Awesome Men Throughout History: Philip K. Dick
If insane genius novelists have a patron saint, it should be Philip K. Dick. He’s dead, so that’s an immediate qualifier, and his speed-and-acid-induced craziness is well documented in the 44 novels and 121 short stories he produced in his staggeringly prolific career, as well as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, a diary of his religious and visionary experiences, many of which were hallucinations. We’ll get to that later, though.
Philip was born in Chicago and lived in Washington DC and California, where he attended Berkeley High School with fellow sci-fi author Ursula K. Leguin. Philip also attended UC Berkeley, but didn’t graduate, although he did pursue an interest in philosophy, classifying himself as an “acosmic panentheist” (defined as someone who believes that the universe is an extension of God) and doubting the existence of an objective reality. In other words, he was every philosophy major you met in college, minus the compare-everything-to-Fight-Club phase.
Philip never did come to terms with what reality is, and his books are full of questions about how people perceive the world around them, and how those perceptions are influenced by religion, drug use, mental illness, and varying levels of authoritarian politics. This all sounds like heady stuff, and it is, but it’s not completely inaccessible. After all, a ton of really good movies have been made from his books and short stories, including Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (based on the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”), A Scanner Darkly (Keanu Reeves’ best acting job since the Bill and Ted movies), and Minority Report.
One recurring theme in Philip’s books is the question of what makes an authentic human being. Many of his novels, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and We Can Build You, contrast coldly rational, dispassionate people with robots (or aliens) whose attempts to be human reveal their compassion and complexity.
It’s actually a small miracle that Philip’s work was as comprehensible as it was, because he cranked out the majority of his creative output while ripped out of his gourd on amphetamines, writing constantly to try and eke out a living from the low-paying science fiction publishers who supported his work. Being an Awesome Man has a price attached, which in Philip’s case was abject poverty and all the problems that come with it.
Oh, and drugs. Philip was a big fan of LSD, and the combination of drug use and stress did a number on his brain, resulting in a series of vivid hallucinations that he spent the remainder of his life trying to figure out. These hallucinations included a clairvoyant pink beam of light, various geometric patterns, and images of Jesus and ancient Rome, which led Philip to believe that he led a parallel life as a 1st-century Christian persecuted by Romans. In case you think I’m exaggerating, read The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, which goes into this stuff in much greater detail.
Sadly, Philip died in 1982 after suffering two strokes, so he never saw the critical, literary, and popular acclaim that he’d worked so hard to achieve. But we can still enjoy his work, which is widely available now, and I highly suggest that you do. And just for future reference, odds are good that the next cool, thought-provoking sci-fi movie you see was based on something he wrote.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.