Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contibuting this article to Read some of his own essays at Frank Views.

Note: Bruce Gillespie is the editor of Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, a series of essays about the work of PKD. He is also the publisher of SF Commentary, a science fiction fanzine from Australia that started in 1969. Bruce was a friend of Phil's and a great admirer of his work. This interview was conducted by resident philosopher Frank Bertrand.

My Life and Philip K. Dick:
An Interview with Bruce Gillespie

by Frank C. Bertrand

When did you first read Philip K. Dick, and why?

      When I began borrowing SF books from the library, at the age of twelve, the first SF book I picked was World of Chance, the title of the English (cut) version of Philip Dick's first novel, Solar Lottery. Not quite the book to make me an SF addict (that honour goes to Jack Williamson's The Humanoids, which I read a month or so later), World of Chance left me with the feeling that I must read more of this writer.
      When I first read and bought the SF magazines, in the early sixties, I had limited pocket money, so I bought the cheapest magazines available. In 1961 in Australia, the cheapest magazines were the English New Worlds, Science Fiction Adventures and Science Fantasy, edited by Ted Carnell and published by Nova Publications. Each cost 2s 6d (25 cents) per issue. The first issue of the first magazine I ever bought (New Worlds) contained the last episode of a serial, Time Out of Joint, by Philip Dick. This was astonishing stuff, describing Ragle Gumm's tunnel-like ride from one era (1959, the year in which he thinks he lives) to another (1999, the year in which he has actually been living). It was this abrupt journey from a false reality to a real reality that is the essential Phil Dick experience.

At the time, were you already reading SF, or was PKD the first SF author you read?

      I became an SF addict almost before I could read, although I did not know the term "science fiction" at the time. In 1952 or 1953, the ABC, Australia's national broadcaster, played on its daily Children's Session a serial called The Moon Flower, by G. K. Saunders. Saunders, who is still alive, was commissioned by the ABC to write an SF serial for children that was not only good drama but scientifically sound. It was the scientific detail that excited me when I was five or six, as the serial dramatised the experience of weightlessness during the trip to the moon, the landscape scientists at the time expected to find on the Moon, and all other aspects of space travel. I wanted to travel into space. I still do. Since I never will get into space, at least we have the films 2001 and Space Cowboys to give some vision of what it must be like to hang weightless in orbit around Earth.
      I became aware only slowly that what I called "space fiction" was labelled "science fiction", and only when I was twelve did I start reading it. Encountering Phil Dick's work so early in my reading showed me that science fiction was much more than "space fiction". Solar Lottery, after all, is about future politics. What showed me that science fiction could reveal much more than I could find elsewhere in fiction was Cordwainer Smith's "A Planet Named Shayol" in the first Galaxy magazine I ever bought. After that, there were no limits.

After first reading PKD, how did your interest in him then develop?

      Encountering Phil Dick in the magazines (including All We Marsmen in Worlds of Tomorrow, a serial that was published in book form as Martian Time Slip) put me on the alert for his work. Merv Binns, organiser for many years of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, worked as the manager of McGill's Newsagency in Melbourne. In the early sixties he was just beginning to import Ace Books and some titles from Ballantine, Pyramid and the other American paperback publishers. Importing American books was a fraught business at the time, since legally Merv couldn't bring them in if a British edition was available, or even if British rights had been sold. At that time, no British publisher knew about Phil Dick, so the stream of novels that he published from 1960 to 1964 could be bought from McGill's front counter.

What in particular was it in his stories and/or novels that interested you?

      Phil Dick's work nearly passed me by, since many of his novels that appeared in the early sixties were ordinary, to put it kindly. As I found out much later, Phil Dick was writing very fast in order to eat (and keep up payments on several alimonies), and it was almost by accident that he produced great books during that period.
      The breakthrough novels, as I remember, were All We Marsmen (Frederik Pohl's much better title for Martian Time Slip), the comedy Clans of the Alphane Moon and the paranoid shocker The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. For several years I couldn't find The Man in the High Castle, although it had won the Hugo, because rights had been sold in Britain.
      I loved Palmer Eldritch because it told a story of a roller coaster ride down and down, leaving behind ordinary reality and falling into a totally paranoid alternate reality. By the book's end, there is nothing trustworthy left in the world. All has been swallowed by Palmer Eldritch.
      I was reading this at a time during which I was taking some rather elementary philosophy at university. Philosophy subjects at Melbourne University at the time were dominated by the question, "How do I know that anything exists?" Phil Dick covered the territory better than Descartes or Hume. And his books were unputdownable. I always felt guilty about how easy it was to read a Phil Dick novel or short story.

In what ways do you think Dick covered the question "How do I know that anything exists?" better than Descartes and Hume? And why was this an important question to Philip Dick?

The easy answer is that Philip Dick came after Descartes, Leibnitz, Hume, Ayers and all that lot, and must have read them all. Descartes asked "How do I know that anything exists?", as Plato had before him, and offered the proposition that "Knowledge is true, legitimate belief". He offered a tortuous argument in favour of the possibility of knowledge, concluding with the famous proposition, "I think, therefore I exist." As Sutin's biography shows, Philip Dick often doubted many aspects of existence, although he thought all the time. Some of the eeriest aspects of his novels were not based on a novelist's fastasy, but on his everyday experience. This was a personal knockdown fight between Philip Dick and reality, and the novels tell of the rounds of that fight. Not only did Dick have the ability to generalise from his own experience to the experience of the characters in his fiction, but he could render those generalisations in the melodrama of snappy popular fiction. Philosophy jumps out of tedious textbooks onto the streets of California.

At what point, and why, did you decide to write about PKD?

      To Philip Dick I owe, directly or indirectly, almost everything good that has happened in my life since 1967.
      In 1966, Merv Binns began to display copies of a magazine called Australian Science Fiction Review on the front counter at McGill's. It looked intriguing. I bought and read it regularly, then subscribed in late 1967. ASFR (as it was always called) featured brilliant essays and reviews about SF from such critics as John Foyster and George Turner. From 1965 to 1967 I was doing English Literature at university. I loved writing essays about literature, and found, through ASFR, that the same methods could be applied to science fiction authors. What better subject than Philip K. Dick?
      In November 1967 I finished my last exam of my main degree, so immediately began work on the essays about Dick that would appear eventually in Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd. I sent the essays to John Bangsund, editor of ASFR. In December 1967, he invited me to travel sixty miles to his place to meet the "ASFR crew", the group of Melbourne fans who had met each other because of the magazine. It was a heady weekend, as I met for the first time many of the people who have remained very important in my life, such as John Bangsund, George Turner, Lee Harding, John Foyster, Rob Gerrand (who later became one of my partners in Norstrilia Press), Damien Broderick, and Tony Thomas.
      I began writing reviews for ASFR during 1968. I kept in touch with the "ASFR crew", although I was living in a country town west of Melbourne. The only thing that didn't happen was publication of my Philip Dick essays. ASFR was faltering, affected by John Bangsund's financial woes and his growing conviction that he should publish a different type of fanzine.
      When ASFR died in late 1968, I asked John Bangsund for the return of my essays. I expected to have a real income in 1969, my first year of teaching, so I announced that I would be publishing a fanzine, SF Commentary. John not only gave me back the essays, but also his entire back stock of unpublished articles. By 1970, he began publishing Scythrop, a fanzine that included a wide range of subject matter, including science fiction.
      I believed in the Phil Dick essays, and had a conviction that I could publish a good fanzine. After many misadventures, including producing, in No. 1, in perhaps the most unreadable typewriter face ever committed to stencil, and nearly ruining the lives of John, Lee and John by asking them to print the first two issues, I got SF Commentary rolling by the middle of 1969.
      Among the first letters of comment on SFC 1 was a letter from Philip Dick himself. Life contains few finer moments. His letter was friendly. He arranged for Doubleday to send me his three most recent novels in hardback, and we struck up a friendship that ended only when Dick rejected all his friends in the middle seventies. I wrote another long essay at the end of 1969, and that appears in SFC 9. In turn, my interest produced a large amount of interesting correspondence and essays from SFC readers.
      I said that my interest in Phil Dick parallels interesting developments in my life. In 1972, when I fell in love, deeply and totally, for the first time in my life, Phil was somebody I could write to about the experience. In turn, he had just fallen in love, deeply and totally, so he wrote me long letters about his experience. He fell in love rather often. Phil sent me a copy of the famous Vancouver Speech, "The Android and the Human", which he had delivered during a crazy trip to Vancouver in 1972. I published it in No, 31, one of the best issues of SF Commentary.
      In 1975, Carey Handfield and I (and later, Rob Gerrand) had the idea of starting a small press in Australia to publish critical works about science fiction. Our first book was Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, with an Introduction by Roger Zelazny. The book included almost everything that had appeared in SFC about Dick up to that time. Norstrilia Press rolled on until 1985, published mainly fiction rather than critical works. We printed 1000 copies of Electric Shepherd, which sold out by 1995. Our only other book to sell more than 1000 copies was The Plains, by Gerald Murnane, the most esoteric and fascinating short novel ever published in Australia.
      As an enterprise, SF Commentary became a lot more than an organ of the really unofficial Philip K. Dick fan club of Australia, but of the many friends I've "met" because of the magazine, most of the ones who've stuck longest and best are people who got in touch with me because of my interest in Dick's work. Unfortunately, in the seventies Phil decided that all his own old friends had become enemies. Fortunately, he did keep writing novels during that period. And then he was dead.

In looking back now on what you first wrote about PKD, how does it compare with what else you've written about him since?

      I feel a bit of a fraud here, because I haven't written much about Phil Dick since those first essays. For long periods I've felt that there was no need to, but that's quite wrong, of course. In writing about Dick's work, I must have been writing about myself, and in a sense bringing myself into existence. To go back to the novels could be a rather scary encounter with an earlier me.
      In those early essays ("Mad, Mad Worlds" in SFCs 1 and 2, "Contradictions" in SFC 4, and "Philip K. Dick: The Real Thing" in SFC 9), I was the first person to bring up the main literary question worth asking about the work of Philip Dick: how can a writer of pulpy, even careless, prose and melodramatic situations write books that also retain the power to move the reader, no matter how many times the works are reread? I was trying to work out how literary aesthetics break down when faced by the challenge of Dick's style. As my examples, I used a wide range of novels in "Mad, Mad Worlds", mainly from the early sixties. In "Contradictions" I looked at Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Now Wait For Last Year.
      I didn't solve the problem way back then, but almost nobody except Stanislaw Lem, Kim Stanley Robinson and George Turner has looked at it since. In 1973, Lem mounted a comprehensive case in favour of Dicks work in his "SF: A Hopeless Case: With Exceptions". Lem's one exception to the general awfulness of English-language SF was Philip K. Dick. Lem argued that Dick did not succumb to "trash" (by which I assume Lem meant the clichés of the genre) but instead used that "trash", those clichés, in order to build an effective and structurally sound new sort of literature. George Turner, in his essay in Electric Shepherd, mounted a brilliant attack on Dick's talent and literary methods, an argument I would still need to face if I went back to writing about the main SF novels.
      I provided an answer for myself only in 1990, when I read and wrote about Philip Dick's non-SF novels, the legendary manuscripts that had been rejected by publishers in the 1950s and remained in the Fullerton Library in California for years unread. Paul Williams published one of them, and Kim Stanley Robinson put forward a strong case against them in his otherwise wonderful book about Dick's works. Published only after Dick's death, these novels reveal an author of enormous literary range and delicacy, someone who gives so precise a picture of the changes in America in the fifties that his books were too much for publishers' readers. Why then, I asked, do the SF novels, which are often written much less competently, still have greater imaginative power than even the best of the non-SF books? My answer, of a sort, was to look at the SF books, such as Time Out of Joint and Martian Time Slip, that were closely based on Dick's own experience at that time — books that can be regarded legitimately as both realist and SF. [Note: The essay Bruce is referring to, "The Non-Science Fiction Novels of Philip K. Dick (1928-82)," is available at this site.]

How would you describe and evaluate the perception of, and commentary on, PKD over time?

      Since I and a few other people, such as John Brunner and Brian Aldiss, discovered and championed Philip Dick's work before other people did, perhaps we haven't attended too much to what critics have been saying about him recently. My feeling is that once the academic critics jumped onto Dick's work, they squashed it under the vast weight of their earnest discussion. Science-Fiction Studies has devoted at least two complete issues on his work. The essays and books roll on. Some critics confuse Ridley Scott's Blade Runner with Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, so that the greatly superior book is almost forgotten.
      Worse, there is a whole body of writers who seem not interested in Dick's work at all, but only in his strange eruptions of mysticism during his last years. These are the sort of people who find meaning in Valis, but are unfamiliar with Solar Lottery or Martian Time Slip. I found Valis almost unreadable, but I did like the SF version of the same story, Radio Free Albemuth, which showed that even during his last years Phil Dick could still write an uncomplicated paranoid thriller about near-future politics.
      The interest in the man himself has produced both hero worship and useful biographies and semi-biographical works. Lawrence Sutin's biography was very useful, and it's good that a small press was willing to take a chance on Anne Dick's memoir of her former husband. If only all this interest could have taken place during Phil's life, so that he need not have suffered years of near poverty.
      Dick has achieved his real triumph in the scripts of films that don't even mention his name. Many of David Cronenbergs films pay tribute to Dick, either directly (in eXistenZ) or indirectly. There is now a new genre of deliriously ambiguous films, such as Fight Club and Sixth Sense that, I believe, could never have been made without the influence of Philip Dick in current popular culture.
      Not many Australian writers apart from me have written much about Philip Dick. Lucy Sussex has written a unique fictional critique, her story "Kay and Phil", which keeps being reprinted. Among the critics, Damien Broderick uses Philip Dick as a major example of a "transrealist" author in his recent book of that title. Some people might still think of me as a writer about Dick, but I am not sure I would still agree with myself, even if I had the courage to reread my essays from the sixties. Peter Nicholls has written brilliantly about Dick's work. I have in the SFC files a long essay by Melbourne academic Chris Palmer about A Scanner Darkly, and a friend from Perth has sent me several essays on Dick's work. I haven't had time to publish them yet. Dr. Michael Tolley has written at length about all of Dick's work, and especially about the volumes of his complete short stories. As Gerald Murnane once said to me, reading Phil Dick is like plunging a syringe deep into the vein of an arm labelled California. Many Australians love reading Dick's work, but perhaps back away from exploring the implications of the work.

What is your favorite PKD story and/or novel, and why?

      I've already mentioned The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch — the most intense experience ever given me by a Philip Dick novel. It so savagely attacks every assumption held by the main characters or its readers that it almost becomes incoherent. It is very frightening, so I haven't reread it for many years. (I admire Peter Nicholls because, in an essay published in 1978, not only did he work out that Palmer Eldritch actually has a coherent plot, but he worked out what it was.)
      The only SF novel I've read five times, however, is Martian Time Slip, which has my favourite set of characters in any Dick novel, especially Manfred Bohlen, the time-autistic boy, and his long-suffering parents Jack and Sylvia. The last few sentences of that book are Dick's finest.
      For years, I could not come to grips with The Man in the High Castle, because its urbanity and careful detail mark it out as very different from the other novels Dick was publishing in the early sixties. Now that we have the non-SF novels to look at, we can see that High Castle is actually very typical of Dick at his best. As with Martian Time Slip, its characters remain with the reader, especially the wonderful Juliana Frink, the first character in an SF novel who begged to be played on screen by Sigourney Weaver.
      Favourites, favourites; they go on forever. I love Ubik, which, in its desperate paranoia, its feeling of sitting on a footpath on the street between life from death, encapsulates perfectly my state of mind at the end of 1970 as I tried to crawl through the second and last year of my highly unsuccessful career as a school teacher. Phil Dick speaks to and for me in Ubik.
      Philip K. Dick is the only SF writer, any of whose works I can pick up and know that I will have a totally pleasurable reading experience. Sometimes I don't know why I enjoy the experience of a particular book or story; sometimes I grump at the books after I've finished them; but there is no substitute for taking that roller coaster ride with Philip K. Dick.

(Bruce Gillespie, May 2001)