Drugs, Hallucinations, and the Quest For Dick

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Philip K. Dick followed up an absurdly productive 1963 with an equally absurdly productive 1964, providing all the substantiation anyone could desire for his claim that he used amphetamines as a writing aid. His marriage to Anne was on the wane, with some shockingly abusive incidents in 1963 more or less killing any hope of piecing it back together, and the process of divorce had begun with Dick initiating it, having moved out.

Whereas such incredible disruptions to one’s personal life might put some off their writing, Dick seems to have kept up the pace. We know that he was acutely aware of the precariousness of his finances, and perhaps he feared that the divorce would make his fiscal situation even worse, so churning out more novels must have seemed like the pragmatic thing to do. However, at the same time as we will see Dick was also gripped by powerful and strange fears at this time, with one novel in particular being built around a spiritual experience entirely out of line with ordinary reality.

Three novels here unambiguously originated in this year, the manuscripts having arrived at his literary agency during this time. I am also including here two Dick novels for which, for reasons which will be outlined in their respective reviews, the dating is a bit harder to call. Lies, Inc. I would say properly belongs to 1964’s crop because although a substantial expansion took place in 1965, the expansion material mostly seems to riff on the basic ideas laid down in the original 1964 novella. Deus Irae belongs here because most of the direct-from-Dick material in this collaboration was penned in 1964, though Roger Zelazny’s contributions and Dick’s coda were penned substantially later.

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The Days of Perky Dick

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

1963 was a year in which Dick went into hyperdrive, churning out a number of novels at a dizzying pace and finding time to recommence his short story output as well. If ever there were any doubt about the role of amphetamines in Dick’s writing process, the sheer manic pace of his output in this year should be a clue that something was up. Not even the disintegration of his home life with Anne could slow the pace, and it wasn’t exactly a calm and peaceful breakup either. As Anne disclosed recently in her memoir of her marriage to Dick, it was in this year that Dick had her involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for two weeks based on a laundry list of allegations – including that she’d threatened him with a knife and had tried to run him over with the car.

This is abusive on a nightmarish level. To my knowledge, Dick never spoke or wrote about this incident, so we don’t really know where his head was at the time; if his accusations weren’t sincere, then that’s utterly shameful and a huge black mark on his biography. At the same time, there is a real and desperately sad possibility that Dick genuinely believed that Anne meant him harm; throughout his life Dick would latch onto paranoid fixations like “Stanislaw Lem is the invention of a Communist committee who are scrutinising my SF” or “Thomas Disch encoded covert propaganda for a Nazi cabal into Camp Concentration” or “the government is trying to suppress Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” or “God is a satellite made by aliens and is controlling my every action”, so “my wife is dangerously insane and is trying to kill me” would be par for the course, and hardly the only incident in which Dick’s treacherous brain chemistry would poison his relations with other people.

Either way, once someone has you involuntarily committed on spurious grounds it’s kind of time to stop trying to mend bridges with them, regardless of whether or not they really believed you were trying to kill them at the time. The committal proved to be the incident which ensured the terminal unravelling of Anne and Phil’s marriage, as well as a catalyst for Anne to discover a range of disquieting secrets; for instance, when Anne was able to return home to sort out the wreckage of their marriage, she discovered bills from the pharmacy for drugs she hadn’t been aware that Phil was taking. If you end up wondering how Dick was able to churn out all of this material in the space of a year, remember that he would openly admit to using amphetamines as an aid for writing…

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The Man Whose Dicks Weren’t All Exactly Alike

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

By 1960, Philip K. Dick’s writing career was had hit a low point. The work he was primarily interested in were his mainstream novels, all of which had been soundly rejected by publishers (not undeservedly). The work which was actually bringing in money, however, was his science fiction – but with the exception of Time Out of Joint he hadn’t produced any new science fiction since 1955, with the rest of his late 1950s sales consisting of expansions and revisions of earlier work. The early 1960s would see him turn out two more attempts to break into literary fiction, which would also fail, and there was a real possibility that he would quit writing and work to support then-wife Anne’s jewellery business which she operated from their home in Point Reyes. (After all, that was bringing in more money than Dick’s own writing.)

By the end of the time period covered by this article, Dick turned the corner from a frustrated literary author stuck in dogged pursuit of a creative dead end and become a rejuvenated SF author producing some of the best work of his career. The rekindled commercial and critical success he would earn from this material would cause Dick to become reconciled to his SFnal muse, laying the groundwork for a 1963 in which not even basking in a Hugo win and dealing with the disintegration of his marriage to Anne could slow down his output.

But before we get to the good stuff, we have to wade through more mainstream novels. Put on your waders, this is going to get messy.

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Dick Out of Joint

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, we’ve seen the beginning of Dick’s career as an SF author, the flourishing of his talents as a short story writer – and the mixed results which arose from some of his longer stories being expanded to novel length – and the gear switch he made to writing novels. Dick started focusing on novels after A.E. van Vogt, one of his idols, gave him some pointers on publishing economics at a SF convention; however, it seems to have quickly rekindled his ambitions of becoming a respectable mainstream author, which had laid mostly dormant since the early attempts of Gather Yourselves Together and Voices From the Street. In the midst of a run of SF novels for Ace Books, Dick produced Mary and the Giant, and whilst that didn’t manage to get published it came close enough to acceptance for Dick to almost completely abandon writing original SF material after The Man Who Japed, spending most of the rest of the 1950s working on his mainstream novels and keeping SF firmly on the back burner.

Dick’s first two stabs at the mainstream from this period of his career – A Time For George Stavros and Pilgrim On the Hill – are lost. Of the two, A Time For George Stavros is a little bit less lost than Pilgrim On the Hill – Dick retooled George Stavros extensively to get his 1960 novel Humpty Dumpty In Oakland, and according to those few who read both manuscripts at the time the overlap between the two was substantial. Pilgrim On the Hill, though, we know barely anything about aside from an unhappy appraisal from a reviewer at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, Dick’s agents:

Another rambling, uneven totally murky novel. Man with psychosis brought on by war thinks he’s murdered his wife, flees. Meets 3 eccentrics: an impotent man who refuses to have sex with his wife, the wife – a beautiful woman who’s going to a quack doctor for treatment, an animalistic writer with ambition but no talent. Man has affair with wife, is kicked out by husband, tries to help slob. Finally collapses, is sent to hospital, recovers, returns to home. BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? Try Miss Pat Schartle at Appleton.

I do feel for Dick’s agents at this time, because from their point of view it must have seemed like he was bombarding them with commercially useless manuscripts and lumbering them with the task of trying to sell them. Dick’s mainstream novels from this period would undergo dozens of rejections and – with one exception – wouldn’t emerge during his lifetime (sharing this fate with the earlier mainstream novels Dick had produced). The first surviving novel from this period – The Broken Bubble – is no exception to this, and to an extent Dick became reconciled to this in later life; though he eventually managed to see Confessions of a Crap Artist reach print in his lifetime, and considered it an important landmark in his career, in 1980 Dick was dismissive of the remaining unpublished manuscripts:

Their time has passed. They’re essentially fossils. When I’m dead and lying in the marble orchards, I won’t stop my heirs from digging them up and publishing them. But I don’t want to flood the market with a bunch of my old non-sf now.

As I found out to my horror, this was a good call on Dick’s part. These novels don’t exactly cover him in glory.

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The Worlds Dick Made

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

1954-1955 saw a crucial transition in Dick’s writing habits and the way he approached his career. Thanks to his growing influence on the SF scene thanks to the massive number of short stories he’d had published that point, Dick got to meet one of his heroes, A.E. van Vogt, at a SF convention. In their conversation van Vogt sat Dick down and explained to him that if he really wanted to make a living out of SF, he needed to start writing novels, because the way the field was structured at the time meant you would be paid much more for a novel than you would for stories accounting for a similar word count.

As it happened, Dick had been entertaining ambitions of becoming a novelist before this – he’d penned Voices From the Street and Gather Yourselves Together from before this point, and his short stories were beginning to swell beyond the bounds of the medium (to the point where he was able to expand novellas such as The Cosmic Puppets, Dr Futurity and Vulcan’s Hammer into novels for Ace Books later in the decade). The van Vogt meeting convinced Dick that this was the time to shift gears: at around this time his novel output (in particular, his output of novels originally intended as novels rather than long short stories) increases radically, whilst his first major run of short stories comes to an end.

However, whilst the science fiction novels Dick produced in this period didn’t have much trouble finding a publisher, Dick was still entertaining dreams of becoming a mainstream author which would lead to questionable career decisions down the path. On top of that, some of Dick’s statements over the years suggest that at around this point in time he became seriously dependent on recreational drugs. In an interview with Rolling Stone in the mid-1970s, Dick asserted that every single one of his novels before A Scanner Darkly was written whilst he was taking speed, due to his belief that without amphetamines he couldn’t maintain a decent level of productivity.

Considering the enormous amount of short stories he penned from 1952 onwards, I have to wonder whether his amphetamine habit had started even earlier than that, but the fact remains that if we’re to believe Dick’s statements in the interview his amphetamine habit would be well and truly established by the end of this period. (There are reasons to doubt he was being completely truthful; in the same interview, he claimed that doctors has assured him that the amphetamines had never actually affected him because his liver had hyper-efficiently processed them before they could hit his brain chemistry and I’m not 100% sure that’s actually how it works.) As would frequently be the case in his subsequent career, what Dick penned in haste during these years turns out to be a bumpy ride.

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A Glass of Dickness

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Having finally become a professionally published author in 1952 despite the failure of his mainstream writing to scare up much interest, as I detailed in the previous part of this series, Philip K. Dick promptly quit his job and became a full-time author. This inaugurated the most prolific period of short story writing for Dick; the period from 1952 to 1954 saw him produce about two thirds of the short stories he would ever compose. 1953 was the white-hot core of this explosion, during which he cranked out short story after short story ranging from brief storylets to fully-developed novellas.

Several of the latter – A Glass of Darkness (later known as The Cosmic Puppets), Vulcan’s Hammer and Time Pawn (novelised as Dr. Futurity) were substantial enough to get the notice of Don Wollheim of Ace books, who thought that with a mild expansion (or, in the case of at least one, no expansion at all) they’d make great entries in the Ace Doubles series – these books consisting of two short SF novels printed back-to-back and available for a budget price. This interest from Wollheim came at a welcome time for Dick, who in the second half of the 1950s was devoting most of his creative energies to his mainstream writing and getting nowhere and consequently was glad for an opportunity to make some comparatively quick and easy money by doing a second draft of some of his old SF material.

I do not have access to the original short stories these three Ace Doubles were based on because they aren’t in the Collected Stories anthology, and I’m not about to go and drop a heap of money on eBay to acquire rare PKD stories which I already have versions of. I will, however, be reviewing the novel-length versions here, because for the most part Dick refrained from adding a transformative amount of new material to the books and, when reading them alongside his short stories from the era, he seems to have done a good job of recapturing the mood and tone of his 1953 material in doing the expansions. You see, in 1953, Dick was an author with an agenda – or, more correctly, a small stack of agendas, with a particular philosophy of how to advance them. The end results were rather mixed.

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Gather Your Dicks Together

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In the comments of my review of The Exegesis, people said they’d like me to tackle the works of Philip K. Dick in general in much the same way as I’ve been working through Moorcock. Whilst my Moorcock series isn’t done yet and isn’t cancelled, at the same time I suspect the rest of it will go at a fairly slow pace because I’ve hit a part of Moorcock’s career where his good stuff is really rich and doesn’t really lend itself to nomming all in one go, whilst his bad stuff is so bad I want to take a long break after each exposure to it.

Obviously the methodology of a survey of Dick’s fiction needs to be different from the one I’ve taken with the Moorcock series. Thankfully, Dick focused almost exclusively on standalone stories and novels, so I don’t need to break things down by series the way I have with Moorcock. On top of that, the five-volume Collected Stories brings together all his short fiction in a neat package, so I can even be reasonably complete there. My plan, then, is to go in chronological order. The specific chronology I’m going to be using is this one, whose compiler seems to have decent arguments for the placement of the various tales. I don’t intend to give each individual short story an individual review, and for the sake of giving the articles a sensible structure I won’t necessarily address the short stories absolutely in the same order as they were written, but in general I will try to address them reasonably close to the point they were composed.

There are a few short stories which didn’t actually make it into the Collected Stories, because they were later expanded into novels. (These are different from those stories where the general premises or ideas behind them were later used in novels, which the compilers of the Collected Stories have retained.) I’ll be placing my review of the novels in question at the point in the chronology where the original short story was written, for several reasons. Firstly, in several cases the expansion of the short story in question often involved Dick simply putting back material which had already been cut in it. For instance, Cantata-140, later expanded to become The Crack In Space, was heavily trimmed down for its original appearance. Secondly, the “expansions” a lot of the time aren’t actually all that expansive; they tended to come out as Ace Doubles, which were a line of two-for-one packages sold by Ace which would couple up two not-quite-full-length novels from SF authors together. Lastly, the expansions (so far as I can tell) don’t really represent radical departures from the original stories so in terms of the development of Dick’s craft and philosophy there isn’t much that’s changed between the earlier publication and the expansion.

Another deviation from the chronology I’m going to do is Deus Irae, which I’m going to lump in with Dick’s novels of 1964, mainly because that’s where almost all the Dick-penned material in it originates: Dick wrote the first half in 1964, got stuck, eventually gave it to Roger Zelazny to continue, Zelazny wrote most of the second half and finally delivered it back to Dick in 1976, who thought “eh, good enough”, tacked on a final chapter which (by my recollection at least) doesn’t add a whole lot of substance and sent it off to his publishers.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Our story starts in 1947, where Dick is a fresh-faced teenager who’s either in the last stages of high school or has just left, and has recently (in a physics exam) made the acquaintance of the benign AI Voice which would be his occasional companion for much of the rest of his life before thoroughly taking control in 2-3-74.

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