Over eight years ago, back when I was posting on Ferretbrain instead of here, I reviewed Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis – the edited compilation of his personal spiritual/philosophical diary/workbook/manifesto as worked on for the last years of his life. After people gave positive feedback for that and expressed an interest in more Dick, I began my glacial series of Dick reviews.
Beginning with his early writing, I then explored his refinement of his short story writing in 1953, leading into his mid-1950s shift from concentrating on short stories to primarily writing novels. This led into a late 1950s period dominated by failed attempt at writing mainstream novels, with Time Out of Joint a rare SF diamond in the rough from that era. Then, in the early 1960s, the runaway success of The Man In the High Castle prompted Dick to abandon mainstream writing again and to start producing his most celebrated science fiction novels.
The thing is, science fiction didn’t pay well back then, so to pay the bills Dick needed to turn out a lot of product. He turned to amphetamines to fuel the process, and submitted an explosion of material in 1963. He was similarly prolific in 1964, and even though he scaled back his pace in 1965-1966 he was still producing an extraordinary amount of work.
Something had to give – especially given his tenuous mental health and the mayhem that was happening in his personal life – and by the late 1960s and early 1970s Dick would be in freefall. His flow of writing was drastically curtailed as his drug use – and the community of drug users around Dick – finally made his life too chaotic to meaningfully work, and a break-in of his home, yet another marital disintegration, and a suicide attempt in Vancouver followed by a stint in a Synanon-affiliated clinic preceded his final migration to Orange County. (Some – including Dick himself – have noted how appropriate it is that a writer known for his exploration of fake and artificial worlds should have ended up living so close to Disneyland.)
What happened next is legendary, in part because of Dick’s role in recording and promoting that legend. In February of 1974, Dick was recovering from a wisdom tooth extraction, and answered the door to accept a delivery of painkillers. In a brief exchange, he asked the pretty, dark-haired delivery girl (yes, Dick very much had a type) about the fish-shaped necklace she was wearing, and she explained that it was a symbol used by the early Christians. Sunlight glinted off it; a pink light was reflected into Dick’s eye.
Under normal circumstances, that would be it.
However, that’s not how it happened with Dick. Instead, the pink light kicked off what was either a significant paranormal or spiritual incident or a major neurological freakout. Dick felt that the light had dumped a mass of information in his mind in an instant, and for the coming month would experience intense visions, a sense of another mind existing in his body, an impression that all time since the first century AD was an illusion, and a conviction that he actually a covert Christian working to destroy Roman persecution. He also became convinced that something was badly wrong with his infant son Christopher; when Dick and his then-wife Tessa took Christopher to hospital, he was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia which needed urgent intervention. Dick would occasionally receive instructions or reassurance in his mind, typically expressed in the calm, neutral, HAL-like tones of what he called “the AI Voice”.
Dick attributed this information – and a range of other phenomena, which would continue intermittently well after the February and March 1974 peak of the incident – to the beam, and began his Exegesis as a process of thinking through on paper what had happened to him, what it might mean, and what broader conclusions about the nature of reality could be drawn from it. Almost all of his work – essays, speeches, short stories, and novels – written after 2-3-74 either directly deals with the insights he believed he gained during the experience or at the very least weaves in strong allusions to it.
This would continue more or less until his death in March 1982, so to put this in context: imagine if, right from my 2012 review of the Exegesis to this point, rather than producing the varied articles on here and on my other blogs I’d just been solely writing about Dick, and imagine further than a lot of my writing about Dick would involve going back to the same material and coming back with completely different takes on it, so for instance one week I put out the version of my article on his late 1950s work where I shit all over his mainstream novels and regard Time Out of Joint as the lone oasis in that particular desert and the next week I put out a different version where I regard the mainstream novels as the truly important part of his writing. That would reflect both the intensity of concentration Dick applied to 2-3-74 and also the sheer variety of angles he tried to analyse it from.
That being the case, it is easy to see 2-3-74 as a unique, life-changing experience for Dick, and certainly that’s how he tended to think of it. However, I think it would be too simplistic to interpret it that way. For one thing, it isn’t even the first time that Dick had visions or felt that information was being fed into his mind. There was his late 1960s breakdown where he felt is daughter Isa had become an inhuman thing. There was the time in 1963 when he was out strolling to the little shack he used to write in when the sky transformed into a terrifying metal face, which he would later adopt as the face of the maltheistic entity in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or another incident where he described seeing a sort of tear or rip passing across the sky.
Perhaps most significantly, in the Exegesis Dick makes passing mention to having heard the AI Voice giving him the answers during a high school physics exam in 1947. This is, of course, Dick writing after 2-3-74, so the chances of him reframing past incidents in his life through the lens of that are high. Nonetheless, the fact remains that throughout his life Dick seems to have experienced incidents which are at least similar enough to important elements of 2-3-74 that he could regard them as forerunners to it after the fact.
In this case, 2-3-74 is not so much a unique and unprecedented incident in Dick’s life, so much as it is the most significant of a series of such experiences. It certainly didn’t represent an abrupt end to Dick’s previous worldview and way of life; many of his philosophical preoccupations, unfortunate biases, and recurring problems continued after it.
The major change in Dick’s life arising from 2-3-74 is the way he was fixated on it to an extent he doesn’t appear to have been fixated on previous incidents. Whilst it’s entirely possible that Dick had other philosophical diaries that have either not survived or not been recognised as precursors to the Exegesis, Dick would take up 2-3-74 as a primary focus of his writing for an extended period of time. Of course, he’d had other long-standing themes and ideas he’d been exploring in his fiction – his questioning of reality, humanity, and artificiality went back to the 1950s. But 2-3-74 set all of this into a pattern that would be adhered to for his last eight years of work.
Over the course of this series of articles I have kept half an eye on the details of Philip K. Dick’s life, because autobiographical elements bled into a lot of his work and the texts lose something when prised away from that context. This approach becomes even more significant in this last phase of his writing, when autobiographical elements would become even more prominent, to the extent that several books from the era verge on fictionalised memoirs. The first the public would see of this approach, and of the 2-3-74 material, would not be the much-celebrated VALIS trilogy, but A Scanner Darkly.