Monday, November 1, 2010


Philip K. Dick wrote novels and short stories that questioned the nature of reality. His work often became surreal fantasies, as the main character within the narrative discovers that the everyday world is actually an illusion constructed by powerful external entities or vast political conspiracies. All of his work starts with the premise that there cannot be one, single, objective reality. Everything is a matter of perception. The ground may shift under your feet. A character may find himself living in another person's dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that makes more sense than the real world. The protagonist may cross into another parallel reality or a completely different Universe. He explored sociological, political, and metaphysical themes in his novels dominated by authoritarian governments and corporate monopolies. He often drew on his own experiences and in his later work addressed the nature of drug abuse, paranoia, schizophrenia, and mysticism.

Most of his work was written in the science fiction genre, although he also produced several literary novels. There are several films made from his writings including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

Dick's work was first published in the early 1950s, with his first novel Solar Lottery being published in 1955. in this book the ruler of the Universe is chosen according to the random laws of a strange game under the control of the Quizmaster. A research technician then comes to play an integral part in a plot to assassinate the new Quizmaster so the older one can resume leadership of a Universe that is not as random as it appears.

In 1962, He published The Man In The High Castle. It presents an alternative reality of America. One where the axis powers won WWII. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because 20 years earlier the US lost a war and is now occupied jointly by Nazi Germany and Japan. It is a meditation on the nature of history.

Martian Time-Slip, published in 1964, centers around the character of a ten-year-old schizophrenic boy who's disorder may be a window to the future. Dick uses power politics, extraterrestrial real estate scams, adultery, and murder to penetrate the mysteries of being and time.

Clans of the Alphane Moon depicts a distant moon that is ruled by various psychotics liberated from a mental ward. The story blurs the conventional distinctions between sanity and madness.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a disorienting funhouse of a novel populated by God-like or Satanic take-over artists and corporate psychics. There are several layers of reality and unreality and is one of Dick's first books to deal with religious themes. Mankind has colonized every habitable planet and moon in the solar system. Life is physically daunting and psychologically monotonous so a company develops Can-D, an illegal, but widely available hallucinogenic drug allowing the user to experience a few minutes of an idealized life on Earth by participating in a collective hallucination.

In 1968, Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the story of a bounty hunter who polices the android population. It occurs on a dying, poisoned Earth. The androids have a preset death date, but some are seeking to escape this fate and supplant the humans on Earth. What is real? What is fake? Are the human-looking androids fake or real? Should they be treated as machines or as people? This book was made into the very good motion picture Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford in 1982.

In Ubik, a group of psychics are sent to investigate a group of rival psychics, but several of them are apparently killed by a saboteur's bomb. Strange shifts in reality start to happen and things seem to be decaying. Messages start to appear in writing and television. Reality gradually shifts until the group finds themselves back in time to a world that resembles the US in 1939. In each time period they enter they find a mysterious product call Ubik which may be their only chance for survival.

Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, which was published in 1974, concerns a television star living in a dystopian near-future police state. After being attacked by an angry ex-girlfriend he awakes in a dingy LA hotel room. His identification papers are missing and he soon discovers that his whole identity has been erased. Nobody recognizes him now and he has no fame or reputation to rely upon. The themes of celebrity, genetic enhancement, altered reality, and drugs are interwoven into a narrative about the meaning of identity.

A Scanner Darkly, from 1977, is part science fiction and part police procedural. An undercover narcotics officer loses touch with reality after he becomes addicted to the same mind altering drug Substance D, he was enlisted to fight. Substance D begins with a pleasant euphoria but is quickly replaced with increasing confusion, hallucinations, and eventually total psychosis. Eventually the narcotics officer realizes he is investigating himself.

In February 1974, Philip K. Dick was recovering from the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth in which he was given sodium pentothal. He answered his door to receive a delivery of more medication from the local drugstore. He noticed the delivery woman was wearing a pendant with a symbol that consisted of two intersecting arcs delineating a fish in profile. Vesicas Piscis was a secret symbol used by early Christians. After the woman left, Dick started experiencing strange visions. He described the initial visions as laser beams and geometric patterns, with pictures of Jesus and ancient Rome. He would see ancient Rome superimposed on California and felt that perhaps he was experiencing two separate realities at the same time. He believed he was living a double life - one as himself, Philip K. Dick, and one as Thomas, a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century A.D. 

He felt his mind had been invaded by a transcendentally rational mind, as if he had been insane his entire life, and now suddenly he had become sane. He believed that an alien intelligence/technology, that could be God was communicating to him through an interface he called Valis - vast active living intelligence system. This system took the form of a ship in outer space that was delivering doses of information to him through beams of pink light. Dick wrote about these experiences, first in his semi-autobiographical novel Radio Free Albemuth and then in Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer with these three titles becoming known as the Valis Trilogy. At this time in an attempt to understand the hallucinations and visions he was having, Dick also started an Exegesis that grew into thousands of pages. Besides being a mystical exegesis, it served as a daily diary, a prolonged self-analysis, and a dream journal. Some of it is published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick which is a collection of literary and philosophical writings.

In Radio Free Albemuth, a paranoid incompetent has schemed his way into the White House and has got America into a war against an imaginary internal enemy. A struggling science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick is trying not to become one of the war's casualities. His best friend Nicholas Brady is receiving transmissions from an extraterrestial entity that may also happen to be God - an entity that wants him to overthrow the President.

In Valis, a group of religious seekers forms to explore the visions of Horselover Fat. The group ends up on a rock musician's estate where they confront the Messiah: a two-year old named Sophia. She confirms their suspicions that an ancient, mechanical intelligence orbiting the earth that has been sending them information in the form of a pink laser light. It is written in a more autobiographical style based on Dick's visionary experiences.

The Divine Invasion, the second book of the Valis Trilogy, is more science fiction in its style than Valis. It asks - what if God is alive and in exile on a distant planet? How could a second coming succeed against the high technology and finely tuned rationalized evil of the modern police state?

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is the final part of the Valis Trilogy and is more of a literary book about an Episcopal bishop who is haunted by the suicides of his son and mistress and goes on a bizarre quest for the identity of Christ. The character of Bishop Archer is loosely based on James Pike who in 1969 was found dead of exposure in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in the West Bank. This was Philip K. Dick's final book before his death from a stroke in 1982.

Philip K. Dick will expand your mind - you will never think of "reality" in the same way again.

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