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
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
"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].