Fullerton is Los Angeles suburbia and American supermarketland.
It is also the home of Philip K. Dick, superauthor of science fiction. How much
of the futuristic and the metaphysical in his work is derived from his Californian past?
CAN UPSET SCIENTIFIC
by Philip Purser
[from: London Daily Telegraph, no. 506, July 19, 1974, pp. 27-30.]
That California is a promise – or a threat – here and now on earth of what the future holds is a truism. It all happens there first, from ten-lane freeways and smog to the energy crisis and Jesus freaks, the glittering advance and all the unpredicted, unpredictable little aberrations uncovered in its wake.
The supermarkets bulge with the loot of the world but when the system misses a beat run mysteriously out of canned frozen apple juice or paper staples. In corporations like Rand or Hughes the Ph.Ds outnumber the rank and file workers but a plumber, suddenly rare, can earn more than either. And, fast as the future may beckon, the past is forever catching up: the freeways no longer transfix Los Angeles as they transfix other cities; shabby and weathered, they seem already to be its ancient walls, God’s first day’s work when He created this town.
Not surprisingly, California is the home of several science fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. But the one who is torn most between past and future, who seems most rawly exposed to the violence and irrationality beneath the surface, whose own situation – set down by a twitch of fate amid the instant suburbia of Fullerton, 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles – most curiously copies his fantasies, is Philip K. Dick.
I had wanted to meet him ever since I first came across his name as author of The Man in the High Castle, a Penguin picked at random on a journey which ensnared me with its initial premise and delighted me with the cunning whereby that idea was then trumped by an even more intriguing one: the Allies lost the Second World War; Japanese culture holds sway over the Pacific seaboard of the United States; the East coast is under the suzerainty of the Nazis; but between the rival empires is a disarmed buffer state, and in a lonely house here a writer completes a novel in which the postulate is that America and Britain and Russia were the victors….The convergence of the fiction, the fiction-within-the-fiction and what the reader knows externally to have happened is tantalising, even unsettling. It is not so much science fiction as an essay in what its novelist recluse defines as the "alternative present", and among hard core sci-fi addicts it has to be admitted that P.K. Dick is not always regarded as the safest bet for a quick shot of mind blowing. When I vidphone him from the hotel to arrange a visit he says that both French and BBC television crews have been out to film him lately; but from a handout I happened to see just before leaving London I suspect (rightly, as things turn out) that his contribution has already been cut from the BBC Omnibus. Never mind, Alan Brien and Brian Aldiss are among his admirers while Kingsley Amis, writing in an American encyclopaedia, has made him one of a handful of science fiction writers he singles out for individual attention. The Man in the High Castle he names as a classic.
Other P.K.D. books are more hairily futuristic, with robot taxi-drivers and telepathic Martian rodents, though the better ones, I believe, are set forward only a decade or two so that the ideas come bumping hard at you. The great pendulum of time has reached its farthest point and started to swing back (Counter Clock World), with a marvellously eerie opening sequence as the waiting dead are disinterred and made ready for the trauma of being recalled to life, plus a quaint cloacal joke about the reversed process of eating. In a mid-West town apparently of the present day (Time Out of Joint) a man spends his life competing in – and winning – one of those "Spot the Ball" newspaper contests in which the aim is to divine an arbitrary point in two dimensions; only on his success seems to depend the whole shaky fabric of existence. An accident at a nuclear laboratory (Eye in the Sky) plunges a group of people into a series of subjective worlds, at first comical – there is one sunny, Mrs Whitehouse-type one in which sex and even sexual organs have vanished – but growing increasingly sinister.
Certain concepts recur as regularly as do favourite P.K.D. coinages: the idea of powerful industrial or personal demesnes covering the surface of the earth like mediaeval estates; the evolution of professional mind-readers and precogs; the austere but sun-drenched satellite of Luna colonised as a rich man’s health farm. Nostalgia often intrudes, especially nostalgia for that much-invoked period the Thirties; but with Dick the past can become menacing as his characters are sucked back into frozen time. Complete spirals of illusion unravel, nightmare worlds turn out to be hallucinations or constructs of someone else’s overpowering will. More recent stories like Maze of Death or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are avowedly theological in inspiration. Yet no matter how bizarre the circumstances, how alien the doctrines and programmings to which they have been subjected, Dick’s human beings are alive and prone to all the frailties we recognise in each other, if not in ourselves.
Fullerton, just over the county line into Orange County, not far from Disneyland, is the site of California State University, known as Cal State, a vast rectangular campus that suggests that someone just inked round a grid square on the map and declared, "We’ll put it there." It is also a developer’s paradise as houses and "conapt" blocks go up where yesterday were orange groves. There is still the ghost of their fragrance in the air, a certain sleepy sunniness. The last mailbox outside the last of a line of four-apartment blocks bears the ticket "Philip K. and Tessa Dick". Up a few steps and inside it is mostly one big white room, dominated by one big ornate lamp, the walls decorated with posters, book jackets, photographs, reproductions, lots of nudes. On the floor is a playpen that looks like a lobster pot.
Tessa is 19, pale, pretty, with a flat all-American accent. Philip K. (for Kindred) is 45, lank-haired, grey-bearded and carrying a bit of a gut. His black shirt is open to the waist, there’s a split in one of the calf boots he wears under black trousers. It takes the conversation a while to get past the courteous exchange-of-information stage. He was born in Chicago but taken when a few weeks old to the Bay Area north of San Francisco.
He picked up a science fiction magazine one day in mistake for Popular Science and was hooked. While briefly a student at Berkeley he attended writing classes given by the late Anthony Boucher, critic for The New York Times and dean of American crime, mystery, and science fiction. Managed a music store while writing stories in his spare time. After selling 23 in one year ("some kind of record, I believe"), became a full-time writer. Writers in America, he declares immediately, are paid very badly: after 30 books he’s only just reached publishers’ advances of $2,500, or just over £1,000. The average hardback sale is only 2,000. "And I had been thinking I’d be able to retire and raise sheep."
Sheep? "The only species I’ve ever had a fondness for. I think maybe because they’re so helpless."
He sends Tessa out to the mailbox for the letters and when she brings them, rips through, to see if there are any cheques, he says. One envelope spills out a photograph of a little girl of seven or eight. "It’s Isolde." He looks more closely and shakes his head in disbelief. "This is not my little girl." He says he’s been married so many times he’s lost track. Tessa is a local girl he met at a party. They have a two-months son, Christopher, who is presently brought in, fed, changed and set gurgling in the lobster pot.
Dad volunteers the story as how he came to be in this part of the world in the first place. His last home, in Marin County in the north, was robbed of everything he possessed, pretty well – books, hi-fi equipment, music, notes, research. Luckily his manuscripts had been solicited, American fashion, by a university library, in his case Cal State. To start again from scratch he needed access to them, so he moved to Fullerton. "I had no idea where it was or what it was like. On the plane I walked up and down the aisle asking people. They didn’t know either."
The kind of random turn-up he likes in his stories, in fact? "It’s true that I’m very much interested by chaos as opposed to order. I opt for chaos, by which I mean flux, a necessary uncertainty – Goethe’s ‘element of chance that confounds the philosophies of God and man.’ A perfect machine would be a menace because ultimately it would deny us all choice. Luckily there’s no prospect of it, least of all in the machinery of government. These White House tapes are a perfect example. I guess I'm the only liberal in the United States who doesn't think they were wiped deliberately. I think they just screwed them up like they screw everything else up. They have this great idea to tape everything that’s said and then they contract the equipment out to the cheapest tender and it breaks down.
"We were getting a police state in California, we were rapidly getting one, until they found they’d got dossiers on so many people they were running three months behind. Orwell got it all wrong in 1984, really – everything efficient and calculated. The technology for 1984 is here already and it doesn’t work, thank God. Every solution to a problem is simply a new problem. They’re voting in a 50-mile-an-hour limit in California to save fuel but the average American auto or truck is less efficient at 50 than at 65, it’s the way the engines are built.
"Here in Orange County, as in Los Angeles, we had at last been getting a decent pubtrans system. So what happens? They cut off the diesel fuel from the buses before they cut off the gas from the private motorist. Governments take rational measures against that which does not accommodate reason. People could starve in Southern California, you know. When the machine stops, as Forster put it, it stops good. But I have a kind of optimistic feeling. If there are blackouts people can’t just sit in front of the TV, or go driving on the freeway if there’s no gas. In a way we’re going back to the idea of the mediaeval city states. Each area is going to have to solve its own problem, which is good."
He has a good deal of "going back" in his stories, hasn’t he? People finding themselves back in the Thirties, for example.
"I’ve always been much influenced by the 17th-century metaphysical poets like Donne, and especially Henry Vaughan –
Some men a forward motion love
But I by backward steps would move…
"And I’m fascinated by the period I grew up in, the Depression. A friend of mine, Jim Hamon, has just published a book called The Nostalgia Catalogue which is full of pictures of the junk of the time. I actually cried when I came across the Orphan Annie decoder badge which you sent away for. These things you could get for a dime or a box top were our only link with glamour.
"But I’m equally aware of the ominous possibilities. Ray Bradbury goes for the Thirties, too, and I think he falsifies and glamourises them. In Ubik, which is maybe my story you’re thinking of, the trimmings, the old-fashioned elevator, the 1939 La Salle, are threats. The universe is regressing, and regression is evil; going back into childhood and immaturity is a common form of mental sickness. I used to be a collector of stamps and milk bottle tops, but not any more. We’ve got to lock on to the present. Only those who can escape the past are free to seek new solutions."
He breaks off suddenly to say to Tessa, "Hey, fix me some eggs, would you? (To me) You want some? All right. It’s just that I have this persistent delusion that if I don’t eat I shall die."
Of course. What about this religious element in the later books? "I’d always been interested but about five years ago it became more than that, when I became an adult convert to the Episcopalian church. I needed to take the sacrament, urgently. I had this experience of absolute evil. I was married with four children and many animals, a very gregarious life until my then wife decided my typing interferred with her meditation. I found a little shack for $25 a week, in the middle of empty pastures. I was alone there all day, didn’t see a single soul. It was like sensory deprivation.
"There flooded in the perception of something in the sky. I wasn’t on LSD or any other drug, not at the time; just this deprivation of the sense of other living things about me. What I saw was some form of evil deity…not living but functioning; not looking so much as scanning, like a machine or monitor. It had slotted eyes and always hung over one particular spot. I’ve used it for the title of my next-but-one story, A Scanner Darkly.
"I really believe there is an evil archetype or form-destroyer – eidos-destroyer – normally kept at a distance from us by society, friendship, conviviality, but which can strike at us when alone. This is what happens in mental illness, this is why LSD is such a deadly drug: it exposes you alone. I’ve experimented with LSD but always under control."
In fact he had a bad time from drugs, on top of the break-up of his former marriage and the sack of his home, and did not write much for two years. Now he is dedicatedly anti-drugs, does social work on drug rehabilitation, and his next two books are – among other things – about brain damage from drug addiction. The first of them Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, due from Gollancz in October, is 1984 (or to be exact, 1988) as Philip K. Dick would amend the nightmare. All his driving phobias, from a police state to the horror of being along and unpersoned, are brought together in what Dick wants to be his apologia pro sua vita.
The eggs arrive, soft-boiled in a dish. He says between mouthfuls, "Loneliness is a particular problem in Southern California because of the high social mobility. People change jobs or are moved in their jobs, sometimes every year. Friendships are made and unmade instantly. In fact some people already find it easier to establish a relationship with a stranger than with someone they know.
"I had an idea for a story in which everyone is allotted a part in a kind of soap opera. There’d be dossiers on all the characters, even a script, only this would be for real. When you were moved to a new area you’d just go along to the party and say, ‘Hi, everybody’; and they’d say, ‘Hi, Ted’ or whatever it was – you’d have name tags – and you’d carry straight on talking about non-existent mutual friends and things that had happened you all knew about, because they were in the script. The trouble is, it’s almost true already."
One last query: for a man who loves sheep he hasn’t exactly stinted on violence in his stories, with people being zapped into oblivion with thumb-guns and energy lances. He nods sorrowfully.
"At Berkeley my anti-war convictions were actually the reason why I had to drop out. It was just before Korea, you had to belong to the military training corps. I disassembled my M1 rifle and refused to reassemble it – it’s probably in pieces to this day because I dropped one small piece inside another so no one could get it out. I was very left wing. I also had a very personal feeling about the use of fire in war – we’d see those newsreel shots of flaming Japanese, you know – because as a child I saw another child burned to death. I believe Napalm should be outlawed as Greek Fire was. I’m still anti-war though I broke with the Left when they became violent themselves.
"But later I lived in a sub-culture so dangerous that I even started to carry a gun myself. I was amazed I could do it so easily. It was a neighbourhood where killer dogs were kept to protect property, at night they would roam free. It wasn’t safe to walk, you could only move by automobile. Then this robbery of my home: they even took my fireproof files, but some jewellery that was the only really valuable stuff I had – valuable to anyone else, that is – they left untouched. The police said I’d be murdered if I didn’t leave the county, they believed there was some kind of vendetta against me. But from who? The whole thing was bizarre and nightmarish. One police officer did say to me, though, that Marin County didn’t need any crusaders."
So there he is in safe, suburban Fullerton until, to borrow a favourite image in his stories, the computer twitches again and transports him to some other warp of reality: Super Dick, Super-K. Dick, sometimes Sloppy Dick. As Brian Aldiss admits in his story of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, the technique is sometimes slipshod, the writing uneven. With 30 books turned out in not much more than 15 years this was perhaps inevitable. But as Aldiss also says:
He is one of the masters of present-day discontent,
in the grand tradition of despairers which runs through
Swift and Huxley. No simple solutions for Dick, no
easy identification with all-powerful heroes. His
figures stand knee-deep in technological kipple,
gazing at visions beyond their comprehension.
Maybe he doesn’t write science fiction at all, but metaphysical or even theological fiction. Whatever it is, you get this feeling that he didn’t simply make it up, he somehow underwent it.