The Day Mr. Dick Fell Out of His Tree

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.

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A Maze of Dick

In my previous article on this very-close-to-completion series on the work of Philip K. Dick, I covered his work from 1965-1966 – a span of time when his friendship with Bishop Pike and his new relationship with Nancy Hackett (who he would marry in the summer of 1966), along with creative successes like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik, might have been expected to find things on an uptick for him.

However, as the late 1960s saw the hippie movement embrace psychedelia and the use of drugs to interrogate reality, Dick found himself an elder statesman to the same psychonauts who were avidly paying attention to the likes of Timothy Leary. The combination of an appreciative audience and a culture where taking unreasonable amounts of drugs was considered to be a cool way of sticking it to the man, rather than an irresponsible way of sticking it to your biochemistry led to a number of drastic decisions over the ensuing years, and with both Nancy and Bishop Pike exiting his life by the early 1970s, Dick would become unmoored again and enter what can arguably called his “crisis years”.

With this article, I am going to cover the final novels and stories Dick wrote before his transformative 2-3-74 experience. This does not include A Scanner Darkly, which is properly placed among the novels written after 2-3-74; although begun in 1972, Dick would make extensive revisions to it until it was finally in a state he was satisfied with in 1976, and among those revisions were a number of additions and tweaks which worked in themes and imagery related to 2-3-74.

The Exegesis makes this explicit: Dick breaks down particular, identifiable scenes from A Scanner Darkly and directly says that he included them as a result of the experience, rather than those scenes informing the experience, and included them in a manner which was conscious and deliberate, as opposed to the inadvertent subconscious inclusion of such themes in pre-2-3-74 fiction which he occasionally believed had happened. (Those of us with more conventional understandings of cause and effect may instead conclude that the 2-3-74 experience, being a neurological incident produced by Dick’s mind, naturally ended up reflecting the themes and concepts that Dick had been thinking extensively about over his lifetime.)

1967: Philip K. Dick Is Alive and Living In California

It’s become apparent to me as I work my way through this project that calling the span of years I’m going to cover in this article Dick’s “crisis years” is, though in some respects apt, is in other respects a bit of a misnomer. The fact is that chaotic incidents happened throughout Dick’s life, and they had been coming with increased frequency as time went by.

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We Can Remake It For You Wholesale

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale has one of the more cumbersome titles of Philip K. Dick’s short stories, but under the much snappier title of Total Recall it ended up being one of the more successful adaptations of his work. Though not given the reverential critical acclaim of Blade Runner, the original movie turned a healthy profit – even when you take into account its status as one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time – and has a decent critical reception among both SF fans and action movie junkies.

Hollywood cannot leave well enough alone and will always remake rather than innovate if it can, so in 2012 Len Wiseman directed a remake, retaining the Total Recall title. How do these two recollections compare? Let’s see…

The Original

It’s 2084 and humanity is in the process of colonising Mars, with a significant population living in environmentally-controlled domed cities there. The governor, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) exerts political control over the colony and oppresses the significant mutant population through his control of the oxygen supply. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a construction worker living on Earth, is fascinated with the situation, not least because he’s been having evocative dreams of visiting Mars.

Quaid wants to take a holiday there, but his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) discourages this, pointing out the danger of taking a trip to a conflict zone. Instead, Quaid decides to go visit Rekall, Inc., a service which implants enjoyable memories into the minds of its customers, so he can at least have the recollection of having had an exciting visit to Mars (with an extra twist of memories of being a secret agent for good measure) even if he can’t do it for real. However, when Rekall’s technicians have sedated Quaid and are about to begin the implantation process, they discover that there’s already a pre-existing implant in there.

Cancelling the implant process and bundling Quaid into a cab, Rekall try to pretend he never visited – but when Quaid’s work buddy Harry (Robert Constanzo) pulls a gun on him and attempts to kill him because he went to Rekall, and when Lori tries to kill him when he gets home, he realises that something is up. As it turns out, Quaid wasn’t originally Quaid – in a past life he was Carl Hauser, an important agent for Cohaagen, who after attempting to defect ended up getting his memories wiped and a new life set up for him as Quaid. Now Quaid/Hauser must get his ass to Mars, discover the truth about his past and Cohaagen’s plans, and free the planet’s inhabitants. But Cohaagen’s goons, led by the vicious Richter (Michael Ironside) – Lori’s real husband and Hauser’s former buddy – are one step behind…

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Dick?

It’s been a while since one of these entries in my series of Philip K. Dick reviews, so let’s see what ground we’ve covered to date. Firat, we’ve looked at Dick’s early work, including the absolute ton of short stories he wrote in 1952 and his two earliest attempts at mainstream novels. Then we looked at his busy 1953, which included the important early novella The Cosmic Puppets, and the span of years from 1954 to 1955, when he started to shift to focusing on novels.

This led into his ill-fated attempt in the second half of the 1950s to try and break into mainstream non-genre fiction, with only Time Out of Joint providing a welcome reprieve from a conga line of astonishingly depressing novels as Dick’s marriage to Kleo Apostolides disintegrated and he shifted his affections to Anne Rubinstein, with whom he would have a tumultuous and sometimes abusive relationship.

After divorcing Kleo and marrying Anne, Dick would spend the early 1960s churning out more mainstream garbage before the classic The Man In the High Castle brought him sufficient critical acclaim and sales to shift back to science fiction. 1963 would find Dick resorting to amphetamines to keep up an astonishing pace of work, churning out novel after novel including outright odd material like The Game-Players of Titan and Now Wait For Last Year whilst simultaneously wrecking his marriage to Anne, including having her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital on the basis of Dick’s own paranoid delusions. 1964 would see him keep up this pace even in the face of his exile from the family home and his disintegration of his sense of reality – an experience he would fictionalise in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, both his weirdest science fiction novel and his most terrifying one.

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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.

Continue reading “Dick Out of Joint”

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.

Continue reading “A Glass of Dickness”