LIVING WITH PHILIP K DICK
Book Review of:
‘PHILIP K DICK:
by TESSA B DICK
(2010, ISBN 9-781442-110274, 223pp)
When Charles Platt visited Philip K Dick in his plain, modest apartment in Santa Ana in May 1979, he was anticipating a straight interview on the practicalities of the craft of Science Fiction, similar to the profiles he’d done with EC Tubb or Brian Aldiss. But instead found himself subjected to a strangely unsettling inquisition questioning the very nature of existential reality.
An earlier Science Fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard, briefly died in order to experience spiritual enlightenment that prompted him to set up Dianetics and the Church of Scientology. Dick’s insights were too personal and individual to ever be codified in that way. Yet, if certain writers tend to embody the spirit of the age, as Arthur C Clarke did for the optimism of the Apollo programme or JG Ballard did for the rusting factories of post-industrialism, them Dick most perfectly inhabits our era of Fake News. Where nothing is real, and everything is open to relativistic interpretation. If news can not only be contrived, but invented, then it calls into question the bias shaping our every preconceived certainty. For each of the major stories defining our age, from 9/11 to JFK to the Moon Landings, there are counterfactual views offering various covert alternatives. What is real becomes porous all the way from the behaviour of sub-atomic particles to the extravagances of theoretical cosmology.
|Philip K Dick with Tessa B Dick|
Tessa B Dick is Phil’s fourth or fifth wife, depending on whether you include his first marriage to Jeanette Marlin, which lasted a few teenage months (May to November 1948) and which he didn’t count. Which makes Kleo Apostolides (from June 1950 to 1959) his first – or second wife. Second, or maybe third wife Anne Williams Rubinstein – from April 1959 to October 1965, had him confined to a mental institution and wanted him to quit writing altogether, although ‘he needed to write the same way that he needed to breathe.’ Next wife Nancy Hackett (July 1966 to 1972), left him for a neighbour who happened to be a Black Panther militant. Leslie Tessa Busby, as she then was, met Phil – he didn’t like being called ‘Philip’, at a Santa Ana beach party at a date which was probably 3 July 1972 – she was eighteen, he was forty-two. Married in April 1973 they lived in a kind of hand-to-mouth romantic bohemian poverty. He always wrote on a manual typewriter – anything faster ‘would make it too easy to write a lot of garbage instead of taking the time to write something short and good.’ Yet he wrote, a lot.
Among the loops, repetitions and recurring themes to her book is the afternoon of 17 November 1971 when Dick’s San Rafael apartment was ‘hit’ and burglarised. At the time, it was being used as a kind of crash-pad party-house by all manner of drop-outs and ‘insect-eyed’ weirdo’s, ‘people would come and visit, drink and take drugs, eat Phil’s food and fall asleep on the couch and the floor. Some of those people he knew, and others he did not’ (says Tessa), useful source material from where he lifted ideas about the ongoing War on Drugs. The incident was later modified into ‘A Scanner Darkly’ (1977), a novel for which she was with him ‘throughout the process of writing editing and proofreading,’ but not for the break-in itself.
Philip Kindred Dick was working in a record store when Anthony ‘Tony’ Boucher originally accepted his story “Roog” – told from a dog’s point of view, which became Phil’s first professional sale, but the second to be published (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’, February 1953). His second story to be sold, but the first to be published was “Beyond Lies The Wub” in ‘Planet Stories’ (July 1952), which asks whether the crew should talk to, or eat the pig-like Martian creature. They end up doing both! As early as 1960, Kingsley Amis was commending his “The Defenders” (‘Galaxy SF’, January 1953) – in ‘New Maps Of Hell’, which neatly pre-inverts the ‘Matrix’ future as wise robotic systems supposedly fighting a war of attrition have called off hostilities, leaving their human creators safely sealed up in their subterranean fall-out bunkers. In “The Impossible Planet” (‘Imagination’, October 1953) starship Captain Andrews assumes he’s conning ancient Irma Vincent Gordon and her robant (loyal robot servant) by taking her to a ruined world he assures her is mythical lost Earth, only to discover a US dollar coin embedded in its salt ash surface, indicating that yes, this is the forgotten racial home-world after all.
Immediately noted as a versatile and prolific new talent, the ‘awareness of reality’ theme soon emerged as a distinctive trait. Brian Aldiss notes that ‘the many novels of Philip K Dick have sometimes been seen as one long novel, because he is haunted by the same theme, the tenuous and debatable nature of ‘reality’’ (in notes to ‘Space Odysseys’, 1974). Debut ‘Solar Lottery’ – where future politics is run along game-show lines, was published as one half of a 1955 Ace Double, bound in with Leigh Brackett’s ‘The Big Jump’. ‘The Man Who Japed’ (with EC Tubb’s ‘The Space-Born’, 1956) followed, with its puritanical Moral Reclamation regime, and then the Fedgov post-apocalypse dystopia of ‘The World Jones Made’ (with Margaret St Clair’s ‘Agent Of The Unknown’, 1956), with the pre-cog Jones who can see one year ahead of time. Serialised across three issues of ‘New Worlds’, the protagonist of ‘Time Out Of Joint’ (1959), Ragle Gumm, gradually realises he’s living in a fabricated 1950s Wyoming within an Earth-Luna 1998 war.
|Brian Lewis artwork for 'New Worlds' February 1960|
With ‘The Man In The High Castle’ (1962) he was breaking on through into award-winning classic status, and ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep’ (1968) took Dick beyond cult into legend with its ‘Blade Runner’ movie adaptations. Although, as Tessa points out, he never survived to see the success of the movies based on his stories, even Ridley Scott’s iconic ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) proved a slow-burner, gradually accumulating momentum through the VHS-video and DVD long-tail, a technology from which he contractually received no royalties.
Yet almost by default he found himself absorbed into the extended SF community. Tessa provides neat pen-sketches of Harlan Ellison ranting at his audience, Harry Harrison – ‘an ordinary man with a touch of genius,’ Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon and others who she knew only as Phil’s friends. Ray Bradbury reads a very long, very bad poem instead of his banquet speech, ‘but he was such a nice man and distinguished author that everybody listened to it.’ While Phil was so in awe of Robert A Heinlein that he feigns illness to avoid meeting him at a Nebula Awards ceremony, afraid of repercussions from some off-the-cuff criticism he’d made about Heinlein’s radical right-wing politics on KPFK-FM radio. After Phil’s death Tessa got to visit the Heinlein’s fortified octagonal Half Moon Bay bunker-house, which more-or-less confirms the rumours Phil was repeating. Although Heinlein himself was also a benefactor, to the extent of loaning $2000 when Dick fell into problems paying his income tax.
Harlan Ellison bragged that Dick’s ‘Dangerous Visions’ (1967) story “Faith Of Our Fathers” was written on LSD – which is typical Ellisonian attention-grabbing hyberbole, and untrue. ‘The fact of the matter is that I took it (LSD) two times, and the second time, it was so weak a dose, it may not even have been acid’ he explains to Charles Platt in the excellent ‘Who Writes Science Fiction?’ (Savoy, 1980). ‘The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch’ (1965) is Dick’s ‘classic acid-head novel’ even though ‘all I had to go on when I wrote it was an article by Aldous Huxley about LSD.’ Dick did speak to LSD-guru Timothy Leary, who advocated lysergic acid as a chemical tool way of expanding the conscious mind. Following Leary’s demonization by the authorities, Dick suspected he was targeted by surveillance as a result of their brief connection.
The systematic derangement of the senses has long been seen as a valid strategy for liberating the subconscious, jolting free conventional thought-paths into new configurations. For example, there’s a common misconception that a blind person gains additional awareness through other senses. Yet it’s more that, as we grow, we accumulate certain learned techniques that have successfully seen the species through a million years of growth. But deprived of certain sensory inputs there’s a potential to rediscover over perceptual avenues. Brain-scrambling narcotics can help open those temporarily by-passed options. But the LSD experience is intensely personal, and the visions it vouchsafes can have no objective verification. While the one occasion Dick smoked dope at home, he conceals it from his wife by hiding in the john.
Both Tessa and Phil harboured unresolved issues from dysfunctional childhoods. He already had suspicions that nothing is quite as it seems, although – as she asserts, ‘his tendency to experience wide mood swing had nothing to do with drugs,’ and that ‘I believe he had always experienced our solid world as plastic and illusory.’ He studied Manichaeism, Gnosticism, the I Ching, Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, as well as the Bible in a quest for occult and arcane explanations. But 22 March 1974 is the date of his first genuine flip-out vision. A month earlier he had an anticipatory hallucinogenic ‘anamnesis’ vision via Percodan – a synthetic codeine substitute, given as a sedative following oral surgery for an abscessed wisdom tooth. But it’s in March that ‘Firebright’ descends and enters his skull – ‘not so much a sentient entity as a conduit’ to other levels of awareness beyond what he terms life’s ‘Black Iron Prison’. As Ragle Gumm articulates, ‘I think we’re living in some other world than what we se, and I think for a while I knew exactly what that other world is… I almost got over the edge and saw things the way they are. Not the way they’ve been arranged to look, for our benefit.’
To Dick, a Schubert symphony communicates a hidden code. The couple’s dead cat ‘Pinky’ visits in the guise of Kellogg’s cartoon ‘Tony The Tiger’. There’s electronic spy-scan equipment in the next-door apartment monitoring and interfering with his mind. He hallucinates ancient Rome behind the architecture of LA. ‘Phil held two beliefs at the same time. First, human agents had brainwashed him. Second, demons had attacked him. They were not mutually exclusive.’ Tessa strives to understand, but is unable to see the things that he sees. She clinically and dutifully recalls details of his visions, so meticulously that there’s little trace of personal warmth about their actual relationship, or a sense of their day-to-day domesticity. When it came to 1950s gender roles, Dick conforms strictly to stereotype, she does the housework and cooking, while he never even changes a diaper for their infant son, Christopher. He snorts ‘Dean Swift Snuff’ which – because he mentions it in a couple of novels, they send him discount.
|Philip K Dick TV-adaptation from 1962|
There’s no description of what drew her to this man in the first place, this ‘dignified, thoughtful, slightly portly figure, with black hair, greying beard, and an informal but distinguished presence’ (Platt), other than – maybe, two damaged souls finding mutual solace in each other? Was she muse to his creativity – she’s the model for the character Beth in ‘VALIS’ (1981) – which ‘insults me’, and the mother of Emmanuel in his final novel ‘The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer’ (1982) –which ‘flatters me’? Was he tutor for her own writing, or surrogate father? Was there interdependence, humour and loving tenderness as well as trauma? If so, she instead documents her recollections in as matter-of-fact a way as is possible, given the disruptive nature of their time together. There was a subsequent misunderstanding and separation, but they remained connected. He talked of two further planned novels to be titled ‘The Owl In Daylight’ and ‘Firebright’, which never happened, due to his death from stroke complications 2 March 1982, in Santa Ana. Tessa subsequently wrote her own ‘The Owl In Daylight’ (January 2009) partially based on his notes.
Phil had ‘a diagnosis for every occasion, but none of them actually fit him.’ He himself ‘wrote thousands of pages about it, but he never found a satisfying solution to the puzzle of his visionary experiences of 1974 (part-published in 2011 as ‘The Exegesis Of Philip K Dick’ by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).’ Yet this troubled spirit created some of the most startlingly prescient fiction the genre has ever produced. His ideas resonate through the culture of the twenty-first century that he never got to see.
When Dick tells a bemused Charles Platt that ‘Australia does not exist, until we actually get there’ he’s probably making playful use of Kantian spectacles, the idea that humans mediate ‘the thing itself’ – ‘Ding an sich’, by overlaying it with what we know. We create what we see, by the very act of perception. Or maybe not.
This is the third, revised and expanded edition of ‘Firebright’. For Tessa, ‘after about (more) than thirty-five years, I’ve finally put together some of the pieces of a puzzle that I once thought insoluble.’ Yet, ‘in the final analysis, Philip K Dick was unique and indefinable...’