When an art form or genre once dismissed as kids’ stuff starts to get taken seriously by gatekeepers – by journals, for example, such as the one you are reading now – respect doesn’t come smoothly, or all at once. Often one artist gets lifted above the rest, his principal works exalted for qualities that other works of the same kind seem not to possess. Later on, the quondam genius looks, if no less talented, less solitary: first among equals, or maybe just first past the post. That is what happened to rock music in the late 1960s, when sophisticated critics decided, as Richard Poirier put it, to start ‘learning from the Beatles’. It is what happened to comics, too, in the early 1990s, when the Pulitzer Prize committee invented an award for Art Spiegelman’s Maus. And it has happened to science fiction, where the anointed author is Philip K. Dick.
When he died in 1982, Dick was a cult figure, admired unreservedly in the science fiction subculture, and in the American counterculture as a chronicler of psychedelia and fringe religion. By then he had published more than thirty novels, most of them as fleeting mass-market paperbacks, and well over a hundred short stories, most of them in SF magazines. By dying in March, Dick missed the May premiere of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the first movie made from his work. Twenty-six years on, eight more films have come out of Dick’s fiction, among them the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall (1990) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). Vintage – the American imprint responsible for Nabokov and Naipaul – issues most of Dick’s fiction in uniform editions, including works left in manuscript at his death; other publishers have collected his essays, his letters, his interviews and his complete short stories in five volumes (there is also a selection by Jonathan Lethem in one volume). And in a final sign of respectability, the Library of America – whose enterprise began with Melville and Hawthorne – now offers Dick in two volumes, with more promised soon: the first volume, released in 2007, sold faster by far than anything else on the Library’s list.
Novelists with clear literary pedigrees now write SF regularly: Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Kazuo Ishiguro. Authors who began inside the SF ghetto have found success outside it: J.G. Ballard as an author of realist novels, Samuel Delany in academia, William Gibson, Lethem himself (whose first books owed a lot to Dick). The sciences – biomedical sciences, climatology, ecology, information technology – seem omnipresent now. It should surprise no one that at least one writer who spent most of his life in SF has gained Dick’s posthumous eminence. But why him?
Dick manifestly led a troubled life. Born in 1928, a twin whose sister died soon after birth, he spent his childhood in relative poverty with his divorced mother. The dead sister – like almost everything else in Dick’s early life – has fictional analogues: in Dr Bloodmoney (1965), we meet a girl ‘whose brother lived inside her body’, a telepathic foetus-sized homunculus who communicates only with her. When Dick reached school age, mother and son moved to Berkeley, where she worked as a clerk, cared for her schizophrenic sister, and became an avid consumer of prescription tranquillisers, while he underwent psychoanalysis in his teens. An indifferent, shy student beset by panic attacks, he delved early into SF, post-Freudian thought (especially Jung) and classical music (his characters have a particular taste for Mahler and for the Elizabethan composer John Dowland). In 1947 the awkward young man with literary ambitions moved into a flat with other young littérateurs, including the future avant-garde poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. He also took a job in a record store, where he met his first wife (they split up after six months) and then his second, Kleo, who introduced him to Bay Area hard-left politics and became his first willing muse.
Throughout the 1950s, Dick worked on realist novels, completing at least eight, though none found publishers. Meanwhile, he tried to earn money through science fiction, which he wrote astonishingly fast. He sold his first story in 1951; in 1953 he sold 30. A decade later – with the help of amphetamines, which he consumed in bulk – Dick could write, and sell, as many as four novels in one year. Not only could he; he felt that he had to, for the money, and until about 1970 he wrote as copiously as he could. There would be five wives and three children (not counting stepchildren): more than he could support comfortably by even the speediest, sloppiest SF, especially since he didn’t want his wives to work. Though he defended the genre in essays, his sometime resentment shows up in his many self-hating low-status protagonists: unappreciated and underemployed repairmen, a designer of Barbie-doll props, a man who ‘retreads’ used tyres to be sold as new.
SF fans honoured Dick early, giving their highest award, the Hugo, to The Man in the High Castle (1962). Other 1960s readers in search of alternatives to realism – the readers who embraced such dissimilar authors as Robert A. Heinlein and J.R.R. Tolkien – discovered Dick too. He lived, conveniently, in the Bay Area, where dropouts, hippies and SF devotees gathered around him: he welcomed them. In 1967 Dick boasted (he was probably lying) that he had composed The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) while on LSD. By 1968, he was in touch with Timothy Leary, and in trouble for non-payment of taxes. By 1972 he was a wreck, preoccupied with conspiracies and nearly unable to write: after giving the keynote address (‘The Android and the Human’) at the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention, he announced that he intended to stay in Canada, tried to kill himself there, checked into rehab, then went to California and moved in with the teenager who would become his fifth wife.
Beset by psychiatric symptoms (radios spoke to him, for example), Dick then had the life-altering vision he had given to so many of his characters: on 2 March 1974, he believed, a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS), or perhaps God, ‘fired a beam of pink light directly at him, at his head, his eyes’. Dick had by then all the recognition the insular world of SF could give, but recognition from outside kept growing, especially after Paul Williams’s 1975 profile in Rolling Stone. Dick’s final years – less prolific but by no means sterile – brought attempts to explain ‘2-3-74’, in essays, in the more careful prose of the last novels and in the mammoth, unpublishable ‘Exegesis’, several thousand pages high, now stored with the rest of Dick’s papers at the University of California, San Diego.
Dick said near the end of his life that he was ‘into power’: ‘Instead of society moulding me,’ he claimed, ‘I mould it.’ His late belief in his own visionary importance puts into new, sad light the schlubby repairmen, newspaper-puzzle obsessives and helpless Organisation Men in Dick’s earlier works: these little people stuck in large systems, with their frustrated hopes and their cartoonish (mostly bad) sex lives, align Dick less with other SF writers than with other mordant Californian satirists, such as Nathanael West.
Dick should be placed close to psychoanalysis, too: not so much the kind Freud practised, but the kind that coated American popular culture in the years Dick started to write. His characters wonder whether they count as neurotic or psychotic, whether they are sufficiently masculine or feminine, whether they should see a specialist about their complexes. By far the most important psychiatric label in Dick’s work is ‘paranoid’: his protagonists wonder whether someone or something is manipulating all they see. Usually the answer is ‘yes’: Dick’s characters must detect ‘the enemy, with its infiltrating tactics, its systematic contamination of institutions … of the domestic life itself’. That enemy may be a phalanx of telepaths and precognitives employed in corporate espionage (Ubik); a squad of doppelgangers from alternative timelines (Now Wait for Last Year); drug-enforcement agents whose high-tech ‘scramble suits’ make them unrecognisable even to one another (A Scanner Darkly); or androids who pass for human (almost every book). Such plots draw at once on the Red Scare mentality – anyone might be a secret Communist, and any Communist a double agent – and on what Dick knew of clinical mental illness.
Both political and psychoanalytic paranoia, for Dick, induce ontological vertigo. If you accept the Official Version, you will never know what’s really going on; once you step outside it, you will never know either, since nothing can falsify the hypothesis that everything is fake. Jason Taverner in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), a famous actor stuck in an alternative universe where he is unemployed and unknown, asks a young woman whether he is ‘a hallucination of yours’; she responds: ‘Maybe … you’re a product of my delusional mind.’ The worst thing that can happen to Dick’s characters – and it happens to them over and over again – is to discover that they inhabit the mind of someone else, someone who ‘can kick over the scenery, manifest himself, push things in any direction he chooses. Even be any of us.’ They may also live in a fragile afterlife, having died without realising it, or in the Potemkin world of a demiurge, its pasteboard walls easy to see as crumbling fakes.
Dick’s novels, reread, invite us to pick one page and draw a thick line across it, separating the novel into before and after the protagonist learns (or believes he has learned) what’s really going on: often we realise, far into the after portion, that we may never know. ‘You have bumped the door of life open with your big, dense head,’ Taverner says to himself, ‘and now it can’t be closed.’ Dick wrote in 1980 that his early realist novels failed because ‘they required the reader to accept my premise that each of us lives in a unique world.’ This notion of incommensurable public and private experience (one of them is a delusion, but which one?) has parallels not only in the drug culture whose ‘freaked-out paranoid space’ he anticipated, not only in the highbrow sources he used (Jung, the pre-Socratics, the Gnostics), but also in the diaries of his mother, who decided, when her sister died, that ‘each person has another world in him and that no one really belongs to the world as it is.’
It is a short step from discovering that the world we know is a fake or a cheat to discovering that human beings are themselves factitious: that we are robots, ‘simulacra’ (the title of one of Dick’s novels), ‘just reflex machines’, ‘repeating doomed patterns, a single pattern, over and over’ in accordance with biological or economic ukases. Where other SF asks whether made-up entities (aliens, androids, emoting computers etc) deserve the respect we give real human beings, Dick more often asks whether we ought to view ourselves as fakes or machines. The ‘Proxmen’ or ‘Proxers’ – humanoids from Proxima Centauri – in much of Dick’s fiction deserve the nickname because they are near-undetectable ‘Approximations’: you or I might be an approximation too, a ‘robot who has functioned alongside humans, believing himself – itself – human’.
Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the basis for Blade Runner, finds and kills androids for a living; he also sees himself as a machine, dependent on anatomy (‘his adrenal gland … ceased pumping its several secretions’) as robots depend on circuitry. Dick makes Deckard’s job seem mechanical, constrained, repetitive (though Blade Runner makes it seem exciting); he goes out of his way, too, to dramatise the androids’ feelings, especially their fear of death (they look like adults but last, at most, a few years). Androids resemble robots elsewhere in Dick, but they also recall fugitive slaves, and other figures outside SF, who survive by concealing their status as legal non-persons. These resemblances are one reason (Blade Runner is another) why Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? remains Dick’s best-known book, despite the baldness of its prose: ‘“Do you think androids have souls?” Rick interrupted.’
Do Androids? is also a book about authentic feeling, about how and when we can trust our emotions. Deckard and his wife own a ‘mood organ’, which induces emotions in the way that electric organs create notes; he detects androids via the Voigt-Kampff test, which measures empathy (the plot concerns new androids who can pass it). The saint of its new religion, Mercerism (omitted from Blade Runner), is at once Everyman, Christ and Sisyphus, forever pushing a rock up a hill. ‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go,’ Mercer tells Rick in a vision; ‘the basic condition of life’ involves being ‘required to violate your own identity’. Such elements push the book towards tragedy: whether we are really what we think we are becomes, for Deckard, less important than how to live with the fact that we fail.
Usually, though, the feelings in Dick are thinner, less various, catharsis and pathos overwhelmed by metaphysical bafflement, suspense or farce. Most of Dick’s protagonists have simple motivations (survival, money, sex, addiction, institutional loyalty) and even simpler inner lives. This dispels some of the force behind his insistent questions about what counts as a person, since his people are more like robots or programs than the characters in more realistic or lyrical fiction. And yet the questions remain: they are ones (as professional philosophers sometimes recognise) that science fiction is uniquely equipped to dramatise, since the limitless supply of aliens, ‘homosimulacric substitutes’ and thinking machines in SF also gives a limitless supply of hard cases for theories of individuality and personhood.
Dick’s next-most-famous book holds up less well. The Man in the High Castle begins as alternative history. The Axis has won the Second World War, and California subsists under the relatively gentle hand of Imperial Japan: ambitious white people imitate Japanese manners, everyone relies on the I Ching, and almost everyone has heard about a scandalous novel-within-the-novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies won the war. When one character drives to Wyoming to meet the author, she learns that the I Ching determined much of his novel (‘It and I long ago arrived at an agreement regarding royalties’): we learn that the characters are – surprise! – works of fiction, not quite able to see that our world, not theirs, is real. Dick hardly invented this sort of ending – see Unamuno, or Pirandello – but it was new to SF, which meant that the relatively polished prose got more praise than it might appear to deserve.
Before he became a successful SF novelist himself, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a doctoral thesis on Dick, which was published in 1984. For Robinson the discovery of discoveries, in Dick, is simply entropy, the fact that everything – individuals, civilisations, solar systems – will run down and die. Physicists call this the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but Dick’s characters use more colloquial names. In Do Androids? it is ‘kipple’, the junk into which neglected parts of a depopulated Earth decay; in Martian Time-Slip (1964) it is ‘gubbish’ or ‘gubble’, at first the nonsense words that the precognitive child Manfred repeats, and later his names for the rubble that life on Mars will become. In A Scanner Darkly (1977) it is the drug Substance D, nicknamed ‘slow death’; one bad trip reveals a ‘coating of dog shit’ over everything the user sees. The people in Ubik enter a universe in which things age too fast – coffee, once ordered, arrives scummy, ‘inert and ancient’ – while American history moves backwards; both retrograde and fast-forward time travel remind us that all life ends in death. Ubik stands out for its metafictional game-playing (more complicated, and more fun, than the self-conscious literariness of High Castle), and for its colourful mockery of market-driven America, but most of all for the way in which Dick’s repertoire of grim secrets fuse into one secret, alternatively named entropy, the tendency of capital towards monopoly, and the Freudian death wish – a secret to which Dick then gives comic twists.
Drugs helped Dick build fables about (as he put it) ‘counterfeit worlds, semi-real worlds’, ‘deranged private worlds’. They also gave him an explicit subject. Flow My Tears is a book about Dick’s ambiguous fame (a celebrity within SF, an indebted scribbler outside it) but it is also a book about chemical dependence: ‘Maybe I only exist,’ Taverner muses, ‘so long as I take the drug.’ The best writing in Now Wait for Last Year (1966) describes drug withdrawal: ‘She sat rigidly, unable to move, incapable of thrusting her great body into any new relationship with the crushingly heavy objects that surrounded her … even the hand-wrought brass ashtray on her desk … shot out surfaces which, like spines, could tear her open.’
Depictions of drugs and depictions of fake or robotic people work well together in Dick’s books, since people whose moods depend on a single chemical (on what it does to them, or on how to get more of it) are as predictable, even robotic, as the rest of us might think we are not. Depictions of drugs and depictions of delusions work together in more obvious ways. Palmer Eldritch gets its plot from the competition between drugs: Can-D allows Martian colonists depressed by their hardscrabble lives to project themselves into shared fantasies based on Perky Pat and Walt (i.e. Barbie and Ken) dolls. Life with Can-D is predictable but consoling, like the SoCal suburbia Perky Pat simulates. As in suburbia, homesteaders have no alternative; none, that is, till the advent of Chew-Z, which is to Can-D as LSD and mescaline were to the tranquillisers that Dick’s mother took: exciting and unpredictable, but perhaps deranging too, Chew-Z may allow aliens to conquer Earth.
‘God knew how many pills he himself had swallowed during the last decade,’ Dick says of his hero in Martian Time-Slip. It seems hard to believe that someone who took so many pills at the start of the 1960s could be taking even more by the decade’s end, but Dick was: ‘a thousand tablets of Methedrine a week’, Emmanuel Carrère says in his biography, ‘and 40 mg of Stelazine a day – not to mention the various little fixes … that he could never turn down.’By 1970 Dick lived in the house whose highs and lows (mostly lows) he depicted in A Scanner Darkly, his grim attempt at a farewell to drug culture. The novel moves slowly, and feels too much like a memoir, until it reaches the rehab centre (X-Kalay in real life, New-Path in the novel) where the second half of A Scanner takes place. Rehab, a self-obsessed refuge with its own odd rules, turns out to be far too much like a long drug trip, and both, for Dick, are too much like SF itself: ‘Once you go in … you’re dead to the world.’
To read Dick’s fiction and then to read Carrère’s biography, paying close attention to dates, is to feel as if the entropy and exhaustion of resources in his fiction, the drugs, the dead ends and the religious extremes, predicted both the course of his life and the course of American culture. Paul Williams said as much in Rolling Stone: ‘Phil Dick is on the side of the crazy people, which makes him, indeed, a writer for our times.’ ‘Ubik is true,’ Dick told Williams, ‘and we’re in a sort of cave, like Plato said, and they’re showing us endless funky films.’ The funky parts of modern life – films, pills, joints, urban confusion, free love, SF itself – which promised to reveal a better reality instead turned out to be part of the veil. Like America, Dick in the late 1970s turned away from the counterculture, away from explicit politics, towards Christianity. His last three completed novels – the autobiographical, metafictional VALIS, the wildly allegorical The Divine Invasion and the non-SF roman à clef The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – give fictive shape to his religious visions, and to his doubts about them. That trilogy, perhaps with some late short stories, such as the haunting ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’, would give the Library a suitable third volume.
Thousands of SF fans own T-shirts with some variation on the slogan ‘Real life is for people who can’t handle science fiction.’ Dick makes that quip seem nearly plausible: ‘If you or I ever really accepted the moral responsibility for what we’ve done in our lifetime,’ he writes in Now Wait for Last Year, ‘we’d drop dead or go mad.’ Our faith in a supposed meritocracy that so often rewards wealth and connections, our dependence on non-renewable resources, our reliance for moral guidance on intuitions that may come from mere habit or from our genes: all these hypocrisies of modern life are dramatised in science fiction like Dick’s. Life on Mars is worse than life on Earth; life on Earth is always worse than you think, and worse than it was in the innocent 1950s – overpopulated and overheated, or radioactive and running down. Even in Dr Bloodmoney, which has a nuclear war in the middle (and the most hopeful parts at the end), Dick implies that our material conditions will get worse, our authorities more controlling, our creature comforts fewer, until we figure out how to get along without much that we thought we would always have.
Dick’s grim view of institutions goes hand in hand with his celebration of skilled trades: the good guys, from his first novel to his last, almost always work with their hands. (‘I have no politics,’ a village teacher in Dr Bloodmoney says. ‘I teach children how to make ink and soap and how to cut the tails from lambs even if the lambs are almost grown.’) At least until his late, religious phase, Dick’s writing seems designed to disenchant, to break us out of a capitalist dream. The conspiratorial politics, the ‘little men’ and their dull jobs, the philosophical thought experiments, the simulacra and fake worlds, the lack of interest in science as such, the illustrations of Cold War culture and later of drug culture, align him not so much with other SF writers as with other easy-to-teach academic staples of American postmodernism – Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, say, or Don DeLillo’s White Noise. That alignment has made him easier for the academy to accept.
Dick’s plotting can be a delight, or a letdown, or both. Several of these nine novels rely on time travel for their (unsatisfactory) endings, and most of the nine have unreliable pacing. All but Do Androids? and Ubik either begin too slowly, with confusing multiple narrators or overlong exposition, or end too suddenly, with large questions poorly resolved. Most of them feel as if, while finishing Chapter 5, Dick had no idea what Chapter 7 would hold; sometimes (Scanner and Ubik) he found what he needed to end the book and sometimes (Palmer Eldritch) he clearly didn’t.
Dick’s prose oscillates between workmanlike and incompetent: ‘Suddenly it came to him that he should kill himself. The idea appeared in his mind full blown, as if it had always been there’; ‘She plodded on, wincing at the pain, wishing she could find somebody.’ The worst moments in Dick’s 1950s and 1960s books combine the mechanical terms of Americanised psychoanalysis with the creaky mechanics of a fast-forward plot; sometimes they are unintentionally funny: ‘Listen, Anne, you have to knuckle down to what you call masculine domination and let my people edit what you write.’ Dick’s prose of the 1970s is never that bad: its worst parts are dull exposition, almost always about religion or drugs – but even its best parts are not good enough to hold attention for their style alone.
For a man so involved with science fiction, Dick paid little attention to science: his fiction has none of the wonder at scientific inquiry that gives much other SF (including Robinson’s) one reason for being. As for characters, Robinson listed Dick’s types: ‘the hapless protagonist, leaving his unimportant job and losing track of reality; the protagonist’s boss, forced by business concerns to harm the protagonist; the protagonist’s apathetic and clinging wife; a dangerous intense young woman; a cryptic religious leader’. He might have added ‘a disabled child who predicts the future’.
Such limits would vitiate any writer who wanted to represent rich or unique interior lives. But Dick wanted to represent ideas and worldviews, problems in social and abnormal psychology, theology, recreational pharmacology, and to do so in entertaining, suspenseful ways. He was a social satirist, an emblem-maker, a conceiver of allegorical devices, and he excelled when he made vigorous use of the talents he had: for outrageous (often cautionary) symbols, for making up (and then throwing away) figures who struggle to get through a day without falling through ontological trapdoors. Deckard is such a figure; so is the hapless, penniless Joe Chip in Ubik, and so are the people we meet at the start (not the end) of Palmer Eldritch, and at the end (not the start) of Dr Bloodmoney. Dick’s best local inventions are bleakly whimsical or obviously satirical: the talking doors in Ubik that demand payment before they will open; the mood organ; the stranded astronaut in Dr Bloodmoney, beaming music and DJ patter from his satellite down to a devastated Earth.
Emmanuel Carrère brings his skills as a novelist to I Am Alive and You Are Dead, which tells Dick’s life-story scrupulously and compellingly. He gives special emphasis to Dick’s grief over his dead sister, the source, Carrère thinks, of his afterlives and netherworlds. Dick’s plots also turn out to copy his domestic life: Now Wait for Last Year makes more sense (though it’s also less fun) if we see its time traveller – tied to his dominant spouse, drawn to a teenager, wondering whether he can change his past – as Dick deciding whether to leave his third wife. (He did; his hero didn’t.) Carrère sometimes doesn’t seem to realise just how selfish Dick’s treatment of his wives and their children looks. Dick told his fifth wife not to take an introductory German course, though he insisted on speaking the language to her; he did not want her to leave their house even for shopping. An unfriendly reader might associate Dick’s signature themes – the Pyrrhonism, the solipsism, the conspiracy theories, the all-or-nothing visions – with the way that Dick lived: he was not, it seems, secure enough in himself (in his own reality, as he might have put it) to treat the people around him, his wives and children and friends, as if they were real too. The loneliness of the paranoid, of the desperate unappreciated craftsman, of the countercultural voyageur on a bad trip, seems to have been a spur to his writing, and an explanation for his repellent behaviour, which Carrère documents with skill, if not grace.
Carrère’s biography, in other words, does for Dick what Julie Phillips’s longer, and even more compelling, James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon (2006) did for a less prolific, less well known but at least equally admirable writer who earned fame in the 1960s and 1970s within the SF subculture.The feisty child of a difficult mother who took her along on African safaris, Alice Sheldon wrote science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr before and after readers learned her true name: she also had a PhD in psychology and worked for the agency that became the CIA. Tiptree won over SF’s feminists in the 1970s – both the irenic ones such as Ursula K. Le Guin and radicals such as Joanna Russ – even while other readers felt sure that Tiptree was a man.
Sheldon held Dick’s writing in higher regard than he held it himself, though she did not take him up on his offer to collaborate; she stands out now not only for her bracing mix of feminism and pessimism, but (at her best) for her prose, which could draw (as Dick rarely could) both on the resources of her chosen genre and on the legacy of older literature. Behind its comically complicated plot – half Star Trek, half Nicholas Nickleby – Tiptree’s last novel, Brightness Falls from the Air (1985) is a wise and saddened exploration of our need for art, our desire for escape, and our self-conscious, half-guilty attraction to useless beauty. Tiptree’s best stories remain in print in a small-press selection, brought out without fanfare four years ago.Now that we have so much of Dick in durable volumes, somebody ought to bring back Tiptree too.