William Gibson On Philip K. Dick

A collection of quotes from SF writer Gibson about PKD’s influence (or lack of) on his work.

0. …WITH A STRANGE DEVICE _Wing Window_ [Seattle fanzine] 1982: pp. 5-6.

Some Blues for Horselover Fat: Some dozen years ago I sat on the grimy hardwood floor in a room that had once been the library of an elegant Toronto townhouse, the walls coated with uneven layers of art students’ white latex, a single bulb dangling from the center of an enormous plaster rosette intended to support a chandelier, and watched pale tendrils sprout from my dirty bare feet and take root in the cracks between the floorboards. That night my private picture show was being orchestrated by a substance that put Trumbull’s best efforts to shame; I’d eaten an eighth of a minute tab of a chemical the street knew as STP, variously alleged to be either an escaped Dow bid for Barefoot In The Head wars or a methedrine molecule dolled up with assorted baroque tails by a legendary California chemist…. None of the eight people who sampled it that night ever felt the least desire to go back for a second taste; I only mention it now to make a point. After that, we always referred to the night we did the PKD and spent the next 48 hours looking for the way home to Base Reality.

Now the writer we renamed the stuff after is dead, it’s been years since I’ve tripped on anything I’d have considered psychedelic in those days, and lately the late night news has been going form bad to weird…. I’m going to miss Mr. Dick, a man I never met.

Remarkable the number of Phil Dick’s fans who have no desire to read any other sf. It always impressed me. “Well, no, I don’t read that stuff…. But do you know this guy Dick?” How did they get on to him? Word of mouth…. He was the only product of the American genre sf scene you could give to hardened Burroughs and Pynchon fanatics without wincing a little. Because, at his best, he was truly Dread, the poplit equivalent of certain moments in rock when an improvised guitar line comes scything out at you like a snapped cable and cuts the mind-body dichotomy eight ways from Sunday…. Reading him, sometimes, I’d get this image: man typing at a kitchen table maybe, stoked on dex and twenty cups of coffee, typing fast; just making it all up, and somehow behind it all his admirable desire to drive us all, if only for a few seconds at a time, straight of our wretched minds.

So it’s ’82 already and I turned 34 today in a world more peculiar in its particulars than anything I could’ve dreamed up a decade ago. President Ronald Reagan. (Well, Ballard tried to warn us, he did….) Real bad Craziness is loosed again, my dears; the spook juice is flowing from the bunkers under McLean, that old CIA ectoplasm snaking down Nicaragua way to congeal in rancid jizzy clumps along another border…. Every species of Ugly Shit coughs and shuffles in the wings….

Times like these, a good hit of PKD shakes the scales from the tired eyes. Only we can’t get any more, now.

–Vancouver, March 17, 1982

Jerry Denny: the whole Dick catalog

(1985 Philip K. Dick Award Winner William Gibson Talks about Philip K. Dick)

1. An Interview With Larry McCaffery for _Mississippi Review_ Vol 16, No 2&3. (web version) August 1986

LM: Philip K. Dick was always writing about people like Virek who have so many “reality options,” so many different reproductions and illusions, that it starts to get difficult to know which reality is more real–the one in their heads or the one that seems to exist outside. That’s a powerful notion.

WG: It is powerful, which is why it’s such a temptation to keep pushing it once you’ve got a concept like cyberspace that creates an instant rationale. I probably was a little heavy handed about this in Count Zero, with Bobby’s mother, who’s hooked on the soaps and lives in them, but that was hard to resist. Everybody asks me about Dick being an influence, but I hadn’t read much Dick before I started writing. I’d already gotten my Dick from Pynchon. I’ve always imagined an alternate world where Pynchon sold his early stories to F and SF and became an alternate Dick.

2. Eye to Eye with William Gibson by Tom Maddox: _SF Eye_ issue 1 Winter 1987.

“I never got into Phil Dick. Somehow I missed him, coming up. I don’t remember reading any of his novels when I was a kid. I may have read some of his short stories. But by the time I realized who he was, I had already read Pynchon. Pynchon will do for you what Dick does, but it’s like free-basing. I never needed Dick.”

3. An Interview with William Gibson and Tom Maddox; by Darren Wershler-Henry

(source: _Virus 23_ #0 [Fall 1989], 28-36)

WG: (back to the list) Alfred Bester, yeah. Bester I’ll go for. [William Burroughs’] Naked Lunch, yes. Philip K. Dick, though, had almost no influence.

TM: Right, you’ve really never much really read…

WG: I never really read Dick because I read Pynchon. You don’t need Dick if you’ve read Pynchon. I mean Dick was the guy who couldn’t quite do it.

TM: Ah, I think that’s different, but you haven’t read Dick, Bill (laughs).

WG: That’s true. I read a little Dick, but I didn’t like it.

4. Interview with Gregory Daurer; Journal Wired, Summer/Fall 1990

[interview conducted November 1988]

“When I was a kid reading science fiction in a one-horse town in rural Virginia, I discovered science fiction, and it was my sole source of subversive ideas. There was nowhere else to get them. It was so far below the notice of the authorities or my parents that it was totally free. So I could walk around, thirteen years old, and Philip K. Dick was addressing me from his amphetamine fog in California. “

“I think Dick was a marvelous writer, but he was totally bughouse. I think the guy was crazy and had been for a long time. I’m sure he was a wonderful man to hang around with, and he was a remarkable writer, but I tend to back Kim Stanley Robinson’s hypothesis that Dick’s VALIS experience – when the pink beam of light came down and hit him, and he started receiving information – was the first stroke in the series that finally killed him.”

5. Introduction to The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick 1974 (September 24, 1990)

When I first encountered the country you are about to enter, it consisted of a pristine stack of unbound proof pages housed in a special sort of cardboard box native tot he workshops of serious small press publishers. But these letters formed part of a whole that was anything but tidy; they constituted a harrowing literary journey — one that can never entirely be separated from the corpus of Philip K. Dick’s fiction. They are, to borrow a phrase from J.G. Ballard, terminal documents, demanding our full and immediate attention; I regret the decision to publish them I anything less than their terrible human entirety.

I never met Philip K. Dick, but I know that he inspired loyalty and affection in many who knew him. At the start of my own writing career, Vancouver’s science fiction community still swayed slightly in the wind of PKD’s recent passage. He had arrived as guest of honor at the local convention, and had delighted the locals by unexpectedly jumping ship and taking up residence. Fans who were privy to this Vancouver Period subsequently spoke of him, but fondly, as one might of some profound Fortean singularity, the human equivalent of a torrent of frogs. And though no tow versions of the sighting ever seemed to quite match up, it could be agreed that the luminous object had definitely vanished over the southern horizon.

Now we are left with his fiction, and with these letters, the majority of which were typeset from the carbons he scrupulously preserved. To those who protest that he might have objected to the publication of much of this material, I can only point to that extended act of literary preservation. The letters exist: they were not written on water. And they allow us insight: however strange, however sad, however embarrassing.

Their cumulative effect, I think, is one of nightmare.

But if they frequently resonate, as they certainly do for me, with paranoia and an underlying sense of dark momentum, so then does our age. Much of the postmodern esthetic is prefigured in Dick’s best work — in his sleepless deconstruction of generic science fiction’s shopworn tropes — in his lively sense of pastiche, and in a certain abiding tone of exhaustion in the face of a most imperfect present and an onrushing futurity.

Yet the turbulence that rises beneath the surface of this collection, this de facto testament, is also exactly and heartbreakingly personal, the product of one single soul’s passage through savagely lonely country, I the latter half of our increasingly strange century.

Illuminating and embarrassing, brilliant and pathetic, the letters of Phil K. Dick are the real thing.

6. An Interview with Mr. William Gibson by Aanta Boreale; The E-Zone_(1995)

Q: This make me think of another writer Mr. Philip K. Dick who wrote a story “The Man In The High Castle” about what history might have turned out to be if the Axis had won WW2.

G: I read the story years ago, Mr. Dick was never any big personal favorite of mine, and I suspect that I got what most get from Philip K. Dick is that distilled paranoia that is found in most in his writing. Dick wrote, I don’t know how many books and short stories that evolved along the same storyline, and they give me the impression that they are sections of the same log. And he wrote these things endlessly and never quite got it into one masterpiece.

7. Virtually Real Interview; Telegraph Magazine (September 21, 1996)

“I’ve also read Dick’s collected letters which were deeply dismaying and indeed a very off-putting thing to do. I had to do it, because I agreed to write an intro to the first volume. And it seemed there was a great deal very, very overt psychopathology going on…I mean he was a few bricks shy of a load. A brilliant guy, but….

“Well his whole life was a state of nervous breakdown. And he fueled it with a lot of prescription speed and tranquilizers and other that, for they upped his output. I don’t think it did much for his clarity of perception.”

8. Online Chat at the Sci-fi Channel website (December 29 1999)

Moderator: Did you want to comment on the Phil Dick influences?

Joblard (Gibson): PKD: precious little, honestly. I think I got my PKD-like moves from Pynchon, mainly.

9. Ain’t It Cool News Interview (February 3, 2000)

Gibson: [Discussing the film Matrix] As far as having been an influence on it, I thought they had digested their Gibson very well – and also taken quite a lot of Philip K. Dick.

Interviewer: Oh, definitely.

Gibson: And you know, that’s fair – I mean, I mean I do that myself all the time.

10. Online Chat at Books Unlimited (March 24, 2000)

tom 26: How much of your success as an author do you think you owe to Philip K. Dick, if any?

WG: He was not an influence. On me, anyway.

11. Gibson blog (January 13, 2003)


I usually skip the “influence” questions, on grounds that if you know your own influences, your digestion’s pretty sluggish. I’ll make an exception, though, when someone suggests an influence I know I haven’t had, and PKD is definitely one of those.

I read THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE when I was twelve or so, and a proud new member of the Science Fiction Book Club. The concept of American vintage collectibles in a Japanese universe stuck with me, and not much else. Thereafter, I read virtually no PKD. Why? My guess is that my MDR of paranoia was satisfied by reading Pynchon instead, and my regular nature-of-reality workout provided by the ever-limber Jorge Luis Borges. Dick just never found a niche in my ecology of favorite writers.

12. blog (January 18, 2003)

But influential impact often has little to do with how well a writer or book might be known. Phil Dick’s entire corpus has had almost no impact on me, but a single reading of Thomas M. Disch’s ON WINGS OF SONG, I know for a fact, influenced me mightly.

13. blog (January 28, 2003)

I thought it [The Matrix] was more like Dick’s work than mine, though more coherent, saner, than I generally take Dick to have been. A Dickian universe with fewer moving parts (for Dick, I suspect, all of the parts were, always, moving parts). A Dickian universe with a solid bottom (or for the one film at least, as there’s no way of knowing yet where the franchise is headed).

14. MTV interview with Kurt Loder: “The Matrix Preloaded” (August 8, 2003)

Loder: How do you feel about the “Matrix” movies appropriating so many of your concepts?

Gibson: All pop, and perhaps particularly the greatest pop, is inherently recombinant. Genre itself is a recombinant mechanism. “Neuromancer” was a very consciously, very eclectically recombinant work. I didn’t invent computers, AI or the black vinyl cat suit. I thought “The Matrix,” which I quite liked, was more like a Phil Dick piece in some sort of cyber-noir drag than like my own work.

15. “Consumerism plays the heavy in latest from godfather of cyberpunk”

by Kerry Lengel; The Arizona Republic (Feb. 6, 2004)

Q: You wrote that “The Matrix is arguably the ultimate ‘cyberpunk’ artifact. Or will be, if the sequels don’t blow.” What’s your final verdict?

A: Well, I still haven’t seen either of the sequels. I actually enjoyed the first one, and I don’t want to ruin it for myself. I thought that it was a wonderfully goodhearted expression of the epistemological quandary that Philip K. Dick spent his entire life trying to express. It’s not really like a William Gibson novel at all.

Thanks to Patrick Clark for making this and other long-lost PKD Interviews available.

3 thoughts on “William Gibson On Philip K. Dick

  1. Gibson is so strong an opponent on influences of PKD’s writing on his own that it makes me think that, really, such influence exists, and it is not a small one…

    1. (10 years later)

      …or you could just believe the an himself — looks to me like he doesn’t actually _like_ Dick’s writing, and that’s it.

      It’s not like he’s been inconsistent in his answers…

  2. Read Thomas M Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. William Gibson (&PKD) didn’t predict the future, they helped create the present. The immortal Thomas M Disch has also been heavily homaged throughout the film industry. Someday someone might make a film version of On Wings Of Song, I nominate Steve Conrad as director. And live in fear of other desks it may cross.

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