Philip K Dick was a member of a select group of artists, those who – only after their death – achieve the status they longed for in life. Dick wrote more than 30 novels and over 100 short stories. However, none of them received the respect that he longed for while he was alive. Part of the problem was that many of the novels and short stories were science fiction pot boilers that he wrote to make a living. This is not to say that these works weren’t good but many of the books upon which his posthumous reputation rests weren’t published until after his death.
Throughout his life, Dick suffered from various ailments – including vertigo – that gave him a sense that he was dislocated from real life. This would become a major theme in his work over the years. He studied philosophy in university and after studying Plato and other philosophers, he came to the conclusion that the world was not entirely real. This would also surface again and again in his writing.
On the website, The Modern Word, Richard Behren and Allen B. Ruch have written about Dick’s works:
“… beneath their direct style and standard sci-fi trappings lies a deeper world of intense emotions, metaphysical speculation, and frequently shocking ideas … Dick’s own contribution back to the science fiction genre was an unrelenting analysis of the question “What is Real?” Also central to his literature was the equally important question of “What Is Human?” From his early short stories to his final masterpieces, he asks these questions over and over again, often coming up with answers as deceptively simple as “What makes us human is our ability to feel empathy for other living creatures.””
Between the years of 1952 and 1955, Dick published over 70 short stories, all for science fiction magazines. He attempted to write mainstream fiction for a time but couldn’t find a publisher, so went back to writing science fiction again. By the end of the 60s, he’d become a cult figure in the science fiction community. (It’s a little-known fact that John Lennon called Philip K Dick from his “bed-in” to discuss one of Dick’s novels which Lennon hoped to film). However, he had also begun the descent that would lead to his premature death.
He had for years been taking amphetamines; in the early 70s, he started to experiment with a variety of different pills. His house in California was invaded by junkies and various other strays, and he became increasingly paranoid and convinced that the FBI had him under surveillance. A break-in at his house didn’t help matters, although it was suggested that he may have planned the break-in himself.
In 1974, Dick had what he called a “religious experience” and, from then on, began to experience hallucinations and started to believe that some form of intelligence (possibly God) was sending him information. He also believed that he was leading a double life – one in the present as Philip K Dick, the other in 1st Century Rome as a Christian named Thomas. Given that he had written about similar subject matter in some of his books (most notably A Scanner Darkly) one wonders was it a case of (a very drug-addled) life imitating art. However, while he was most certainly drug-dependant and possibly delusional, none of his friends or his associates at the time seemed to think he was mentally unstable. And, indeed, he himself seemed to acknowledge that the ideas would be regarded as the ravings of a madman because he continuously tried to explain or to rationalise them in both his later novels and his journal, an astonishing 1,000 page tome which he titled The Exegesis.
Dick’s years of self-abuse finally took their toll in 1982, when he died from complications brought on by a series of strokes at the age of 53. His death came four months prior to the release of the film Blade Runner, the first film to be based on one of his stories. Dick had seen and liked the film but didn’t live to see its release. This may have been just as well as the film was a flop. However, over the years it has garnered a cult following, and numerous other movies have been made from his works (not to mention inspired by – The Matrix could have been written by Dick). He is now regarded as one of the great American science fiction writers. This is gratifying to see as Dick’s themes of identity confusion and the blurring of fiction and reality are perfect for our postmodern times.
And, in a twist that Dick would no doubt have loved, a Philip K Dick android was built in 2005. The estate of PKD and his two daughters gave David Hanson and Andrew Olney – who built the android – unpublished works which were downloaded into the android’s “brain”. The android made various appearances – one of which was at the San Diego Comic Convention to promote the movie of A Scanner Darkly – and the android answered questions from the audience.
Sometime afterwards, Hanson – travelling in transit with the android’s head – left it behind on a flight and it disappeared. In 2010, the head was once again built and you can see video of it here
(Images: Click the pics for credits)
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