Friday, 14 October 2011

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick - Lawrence Sutin (1989)

For those of you who don’t know anything about Philip K. Dick then there are two things you need to know - he was a total freak but he was also a brilliant and unique writer of science fiction, perhaps because he was, well, a freak. I know this because I’ve read quite a few of his novels and short stories. After reading Divine Invasions – A Life of Philip K. Dick I’m more convinced than ever that he was one of a kind. I few months ago at the Revelation Film Festival I saw Radio Free Albemuth and it was a film worthy of Dick’s vision. I mentioned this to a fellow ‘Dickhead’ at work and he lent me this book. Divine Invasions is a fine summation of Dick’s work and I recommend it to anyone interested in this maverick’s life.

Philip K. Dick was born in 1928 in Chicago and later moved with his mother to Berkeley after his parents divorced. Dick would live in and around Berkeley for most of his life. Dick was born just at the right time to be involved in the great rise of science fiction in the pulp era of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Dick is rightly considered to be one of the most important science fiction writers to emerge from this era because his influence permeates both modern film and literature. Also, to a certain degree, modern life resembles his books (more on this later). Early on Dick churned out short stories on demand in an attempt to make a living from the pulp magazines. Although science fiction was popular during that era it certainly wasn’t seen as a legitimate form of literature and initially Dick yearned to escape its confines by writing mainstream literature. However, only one of these novels would be published in his lifetime - Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975), but fortunately for Dick he became recognized as one of the most talented science fiction writers around.

Dick wrote a large number of short stories throughout his career, many brilliant, most fascinating and some deserving of the moniker ‘pulp’. The most recent collection I read - The Father Thing: Volume Three of the Collected Stories (1987) had some of his greats, like The Golden Man and Null – O. These stories are brilliant distillations of Dick’s imagination and his disturbing world-view. He was also a prolific writer of novels, typing at mad speeds under the influence of legally prescribed amphetamines; he was hooked on them for well over a decade. During 1963 – 1964 alone Dick produced 11 science fiction novels, including two that I’ve read in recent years – Dr Bloodmoney (1965) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a perfect example of Dick’s obsessions – what is real, how can you tell you know what’s real and what is human? A question that would later be fully explored in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Stigmata is bizarre, intense, thoroughly entertaining and above all subverts the reader’s perception of just what science fiction can do. This is true of many of Dick’s books, just start reading and you are in for a wild ride. Stigmata is a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with Dick’s writing.

Dick’s writing mostly negates science fiction’s usual obsession with predicting the future. Most of his books are set in the near future and usually within the confines of the solar system. Furthermore Dick certainly didn’t write space operas, although part of me wished that he had. Dick’s main interest was placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations, usually mind-bending and unfathomable in nature. The events in Dick’s narratives are not only weird to the reader, but also to the protagonists. Dick gets away with presenting weird realities in his stories because his characters are very believable and are usually ordinary individuals the reader can relate to. A great example of this is the policeman in Flow My Tears the Policeman Said (1974) who has to deal with some intensely strange situations, yet he has reoccurring sinus problems and a yearning to connect. Many of his characters are usually neurotic or have very human flaws, like being messy or hopeless at relationships. In fact one could argue that Dick was a humanist science fiction writer. Also, characterisation is one of Dick’s great strengths, something that was often missing in his contemporaries writing. As Divine Invasions reveals, Dick quite often sourced his characters from those around him, his relationships and from his own numerous neurosis.

Another fascinating aspect to Dick’s writing is the fact that because he set many of his stories in the late 20th and early 21st centuries we are essentially now living in their time frames. Although we don’t have flying cars, and Dick loved flying cars (in novels such as Flow my Tears the Policeman Said and The Game Players of Titan (1963) flying cars are sarcastic, stubborn and offer unwanted advice about their owner’s lives), in many ways we are living in times that he would recognize. The interactive and malleable digital society that we take for granted is far weirder than we think. The technology of the Web has created an environment in which duplicity and occluded reality are as easy to create as ever before. The sinister implications of this would be easily recognizable to Dick. The kind of technology that is used to deceive, to control and to spy in modern times could have come right out of some of Dick’s narratives (this would have made him very paranoid). In some ways, though, Dick would have been proud that we have become aware that the universe is way weirder than we could have ever imagined. As an interesting aside, for William Gibson, one of the most significant science fiction writers of the last thirty years, the multiple layered realities of Dick’s near future narratives have become symptomatic of our times. Gibson has mostly given up on the future, setting his recent novels in the present because he believes that it is weirder than any future he can now imagine. See the great quote: The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed. *

Dick’s life and work would get stranger before he died in 1982 of multiple stokes and a heart attack. His life came to resemble his books and fittingly he began to place himself as characters in their narratives; in VALIS (1981) he was known entertainingly as Horselover Fat and sometimes he would appear as multiple characters at odds with each other or sharing the same experiences. Dick managed the post-modern trick of inserting his life into his novels as a reaction to his life becoming like his novels – they just bled into each other.

In what became known as the 2-3-74 experiences, Dick ‘received’ via beams of light a series of insights, messages and visions that obsessed him for the rest of his life. These visions he ‘received’ in 1974 conferred to him that reality, as humanity knew it, was an illusion, that in fact we were trapped in time by an outside force. These were religious experiences for Dick and he spent years pondering his visions and insights. Helped along by his vast knowledge of the world’s religions, Dick kept a diary he called the Exegesis, that helped him explore his experiences. Apparently the Exegesis journal is to be published shortly. Safe to say, as Sutin noted, Dick did not take himself too seriously and throughout the Exegesis writings he wonders whether he’s just a delusional hack. Dick’s last three novels published during his lifetime explore these experiences and obsessions – VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981) and The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer (1982).

Apparently Dick regarded himself as a ‘fictionalising philosopher’, and I think that description is apt. Philip K. Dick is a hip writer insomuch that many get into his books because of his reputation and his mind-boggling plots, however he offers much more than that. Dick deserves to be read because he challenges the reader and his writing is intensely thought provoking and insightful. Personally I still have much to look forward to, as I’m yet to read such greats as Ubik (1969) and Martian Time Slip (1964). If you think that you may be immune to the lure of Dick’s writings, that he was just a delusional writer of pulp sci-fi, then please set aside your presumptions and give his writings a chance. After all, you are living in a ‘Phildickian’ universe but you just don’t know it yet. **

·      I couldn’t find the interview in which Gibson talks about the present, but this is entertaining in any case.

** Or now maybe you do after reading the above?


  1. Thanks for whetting my appetite for Dick (LOL, sorry - I couldn't resist)!

    Seriously though, my interest in Phillip K. Dick's work has been piqued by reading your article. Freaks of the world, unite! :)

  2. Fascinating stuff. ‘Fictionalising philosopher’ is an excellent description of PKD. (If you define 'philosopher' as 'freak'...)

    I became interested in PKD just after his death (and the release of ‘Bladerunner’). His last book, ‘The Transmigration of Timothy Archer’ was the first that I read. (I’d seen his stuff on the shelves of bookshops before, but ignored them – partly, I think, because I thought his name was a bit dull!) Over the next years I managed to collect most of his books, largely in tatty old paperbacks.

    As a follow-up to ‘Divine Invasions’, I highly recommend ‘I am alive and you are dead : a journey into the mind of Philip K. Dick ‘ by Emmanuel Carrere, a French novelist. It’s a biography as well, but concentrates on PKD’s thought-processes, more than the details of his life. Which, in PKD’s case, is undoubtedly more important. It’s fascinating, and far from adulatory – PKD’s faults as a person are very much to the fore.

    There’s no doubt that PKD was delusional. (So was William Blake.) But he kept his delusions in precarious balance and turned them into art – a rare ability amongst the delusional. Who knows what he might have achieved, had he lived. But then, I suspect that his true genius needed the constraints of genre in which to flourish. His last book, ‘Timothy Archer’ would undoubtedly have been the first book of a new PKD style: subtler, saner, more human – and a bit less interesting?

    My favourites? ‘Martian Time Slip’? ‘Galactic Pot-Healer’? ‘A Maze of Death’? ‘The Divine Invasion’? ‘Radio Free Albemuth’? Jeez, I dunno!

    You don’t have to have a favourite, of course, because they’re all the same book. A bit like Bob Dylan’s oeuvre – the individual albums are secondary (and often inferior) to the overall project.

  3. Great point in that last paragraph, in fact I was nearly going to point out that it was a pity Dick didn't get to emerge out the other side of his religious awakening like Dylan did after his trilogy of born again LPs.

    I envy your collection of old paperbacks because the most recent re-releases have shocking covers. They look like bad computer generated art.