That Old Feeling: You Know Dick

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College courses investigate at length the two crucial questions that sustained Dick's writing and thinking. In a 1978 speech, titled 'How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later,' he posited these questions as: 'What are we? What is it that surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?' Year by year, readers have clued in to what Sutin calls 'the most intensely visionary fiction written by an American in this century.' Dick is the subject of a doting, amateurish documentary called 'The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick.' Sutin's biography will soon be joined by French novelist Emmanuel Carrere's 'I Am Alive and You Are Dead: The Strange Life and Times of Philip K. Dick.' Michael Bishop wrote a clever pastiche of the master's themes in the novel 'The Secret Ascension,' retitled 'Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas.'

And, huzzah, all Dick's long and short fiction is in print. Start with 'The Philip K. Dick Reader,' which collects 24 of his best early short fiction, including most of the stories recently filmed. Then graduate to 'The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick' — five glorious volumes, and not a lemon in the bunch. That leaves the novels, 36 of them, for your summer reading project. And oh, yes, there are more Dick film projects on the way: five of his novels have been optioned by such brahmin types as Joel Silver and Steven Soderbergh. Miramax has rights to the early story 'The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford.' Will they get made? Who knows? PKD imagined many futurist infernos, but Development Hell is Hollywood's invention. The important thing is that the movie people are trying, and paying.

One gauge of Dick's increased worth: the rights to print 'Paycheck' in 1954 cost Imagination magazine $195; the rights to film it in 2003 cost Paramount 10,000 times as much — about $2 million, according to the splendid PKD overview Frank Rose wrote for Wired. That money went to the Philip K. Dick estate. The author died, at 53, in 1982, three months before the premiere of 'Blade Runner.' He was one of those prophets whose wisdom is posthumously discovered in an attic of trash. Posterity has declared such artists immortal, and we are the richer for their bounty. Which is great if you're us, not so fabulous if you're Van Gogh, Kafka, Emily Dickinson or Phil Dick.

IV. STRANGE MEMORIES OF DEATH'It is Jane-in-me now, the anima or female principle.... It is Jane trying to die. Or rather, it is a rerun of Jane who actually died... But if Jane-in-me dies, she will carry me (the male twin) with her, so I must not succumb.' — PKD in 1975, quoted by Sutin

On December 16, 1928, in Chicago, fraternal twins — Philip Kindred Dick and his sister Jane Charlotte — were born six weeks prematurely to Edgar Dick, an officer in the Department of Agriculture, and his wife Dorothy. Early in 1929, Dorothy accidentally burned Jane with a hot-water bottle. The infant was six weeks old when she died. Out of his loss, Phil was granted an invisible playmate and eternal soul-mate — also, perhaps, someone against whose impossible ideal all other women, from his mother to his five wives to the clich'-ridden females in so many of his stories, would be measured and found wanting. 'She died of neglect and starvation,' Dick told Paul Williams for the 1975 Rolling Stone interview that put him finally in the mainstream. 'Injury, neglect and starvation.'

Physically, Phil grew to be tall and robust; psychologically, he was frail, painfully shy (agoraphobic, he put it). But he took jobs in retail, including one at a record store, and struck up a few intimate relationships, one of which led to a quickie marriage in his teens; a divorce was soon granted on the grounds that she had threaten to smash his beloved record collection. (Another future movie reference: 'Diner'!) At 21, he married the vibrant Kleo Apostolides.

One evening Dick accompanied Kleo to a writer's workshop and met his first guru and enabler, William Anthony Parker White, whose primary pen name was Anthony Boucher. Boucher encouraged the young writer to pursue SF and bought his first attempt, 'Roog,' for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which Boucher edited. Before that story came out, though, Dick had sold another piece, 'Beyond Lies the Wub,' and enjoyed a surge of pride at seeing his first published story 'in the most lurid of all the pulp magazines on the stands at the time, Planet Stories.' The euphoria didn't last. 'As I carried four copies into the record store where I worked, a customer gazed at me and them, with dismay, and said, 'Phil, you read that kind of stuff?' I had to admit I not only read it, I wrote it.'

The prolific young writer found another supporter in Ace Books' Don Wolheim, the Roger Corman of SF. Wolheim, who in 1943 had edited the first anthology with the words science fiction on the cover, was named Ace editor-in-chief in 1952. Adhering to pinchpenny rules laid down by his boss, pulp tycoon A.A. Wyn, he would pay $1200-1500 for a full novel, $500-750 for a shorter one that would be printed as half of an Ace Double. In an Ace Double, Wolheim published Dick's first novel, the 1955 'Solar Lottery' (and 19 other Dick novels and story collections thereafter). Karen Anderson quotes SF editor Terry Carr as saying, 'If the Holy Bible was printed as an Ace Double, it would be cut down to two 20,00-word halves with the Old Testament retitled as 'Master of Chaos' and the New Testament as 'The Thing With Three Heads'.'

At any price, for any publisher, Dick typed furiously. By 1958, when he turned 30, he had written 13 novels and some 80 short stories that redefined SF. Not to get too nuts about Dick's early output, but in quantity, and arguably in quality, this geyser of good work compares to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald a generation before (three novels, 41 stories and a play from 1920 to 1925, when he was 29). For this work, Fitzgerald won riches and renown. Dick would have to wait a while for that payback — 20 years after his death.


'Very few SF stories come true. Fortunately.' — PKD, 1966

Science fiction writers of the 50s, in the first era of government schemes for space travel, imagined Martian colonies and transport from one planet or galaxy to another at the flip of a switch. Often their stories were set in the early 21st century: now. And they are about as accurate in the details of their-future our-present as the makers of ancient science fiction movies were about what became the future past. In the 1930 'Just Imagine,' set in the New York of 1980, people's names had evolved into license-plate jumbles of letters and numbers, and babies were delivered from slot machines. Granted, the tone was facetious; the film was a DeSylva, Brown and Henderson musical comedy.

But even a serious SF writer's view of the future was, typically, both expansive and presumptive. He took on faith that what was starting to happen now would continue to blossom, and rarely factored in the possibility that the people who ran the most powerful nations might shift gears, reverse the trajectory of progress. He had the imagination to predict a man on the moon, for example, but not that the moon walks would last little more than three years, from July 20, 1969, to December 14,1972. The SF writer was an optimist about science and a pessimist about humans. His stories were dreams of technological Utopias in which nightmares of personal and political dystopia were played out.

Dick volunteered some of his notions about the real future for David Wallechinsky's 1981 'Book of Predictions'; the piece is reprinted in 'The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings.' He declared that by 1985 'there will be a titanic nuclear accident in the USSR or in the United States, resulting in a shutting down of all nuclear power plants.' (The Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in April 1986.) He predicted that in 1993 'an artificial life form will be produced in a lab.' (Dolly the cloned sheep was born, so to speak, in 1997.) By 1995, 'Computer use by ordinary citizens ... will transform the public from passive viewers of TV into mentally alert, highly trained information-processing experts.' (TIME went online that year.)

He also foresaw that 'an alien virus, brought back by an interplanetary ship, will decimate the population of Earth,' and that in 2010 the Soviet Union ... but who had the prognostic chops to see that the U.S.S.R. would disappear in 1989? The predictions were lighthearted, non-binding, irrelevant to his reputation. Dick knew that his job was not to handicap the future. It was to explain the present. He had big visions but didn't sweat the details. 'Phil's approach to technology,' Sutin notes, 'was, simply, to make up whatever gizmo he needed to keep his characters' realities in suitably extreme states.'

For Dick, outer space was a metaphor for inner turmoil. As he wrote in 1977, 'I became educated to the fact that the greatest pain does not come zooming down from a distant planet, but from the depths of the heart. Of course, both could happen; your wife and child could leave you, and you could be sitting alone in your empty house with nothing to live for, and in addition the Martians could bore through the roof and get you.'


'I have written and sold 23 novels, and all are terrible except one. But I am not sure which one.' — PKD, 1966

By 1954 Phil was the hot new kid. At an SF convention he was photographed by veteran writer A. E. VanVogt, whose 1948 novel 'The World of Null-A' dealt with 'implanted false memories,' a favorite Dick device. But even the most prolific author of speculative fiction could not easily support himself and his wife. Instead of steak, they bought horsemeat. 'Paycheck' could have been a parable of the SF writer's economic lot: trading in a real fortune for the chance to control his destiny and extend his legacy.

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