That Old Feeling: You Know Dick

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'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.' — Philip K. Dick, Introduction to 'The Golden Man,' 1980

Fifty years ago you could have found some of the most imaginative, rule- and mind-bending fiction, published at an insanely prolific rate. If only you knew where to look. Not in The New Yorker or Esquire or The Partisan Review — at least, not for our immediate purposes — but in tatty 35-cent magazines dedicated to science fiction. Jorge Luis Borges and Ursula K. LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut and Doris Lessing would later put SF (that's the short form, folks; never, ever sci-fi) between hard covers; they won prizes and peer plaudits. But in the 50s, mad gnomes were grinding out SF tales, faster and sometimes better than the upmarket folks, but always cheaper, for the pulps: Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Beyond Fantasy Fiction and two dozen others that clogged undiscriminating newsstands.

In 1953, on the instantly-yellow pages of these infra-dig rags, one could often find the work of a 24-year-old Cal-Berkeley dropout, Philip K. Dick. When he tapped into his voluptuous unconscious to write SF, it was an instant love-hate relationship: he loved the fiction, hated the anonymity and ignominy of the SF writer's status. As Karen Anderson, wife of author Poul Anderson, remarked about SF genre writing in the 50s: 'You knew you had the shitty end of the stick, but at least you had your hand on the stick.' Dick had the stick but recoiled from its stink. He wanted to be a mainstream novelist. Writing SF, he felt like a betrayer of his higher metier — like a whore, and one who was underpaid and underappreciated. Most editors, critics and consumers of contemporary fiction didn't know Dick, and the ones who did gave him the creeps: 'The early fans were just trolls and wackos ... terribly ignorant and weird people.' As Lawrence Sutin notes in his probing and trustworthy biography 'Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick': 'What do you make of a genre that seldom attracts readers who are self-supporting?'

But it is as true for writers as it is for race-car drivers and porn actors: you do what you're good at. Dick could write fast and smart, and soon the young comer was everywhere: 28 stories published in 1953, another 35 in 1954. Consider just a fraction of this output. In the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction Dick had a story called 'Second Variety,' about a sophisticated line of robots that threaten to take over the earth at the end of a long war. In June, Astounding Science Fiction ran a Dick story called 'The Impostor': a man is shocked to be told he's a robot programmed to destroy the earth. The same month, in Imagination, Dick's story 'Paycheck' told of an engineer whose memory is erased after two years' work on a secret project; he must reconstruct his lost time to save the earth. The following year Dick wrote, for Fantastic Universe, 'The Minority Report,' in which a society that has obliterated all murders, by reading the minds of people who might commit them, hunts down the man in charge of this 'pre-crime' program.


'You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood.' — PKD, 1980

Dick's Mensa adventure tales usually had a surprise ending, but you have already deduced the twist to this account of the writer's early years. All four of the stories mentioned in the last paragraph were made into medium or big budget movies — respectively, 'Screamers' (1995), 'Impostor' (2002), 'Paycheck' (now in theaters) and 'Minority Report' (2002). His novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' became 'Blade Runner' in 1982. The story 'We Can Remember It for You Wholesale' was adapted as 'Total Recall' in 1990, and two years later the French director J'r'me Boivin made the perverse bijou 'Confessions d'un Barjo' from Dick's non-SF novel 'Confessions of a Crap Artist.' Besides adapting his stories, Hollywood plugged into Dick's ideas. The Ian Holm character in 'Alien' — the astronaut who discovers, too late, that he's a robot — is straight from 'Impostor.' Many other Dick tales probe our ignorance, or dawning awareness, of reality, whatever that is. (Vladimir Nabokov wrote that reality is 'one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes.') Spencer Olham in 'Impostor' and Garson Poole in 'The Electric Ant,' to name just two of Dick's clueless heroes, have imagined they were human, only to be told they were androids. They are like Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), the mad scientist in David Cronenberg's 'The Fly,' who, as he devolves from one species to another, has the very Dickian insight that 'I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man — and loved it! But now the dream is over. And the insect is awake.'

Another, gentler phrase for fraudulent reality is virtual reality. What is 'The Matrix' but a Dick-ensian plot writ large? It tells us that we are all asleep, cocooned in ignorance, and the matrix dreams our dreams for us and calls it reality. Another SF film of 1999, Cronenberg's 'eXistenZ,' spun Dickian conceits around a creepy video game. 'You don't play the game,' says its creator (Jennifer Jason Leigh). 'The game plays you.'

The difference between Dick and the concocters of these virtual reality thrillers: they were playing with ideas generated by the video-game cult; Dick conjured up these notions decades before Pong, let alone Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Dick says he invented the idea of a man who didn't know he was a robot, and that he'd send his lawyers after anyone who used it. If he had patented another of his familiar plot devices — the man whose memories are implanted ('We Can Remember It for You Wholesale') or erased ('Paycheck') — he could have shut down production of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' co-written by Charlie Kaufman. directed by Michel Goudry and due out in March. In it Jim Carrey learns that girlfriend Kate Winslet has had her memories of their relationship erased. So he goes to her doctor to have her removed from his own memory. But during the process he falls in love with her again — and has a mighty brain battle with the doctor to reclaim the memory of a love he can't get out of his head.


"What Franz Kafka was to the first half of the 20th century, Philip K. Dick is to the second half." — Art Spiegelman, author of 'Maus'

The influence of Dick's work is not only, or even mainly, on film. Philadicktion is everywhere. It would be lovely to invent a what-if, an alternative reality, in which the author somehow survived to see the flourishing of his reputation: cover-story tributes in the New York Times Book Review and The New Republic; the opera from his novel 'Valis'; the Mabou Mines' stage production of 'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said'; the issuing of old novels (some published for the first time) in spiffy editions; a generation of readers avid for his synoptic, dystopic visions. Punk bands, for their own or their songs' names, have purloined PKD phrases; cyberpunk fiction copped his attitude. French philosophers offered lavish and indulgent exegeses of his visions — in early 1974 Dick experienced glimpses, or delusions, of a godhead he called VALIS — and R. Crumb illustrated them in 'The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick.'

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