“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
Philip K. Dick, VALIS
Chances are, even if you are not familiar with the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, you will at least be aware of some of the film adaptations – some good, some bad – of his work. If you have seen Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, The Adjustment Bureau or, if you were unlucky enough, Screamers, you may have garnered some small impression of what goes on inside Dick’s head. Behind the familiar sci-fi trappings of androids, spaceships and aliens, lays the workings of a complex and disturbed mind.
Actor Michael Sheen, with the help of Professor Roger Luckhurst, makes the case succinctly in this week’s episode of Great Lives on BBC Radio 4 that it was also the mind of a genius. There are more complete biographies of his life and work, including the superb I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by French author Emmanuel Carrere – a book written as a piece of fiction, in Dick’s style and with its subject also as its main protagonist – but this thirty minute program provides a good incisive introductory glimpse.
Science fiction, as a genre, often draws sneers from literature snobs. It’s not proper literature, as far as they’re concerned, it’s just for children and the socially dysfunctional. The isolation of science fiction novels in book shops is for the same reason tinned sweetcorn is separate from fresh in supermarket aisles– it’s for ease of finding not because they’re fundamentally different. At its best sci-fi is high art, and comparable to any work of classic or modern fiction writing. Any genre has its share of both Dickenses and Dan Browns. In mainstream fiction, Charles Bukowski has to share his shelf with Candace Bushnell, and W. Somerset Maugham probably begrudges living near to Stephenie Meyer, like a noisy neighbour who has her friends round and lets her dog bark all night. Phil Dick belongs to the high end of the science fiction spectrum.
Let me illustrate. My first experience of his work would have been in my mid-teens. There was a monthly magazine published during the nineties that released a series of sci-fi classics in a collectable, handsome hardback form. The first two in the series were War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The third was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick – the short novel that was filmed under the title Blade Runner. That is the company he keeps.
The robots and ray guns are just window dressing – the vehicle for a series of studies of the human condition, philosophy, psychosis, paranoia, politics and, later in his career, theology. In fact, Dick also wrote a number of unregarded non-science fiction novels, only one of which – Confessions of a Crap Artist (I just love his titles) – was ever published during his lifetime. He only wrote science fiction as he needed the money and knew he could get his work published. His intentions were much higher.
Understandably, the program focuses largely on Dick’s personal tragedies and problems, which were numerous, but succeeds in putting them in the context of his work. Drugs were one of the main factors present in his life, certainly during what many consider the pinnacle of his career: the 1960s. He is described as taking amphetamines by the handful, like sweets from a jar. The visions and psychosis he suffered influenced much of his work, but in particular The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich – which reads like a bad acid trip – and A Scanner Darkly – a book written about his experience of the drug culture in the years after he had cleaned up his act.
They also cover his later period, which was characterised by a sudden religious conversion, and – although always a prolific writer – a new creative zeal. The visions he received, either directly or indirectly caused by his drug addiction, he decided to interpret in religious terms, and wrote feverishly about them, but without filters, so he produced more that should have been discarded than was worthy of publishing.
One element the program mentions that always strikes me about his work is his paranoia. Many of his characters are being pursued or persecuted, and, in real life, he believed himself the subject of prolonged FBI surveillance. This went to the extent of blaming them when his house was burgled, although at another stage he believed he may have burglarised himself then wiped it from his memory.
The program paints Philip K. Dick as both visionary and victim, and as a man who skirted the line between genius and madness. Undoubtedly he had mental issues, the program concludes, but they were focused into his work in such a way that he created a unique take on reality – what is real and what is imagined – and his work stands out, not only as great sci-fi, but as some of the finest works of imaginative fiction ever written.
Postscript: In his presentation, Michael Sheen names Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said as his favourite novel, but here is my own, personal, recommended reading list:
Man In The High Castle
A Scanner Darkly