Visionary's total precall / 'Minority Report's' future world the work of sci-fi writer Philip Dick

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DAVID KIPEN
Visionary's total precall
'Minority Report's' future world the work of sci-fi writer Philip Dick

David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
  Tuesday, June 25, 2002

In the movie "Minority Report," three crack babies grown to fragile, stunted adulthood lie suspended in a bath of "proton milk," psychically transmitting fleeting visions of future crimes. In Philip K. Dick's short story, these same "precogs" sit "imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs."

It's hard to see those scenes or read that passage without being reminded of the emotionally cornered yet visionary, gifted man behind them. Where Jules Verne predicted inventions, science-fiction writer Dick foresaw entire societies. He didn't just anticipate such modern amenities as robotic pets or Prozac, he imagined a future alienated enough to want them -- a future that doesn't look as comfortably like science-fiction as it used to.

By now, the Dick estate brooks little competition as Hollywood's go-to lode for refinable science-fiction ore. Screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples transplanted Dick's 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," set in San Francisco, into 2021 Los Angeles to create the pervasively influential 1982 classic "Blade Runner."

A Dick story with the equally witty title "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" mutated into the less distinguished but more lucrative 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Total Recall," best remembered for the concisely Dickian line, "Well if I'm not me, den who da hell am I?"

Dick was -- among other, better-recognized attributes -- a Californian. Like fellow California writer Raymond Chandler, though, he was born in Chicago.

His family moved to the Bay Area not long after he was born, settling at 1212 Walnut St. in Berkeley.

A bookish, inquisitive child (who would be remembered by classmates at Garfield Junior High and Berkeley High as intelligent and imaginative, if somewhat delicate), Dick lived with his divorced mother. It was his father, though, who took him to the 1938 World's Fair on Treasure Island, where on display were such seemingly benevolent gifts from the future as the television and the cyclotron.

As a prolific, underpaid genre writer, Dick wound up living from the 1950s to the '70s in Oakland, San Rafael and Point Reyes. He changed wives almost as often as he changed addresses. In 1982, when he died of stroke-related heart failure,at age 53 (weeks after pronouncing himself thrilled with a rough cut of "Blade Runner"), Dick had just wed his fifth young bride. He was living in Orange County, having been lured there a few years earlier by an admiring academic at California State University at Fullerton who asked him to donate his archive of papers and original sci-fi pulps to the university library.

Intermittently paranoid, often agoraphobic, Dick moved frequently to stay one step ahead not only of creditors, but of government agents. The FBI and CIA seem to have taken an interest in Dick's anti-authoritarian fiction and in his prodigious stockpile of drugs, but probably not intensely enough to vindicate Dick's paranoia.

PARANOIA ON THE PHONE

Here was a man who would interrupt his telephone conversations with asides along the lines of "Are you getting that, boys?" A slavish but fascinating 1989 biography, Lawrence Sutin's "Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick," contains the following uproarious anecdote: "During May 1974, Phil was paid what he regarded as an unwelcome visit by Marxist-oriented French literary critics; he reported the visit to the FBI."

Dick's wounded psyche can't have helped his work habits. He could type 120 words per minute, and sometimes wrote his fiction almost that fast. (Dick did pause to consult the I Ching regularly during the writing of his Hugo Award- winning novel, "Man in the High Castle," in hopes of taming his unruly plot.)

"Dick was never a sterling stylist," said novelist and sometime San Francisco Magazine film critic Steve Erickson. "At its best, in books like 'High Castle,' 'A Scanner Darkly' and ('The Transmigration of Timothy Archer'),

his prose was careful, craftsmanlike. No doubt he wrote too many books too quickly.

FAST WRITER

"But of course Stendhal and Faulkner wrote fast, too, and Dostoyevsky is often called the worst great writer that ever lived, and like them Dick is important for his insights and concerns," said Erickson, whose 1990 LA Weekly cover story on Dick helped trigger what has turned out to be a revival.

Northern California colored Dick's work in ways not entirely helpful to his ever-precarious mental health, according to Davis writer Kim Stanley Robinson, whose new science-fiction alternate-history novel, "The Years of Rice and Salt, " is achieving the kind of crossover success that Dick, in his lifetime, could only dream of.

"UC Berkeley imposed the sense of the literary canon on all writers around it," said Robinson, who did his graduate thesis on Dick's work. "So that when he did (science fiction) he felt he was doing nothing."

Maybe Dick wrote so convincingly of marginalized alternate worlds partly because he worked in two of them: the cultish shadowlands of pre-"Star Wars" science fiction and the literary Siberia that is writing for the East Coast from California. Yet Dick's writing thrived here just the same.

"I don't know whether Dick could have written his books outside the Bay Area," Erickson said, "but I doubt he could have written them, at least in the way he wrote them, outside the creative anarchy of California that's so free of whatever the high-culture cant of the moment is. . . . Even Southern California, where he lived and worked for quite a while, has a bearing on his work, if in no other way than for how much he loathed it."

For those who find Dick's books unwelcoming or humorless on first read, it may help to think of them as the hasty jottings of a harried genius -- masterpiece kits, rather than masterpieces.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR ADAPTERS

This approach might explain Dick's enduring appeal to screenwriters. These aren't gemlike, clockwork stories that only ask of an adapter not to screw them up. Even the best of Dick's fiction would still repay a polish. Conversely, even his hackwork yields a sparkling seam of diamonds in the rough.

Like Kafka's characters, Dick's people are forever waking up to a different reality from the one they thought they knew. His world is a paranoid, dissociated, hyper-commercialized realm that many on this side of the millennium will recognize intimately. Twenty years after his death, Philip K. Dick stands revealed as the most prescient precog of all.

E-mail David Kipen at [email protected].


 
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