Or: The Android Was Never Located
Above: Artist's rendering of author Philip K. Dick, one of the strangest and most troubled minds of the 20th century.
Philip K. Dick is without a doubt one of the most prolific, engaging, and cerebral writers ever to grace the science fiction pantheon. Penning no less than 36 novels and 121 short stories (almost all of which were strictly sci-fi), in addition to an unpublished 8,000 page journal he called Exegesis (we'll get to that later), Dick produced many of the greatest stories of his time, all between the years 1952 and 1982. Some of his better known works were 1969's Ubik (below, left), 1981's VALIS, 1968's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (right - basis for the mainstream film Blade Runner), the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (basis for the film Total Recall), 1974's Flow My Tears, The Policemen Said, and 1977's A Scanner Darkly (adapted 30 years later by Richard Linklater in an inferior film of the same name). But I'm not gonna ramble too much about his books today. Instead, I'd like to talk about the man himself - the strange, paranoid life he lived and the cryptic visions he had shortly before his death.
Philip Kindred Dick was born in Chicago on December 16, 1928, along with a twin sister, Jane Charlotte. The pair was delivered six weeks premature and both experienced extreme health problems which unfortunately led to Jane's death at only five weeks old. Her death haunted Philip for the rest of his life, and his writings in later years almost always had an underlying sense of ghostly duality: Alternate realities, schizophrenia, simulacra, and phantom twins all being a recurrent theme.
Relocating to Berkeley in his high school years, Dick soon became involved with Left Wing activities, the hippie movement, and more than a little drug use. In fact, he claimed that everything he wrote before 1970 was written under the influence of amphetamines. LSD played its part, too, and even though Dick turned out most of his best work in the 60's, his drug use was slowly eroding his mental health, deepening the schizophrenic tendencies he had shown off and on since his youth. Though his work was widely respected in literary circles, Dick lived almost his entire life in relative poverty.
Side note: As a promotional gimmick for the 2007 film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, a robotic doppelganger of Dick (above) was constructed to participate in a panel discussion at the 2006 ComicCon in San Diego. Reportedly, the android was "lost in transit" by America West Airlines personnel. It has yet to be located.
Although his writing remained consistent throughout the years, Dick's debilitating mental illness wrought havoc on his personal life, costing him five failed marriages between 1948 and 1977. On February 20, 1974, he was visited by a delivery woman at his home in Southern California. Although it was a mundane, everyday experience, the interaction set off a chain of metaphysical events that obsessed him until his death.
Dick claims the woman wore a pendant (which he referred to as the "Vesicle Pisces"), a mystical totem that somehow brought him into contact with a power outside the known physical realm. In his own words: "I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane". Throughout the course of the next several weeks, he experienced strange, unexpainable visions of improbable geometric structures and cosmic lazer beams which he referred to only as "2-3-74" (February and March, 1974) and documented at length in his aforementioned journal, Exegesis. Over time, the visions began to include glimpses of Jesus' crucifixion and the fall of Rome, eventually becoming so lucid that Dick claimed he was leading a double life, both as himself and as a persecuted Christian named "Thomas" in the Roman Empire in 1 A.D. He referred to the "higher power" who contacted him through Vesicle Pisces as God, "Zebra", and later, "VALIS" (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), focus of the semi-autibiographical work of the same name.
In his youth, Dick experienced a recurring dream in which he was searching the library for a short story called "The Empire Never Ended". The story, in his dreams, held the key to the secrets of the Universe, and would grant him access to unknown realms of hidden information. Although he never found the story, its title shows up in his later work from time to time, and during the "2-3-74" phase of his life he began to speculate that it might refer to the Roman Empire. He began experiencing visions that he was the prophet Elijah, along with paranoid notions that he was being pursued by the CIA and the KGB.
Though his rational mind was plagued by wild speculations and absurd, semi-lucid imagery, Dick's literary work throughout the 70's and early 80's was as solid as ever, framing studies in psycholgy, theology, mysticism, and duality upon the framework of science fiction. Even as his psyche spun out of control, his mind remained sharp and focused up to his final day.
Maybe Dick's hallucinations were nothing more than paranoid episodes brought about by mental health issues and rampant use of amphetamines. But he was a man tuned into a much higher plane of conciousness, exploring realms far away from those experienced by the average human mind. Were his visions a glimpse of something bigger, a conversation with some sort of higher power he couldn't understand? Unfortunately, we'll never know, as a stroke took him from this Earth on March 2, 1982. He left behind a vast, brilliant body of work, one full of far more questions than answers.
Philip K. Dick was buried in a grave alongside that of his twin sister, metaphorically re-united with the "other half" he spent his whole life searching for.
For a look at R. Crumb's comic book interpretation of Dick's descent into schizophrenia, click here (RECOMMENDED).
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