Dick, Philip K.
Prolific in the extreme, Dick wrote about the nature of consciousness and reality in a world in which each could be altered through the use of drugs or by the machinations of hidden powers in society. His heroes were ordinary men (and they were always men) trying to act humanely in a world in which they experienced constant destabilization. The experience of reading Dick's fiction has been described as similar to the feeling of falling through a series of trap doors, as new realities beneath the apparent surface reverse everything that his characters, and his readers, believe to be true. Dick used science fiction less as a medium for adventure stories than as a way of addressing philosophical questions. In his last years he created a series of novels in which he explored a set of bizarre hallucinations he had experienced. Critics disagree over the merits of those books, and indeed of much of Dick's fiction—“While most critics agree that Philip K. Dick has written some of the best SF [science fiction] novels and some of the worst, few agree on which is which,” quipped the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers. But Dick's literary reputation has been rising steadily since his untimely death at age 53, and his works, rich in ideas, have served regularly as sources for cinematic adaptations.
Suffered Loss of Twin
Philip Kindred Dick was born in Chicago on December 16, 1928. His father, Edgar Dick, was a federal employee; his middle name, Kindred, was his mother Dorothy's maiden name. The new parents were inept at caring for their twin babies, and Dick suffered a serious trauma when he was just five weeks old: his twin sister, Jane, died of malnutrition. Much of Dick's childhood, spent largely in the San Francisco Bay Area, was unhappy; his parents divorced when he was five, and his relationship with his mother was poor. She did, however, encourage his first attempts at writing.
Dick first encountered the still–young science fiction genre in 1940, when he was 12; looking for a copy of the magazine Popular Science at a newsstand, he picked up Stirring Science Stories instead. “I was most amazed,” he was quoted as saying on his official Web site. “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.”
The creative atmosphere of Berkeley, California, was another major shaping force in Dick's work. He attended Berkeley High School, graduating in 1947; science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin was a member of his graduating class, but the two did not know each other personally. Dick moved on to the University of California at Berkeley, beginning a major in German, but he soon dropped out in favor of a job in a Berkeley record store called Art Music and a brief gig as a classical radio DJ on station KSMO. As a young man he showed enthusiasm for the surreal novels of Czech writer Franz Kafka and their frightening yet darkly comic depictions of individuals who find themselves powerless in the face of unseen forces, and his own writings have been seen as responses to the dehumanizing qualities of life in suburban postwar California. In 1948 Dick married Jeanette Marlin; the marriage, the first of Dick's five, lasted only six months.
Writing almost constantly, as he would do throughout his life, Dick worked at Art Music until 1952. He began submitting short stories to science fiction magazines and got nowhere at first, once receiving 17 rejection slips in a single day. But in 1951 a Dick story called “Roog” was accepted for publication in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it seemed to open the floodgates. By the time it appeared in print, seven more of Dick's stories had already been published. Sometimes he wrote under the name of Richard Phillips. In 1954 he met the established science fiction writer A.E. Van Vogt at a convention and was advised that novels, even given the notoriously low pay rates of science fiction publishers, were more lucrative than short stories. Dick's first novel, Solar Lottery, appeared in 1955; it concerned a corrupt lottery that determined the life courses of the participants.
Breakthrough Novel Turned Heads
Married to his second wife, Kleo Apostolides, and so broke, he admitted, that he could not even afford library fines, Dick wrote rapidly. Between 1959 and 1964 he published 16 science fiction novels, plus several non–science fiction works that Dick, although he defended the validity of science fiction as an art form, hoped would be his path to literary respectability. His agent returned those to him as unpublishable (although Confessions of a Crap Artist was eventually published, and several others appeared after his death), and Dick applied himself with new energy to science fiction. He was married for a third time in 1959, to Anne Williams Rubinstein, and he had a young daughter, Laura.
As of the early 1960s, Dick was best known among hardcore science fiction fans. His breakthrough came in 1962 with the novel The Man in the High Castle, which presented his characteristic theme of alternate realities in a relatively conventional setting: the novel imagined a United States that had lost World War II to the Axis powers. Unlike most of Dick's novels, which take place on a fantastic plane, the book relied on several years' worth of historical research and won praise from mainstream as well as science fiction critics. The Chinese I Ching book of fortune telling was used by Dick in formulating the plot and also appeared as an element in the story. Dick's 1964 novel Martian Time–Slip, one of four Dick novels published that year, was also especially successful; it featured a character whom Dick described as an ex– schizophrenic, and it was one of a number of Dick novels in which mental illness played a significant role.
Perhaps Dick's first fully characteristic novel was The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), the story of colonists on Mars who have had to leave Earth due to deteriorating environmental conditions. They amuse themselves with a drug called Can–D that allows them to experience an idyllic Earthlike setting temporarily. They come under the control of the title character, who purveys a more powerful drug called Chew–Z. The novel was identified with the rise in the use of LSD in the mid–1960s; although Dick rarely used LSD he consistently abused methamphetamines. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was adapted into the film Blade Runner in 1982 and was later republished under that title. Dick at first refused to cooperate with filmmaker Ridley Scott. The book tells the story of a bounty hunter among androids, introducing the favorite Dick theme of what is definitively human—the book's androids closely resemble humans but can be distinguished from them through their inability to show empathy toward others. The book offered a nightmare vision of the near future in which most real animals have gone extinct and have been replaced by mechanical replicas.
Ubik (1969) took the idea of alternate realities to an extreme, imagining a world in which the dead seem to come back to life and a warring group of psychics move among a group of parallel realities. The following year A Philip K. Dick Omnibus was published in London, signaling a new level of popularity for Dick outside the United States. His works have been translated into a wide variety of European and Asian languages, and he has had an especially strong following in France. Dick married twice more; his marriages to Nancy Hackett (1966) and Tessa Busby (1973) each produced a child (Isolde and Christopher, respectively).
Anticipated Governmental Security Apparatus
Dick's novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, published in 1974, mixed themes of drug use, alternate realities, and malevolent government control in a story widely considered one of the author's best. The title comes from that of a song (“Flow My Tears”) by English Renaissance composer John Dowland, a name that appears in several other Dick works; his novels contain various obscure references that his increasingly devoted fan base ferreted out. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said tells the story of a television talk show host, Jason Taverner (Taverner is the name of another English Renaissance composer), who finds that his identity has disappeared from California state records—a serious problem in the near–future police state depicted in the book. Later it becomes clear that his lack of an identity is due to the fact that he is actually a drug–induced hallucination in the mind of one of the other characters. The novel earned Dick science– fiction's John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
The year 1974 marked a turning point in Dick's life and writing. In February of that month, recovering from dental surgery that had involved the administration of sodium pentathol, he opened the door to a young woman who was delivering him a prescription. She was wearing a medallion with the Christian fish symbol, which Dick asked about. At that point he experienced one of a series of visions that he believed added up to a major revelation about himself and the nature of the world he was living in. These visions continued through February and March of 1974; he referred to them as the two–three–seventy–four or 2–3–74 experiences. Briefly, Dick came to believe that the world around him was an illusion, and that time had stopped in the year 70 C.E. He and the prescription deliverer were actually early Christians being persecuted by the Roman government; his first–century name was Thomas. His visions sometimes came in the form of laser beams or geometric patterns, and he believed that not only he but also God had a dual existence, with one half of the divine duality being a female who had created the illusory world. Some of his ideas had affinities with the group of early Christian philosophies collectively known as Gnosticism.
In a series of often bizarre novels written over the rest of his life, most notably Valis (1981), Dick tried to flesh out the implications of his visions. “Valis” was an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, the entity Dick believed was sending his visions and was responsible for the nature of the reality he was experiencing. “Without Dick's name,” noted Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, the book “almost certainly wouldn't have been published—it's just too static and strange. Yet, once you force yourself to read it, and read past the really nutty bits, it emerges as perhaps the most emotional and in an odd way the most artistically achieved of all his books.” The book's narrator is once again divided into a duality, alternating between Horselover Fat and the more dispassionate Philip Dick, who questions the accuracy and occasionally the sanity of Horselover Fat and by extension Philip K. Dick himself—the name Horselover Fat is a translation of his own name (he derives Philip from a pun on the Latin roots “phil hippo,” or horse lover, and Dick is German for fat or thick).
Dick continued to write at a rapid pace; Valis was the first part of a vast trilogy that continued with The Divine Invasion (1981) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), the last work to appear during Dick's life. In all, he wrote 36 novels and more than 100 short stories. A chronic sufferer from high blood pressure, Dick died from a stroke on March 2, 1982, in Santa Ana, California. Sadly, he missed by just a few months the enormous success of the film Blade Runner, which marked the beginning of a consistent rise in his posthumous reputation. Collections of Dick short stories and republications of his earlier novels proceeded at a steady clip.
Perhaps the surest indicator of Dick's continuing influence was the frequency with which his writings were adapted as movies. After Blade Runner came Total Recall (1990, based on Dick's short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”), Screamers (1995, based on the story “Second Variety”), Minority Report (2002, based on the story “The Minority Report”), Paycheck (2003, based on a story of the same name), A Scanner Darkly (2006, based on a novel of the same name), and a 1992 French film Confessions d'un Barjo (based on Dick's mainstream novel Confessions of a Crap Artist). Various television programs and stage plays also took Dick's work as a point of departure. By the mid–2000s Dick had become the subject of several biographies (including a partly fictionalized one in French) and numerous literary studies, and in 2007 he became the first science fiction writer included in the popular Library of America series of classic literature.
Rickman, Gregg, To the High Castle: A Life of Philip K. Dick, 1928–1962, Fragments West–Valentine Press, 1989.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th ed., St. James Press, 1996.
Sutin, Lawrence, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, Harmony, 1989.
Book, July–August 2002.
Economist (U.S.), April 17, 2004.
New Yorker, August 20, 2007.
Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995.
Time, June 24, 2002.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 21, 2007).
“Philip K. Dick—Author—Official Biography,” Philip K. Dick official Web site, http://www.philipkdick.com/aa_biography.html (December 21, 2007).
“Philip K(indred) Dick (1928–1982),” Books and Writers, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/pkdick.htm (December 21, 2007).