How Philip K. Dick became a literary lodestone for the modern age

The troubled writer produced a stream of novels and stories during his strange, short life, works mostly ignored in his lifetime but which have grown in relevance and resonance over the years

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 December, 2015, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2015, 1:56pm

There are few science-fiction writers more popular or praised than Philip K. Dick, an author so well-known that his books now come emblazoned with his initials, PKD, in giant letters on the cover.

His novel Ubik was the only sci-fi work to make Time magazine’s 2010 list of the 100 greatest novels published since the magazine’s 1923 debut. At least a dozen feature films have been based on his writings.

And now, Amazon Studios has released the latest adaptation, the 10-part television series The Man in the High Castle. It’s the second TV series based on his work to debut in the United States this autumn, following Fox’s Minority Report.

If only he had lived to see it. Philip K. Dick’s short, strange life came stuffed with many ironies and contradictions, but the greatest of all was that after three decades of toiling for modest popularity and little money, he died in California in 1982 aged 53, just three months before his fortunes would have changed wildly.

Dick wrote 45 novels and more than 120 short stories from 1951 to 1982, and he certainly was acclaimed in science-fiction circles. But science fiction then was a small genre, dismissed by the larger literary community. He struggled financially for most of his life.

And finances weren’t Dick’s only struggle. Almost certainly mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, Dick also battled his inner demons constantly. He abused drugs, writing most of his novels while on amphetamines. He attempted suicide at least twice.

He experienced visions and at one point claimed to be living two lives simultaneously, his own and that of a first-century Roman soldier. He also was given to fits of extreme paranoia. He once wrote a letter to the FBI to warn that Polish writer Stanislaw Lem was actually the creation of communist propagandists.

All of that combined to produce a writer of extraordinary vision and imagination, but also one given to generic prose and lapses of clarity. He not only wrote most of his novels on speed, he wrote them with speed, often churning a book out in a few weeks.

But for all their technical unimpressiveness, they contain intriguing ideas about alternate realities, dual personalities and secretive, prying governments that the individual cannot escape.

There’s something there in PKD’s work that speaks to our fears of being continually watched, of watching ourselves, of perhaps not being human any more
David Sandner, California State University

Eventually, Hollywood discovered Dick’s work, beginning with Blade Runner, the classic film based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It premiered three months after his death and it marked the beginning of three decades of growing popularity that has yet to abate.

What has caused the PKD explosion? Perhaps it’s a result of Hollywood’s love affair with the man’s work, which prompts fans to find the source material.

Or maybe our modern technological society, where in our online lives virtually all of us maintain multiple personalities and live in fear of surveillance and lack of privacy, has finally got to the point where we can appreciate Dick’s ideas.

“It is very tangled,” says David Sandner, a professor at California State University and an expert in science-fiction and fantasy literature. “But I think it is more the latter: there’s something there in PKD’s work that speaks to our fears of being continually watched, of watching ourselves, of perhaps not being human any more but only peddling in identities that are commodified and controlled.

“Our society has become only more alienating, paranoid and uncanny since he wrote, and so he seems to tell us something about trying, perhaps futilely, to be human today.”

In 1972, Dick attempted suicide while on a trip to Vancouver. After he recovered, he was reluctant to return to the San Francisco area, where he had lived since childhood. He wrote to fellow science-fiction writer and friend Ursula K. Le Guin about staying with her family in Oregon.

Le Guin, with two young children, was reluctant to let her troubled friend stay at her home. Around the same time, California State University professor Willis McNelly, a recent acquaintance, extended an invitation to visit. McNelly had discussed the idea of the college becoming the repository for Dick’s papers, and he was eager for Dick to come to Orange County.

Dick took up McNelly’s offer, taking a small apartment with two college-student roommates. Dick openly bristled at Orange County’s conservatism and its suburban housing tracts. But he stayed the rest of his life.

“Generally he liked it here,” Sandner says “It was a relatively stable and productive period for him. By the end, with Blade Runner coming out, he even had some financial stability, too.

“But beyond that, I think he enjoyed the odd, built environments here, like Disneyland, that, instead of trying to be real, revel in being simulacra. He didn’t head for the beaches and the sun; he liked the odder elements of Orange County … He wrote novels set among the chain stores and peopled by those living outside the walled enclaves here. This place inspired him.”

Tribune News Service