-74) Dick experienced a number of visions and auditions, as (he claimed) pink beams of light beamed information into his head, as well as 'releasing' memories of himself as a First-Century Christian, even contacting Soviet scientists to see if they'd "been involved with experiments involving the long-range transmission by E.S.P of Modern Art Graphics".
However, he continued to receive these strange visions and communicated with an infinitely wise voice, this voice even telling him of an illness that Dick's son unknowingly had, an illness which was later verified by a medical examination. The radio started to operate even when not plugged in, a phenomenon that can be confirmed by Dick's then wife. He had dreams about God, three-eyed aliens, 'memories' from the future, and so on, and spent virtually the rest of his life writing his 8000 page long "Exegesis"; an attempt to try and explain his experiences. (One time he phoned the police telling the officer on the other end of the phone, "I am a machine." No action was taken.)
In The Exegesis he develops every possible explanation that could possibly explain his experiences, from the obvious (insanity, neurological damage) to the less believable (the F.B.I had programmed his mind when he had been "kidnapped" in Vancouver; his spirit had bonded with 1. a dead friend; 2. a first Century Christian; 3. his dead twin sister, etc. He also felt he was seeing the world 'freshly' with no pre-conceived ideas, stripping away its layer of illusion; he was talking to God; beings from the future were beaming information to him using Tachyons.
In February 1976 Tessa left him, and he tried to kill himself again, for what was to be the last time in his life. After he was hospitalised, he started work on Radio Free Albemuth a semi-autobiographical account of his 2-3-74 experiences, and, after a few short relationships with various young women, Dick moved back to the Bay Area in mid 1977.
He found it difficult to extrapolate 2-3-74 into novel form however (he wasn't pleased with Radio Free Albemuth) but was persuaded to attend the Metz Festival in France, where his sixties reputation had preceded him. At dinner a young man swallowed the pill that Dick had placed next to his plate and asked him what he thought would happen. Dick replied that he would soon feel better if he had a sore throat.
His work on the novel that was to become Valis continued.
Valis is a semi-autobiographical account of Dick's 2-3-74 experiences. In it Horselover Fat (Philip is Greek for "lover of Horses", and Dick is German for Fat), has just had a nervous breakdown and searches for God, while Phil Dick the SF writer tries to persuade him of his futility.
Eventually they discover Valis' daughter (the Fifth Saviour), who dispels Phil's need to project a false "Horselover Fat" personality. Unfortunately, she is accidentally killed and Horselover Fat returns, leaving Phil Dick to search for clues to Valis' next reappearance.
Valis confused virtually everybody, including Bantam who were in two minds as to whether to publish it or not. However, his worth in the New York market climbed impressively, and for the first time in his life he was making 'good' money, $101,000 in 1978 and $75,000 in 1979. He also won a number of awards and managed to publish a few short stories in distinguished magazines.
In 1981 the 'sequel' to Valis, The Divine Invasion was published, but Dick was unsure as to its worth, and started planning another alternate world novel. He was tense because his relationship with God had dwindled but he needn't have worried.
In November 1980 "God manifested himself completely" to him, and as a result his Exegesis writings stopped, although this was perhaps aided by more material concerns such as the making of Bladerunner. Despite disliking the screenplay, Dick loved the visuals of the film, and he stood to make a lot of money from a novelisation tie-in. He had also been contracted to write a mainstream novel, an SF novel, and his 1950's mainstream novel Confessions of a Crap Artist was being reissued.
He planned to visit Belgium and the Netherlands to search for Maitreya, the future Buddha and also planned to visit New York and Paris. Other Hollywood deals were in the pipe-line (including Total Recall and Claw, a screenplay based on his 1953 novella Second Variety), he had at last published a mainstream novel, and he and Tessa were discussing re-marriage.
He convinced her that she wouldn't find her dead somewhere having successfully committed suicide, because he wanted to live.
Unfortunately during an interview he forgot things and experienced failing eye-sight. A day later he was found unconscious on his apartment floor, the victim of a stroke. The doctors said that he could recover from the stroke, but later he had more strokes and then a heart attack. Philip .K.Dick died on March the 2nd 1982 at fifty three years of age.
However, Dick, despite failing to predict his future fame, was uncannily accurate when he came to predicting, in a 1980 letter, how most of his readers would view him after reading Valis. (A view that will probably remain unchanged for many, despite his increasing fame and media exposure).
"He's crazy. Took drugs, saw God. Big fucking deal."