Speed Reading: the 44 novels of Philip K. Dick
"Often people claim to remember past lives," prolific science fiction author Philip K. Dick once said. "I claim to remember a different, very different, present life."
Dick doesn't have readers -- he has disciples. Once upon a time, he was churning out sci-fi pulp, but longing to be taken seriously as a writer. The next thing, he had followers hanging on his every word. Now, a quarter-century or so after his death, Phil is nothing short of prophet.
Philip K. Dick's legacy goes way beyond the 44 novels he left us with. Any decent, imaginative writer can fire up a science fiction plot. No one but Philip K. Dick ever actually lived those stories. To say that Dick was a conundrum is woefully inadequate. As much a philosopher as a writer, Dick's otherworldly themes included parallel universes, simulacra, androids, hallucinogens, theogony, theology, mind programming, metaphysical possibilities, and the illusory nature of reality. Dick didn't write about ideas he imagined or made up. He wrote about the things he experienced in everyday life.
But the line between visionary and lunatic is a blurry one. Yes, he was a profound mystic. But he was also mad as a hatter. From early childhood, he sought psychiatric help for various concerns like agoraphobia, disturbing nightmares, anxiety attacks and paranoia. By adulthood, he was completely unhinged. A label diagnosis, however, proved elusive: the state of Dick's mental health was erratic enough to be full-blown schizophrenia. The special visions from God plus the ever-present certainty of KGB spies seemed to confirm this. But some wondered about temporal lobe epilepsy, which would explain the religious hallucinations, the 'information beams' from God, and symptoms like macropsia and micropsia -- where you suddenly feel you are very big, or very small -- intriguing symptoms not common to other mental disorders. Yet his last wife, Tessa, states that her husband had multiple personalities.
But Dick was perfectly lucid much of the time; he was so intrigued by the moments of madness that he would dissect them, prying apart the very nature of our minds, or reality, or spirits. And this is the magic stuff of his books, this intrepid travelogue between universes. In the author's own words, "In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real."
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928 alongside his twin sister, Jane. Her death a few weeks later hovered over Phil for the duration of his life. Jane died from malnutrition -- Mom didn't know she wasn't producing enough milk for both babies. That Phil lived and his sister died didn't make things easier for a shy, nerdy kid with obsessive thoughts and strange panic attacks. Of course, he wasn't the only little boy who thought about spaceships and monsters, but his penchant for devouring speculative stories, and scribbling them himself, made him self-conscious.
The family moved to California and Phil was still little when Mom and Dad divorced. Curiously, the boy's worst subject in school was writing. Phil had a bit of difficulty fitting in and relating to others, seeing himself as something of a loser. In his late teens, he took a job at University Radio, and there he gained some confidence talking to intellectual customers while getting to know classical recordings. He moved into a boho pad in Berkeley and read serious literature like Kafka and Pound, leaving the pulps behind. He began to understand that he wanted to be a serious writer, and so, with these other bohemian philosophers in the pad, he explored his literary teachers.
Then, in 1948, he married Jeanette, to whom he had lost his virginity in the record store basement a week before proposing. The union lasted half a year -- as biographer Emmanuel Carrere points out, she "found Finnegans Wake incomprehensible" and fell asleep as he read his own short stories to her.
Phil met Kleo at the record store, too, and they married in 1950. Their relationship was better suited to Phil -- Kleo believed in his genius, and posted his rejection slips on the wall, evidence of the blind idiocy of publishers. Perhaps Phil was trying a little too hard to avoid the niche that had always drawn him. But life-changing events seemed to happen at University Radio, and the world would be a different place if a man named Anthony Boucher had not come when he did.
Boucher was a writer and reviewer of detective and sci-fi novels, editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and host to creative writing classes in his home. It was Kleo who went to the classes -- her husband was too shy. An ardent believer in Phil's work, she took his stories with her, and so it was that Phil's first short story was published in Boucher's magazine in 1951.
In 1952, he sold four stories. In 1953, thirty. Two years later, his first novel, The Solar Lottery, appeared.
For the next thirty years, until he died at 53, Phil wrote. He wrote over 40 novels, and hundreds of short stories. He divorced Kleo and married three more women, and he had a few children. He was a great dad, they say, though he refused to change diapers. His production was unparalleled, and he won or was nominated for prestigious awards. And many of his masterpieces were made into feature films -- for example, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was the source for Blade Runner. Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and Screamers were also based on Philip K. Dick's stories.
All during the prolific output, Phil was trying to make sense of a reality that was constantly distorting. Was he even alive? Was he alive, and the rest of us were dead? Reality was a shape-shifting entity with possibilities as stunning as they were terrifying. Reality was, in fact, an illusion.
Phil was convinced that identities were also interchangeable, and that he received messages beamed into his skull from God. Sometimes he wasn't sure if he himself had been replaced, or if he was somewhere else. And while many of these metaphysical ideas fueled fascinating aspects in his stories, proving to be a playground of mind games of which he never grew tired, he was also plagued constantly with dark, terrible paranoia. He didn't know whom to trust. He was sure one wife was crazy, out to get him. He spent hours peering through a slit in the blinds, certain someone was lurking in the yard. He was terrified of the FBI, the KGB, Nazis, people following him. He was certain of elaborate conspiracies. He saw things that simply were not there.
Like every other speed freak, Phil attributed the paranoia to something else -- to reality, to something laced into his pills, to his erratic mental health, fragile since childhood.
Phil sometimes explained freely that he needed speed to write books faster, because he had wives and children to support. Not a particularly rational man, it didn't occur to him that spending less on speed and other drugs would solve that problem. Or maybe it did, and the thought of life without pills was too frightening.
It's peculiar how Phil dismissed his use as inconsequential. He would say it had only been one year of his life, but then he would brag that all of them were written on speed. Once he said, "I have never, ever taken hard drugs." He had seen the horrible effects they could have on people, he said, and steered clear. He "just took amphetamines." But you can't get drugs any "harder" than speed, unless it's super speed -- crystal meth -- which will make you go bonkers even faster. Amphetamines are a one-way ticket to hell with a few cool rides along the way.
Biographer Lawrence Sutin writes about how Phil kept bottles of 1000 tablets, and "consumed by downing unmeasured handfuls." He had revolving doctors prescribing, and he preferred the chemist's dependable brands. That said, he supplemented the good stuff with street crank, not knowing and not caring what was in it so long as he didn't start to descend. He would stay up three or four days or a week at a time -- a quick route to a nervous breakdown, of which Phil had many.
It shouldn't be any surprise he thought the house was bugged and that various unreal identical Phils were trying to invade his mind. To make matters worse, the man had a heart condition where his heart beat too fast -- not boding well for stimulants that dangerously raise your heartbeat. And just like the textbook speed addict, Phil said speed couldn't really affect him because of some liver metabolic issue, so the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pills had been, well, inert. That's what the doctor said, he told Rolling Stone. Hmmm….There were also the suicide attempts, common side effects of speed abuse, where users try to escape the hunters, spies, madness, fear.
On another occasion, the writer's house was robbed and he was frantic that paramilitary spies had gotten into his secrets. The police were called, investigations were made, but later Phil wondered if he had robbed himself. In a letter to his friend Paul Williams, he said he feared "they" were involving him in a murder, "saying it was the only way to save my own life." Phil wrote, "but I did get away. The fear remains, especially now, because by chance I've gotten more information about this illegal secret paramilitary organization that was hounding me in Marin County….Paul, it's a neo-Nazi group."
He was really coming undone.
In 1974, after some dental treatments, he had visions while coming out of the anesthetic that lasted several months. "I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane," he said. These visions consisted of laser beams, Jesus, and ancient Rome. They've become famously known as 2-3-74, for the dates he experienced them, and Phil spent much of the rest of his life trying to decipher them, convinced these specific hallucinations out of his whole life held the answers he'd always been seeking.
He was only 53 when he died, just a few days after a stroke. We can speculate that his heart would have held out much longer if he hadn't lived so fast. But would his work have had the impact it did?
In death, his ashes were buried with his sister Jane's. Fans built a remote-controlled, life-sized android, and there's no doubt that Phil would write a book about the fact that the android disappeared when an airline employee misplaced him.
Lawrence Sutin reports on some ironic and astute last thoughts Phil shared. In an interview with Gwen Lee, in his last week, Phil talked about a pending novel. But it's not a stretch to say he was talking about himself. "I wanted to write about a guy who pushes his brain to its limit," he said. "[He] is aware he has reached his limit, but voluntarily decides to go on and pay the consequences."
Lorette C. Luzajic is a Fascinating Writer from Toronto. She writes www.fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com, and other spin-off columns like Fascinating Queers and Fascinating Canadian Women. She also writes about food, mythology, celebrity, art, addiction, health, depression, humor, spirituality, literature and memoir- all of which can be found in her awesome new book, Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life. The collection is populated with zany characters from every walk, showing Lorette’s endless fascination with people’s stories. There’s more to come: the sequel is due out later 2009. Visit Lorette at www.thegirlcanwrite.net or head to Amazon to order this unforgettable jumble of mad life.