On Diaphragms, Ontology and Philip K. Dick: An Interview with Andrew M. Butler

by Frank C. Bertrand

[Note: The following interview was conducted by email between early
September and early November 2000. My sincere thanks to Andrew for taking
time from a busy teaching and writing schedule to answer my initial and
follow up questions. If you have any feedback on this please do leave a comment below.]

FCB: How did you come to write the book Philip K. Dick?

AMB: I’d heard about the Pocket Essentials series from a couple of friends, Colin Odell and Mitch Le Blanc, who were writing one of them on David Lynch. The Pocket Essentials are 96 page guides to individual directors or authors, or genres of film and fiction. Everything you ever need to know is in one beautifully tooled volume. Lots of opinions and, er, “tonka factoids” as one reviewer put it.
    Whilst being impressed that I knew two filthy pros, I thought maybe I could get some of the action and so I emailed the series editor, Paul Duncan, offering to write a book in the series. In fact Dick wasn’t really my first choice, because I had ideas for a kind of students’ introduction I wanted to write, and so I sent him a list of film directors I felt I could handle, headed by the great Kevin Smith, and a list of sf writers I was interested in – which included Dick, as well as Pratchett and Banks and so on. That must have been early in November 1999. They were going to publish a book in the series about cyberpunk, and they wanted to do a book on a single sf writer at the same time to balance it. Dick was the name that fitted best; I was willing and they wanted it.

FCB: But I thought you’re writing the one on cyberpunk?
AMB: I am. I’m not sure what happened there, but something didn’t work out somewhere along the line. The cyberpunk book author was meant to be writing their book at the same time as I was writing mine. In July, about a month after I’d sent off my manuscript on Dick, I heard along the grapevine that Paul was looking for someone to write on cyberpunk after all, and so I offered to do that one on top of the manuscript I’d just finished. That gave me two months to do it, except that I was down to do three weeks’ worth of residential school teaching for the Open University and so I couldn’t even begin to write on cyberpunk until August. Again, it’s mostly stuff I’m familiar with, but rereading all the material takes time. And then after cyberpunk, I’m down to write one on Terry Pratchett.

FCB: Is Dick a particular interest of yours then?
AMB: Certainly. As soon as they let me into the adult library, at the age of ten or eleven, in the very early eighties, I started working my way through the alphabet of sf each week – Aldiss, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick… I don’t think I got much further than Dick. I found an omnibus including The Unteleported Man, The Crack in Space and one other, probably Dr. Futurity. Not an auspicious start as the canon goes, but something must have hooked me. I don’t even know which one I read. I felt that it played with my head in a pleasurable way, and I wanted more of it. So I worked through what little they had in the libraries around where I grew up, borrowed copies off friends, bought odd copies second hand and even new where pocket money allowed. I can remember spending a year debating whether to buy a paperback copy of Martian Time-Slip new or a hardback for about a quid more. Of course, the week I decided for the hardback it had gone, and by then the paperback was out of print, and it stayed that way for a decade. I dread to think how much a hardback would be worth now if I could bring myself to sell.
    It wasn’t until I went to the University of Hull in 1988 to read English that the collecting mania took off, and I tracked down the last few titles. So as I came to the end of my degree, and wondered what to do next, I thought I’d do a Ph.D. on Dick. It meant I could stay in Hull, and read books for three years, although it took the best part of five in the end.
FCB: Is the Pocket Essentials title a version of your Ph.D.?
AMB: Good lord, no, although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there wasn’t the odd sentence in common and some of the ideas. No, a lot of the Ph.D. is the kind of long words that scare most people, myself included, and I was seeking something a little more accessible than that. My Ph.D. was called Ontology and Ethics in the Writings of Philip K Dick, which is hardly the title of a bestseller.
    I told Paul Duncan that I’d written on Dick before, and that I’d written stuff in Foundation, Science Fiction Studies and so on. I sent him copies of some of the things I’d written. Colin and Mitch did some vouching for me as well. Paul seemed impressed, so he gave me the go ahead to write the book.

FCB: Didn’t you just duck saying what you wrote about in your Ph.D.?
AMB: OK, the 25 words or less version of the thesis is: “If other people aren’t real, how should you treat them?” Again and again in the novels you’ll see that ethics come out ahead; it’s not whether a situation is real that matters, but whether an action is morally correct. You get that kind of thing on the Internet all the time, when someone’s being an idiot or worse, but you’ve got to still treat them with courtesy or you’re no worse than an android yourself. You can’t just assume they’re beneath contempt. In that sense, reading Philip K. Dick changed my life, although there are moments when it is difficult, and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t fail sometimes. That’s what’s so fascinating about Deckard’s dilemma at the end of Do Androids Dream? – he’s got to violate his own identity.

FCB: How did you find a thesis supervisor?
AMB: Well, I was lucky – pretty much everything I’ve done with Dick has been down to luck – in that Rowland Wymer was already at the University of Hull, and he was interested in science fiction. It seemed as easy to do a Ph.D. there as anywhere else, especially as I had friends there and the cost of living was low. At that point I was obsessed with Dick, and I wanted to try and work out why he played with my head so much when I read him. You can read a paragraph and something you took to be real turns out to be fake – and you can’t quite work out what’s happened. Take the beginning of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where Leo offers us hope for the future – except that by the end of the novel he’s apparently turned into Palmer Eldritch. How are we meant to read Leo’s optimism? I never did quite find an answer. Or ever quite understood how Dick played with my head so much. You’ve got to believe six impossible things at once. Still, if I did find the answer, I’d not have so much fun trying to find out.

FCB: Your supervisor was happy to do it? You never experienced any prejudice against sf from colleagues?
AMB: Not really, if only because others were working on Ballard and Heinlein. And if you wrap what you say in literary theory, and long words, colleagues then take it seriously. I think most British English Literature departments are open to most kinds of literature and popular fiction these days; they’re too desperate to get postgraduates on the books to worry about it. I know people that have done Ph.D.’s on gay pornography, sadomasochism or masturbation – Dick is rather tame compared to that. I think I only really began to suffer when I graduated.

FCB: In what sense?
AMB: After five years of doing a Ph.D. you’re not really qualified to do anything but teach, and there aren’t any openings for people who specialize in sf. My background was too traditional to teach cultural studies and too on the edge from traditional Eng Lit. So I spent four years from 1996 teaching several different versions of Victorian Literature, as well as Elizabethan Literature, Modernism, occasionally Popular Culture, part time, and only touched sf once or twice. To get a job in academia you need both research, and to teach what you research. Since I wasn’t teaching what I researched – post-war sf – I decided to start researching what I taught, but I didn’t have time because I was never teaching the same material twice. I was about to give up academia altogether when I went for an interview to teach media studies and film studies at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College in High Wycombe, and I didn’t get the job although at least I was interviewed. They gave it to someone who had taught media studies and film studies.

FCB: Isn’t that rather unreasonable?
AMB: I thought so. I nearly got a job teaching eighteenth-century literature once and they gave it to someone who had read some eighteenth-century literature… talk about blatant favouritism…
    But BCUC offered me part time work, so I started there in February 2000 – I took a break from the book for a while – and then in May they had a couple of vacancies and I got the job fulltime.
    Ironically one university told me they wouldn’t interview me because I didn’t have enough publications, and never would. A year on I’m having two books published in the same month.

FCB: Let’s talk more about the book. What audience then are you aiming at with Philip K. Dick?
AMB: As wide a one as possible, both established readers and new ones. Given the way that this is one of an ongoing series, hopefully the momentum of it will mean people buy a number of them, simply for the label as much as the subject. There’s some really useful stuff on the Pocket Essentials list – David Lynch, Hitchcock, Vampires, Noir Fiction and so on. I’ve seen them stacked at the tills at one London specialist shop, like candy in a supermarket. There’s clearly already a good deal of interest in Dick through Blade Runner, and I’m hoping I can encourage people to read a few more of his books. So anyone with a taste for sf, fan and non-fan alike, students who are forced by nasty lecturers like me to read sf, people with an interest in visionary writing, and so on.

FCB: What was the format they gave you to work to?
AMB: The wordage is thirty to thirty-five thousand words, which is not a lot when you consider the forty-odd novels, the five volumes of short stories, non-fiction, letters and so on, and there had to be a substantial introduction. I worked it out that it was about five hundred words a book. And I had to cover everything.

    Paul gave me a basic template to work to – plot summary, cast list, recurring themes and ideas, a bit of critical subtext and then a score out of five. It was clearly designed for a book on a film director, but it didn’t take much to change it for writing about Dick. The problem was thinking of all the themes that were likely to recur through the novels. It had been eight years since I’d read some of them.

FCB: You went back and re-read all of them, then?
AMB: Certainly. I started in mid-November 1999 with Gather Yourselves Together and The Cosmic Puppets, and read in chronological order up to The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. There was a gap from February to about May – round about Maze of Death – because I’d got the part-time job at High Wycombe, but I guess I’d reread all the novels by the end of May. Then I worked out what to do about the non-fiction, and suddenly remembered the two collaborations and had to hurriedly reread them – I suspect that’s only the second time I read The Ganymede Takeover, and I can’t see me reading it again in a hurry. The process wasn’t of course helped by the fact that three quarters of my collection of Dickiana was back at my previous address. I completed the book sometime in late June, just ahead of the deadline.

FCB: You wrote the book in only a month?
AMB: No, it got written as I went along. I’d read a volume, jotting odd things down on backs of envelopes, and then write four to five hundred words as soon as I could afterwards. I begin each entry with the date of completion and publication of the book, note the first edition, then summarize the plot as briefly as possible. (In some novels that is difficult to do – you try making sense of VALIS as a narrative). The next section is a listing of the types of characters in the novel – most of the books have a serviceman hero, someone who works for other people, a craftsman or a kind of policeman, and they clash with a patriarch figure, either a biological father or a metaphorical one. Meanwhile at home they’ve got a bitch wife who is making their lives difficult, and they’ve been tempted by a beautiful dark-haired girl, who will no doubt destroy them. The pattern isn’t in all of the books, but in most of them. Then I list the recurring themes in the book, and note any autobiographical echoes. Then that leaves me a couple of hundred words to critique the book and give an idea of what it’s about. That’s not a lot, of course. Although there were books I struggled to find two hundred words on.

FCB: Such as?
AMB: Vulcan’s Hammer, The Crack in Space, a couple more. Solar Lottery is one I’ve had trouble with before, it just doesn’t work for me. On the whole I was surprised how well they stood up – especially The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream?, both of which I must have read twenty or thirty times before. But it’s a difficult length – too long to be superficial, but not long to open up a debate.
    I note the books each novel connects to, and then sum up, giving a score out of five. That may well cause disagreements among readers, but that’s part of the fun.
    I’d originally planned to do one or two novels a week to get through the material, but I had just got back in touch with a fellow fan in Australia, and he offered me feedback if I sent him what I wrote as I went along. It helped that there was an audience, even if he didn’t suggest much. I was doing three or four or more some weeks, and I was a couple of months ahead. And as I went along I’d make printouts of the work so far and scribble over it and check that I was using all the themes, and so on. With the break, it took me seven months, although in a sense I’d been writing it for twenty years.

FCB: What about the PKD list? Were they of any help?
AMB: I kind of lurk there, rather than get into conversations. I’ve been subscribed to various incarnations of the list since 1991 or 1992. Every so often someone asks about the date of publication, or working title of a book, and I’m able to supply that, but I don’t push it further than that. I got in touch with Patrick Clark, off list, to get him to summarize the ending of the American revised edition of The Unteleported Man, because that’s the one gap in the collection. And then a week later a mate pointed out that he’d got a copy I could read. So I read The Unteleported Man / LIES Inc. three times in all in the course of researching my book. Aside from that, I kept the fact that I was working on a book to myself in case it all went pear-shaped.

FCB: And members of the Dick family?
AMB: I’ve not been in touch with them. Biographical readings don’t interest me particularly, but I’ve got the Rickman, Williams and Sutin volumes that I looked at if I needed anything. I tried as far as possible to simply describe and analyze what’s in the books, noting the odd detail about the writing of the novels where necessary. The late novels are to some extent autobiographical, but he does that all the way through the 1970s anyway, and it’s only basic details you need to know. On the other hand, I could see myself writing a whole book about the VALIS trilogy one day. Just not yet.
    I’d met Rickman, Williams and Sutin at a weekend at Epping Foprest Community College devoted to Dick back in 1991, organized by Jeff Merrifield and Ken Campbell, and talked to them about Dick then. I’d be hard pushed to remember any of those conversations now, although Paul Williams was remarkably supportive of a young postgrad and just told me to have fun.

FCB: Did you encounter any difficulties along the way?
AMB: Only shortage of time. But I had acres of time compared to doing this cyberpunk book. Not that lots of time helps. In the middle of the Ph.D. I bogged down for about a year, trying to get to grips with VALIS, until I found the right key to dealing with all the material.
    But back to this book. Ideally I’d’ve read everything, thought about it, and then read it again, and gone back and re-read the foot high pile of articles, books and newsclippings I’ve collected over the last ten years or so. Unfortunately there wasn’t time.

FCB: Now that it’s done, what afterthoughts do you have about the whole thing?
AMB: Oh, it’s too early for that now. Wait until the reviews come in. I’m going to set up some kind of webpage for people to send feedback to, and include any necessary corrections and amendments. My nightmare is that I’ve left out a novel, or something really obvious – I forgot to include one when I sent off the manuscript, but that was just a case of inserting the missing file. And then there’s the on-off status of the various films in production, which is bound to be wrong. A Scanner Darkly was supposedly being done, but I couldn’t find any reference to it on the usual websites. And half the websites disappearing whilst I compiled a list. I wish the book were longer, but that’s the nature of the beast.
    In the book, I’m perhaps too wedded to narrative, but lots of people I know have difficulties following Dick’s plots so I’m helping them out with it. It would have been nice to sit down and do another three or four drafts, and really take my sentences apart. But there wasn’t enough time.

FCB: Did you learn anything about PKD and/or his work that surprised you?
AMB: Not massively, because it’s all stuff I’ve read before and so I don’t think there are many surprises left. I hadn’t noted the correlation between Dick’s mention of tampax, diaphragms or condoms and the delay in publishing a novel – virtually all the mainstream novels, Lies Inc., We Can Build You all mention them. He writes about diaphragms in The Broken Bubble in 1956, and it doesn’t get published until 1988. Liz is wearing a diaphragm in Puttering About in a Small Land (in 1957) and it’s published in 1985. Condoms in In Milton Lumky Territory, tampax in Confessions of a Crap Artist, more diaphragm discussion in The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike… You would have thought he’d learnt the lesson by We Can Build You, but Pris mentions her diaphragm and the book takes nearly a decade to sell. He writes about things in the mainstream novels you just didn’t admit existed in the 1950s or early 1960s. It’s a sexual revolution ahead of the rest of the world.
    And I’m sure there were details in The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream? that I’d not picked up on before, but nothing springs to mind right now – the fact that Rick and Iran have separate beds say, but I don’t mention it in the books.

FCB: How do you perceive all the attention he’s getting AFTER he died?
AMB: In some ways it’s a shame – this was a guy who by all accounts starved for thirty years, and now others are making money off him. I sometimes worry about the hardcore of Dick fans being swamped by the young uns, and an industry taking over, so that he’s overexposed. There was something very pleasing about the secret pleasure of reading PKD. You were clearly smarter than anyone else. On the other hand, if he hadn’t have been so desperate to make ends meet, and if he could have afforded to take a year or two out, I don’t think we would have got so many great novels. His loss is our gain. I have to say I still get a lot of blank faces when I mention his name, although Blade Runner usually helps.

FCB: How do you see your book helping the PKD fan or new PKD reader?
AMB: Well, partly to reassure the new reader that what they just read made sense, and to point out the things which are Dickian in it – his obsession with dark-haired girls, Nixon, music, philosophy and so on. I can remember it was half a dozen novels or so before I got what Dick was up to, before I could speak his language so to speak. But it’s also there to point out where a given novel fits in the oeuvre – if a character reappears elsewhere I note it, if a novel shares a similar idea I note it, and I point out the short stories which he’s drawn on and so on. So it’s a kind of map of the complete works.
    The established fans can remind her or himself about corners of the collected works they’ve forgotten about, or have been unable to find. There’s an awful lot of books that don’t get reprinted, and you rarely see the mainstream novels secondhand. And there are plenty of little factoids that will pass many readers by – either about when Dick wrote it, what the working title of the novel was or the chronology of In Milton Lumky Territory, or the stanza of “Flow My Tears” that Dick leaves out. If I can send people back to reading the books, or out to buy another one, I’ll be happy.
    There’s an old book by Douglas Mackey that went through the novels one by one, with a little mini-essay on each one, but I think I cover a bit more ground than he does, and this is, ahem, a lot cheaper. This book is cheaper than a packet of cigarettes in Britain, and safe if used as recommended.

FCB: What do you make of the rest of the criticism on Philip K. Dick?
AMB: I must confess it’s five to seven years since I’ve read it, and I read all the usual suspects, but I wouldn’t want to bad mouth it. The first volume I read was the Olander and Greenberg collection of essays which is good, but suffers from a failure to cover the late novels. It’s a starting point. I read Bruce Gillespie’s Electric Shepherd collection – in fact bought more or less the last copy off him in 1999 – and that’s very interesting for its time, with one of the Stanislaw Lem articles in it. I think I only dipped into Patricia Warrick’s Mind in Motion, because she was quoting letters from PKD as evidence for her views, and he’s too slippery a writer for that. There’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s thesis, which feels a bit pedestrian now and undertheorized, and I don’t trust his judgement on the mainstream books. There were two or three other dissertations, but I never got around to tracking them down. It always seemed a battle to get inter-library loans.
    I’ve read all the stuff in Science Fiction Studies, but that’s from a Marxist or postmodernist point of view, and so wouldn’t have been of much use in a beginner’s guide. Some of the articles made me rather angry since they state he’s mad – which doesn’t answer anything – or talk about the economics and refuse to see the religion. You’ve got to take both. More recently there was the Greenland Press volume which nearly gave me a heart attack when it came out because it sounded too close to my thesis. Again, good stuff but not for beginners. And there’s a couple of other slim volumes – Hazel Pierce did a Borgo Press volume, and Angus Taylor wrote something for T K Graphics, but it’s all just been absorbed into my general thoughts on Dick.

FCB: Would you want to publish anything else about PKD?
AMB: Well, there’s a conference paper on Lies, Inc. that might be coming out in an edited collection, but if it’s like other conference volumes don’t hold your breath for a couple of years. And I was also working on an introductory guide to Dick that took into account a lot more of the critical material, but I’ve shelved that for now. And sooner or later I need to get back to the thesis and send out a book proposal for that.
    There’s always the sense that Dick is talking to you, writer to reader, and that we’re meant to carry on the conversation. There’s endless things to say, debates to have, but I don’t want to get sick of my own voice. I’ll be back, doing something with the thesis I hope. Actually, I’m meant to be reviewing a pile of the books for Vector. But otherwise I’ll wait until I have something to say. Unless I get interested in going through the short stories one by one.

FCB: If you’re not going to write on Dick soon, what next?
AMB: There’s the Pocket Essentials cyberpunk volume which will come out at the same time and I’ve written 33,000 words of that. Then I’m doing one on Pratchett. I co-edited a collection of essays on him earlier this year, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, so I’m already half-steeped in him. And of course I’ll continue to edit features for Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and do bits and bobs for Foundation and Science Fiction Studies, and I’m doing half a dozen encyclopedia entries on British sf writers. But I’ve already read over a hundred sf novels in the last year and I need a breather from it. I also need to do a lot more work on film and television because that’s what I teach at BCUC, and then there’s this Kevin Smith proposal I need to get someone interested in.

FCB: To close, what’s your favourite PKD novel?
AMB: That’s a difficult question. I suspect my favourite is Martian Time-Slip, because I read that early and really enjoyed it, and then couldn’t get hold of a copy for ten years. It grew as an object of desire during that period, and even lived up to my memory. It’s the perfect example of a novel with a large cast of interrelated characters. Dick plays reality games and messes with viewpoint, has characters display questionable ethical behavior and he offers unresolvable ambiguities. And it’s beautifully written – it just sings to me.

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