This is part one of an eight part book written by Aaron Barlow for completion of a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa in 1988.Click here to read the other chapters.
Philip K. Dick's professional writing career begins with that nonsense syllable, the representation of the bark of a dog named Boris. In his short story "Roog" (sold in 1951), Boris tries to alert his masters to approaching calamity. The dog, as Dick later wrote:
imagined that the garbagemen who came every Friday morning were stealing valuable food which the family had carefully stored away in a safe metal container. . . . Finally . . . the dog begins to imagine that someday the garbagemen will eat the people in the house, as well as stealing their food. (PKD: I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, 2-3)
By the end of "Roog," however, Dick has encouraged speculation that the "garbagemen" really might be aliens held off by dogs the aliens call "Guardians."
Boris faces two problems. First, though he barks that "Roogs" are coming, no one understands. He cannot communicate his warning. Second, his "Roogs" may be a delusion instead of a real danger. Boris cannot tell which; he doesn't even know that he could, in fact, be wrong. He has seen the paperboy and barked at him, taking him, without any evidence, as a Roog.
Later, when he sees what may be two more boys, Boris identifies them, too, as Roogs. This time the conversation between them that Boris hears, or imagines, could place them within an alien conspiracy:
"This area really is none too good for a first trial," the first Roog said. "Too many Guardians ... Now, the northside area."
"They decided," the other Roog said. "There are so many
"Of course." They glanced at Boris and moved back farther from the fence. He could not hear the rest of what they were saying. (The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick 1: 15)
The conversation is somewhat ambiguous. It could be on some other topic completely and Boris does only hear a part of it. In itself, it proves nothing.
Finally come the "garbagemen," creatures who certainly act differently than real garbagemen would. They eat egg shells as they talk about the state of affairs:
"Well, except for these places around the Guardians, this area is well cleared," the biggest Roog said. "I'll be glad when this particular Guardian is done. He certainly causes us a lot of trouble."
"Don't be impatient," one of the Roogs said. He grinned. "Our truck is full enough as it is. Let's leave something for next week."
All the Roogs laughed.
They went on up the path, carrying the offering in the dirty, sagging blanket. (Stories 1: 17)
These speakers certainly seem like aliens. Perhaps the dog is right. But it may not even matter: who cares, after all, if aliens, and not humans, carry off the garbage?
Dick gives no hint of any "truth" behind Boris's subjective perceptions. Whatever the case, Boris's inability to communicate his concern leaves the matter moot and leads him to fear the breakdown of his world of suburban dog-lifeóand leads Dick to think about Boris's situation in human terms:
Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. . . . If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn't we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it's as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can't explain his to us, and we can't explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown in communication ... and there is the real illness. (Hope 3)
As a dog, Boris views the human world through the blanket distortion of canine point-of-view. Yet what he sees subjectively may be "real"ójust as it may be a mask or a deception created through his own limited perceptual abilities. That these "may"s exist concerned Dick a great deal. Perhaps the blanket distortion of human point-of-view makes experience as difficult for us to decipher as for Boris.
Perhaps Boris, finally, is something like the poor fantasy writer no one listens to. Like, hmm, Phil Dick. Like any struggler for communication, particularly for communication that transcends individual, varied perception.
Related concerns appear in another early story, in "Beyond Lies the Wub," the first of Dick's stories to appear in print (in the July, 1952 issue of Planet Stories). Here Dick presents the danger of blinding oneself, of refusing to see more than one aspect of any object appearing in one's subjective "reality." Paired with "Roog," "Beyond Lies the Wub" provides a surprisingly appropriate start for Dick's extremely unusual career.
In "Beyond Lies the Wub," spacemen visiting Mars load various exotic creatures into their ship to take them back to Earth. Captain Franco, while supervising, is startled by what one of his crewmen brings:
"My God!" He stood staring, his hands on his hips. Peterson was walking along the path, his face red, leading it by a string.
"I'm sorry, Captain," he said, tugging at the string. Franco walked toward him.
"What is it?"
The wub stood sagging, its great body settling slowly. It was sitting down, its eyes half shut. A few flies buzzed about its flank, and it switched its tail.
Itsat. There was silence.
"It's a wub," Peterson said. "I got it from a native for fifty cents. He said it was a very unusual animal. Very respected."
"This?" Franco poked the great sloping side of the wub. "It's a pig! A huge dirty pig!" (Stories 1: 27-28)
Though the wub turns out to be intelligent and able to speak, Franco cannot get rid of the idea that it is a pig. Finally, following the logic of his perception, he decides to have it slaughtered and served for dinner.
In the meantime, Peterson and the wub hold something of a conversation:
"So you see," the wub said, "we have a common myth. Your mind contains many familiar myth symbols. Ishtar, Odysseusó"
Peterson sat silently, staring at the floor. He shifted in his chair.
"Go on," he said. "Please go on."
"I find your Odysseus a figure common to the mythology of most self-conscious races. As I interpret it, Odysseus wanders as an individual aware of himself as such. This is the idea of separation, of separation from family and country. The process of individuation."
"But Odysseus returns to his home." Peterson looked out the port window, at the stars, endless stars, burning intently in the empty universe. "Finally he goes home."
"As must all creatures. The moment of separation is a temporary period, a brief journey of the soul. It begins, it ends. The wanderer returns to land and race. . . ." (Stories 1: 31)
Peterson willingly listens, accepting that even a pig-like creature might have something of value to say. As the wub proves it does.
After a dinner of wub-meat, which few have eaten, an obviously full and satisfied Captain Franco relaxes, enjoying himself:
"Come, come," he said. "Cheer up! Let's discuss things."
"As I was saying before I was interrupted, the role of Odysseus in the mythsó"
Peterson jerked up, staring.
"To go on," the Captain said. "Odysseus, as I understand him." (Stories 1: 33)
The consumed wub has "eaten" the captain, emerging intact from within the being who has ingested it.
We have, here, an outrageous variant of the scenario of the writer influencing the reader who has read, or consumed, his or her work.
In VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth, two of Dick's last four novels, Dick himself emerges from "within" the works, becoming, like the wub from within the captain, an explicit part of their surface. Though neither novel is meant to be directly autobiographical, Dick drew on his own experiences for each of them. And both, though fiction, contain characters named Phil Dick, making sure that the fact of authority is never forgotten.
Like the wub, Dick cannot merely be consumed or, more appropriately, critically digested. Through his writing career of more than thirty years, of more than 42 published novels (a good number posthumously), 115 short stories, a screenplay, and a million-word "exegesis" of a 1974 mystical experience, he arises within his critics and readers, forcing them into his conversations, making them consider, in their own lives, the dilemmas of his fictions. At the same time, Dick keeps his works on a personal level. His own voice, his own concerns, are never lost.
Certain themes appear with surprising consistency in Dick's fiction. They crop up in the early short stories, called by some critics, including Kim Stanley Robinson, Dick's "apprentice" fiction. They appear in the novels of Dick's most productive period, the 1960s. And they are a part of the last novels, the VALIS trilogy and The Transmigration of Timothy Archerówritten when Dick was, according to Eric Rabkin and others, insane.
These themes fall into three inter-related categories: metaphysics, religion, and politics. The first concerns perception and the world, and the individual's interaction with both. The second, the moralities of creator/creation relationships. The third, relationships between individuals; by extension, between individuals and political systems. From these, and from their interactions, come all other political points presented in Dick's fiction.
All three thematic categories stem from Dick's somewhat neurotic and libertarian individualism coupled with respect for what the Quakers Dick knew when young call "that of God in every person."
Dick found certain concepts or models unusually helpful in clarifying his thinking and used them extensively in his fiction. These models became as common in his work as the themes themselves, and often became associated with particular ones. Of these, "the mask" is probably the most important.
Starting from the basic and obvious statement that a mask is meant to deceive, Dick again and again explores the possible relationships that may exist between the deceiver and the deceived, and between each and the mask itself, explores how the act of deception might change the relationships, and explores the possible impact of discovery of the hoax. Dick's deceiver/deceived relationships run the gamut from god/human to man/wife to human/construct. The mask itself may be a perceived, or misperceived, "reality" or may be simply a single altered skull. As an act of deception must have some purpose behind it, some perceived need to change the status of the relationship between deceiver and deceived, power and politics are always part of the act.
Dick used the idea of the mask as a kaleidoscope that he could turn to provide a new view of his various themes, each, still connected to all past ones. A friendly mask likely covers an inimical face. Else, why the mask? But it might be the reverse. For various reasons (see Job), a caring god might don a ferocious mask. A politician, certainly, would not do thisónot to his or her constituency, that is. Think of "Papa Joe" Stalin. But may have another mask to present to foreign diplomats. Dick decided early on that "reality" is no shared whole but an interconnection of personal visions, each as "real" as the next. He approached these personal visions, too, as masks.
One of Dick's central concerns was the individual's plight when forced to negotiate an "untrustworthy" world. What does one do when metaphysical and epistemological questions prove unanswerable and personal "reality" becomes mutable? Dick finally decided that one can only act based on the relationships with others one perceives. Boris, perhaps, should make friends with the Roogs.
The political considerations always in his work arise from Dick's deliberations on how individuals should act in relation to others. Where, he asks, do responsibilities begin, and end? When does "acting in the best interest of oneself, or even others" become an infringement on the rights of those others? From the answers he does finally manage, Dick moves to consideration of types of political relationships and their bearings on individuals.
As a writer and creator, Dickís political thought led him to examine his own role in relation to his creations and to his readers. Was there an implied totalitarianism in his own writings, in his presentation? To make sure there was not, Dick began to examine the mechanics of his own fiction and finally found ways to change the ways he presented his fictional worlds.
Though he had long used gods and the possibilities they represent as devices for political discussions, Dick, in his last years, turned to serious presentation of religious ideas and debates in his fictions. Though he had accepted the idea of God, he never let his belief shatter his previous conception of free human interaction and individuation. He could not see God as a totalitarian. His last books are a reflection of his own struggle to come to terms with his conception of his God and attempts to integrate his older beliefs into a new situation.
For each example used to discuss any of Dick's themes, five more can easily be found elsewhere in his fiction. He was that consistent a writer. Sometimes these others initially seem to express a thematic point completely at odds with the first. Exploring thematic possibilities and problems, Dick would set up robots, say, as an asset to human beings. Then, in the next story or novel, he would show them as destructive. Through all of this, however, Dick's respect for the individual, be it human or something else, remains constant, providing an underpinning that allows him to explore, even in seemingly contradictory ways, the situation of the individual vis-a-vis gods, realities, and politics. Or of the mask vis-a-vis the mask, self-image vis-a-vis death.
The shock of discovering that Joe Chip has long been dead, in the 1969 novel Ubik, should make the reader consider Chip's story as a dream or a fiction, thereby taking readers back out of the "fiction" and making Chip's situation, his relation to his world, something like the readerís own in relation to the novel. And, maybe, to theiróouróworlds.
A group of characters, including Chip, has been victim of a bombing. In the aftermath, the group discovers that one of their number (their employer) has been killed. Later, however, the "half-life" that Chip believes his employer now exists in (he and the others have "cold-packed" the body and taken it to a special repository) turns out to be their own. Only their employer, Chip and the others discover, has survived, taking their bodies in cold-pack to the "moratorium."
The "fictionality" of Chip's "new" life mirrors the illusions Dick saw in our own, reflecting his concern for his highly volatile personal relationship with the world he inhabited.
The 1959 of Time Out of Joint is also an illusion shared by a number of characters. Here, the world has been built around Ragle Gumm by a government that cannot afford to lose his skills. Before falling into mental illness, Gumm was on the point of rejecting the regime, of turning his talents over to the enemy in a war between humans on earth and those on the moon.
Gumm's illusory milieu is presented with considerable detail, thereby drawing readers toward consideration of the veracity of their own worlds. Perhaps even making them consider that there might be some truth to the paranoia hidden within all of us. This was something Dick, apparently, thought about a good deal, in terms of his own life. The various theories he presented in regard to the 1971 break-in at his home, recounted in Paul William's Only Apparently Real, show both fears that had been building within in him for a long time and his realization that these very fears might be meaningless. His life, after all, might only be "written," too.
Other writers, particularly science fiction writers, come up with concepts that strike us as bizarre or unusual, but few of them find ways to make readers take them as legitimate bases for consideration of our personal situations. By this I mean that they remove their discussions from our everyday livesóby placing them in situations radically removed from anything even analogous to what we might experience ourselves. The schematics of Larry Niven's Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers are fun to consider, certainly, but they tell little about how we might react to the problems other humans face. They strive toward no reification, no identification with our own world.
Only a few writers, among them Thomas Pynchon, manage to bring the struggles of their characters into the lives of their readers the way Dick does. Oedipa Maas, when she counts off the possible solutions to what she sees as the Trystero mystery in The Crying of Lot 49, provides a parallel with questions many of us have asked in regards to our own lives. Am I being hoodwinked? If so, why? And by whom? Am I, alone, the target?
In VALIS Dick presents, in two characters, two versions of himself, one a believer in an odd personalized Christianity, one a skeptic about everythingóthough he never rejects the possibility of truth in any system of belief. The skeptic narrates the book. Drawn to him, we readers soon find ourselves accepting both his skepticism and his willingness to consider the beliefs of othersówithin the novel, at least.
The two struggling versions he presents of himself reflect Dick's own inability to pick up an idea and then drop it. His works, like the arguments between the two Philip Dicks in VALIS, are a series of explorations, each a piece of a well-gnawed bone. As Michael Tolley says:
Philip K. Dick is one of those novelists who keep telling us the same story. This is not to say that he is a bore, or a formula-writer, or that he has only one story to tell. He is obsessed by certain patterns of action, certain relationships, conflicts, or aspirations. (The Stellar Gauge, 199)
These lead Dick away from conventional ideas of how the world of a story or book should be built in science fiction. Or in mainstream narratives. Both demand consistency and a certain verisimilitude.
Dick once commented on the reaction to his work by the most influential science fiction critic of the fifties and early sixties:
Damon [Knight] feels that it's bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It's like he's viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he's building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it's exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? (Cover, 36)
In 1978 Dick wrote a speech he called "How to Build a Universe that Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later." He explains in it why the worlds and perceived "realities" of his novels often seem so prone to fragmentation:
I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. (Hope, 5)
Chaos, to Dick, is that which cannot be predicted, but ought to be. That which is not there, but seems it should. Your hand reaching for a light string that one "knows" has always been there, to give one of his examples, but not finding it, then discovering a switch on the wall and remembering you have never had a bathroom with a pull-chord light. "Now, that actually happened to me" (Platt, Dream Masters, 152), Dick once said.
A confusion of frames, a blurring of conceptual boundariesóthat is how Dick saw chaos. Even a situation where one can walk through an obvious fantasy and into a reality physically removed from previous reality, as happens in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where a new drug takes the central characters out of their own situations and fantasies and into the situations and fantasies of othersóonly to discover that "reality" is a part of the fantasy, too. Only to finally find, once free of the fantasy, that the "reality" visited as a part of the fantasy was, in fact, the "real" reality, even though the character experiencing all of this experienced it far from Earth, while that "reality" was back on Earth. Confusing? Yes. Complex? Certainly. And chaotic as well.
Given the characters' worlds and past experiences, sequences such as those from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch could not possibly have been predicted. They fit no pattern presented earlier in each novel.
Dick was fascinated by the implications of chaotic unpredictability, wanted to dig into it, wanted to try to discover whatever truths might lie behind it, what reasons there might be for it and what limitations of human perception it indicates. Chaos, to him, is the encompassing concept around one important aspect of the human predicamentóour inability or chronic failure to clearly understand patterns and relationships, be they human to human, human to machine, creator to created, perceptor to environment, or, in fact, of any type whatsoever.
Many of Dick's novels, on first reading, seem to present us only with chaos, with exploring itóeven apparently with the impossibility of ever getting through it. Certainly, Dick is not one of those who offer a clear explanation, not in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, at least. Perhaps he never even thought about inventing one. To do so would deny the chaotic nature of the events.
Though he does try to offer possible methods for negotiating chaotic worlds, Dick never did manage to present a simple, complete scheme for doing so. He places his characters in a "suspect" world, many of whose patterns we are too limited to see, if patterns exist at all, a world which may turn on its inhabitants at any time, proving not the purring housecat, but the enraged tiger. His characters cannot be sure of the "truth" of any of their assumptions. For "truth," to Dick, is merely expectation that the light string will still be thereóa perilous expectation.
In interviews, just as in his books, Dick loved to present blanket statements and then contradict them, thereby forcing his interviewers and readers to immediately face something of the chaotic type of situation Dick saw as life itself. He lied without apology, almost daring his interviewers and readers to try to contradict him or catch him in his contradictions.
Talking with Gregg Rickman, Dick demonstrates his agreement with Emerson's long-cliched view of consistency:
PKD: I make no distinctions between creatures and humans and animals and bugs. A bug's life is as precious as my life is to me. Because all life is God.
Cockroaches are the exception.... I don't really include wasps and cockroaches.
PKD: Because I don't like them. (Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words, 50)
Silly? Yes, but the point Dick tries to make, that the things he says only hold until they do not, that words and statement have no solidity, remains. In an interview with Charles Platt, he expands on what he might mean:
I think philosophically I fit in with some of the very late pre-Socratic people around the time of Zeno and Diogenes, the Cynics, in the Greek sense, those who live like dogs. I am inevitably persuaded by every argument that is brought to bear. If you were to suggest to me at this moment that we go out for Chinese food I would immediately agree it was the best idea I ever heard . . . . If you were to say suddenly, Don't you think that Chinese food is over-priced, has very little nourishment, you have to go a long way to get it, and when you bring it home it's cold, I'd say, you're right, I can't abide the stuff. (Dream Masters, 151)
To Dick, the importance of this stance grew, in part, through the situations he faced in his own rather chaotic life. Extremely intelligent and well-read, yet naive, gullible, and poorly-educated, Dick never managed to fit in with either the intelligentsia to which he aspired or with the artisans whom he admired. A loner, though able to get under the skin, in his writing, of human relationships, he never managed to keep his life on an even keel. He died single, though he married five times. Years of interaction with the drug culture led him to one of several suicide attempts and a short period in a rehabilitation clinic. Three times he had what he termed "nervous breakdowns." And an unsolved break-in and robbery at his home led him into a morass of paranoid speculation that remained unresolved, perhaps, until speculation about it was replaced by consideration of his mystical experience three years later. Though acutely sensitive to the possibilities and limitations of the written word, Dick found himself unable to break out of one of literature's more vulgar bondsóa bond that made him so commonly viewed as "only" a science-fiction writer. Dick never could see the justice of that.
Dick used the ironies and discoveries of his own life in his fiction, thus making at least a little knowledge about him useful to those approaching his writing: Philip Kindred Dick and a twin sister, Jane, were born on December 16, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois to Edgar and Dorothy Dick. Just a little over a month later, Jane diedópossibly of malnutrition. In later years, Dick often contemplated this non-remembered (on the surface, at least) loss, wondering about this possibly missing part of his own being.
The family soon moved west, first to Colorado and then to California, settling in Berkeley in 1931. After his parents' separation in 1933, Dorothy, who worked for the Department of Labor, was transferred to Washington, D.C. She and Phil remained there for four years before returning to Berkeley in 1937. Dick does not seem to have been a happy child. According to Paul Williams, he "suffered from a variety of illnesses, real and imagined, during childhood, including asthma, tachycardia, and extreme vertigo." (Only Apparently Real, 48)
Back in California, Dick began to develop an interest in writing:
I wrote my first novel when I was 13. I taught myself to touch type when I was in junior high, or grammar
school. . . . Wrote a novel, called Return to Lilliput. Wasn't very good. . . . Loosely based on Swift. Had a lot of submarines in it. (Rickman, Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words, 58)
Obviously, fantasy and the outlandish were important to him even early on.
For a man to whom questions of religion were to become so significant, they seem to have been a surprisingly minor part of the community surrounding Dick as he grew up. Like many around him, he developed something of an impatient attitude toward organized religion:
I had no religious background. I was raised in a Quaker schoolóthey're about the only group in the world that I don't have some grievance against; there's no hassle between me and the Quakersóbut the Quaker thing was just a lifestyle. And in Berkeley there was no religious spirit at all. (Platt, Dream Masters, 149)
Revelations about the Nazi mentality during WWII and later conflicts with the Communist Party convinced Dick that these and other groups, all with what he saw as "true believer" structures and mentalities, presented the same dangers as organized religions, but on a greater scale. Other movements could be just as bad. As he said much later:
The greatest menace in the twentieth century is the totalitarian state. It can take many forms: left-wing fascism, psychological movements, religious movements, drug rehabilitation places, powerful people, manipulative people; or it can be in a relationship with someone who is more powerful than you psychologically. (Platt, Dream Masters, 150)
The need to express of this attitude, which began so early in his life, became a powerful motivation behind his writing. The belief in it was so deep that his "nervous breakdowns," all triggered by situations where he had to face hierarchies, were probably responses to it.
Shortly after WWII, whose shocking climax at Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected him deeply, making him suspicious of even the American political structure, Dick began to exhibit the agoraphobia that would plague him, off and on, throughout his life. Still, he managed to enter the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1947, though he stayed a student only a short timeólater claiming to have left because he could not bring himself to participate in required R.O.T.C. Or because of the first of his "nervous breakdowns," this one making him unable to face lab or classroom situations. (Perhaps R.O.T.C. and the classroom both exhibited aspects of the totalitarianism he despised.)
As he had in high school, Dick continued to work, first in a radio store and, later, in a record store also owned by his earlier employer. There, his love of music, especially classical music, became something of an obsession, one that stayed with him the rest of his life and is manifest in his writing.
Love of music and antipathy toward totalitarianism were not the only facets of his personality that Dick developed at this time. He also built a respect for the small, struggling businessman and the person who works with his or her hands, a respect that he would again and again bring into his fiction.
Writing seriously in his spare time and gaining his first acceptances from the science-fiction magazines, Dick, by 1952, began to become known to the local science fiction community. Though moving, now, into the more exalted level of 'writer,' he still did not care much for its members, his readers:
Of course, there was a kind of fandom, there was the Little Men's Science Fiction marching and Chowder Society and I knew the people in it. But they were all real weird freaks. They were unpalatable to me because they did not read the great literature. There wasn't anybody that read both. You could either be in with a group of freaks who read Heinlein, Padgett and van Vogt, and nothing else, or you could be in with the people who had read Dos Passos and Melville and Proust. But you could never get the two together, and I chose the company of those who were reading the great literature because I liked them better as people. The early fans were just trolls and whackos. They were terribly ignorant and weird people. (Lupoff, Introduction to A Handful of Darkness, x)
Wanting to impress his more intellectual friends, Dick tried to write mainstream fiction at the same time he wrote the science fiction that, he was finding, he could sell.
Though he did not care for the science fiction fans of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Dick could never really find any other group he liked any betteróor, at least, that would even accept him. As he said later:
I was in a curious position. I had read science fiction since I was twelve years old, and was really addicted. . . . I also was reading what the Berkeley intellectual community was reading. For example, Proust or Joyce. So I occupied two worlds right there which normally did not intersect. Then, working in the retail store, the people I knew were TV salesmen and repairmen; they considered me peculiar for reading at all. I spent time in all kinds of different groups; I knew a lot of homosexuals. . . . They thought of me as strange because I wasn't gay . . . and my Communist friends thought I was odd because I wouldn't join the Communist Party . . . . Henry Miller said in one of his books, other children threw stones at him when they saw him. I had that same feeling. I managed to become universally despised wherever I went. I think I must have thrived on it. . . . (Platt, Dream Masters, 148)
His later writing certainly did thrive on it. For Dick was developing the ability to see things from varied points-of-view, an ability that later provided the basic structure for a great deal of his work.
Dick married for the first time in 1948. But he and his wife, the former Jeanette Marlin, were divorced within the year. A second marriage, this one to Kleo Apostolides, commenced in 1950. During 1951, Dick attended a night class given in the home of Anthony Boucher, then editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Boucher eventually liked one of Dick's stories enough to buy it for his magazine. That story, of course, is "Roog."
Later, Dick denigrated the value of his early stories:
My stories . . . when I read them over, just appall me in that period. They're just appallingly bad stories. And not only are they bad, but they're incredibly conventional. You wouldn't think the mind that conceived those conventional stories, would have made the quantum leaps up that I show later on. Without trying to be self-laudatory, the fact of the matter is that there is no indication in that early stuff that there's any unusual mind at work. (Rickman, Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words, 64)
Given "Roog" and "Beyond Lies the Wub," not even to speak of anything else, I would respectfully disagree.
Between 1951 and 1955 Dick wrote and sold more than fifty stories and began to work seriously on several novels. With so much production, and the fact that he would rather have been writing other things, it is not surprising that he could find much to dislike in the early stories. And, though many of them are, as he says, quite conventional science fiction and fantasy stories, they still tend to be well-plotted and texturedóand some of them do show signs of what was to come.
During this period of high short-story production, Dick had what he called his second "nervous breakdown." He was offered a salaried management job at a record store, and took it:
I felt I should do it because it would give financial security to me and my wife. So I went back in the record business and I immediately got the same phobia that I'd had at the university. I couldn't stand behind the counter, I had to run out of the record store. And, you see, it forced me back into writing again. (Williams, Only Apparently Real, 54)
Perhaps even the slightly-structured environment of the store, like R.O.T.C. and the classroom, now seemed somehow oppressive to him.
Solar Lottery, the first of his novels to appear in print, came out in 1955. Though the book was successful and added to his income, Dick was still making very little money from his writing. Enough to scrape by on, but not much more. Later novels brought little better return. Dick remembered a time just a year or two after Solar Lottery: "My first hard-cover novel, Time Out of Joint, sold for $750. And my agent was so excited that he sent me a telegram to announce this joyous news" (Cover, 37).
Wishing financial success, embarrassed by being "merely" a science fiction writer, and wanting to impress his intellectual friends, Dick aspired to reach the more prestigious markets of the mainstream. But his success continued to be within science fiction and, he found, he was stuck with it, whether he liked it or not. In an often-told story of his early career, he recounts how:
"I carried four copies [of the issue of Planet Stories in which "Beyond Lies the Wub" appears] into the record store where I worked, a customer gazed at me and them, with dismay, and said, 'Phil, you read that kind of stuff?' I had to admit I not only read it, I wrote it." (The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick 1: 403)
The Berkeley of that time, he admitted, tended to look down at things not 'Joyce or Proust.' That what he did was unimpressive in the Berkeley milieu frustrated Dick a great deal.
Dick's own non-science fiction novels, however, were not of a type popular with mainstream readers of the 1950s. Only a few writers of that time, most notably John Cheever, managed to find an audience for highly-realistic stories that finally devolve into fantasy (perhaps what has come to be known as "magical realism"), thereby crossing boundaries sometimes considered sacrosanct. Cheever had the advantage over Dick, who was attempting something of the same thing in his novels, in that he was working in short fiction, where readers are more forgiving, having invested less in the work. Outside of his science fiction, Dick worked only in the novel form, perhaps reflecting the common bias that short stories are not "real" writing, that the novel is the only really 'adult' activity in fiction. Though he had mainstream novels making the rounds of publishers for years, not a one was published until 1975, when a small publisher brought out Confessions of a Crap Artist. The others only saw print after Dick's death.
Dick and Kleo separated in late 1958, soon after moving away from Berkeley and up to Marin County. Dick was married for a third time by the middle of the next year, this time to Anne Rubenstein, a widow with two young daughters. He moved into his new wife's house, wrote Confessions of a Crap Artist, gave up writing for a time, and then produced The Man in the High Castle, the novel that made him a major "name" within the science fiction community.
The marriage to Anne ended in 1965, some time after Dick had left his wife and the only financial security he had known in order to move back to Berkeley. He dates his third "nervous breakdown" to the time between completion of The Man in the High Castle and his separation from Anne. In an interview, Paul Williams asked Dick what he really meant, calling what happened to him then a nervous breakdown, and asked what kind of breakdown it was. Dick responded:
Ummm. . . the most profound kind of all. I was ceasing to, quote, cope adequately with my responsibilities . . . . As defined by my wife. And it was easier to imagine I was having a nervous breakdown than to face the truth about the situation. . . . [M]y psychiatrist told me what the real situation wasówhich was her psychiatrist, tooóthat there was nothing wrong with me, that in point of fact the situation was hopeless. . . with her. (Only Apparently Real, 60)
Anne Dick completely dominated Phil, forcing him to live in just the sort of personalized "totalitarian state" he detested. He knew it at the time, too, had even used Anne's personality as the basis for the insatiable Fay Hume in Confessions of a Crap Artist.
During his marriage to Anne, Dick joined the Episcopal Church, in what may seem a surprising move for someone with such antipathy to organized anything as Dick had. But a disturbing experience, a vision, had sent him in search of a stabilizing system of belief. Sometime during 1963 Dick had looked at the horizon, seeing:
a giant face with slotted eyes. . . . It was an evil, horrible-looking thing. . . . I actually sought refuge in Christianity from what I saw in the sky. Seeing it as an evil deity I wanted the reassurance that there was a benign deity more powerful. (Platt, Dream Masters, 154)
This evil face presaged the more benign visions that would dominate his life a decade later. And, like the later visions and mystical experiences, Dick incorporated what he had seen in Marin County into his fiction, specifically, in this case, into The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where the image he saw becomes the face of Palmer Eldritch.
Back in Berkeley, Dick was soon married again, this time to Nancy Hackett, and began experimenting with drugs. During most of this next period of his life, he again merely scrimped by financially, often not knowing if he would have the money to pay next month's bills. Though he was now primarily a novelist and one well-accepted within the science-fiction community, having won its top prize, the Hugo for Best Novel of 1962 for The Man in the High Castle, science fiction continued to prove an unlucrative field.
In 1968, he and his wife moved to San Rafael in Orange County, the area where he would spend most of the rest of his life. His output dropped considerably and, in 1970, Nan left him. Soon, Dick had opened his house to the "street people" who comprised the California drug culture of the time, and had immersed himself in their lives.
The next year was that of the robbery:
I came home, my house was in ruins, my files were blown up, my papers were gone, my stereo was gone, the windows were smashed in, the doorknobs were smashed off, the hasps were pulled offówith rubble all over the floor. (Williams, Only Apparently Real, 27)
Lack of cooperation by the police, who did not seem to even care that something had happened, and the fact of such peculiarities as the disappearance of his canceled checks, left Dick disoriented and suspicious. He could not concoct any sensible and cohesive theory to explain the event.
A year later, in 1972, he traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia to speak at a science fiction convention. Still upset over the break-in and what he saw as the deterioration of his life, he tried to kill himself:
I had no friends up there and after awhile I was very lonely. I tried to kill myself by taking seven hundred milligrams of potassium bromide. I had also written the phone number of a suicide rehabilitation center on a piece of cardboard as huge as a photograph album, in huge letters, just in case I changed my mind. And I did change my mind. (Cover, 97)
As a result, he entered a drug rehabilitation clinic called X-Kalay. His "rationale for being there was that it was the only way he could get constant supervision to prevent a suicide attempt" (Williams, Only Apparently Real, 50). Dick has said a person at the suicide hot-line told him to fake drug addiction to get in (Cover, 97). He said he did a good job of it.
By the middle of 1973, Dick was back in California, this time in Fullerton, and was married for the fifth and final timeóto Tessa Busby, who was more than twenty years younger than he.
A series of mystical experiences in 1974 led to a feverish renewal of his writing. These experiences re-confirmed, for Dick, the validity of the roads down which his thought and writing had been taking him since the early days of his career, but that had eroded since the late 1960s. Through the mystical incidents, he finally began to feel he was coming to terms with his life and his world:
My mental anguish was simply removed from me as if by divine fiat, in an intervention of a psychological-mystical type. . . . Some transcendent divine power which was not evil, but benign, intervened to restore my mind and heal my body and give me a sense of the beauty, the joy, the sanity of the world. (Platt, Dream Masters, 155)
The experiences included a "beam of pink light" (Rickman, Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament, 31) that he claimed shot information into him concerning a birth defect in his son Christopher. Tessa Dick describes what happened:
I had noticed something funny, and I took him [Christopher] to the doctors, and he said to clean him better when I changed his diapers. A couple of months after that Phil said to take him back. Phil told me what was wrong.
Phil really had no way of knowing. He couldn't change diapersóhe'd do anything else. (laughs) When the kid had to be changed, it was my turn. But he told me exactly what was wrong. He said, call the doctor and say this kid has an inguinal hernia. So I took him to the specialist that the doctor recommendedóhe had an inguinal hernia. (Rickman, Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament, 66-67)
Later, Dick had a vision of the early-Christian fish symbol around the neck of a delivery person. He and Tessa found a couple of stickers with the symbol at a Christian bookstore and put one in the window:
The window faced east. It was late morning and the sun was shining on the sticker. The silver side was facing out, and we were just looking at the back side, which was black. He looked at the sticker with the light coming through, and then he looked away, and he saw the pink square. . . . (Rickman, Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament, 69)
Soon, he started seeing this pink and other of what he called "phosphene" colors as he lay in bed, awaiting sleep. And then in his dreams. Along with them came words:
He would hear them and try to spell them out phonetically. At the time he thought they sounded Russian. The first word he came up with was "Sadassa Ulna." . . . He came up with words here and there, and I don't think they are words he could have come up with. I had studied languagesóSpanish, French, Latin, and Greek, and I did not know a lot of the words. They are not common. A lot of them weren't even modern languages. One he came up with was two words, and this one he saw spelled out. . . .
The two words were IR LEG. And those are Sanskrit. . . . (Rickman, Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament, 70)
Convinced that someone or something was trying to communicate with him, Dick began the "exegesis" of his experiences that eventually ran to one-million words. Tessa Dick continues:
He began to explore mystery cults and esoteric religions and philosophies. He had known Bishop [James K.] Pike so the first thing he got into were the Essenes and any current translations he could get about the Dead Sea Scrolls. He thought for awhile that maybe it was Bishop Pike who was talking to him. He had witnessed some of the goings-on when Bishop Pike's son was supposed to have been haunting him. (Rickman, Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament, 71)
These experiences later became parts of VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, and, of course, his fictional James K Pike novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. His attempts to understand what was happening to him were the focus of almost all he did for the rest of his life.
By the mid-seventies, a number of articles on Dick, both scholarly and popular, had finally begun the process of bringing his writings to the attention of those beyond the science fiction community. Some critics and readers were discovering that Dick, long considered merely a good science fiction hack, was a surprisingly sophisticated experimentalist whose fragmented "realities" and narratives were more than the accidents of a sloppy and hurried writer. Others were finding, in Dick's vision of the self-aware mechanical being, be it door, taxi-cab, robot, or android, questions of man's relationships with his creations, questions with implications becoming increasingly apparent in the "real" world.
In 1975, an issue of Science-Fiction Studies was devoted to Dick's work. In the title of one of the articles in the issue, the noted Polish science fiction writer and critic Stanislav Lem calls Dick "A Visionary Among the Charlatans." A major article by Paul Williams that centered on the break-in was printed in Rolling Stone in 1975. And, in 1976, a piece by Ursula K. LeGuin appeared in The New Republic. Dick was fast becoming that rarity in the science fiction jungle, a writer taken seriously beyond it, even reaching audiences beyond it.
Dick's personal life, however, continued on in its old precarious way. Tessa left him in 1976 and Dick, shortly thereafter, once again attempted suicide. Soon, he had moved to Santa Ana, where he lived most the rest of his life.
At the end of his life, financially secure for the first time (enough so, or so he claimed, to be able to turn down $400,000 to write the novelization of Blade Runneróa movie inspired by his own Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and with growing critical acclaim, Dick finally felt comfortable with his position in the world of letters. Unfortunately, he had little time to enjoy his success, for he died, the result of stroke and massive heart trauma, on March 2, 1982.