April 27, 1999 from the Wall St. Journal

A Life of Fantasy;
A Literature of Fantasy


"I am, by profession, a science fiction writer," Philip K. Dick said in his autobiographical novel "Valis." "I deal in fantasy. My life is a fantasy."

So, it's only fitting that 17 years after his death, Dick's legacy has turned out to be just as improbable as any of his stories.

Philip K. Dick

In his lifetime, Dick -- author of dozens of novels and over 100 short stories, five-time husband and by his account a personal contactee by a mysterious entity that may have been God -- was largely unknown outside the science-fiction community. Within that circle, however, he was recognized as a visionary -- a writer who blended West Coast utopianism and counterculture paranoia into a surreal admixture that bore little resemblance to the space operas of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.

In short, you wouldn't expect him to be mentioned in the same breath as John Grisham or Stephen King. But, according to Dick's agent, Russell Galen, Paramount Pictures recently optioned the Dick story "Paycheck" -- and, if the film is made, Dick's estate will reap about $2 million, one of the largest sums ever paid for a short story, Mr. Galen says. "About $200 a word," he adds -- for a story that sold, in 1952, for $195. (A Paramount spokesman confirmed the optioning, but not the price.)

The deal caps an unimaginable year for an author who longed for mainstream success. Steven Spielberg is directing a movie version of Dick's "The Minority Report," while another team is developing "A Scanner Darkly." Meanwhile, many of the most popular TV shows and films in circulation show a strong Dick influence. Some critics credit him with inspiring the computer-obsessed, and ubiquitous, "cyberpunk" genre. Not to mention that the first two films based on his works, "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall," are still considered iconic -- albeit for vastly different reasons.

Dick reached this commanding spot in popular culture by writing science-fiction stories that ditched science and explored the weirdness, and transcendent possibilities, of everyday life. Imagine Franz Kafka writing "Twilight Zone" episodes: Dick's characters, more often than not, wake up to discover their world is a stage set constructed to keep them under close observation. Even more often, they wake up to discover that they're robots -- or aliens or part of a cult of Gnostic Christians -- and never realized it.

If this sounds familiar, it should: Dick's trademark themes have become standards in popular culture, even if his name isn't widely associated with them. Most recently, "The Truman Show" and "The Matrix" take up Dick's idea of the world as Hollywood backlot. His presence can also be felt in the invasive technological paranoia of "The X-Files" or "Enemy of the State."

But Dick took his ideas to lengths that follow-on efforts just can't match. Compare the plot of "The Truman Show" with that of "Time Out of Joint," Dick's 1959 novel. The hero, Ragle Gumm, leads an unremarkable life except for his proficiency in an absurd newspaper contest: "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?" But this hobby turns out to be more important than he can imagine -- Gumm is a gifted tactician who can predict where enemy bombs will fall. The only way the government can keep him prognosticating, without cracking under the responsibility, is to construct a fake town around him, where he can be happily anonymous. Saving the world is disguised as a task no more thoughtful than the Junior Jumble.

Such storylines may suggest a tone of airy magic realism or grim irony -- an impression likely enforced by the sophisticated noir of "Blade Runner" and the swaggering of "Total Recall." But Dick's writing was affably neurotic, poking fun at the jargon and weightiness of traditional sci-fi prose. Take this exchange, from "Our Friends From Frolix 8":

" 'God is dead,' Nick said. 'They found his carcass in 2019. Floating out in space near Alpha.'

" 'They found the remains of an organism advanced several thousand times over what we are,' Charley said. 'And it evidently could create habitable worlds and populate them with living organisms, derived from itself. But that doesn't prove it was God.' "

Nor do any adaptations capture the singular loopiness of his characters and his world. His heroes, with off-the-cuff names like Joe Chip and Luba Luft, wear their troubles on their sleeves. Barney Mayerson, the psychic marketing consultant from "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," never goes anywhere without Dr. Smile, a virtual psychiatrist he keeps stowed in a briefcase. Joe Chip, the baffled antihero of "Ubik," has to argue down his door before it'll let him leave the apartment. People inexplicably use frogs, pelts and "crumbles" for currency. And the aliens invariably invade just as everyone's marriage is hitting the skids.

As with any writer, Dick's life -- as recounted in Lawrence Sutin's "Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick" -- provided grist for his work. Dick's characters share his rocky marital fortunes, and often provide a window on the radical politics and lifestyles of his friends and neighbors in California. But his prenatal life proved even more important: Dick's sister, Jane, died at birth, and the search for lost twins, and the wholeness they represent, dominates his stories. In "Valis," for example, psychic trauma literally splits the narrator into two characters -- the wary, controlled Phil Dick and Horselover Fat, his manic and disheveled alter ego.

Spirituality also obsessed Dick, in particular esoteric Gnostic Christianity, with its belief in occluded truth and the possibility of direct contact with God. Bible stories, with a Gnostic twist, rumble below most of his plotlines. In "Galactic Pot-Healer," a seemingly omnipotent alien summons the eponym and a host of other average Joes to his service. The titular figure in "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" returns from the "mountaintop" of deep space transformed by terrible truths. While God doesn't make stones shout in Dick's stories, his voice sneaks into the world through televisions, toasters and pop songs.

In 1974, Dick put an exclamation point on those themes. With his life in disarray, he was contacted by a "Vast Active Living Intelligence System," or "Valis," a transcendent being whose nature he pored over for the rest of his life, both in a massive exegesis and the novel "Valis." ("Only Phil could write an autobiography and have it be science fiction," Dick's agent once remarked.) The revelations, as recounted there, include that the Roman Empire did not end, but persists in occluded form as a monolithic, oppressive entity called the Black Iron Prison. "True" Christians are still catacombed, but psychically, not physically: Their memories of the real world are hidden unless brought forth by "anamnesis" -- the loss of forgetfulness.

Hidden truth, remembering, the search for a Messiah -- all are vital themes in Dick's work. But if one image speaks most powerfully to his career and life, it is the "Crap Artist" -- what Jack Isidore, the lunatic diarist of "Confessions of a Crap Artist," gets dubbed.

Taking trash and turning it into something beautiful, the title suggests, can be a noble vocation. Dick's legacy proves that art crafted from offal can endure -- and maybe even uncover a few truths the more fragrant areas of culture have missed.

Mr. Toth works in the Journal's Special Projects Department.