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Philip K. Dick keeps it (un)real

Hollywood's favorite sci-fi writer didn't think it was all fiction

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The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt;
976 pages

Imagine you’re a regular guy named Joe Chip, a technician and evaluator of psychic-blocking talent. You and your boss, Glen Runciter, assemble a team for an important mission on the moon. You land; there is an explosion; Runciter is dead. Things go downhill – fast – as the world around you gets, you know, entropic. All the food rots. Technology regresses as holograms become televisions become radios. Your friends age rapidly, then wither and die. Is this really happening to you? Is this a nightmare? How can you stop the approaching forces of decay?

You wouldn’t want to be a character in Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik, or any of his other 35 novels and 121 short stories. But if he’s right, you just might be. Or maybe in a reality even worse.

Dick’s speculative universes are some of the most inventive ever. Outside the science fiction community, however, he’s best known for providing the bases for movies from 1982’s Blade Runner to this year’s The Adjustment Bureau – 11 so far, with more in the pipeline (a Total Recall remake next year) or under discussion (including Ubik and his classic fantasy story “The King of the Elves”).

Of course, Dick’s ascension from cat-food-for-dinner poor – as he and his then-wife, Kleo, were at one point – to becoming the most-filmed sci-fi author of all time must have seemed an impossible dream. Paltry book sales and exploitative publishers held him down throughout his career. And if he’d lived to see this success – he was around only long enough to see a rough cut of Blade Runner – he probably would have thought he’d entered one of his own alternate universes.

But his complaints about the world weren’t just financial or material. Metaphysical is more like it. Dick once wrote that “the world we actually have does not meet my standards.” His suicide attempts, chronic agoraphobia, amphetamine abuse, five marriages and divorces attest to this. So does the consistent riddle in any great Dick narrative: “What is (really) Real?”

For all his adult life, even as he cranked out his novels of unfathomable worlds for pennies a word, Dick sensed that the world in which he seemed to live was fake. Then, at age 45, Dick underwent a nearly indescribably series of perceptual phenomena – let’s call them, in total, one prolonged mystical revelation. Dick may have been hallucinating when he saw “hundreds of thousands of absolutely terrific modern art pictures,” but this incident, and many more, wasn’t drug-induced.

These experiences verified his skeptical intuitions. They also scared the shit out of him.

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