Philip K. Dick

philip k dick biography
pkd graphic
philip k dick  

philip k dick

By Lawrence Sutin
Copyright 2003

  Here is a subtle but startling irony: in several of his best novels, Philip K. Dick - world-famous as a science-fiction writer and hence, by definition, a creator of futuristic worlds - set his narratives in the late twentieth century, an epoch we left behind with great pomp in the celebration of the New Millennium. And yet the novels, and the stories, and the essays of Dick seem as futuristic as ever, which is to say - as vitally relevant to our own time as only great literature can be.

Science Fiction Visionary

Since his untimely death at age 53, there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in his writings, which during his lifetime were largely ignored by serious mainstream critics and readers. Such is no longer the case, and the novels of Philip K. Dick frequently appear on university curricula devoted to modern American literature. But that is only the beginning of the transformation. Since 1982, when Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (based on Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) made its debut, eight feature films based on Dick's fiction have appeared, the other seven being Total Recall, The Minority Report, Screamers, Impostor, the French film Confessions d'un Barjo (based on Dick's mainstream novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist), Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and the upcoming Next (April 2007). That's an average of roughly one movie every three years since Dick's passing - a rate of cinematic adaptation exceeded only by Stephen King. And there are other big-money film options currently held by Hollywood studios.

Philip K. Dick has done more than arrive. He has become a looming and illuminating presence not merely in American but in world culture, with his works translated into major European and Asian languages. There is even a bastard adjective - "phildickian "- that makes its way into print now and then to describe the baffling twists and turns of our times. An understanding of the basic facts of Dick's life not only casts light on the themes that predominate in his writings, but also brings to view a fascinating story in its own right.

The Early Years

He was born prematurely, along with his twin sister Jane, in Chicago on December 16, 1928. His father was Edgar Dick, his mother Dorothy Kindred - from her maiden name came Dick's middle initial. Jane died six weeks after her birth, a loss that Phil felt deeply throughout his life. As time went on, Phil came, with whatever justice, to blame his mother for Jane's death. His relationship with both of his parents was decidedly difficult, and made only more so when they divorced when he was five years old.

Sister Jane, his mother, and his father served as models for many of the characters who would populate Dick's fictional universes in the decades to come. In particular, the death of Jane - and Phil's traumatic sense of separation from her, an experience common to many twins who have lost their sibling - contributed to the dualist (twin-poled) dilemmas that dominated his creative work - science fiction (SF)/mainstream, real/fake, human/android. It was out of these pressing dualities that the two vast questions emerged which Dick often cited as encompassing his writing: What is Real? and What is Human?

Mother Dorothy retained custody over her son, and they eventually settled in Berkeley, where Dick grew up, graduated from high school, and briefly attended the University of California in 1949 before dropping out.

Starting in seventh grade, however, Dick began suffering from bouts of extreme vertigo; the vertigo recurred with special intensity during his brief undergraduate stint. In his late teens, Dick later recalled, he was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia - a label that terrified him. Other psychotherapists and psychiatrists in later years would offer other diagnoses, including the one that Dick was quite sane.

Leaving aside medical terminology, there is no question that Dick felt himself, throughout his life, to suffer from bouts of psychological anguish that he frequently referred to as "nervous breakdowns." His experience of these was transmuted into fictional portraits, most notably of "ex-schizophrenic" Jack Bohlen in Martian Time-Slip (1964).

A Genre of Ideas

In a 1968 "Self Portrait" he recalled the moment of discovery of the genre that would ultimately set him free to write of the complex realities of his own personal experience:
"I was twelve [in 1940] when I read my first sf magazine…it was called Stirring Science Stories and ran, I think, four issues….I came across the magazine quite by accident; I was actually looking for Popular Science. I was most amazed. Stories about science? At once I recognized the magic which I had found, in earlier times, in the Oz books - this magic now coupled not with magic wands but with science…In any case my view became magic equals science…and science (of the future) equals magic."
This is not to say that Dick read only SF during his coming of age years. On the contrary, he was an omnivorous and devouring reader, taking in Xenophon's Anabasis, Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the French realists such as Stendhal, Flaubert and Maupassant - all this and much more by his early twenties. Dick gave credit to the American Depression-era writer James T. Farrell, author of Studs Lonigan, for helping Dick see how to construct the SF stories that he sold in such numbers to the SF pulps in the early 1950s.

And even though Dick never lost his yearning to be accepted by the literary mainstream, he always regarded it as a kind of treason to deprecate the SF genre he grew up on and flourished in. As he wrote in 1980, two years before his death:
"I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards. Okay, so I should revise my standards; I'm out of step. I should yield to reality. I have never yielded to reality. That's what SF is all about. If you wish to yield to reality, go read Philip Roth; read the New York literary establishment mainstream bestselling writers….This is why I love SF. I love to read it; I love to write it. The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It's not just 'What if' - it's 'My God; what if' - in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming."

An Author Finds His Voice

From age fifteen to his early twenties, Dick was employed in two Berkeley shops, University Radio and Art Music, owned by Herb Hollis, a salt-of-the-earth American small businessman who became a kind of father-figure for Dick and served as an inspiration for a number of his later fictional characters, most notably Leo Bulero in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), who, in the memo to his employees that serves as the frontispiece to that novel, gruffly affirms the human spirit:
"I mean, after all; you have to consider we're only made out of dust. That's admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn't forget that. But even considering, I mean it's a sort of bad beginning, we're not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we're faced with we can make it. You get me?"
Three Stigmata, which deals with a terrifying Gnostic-style demiurgic invasion of earth by means of the eerily permeating hallucinogen "Chew-Z," so fascinated Beatle John Lennon that he considered making a film of it.

In the early 1950s, with the helpful mentorship of SF editor and Berkeley resident Anthony Boucher, Dick began to publish stories in the SF pulps of the era at an astonishing rate - seven of his stories appeared in June 1953 alone. He soon gave up his employment in the Hollis shops to pursue the economically insecure career of an SF writer.

In 1954, Dick later recalled with humor, he met one of his SF idols, A. E. Van Vogt, at an SF convention, where Van Vogt proceeded to convince the neophyte writer that there was more money to be made in novels than in stories. Henceforward, Dick's rate of production of SF novels was as remarkable as his story output had been. At his creative peak, he published sixteen SF novels between 1959 and 1964. During this same period, he also wrote mainstream novels that went unpublished, much to his anguish. To this day, it is his SF work for which Dick is best remembered, and justly so.

After a very brief failed first marriage in 1948, remarried four times - to Kleo Apostolides in 1950, to Anne Williams Rubenstein in 1959, to Nancy Hackett in 1966, and to Tessa Busby in 1973. There was one child born in each of the latter three marriages -respectively, his daughters Laura and Isa and son Christopher. During his lifetime, Dick was regarded with respect by SF fans and fellow writers, though his sales never came close to matching those of the most popular SF writers of his era such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert.

Dick received the Hugo Award in 1963 for The Man in the High Castle, which tells of a post-World War II world in which Japan and Germany are the victors and the continental United States is roughly divided between them. In devising the plot, Dick employed the I Ching on several occasions and also integrated that divinatory text into the narrative itself - marking its debut in American fiction.

A Life-Changing Experience

In February and March 1974, Dick experienced a series of visions and auditions including an information-rich "pink light" beam that transmitted directly into his consciousness. A year after the events, in March 1975, Dick summarized the 2-3-74 experiences that would pervade his writing for the final eight years of his life:
       "I speak of The Restorer of What Was Lost The Mender of What Was Broken."

        "March 16, 1974: It appeared - in vivid fire, with shining colors and balanced patterns - and released me from every thrall, inner and outer.

        "March 18, 1974: It, from inside me, looked out and saw the world did not compute, that I - and it - had been lied to. It denied the reality, and power, and authenticity of the world, saying, 'This cannot exist; it cannot exist.'

        "March 20, 1974: It seized me entirely, lifting me from the limitations of the space-time matrix; it mastered me as, at the same time, I knew that the world around me was cardboard, a fake. Through its power of perception I saw what really existed, and through its power of no-thought decision, I acted to free myself. It took on in battle, as a champion of all human spirits in thrall, every evil, every Iron Imprisoning thing."

There are those who are eager to create a "Saint Phil" who emerged from this experience. In that regard, it is wise to remember that Dick himself always bore in mind what he called the "minimum hypothesis" -that is, the possibility that all that he had undergone was merely self-delusion.

On the other hand, there are those who regard Dick as a charlatan who foisted upon his readers a pseudo-mystical revelation fueled by mental disorder. But surely a charlatan is one who insists on the seriousness and accuracy of his claims. This Dick never did. One has only to go and read VALIS (1981) to find a piercingly knowing humor in Dick's portrayal of himself as Horselover Fat:
"…Fat must have come up with more theories than there are stars in the universe. Every day he developed a new one, more cunning, more exciting and more fucked."
Those who insist on the "truth" or "falsehood" of Dick's experience of 2-3-74 are missing the central point: that those experiences provided him with the means to explore, with integrity, insight, and humility, the difficulties of making sense of any spiritual path in a relentlessly secular and cynical Western culture in which even apparent revelations can be instantly repackaged as popular entertainment.

On the Edge of Eternity

Dick died on March 2, 1982, the result of a combination of recurrent strokes accompanied by heart failure. In a 1981 entry in his Exegesis (an extensive journal he kept to explore the ramifications of 2-3-74) Dick wrote as focused a self-assessment of his aims and talents as a writer as can be found in any of his journals, letters, essays, and interviews:
"I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth. Thus what I tell is the truth, yet I can do nothing to alleviate it, either by deed or explanation. Yet this seems somehow to help a certain kind of sensitive troubled person, for whom I speak. I think I understand the common ingredient in those whom my writing helps: they cannot or will not blunt their own intimations about the irrational, mysterious nature of reality, &, for them, my corpus is one long ratiocination regarding this inexplicable reality, an integration & presentation, analysis & response & personal history."
One can readily imagine this passage having been written by Franz Kafka in his diary. And it is among the great fictionalizing philosophers of the twentieth century - Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Rene Daumal, Flann O'Brien - that Dick's place in literary history lies. His uniqueness in this lineage is all the greater for his ability to have created great works in the broadly popular SF form. Dick remains compulsively, convulsingly readable. He is the master of the psychological pratfall, the metaphysical freefall, the political conspiracy within a conspiracy within a conspiracy. He is - as much as any contemporary writer we have - an astute guide to the shifting realities of the twenty-first century.

Lawrence Sutin is the author of "Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick", "Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley" and "A Postcard Memoir". He edited the Philip K. Dick collection "The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick : Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings". and "In the Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis."
pkd graphic
Home   |   About the Author   |   Novels   |   Stories   |   Essays and Other Works   |   Films
In the Media   |   Exclusive Content   |   Contacts   |   Fan Site   |   Site Map