A Week to Remember: Philip K. Dick

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick. Photo credit: Frank Ronan

On December 16, 1928, Philip K. Dick was born. Dick was a science fiction writer whose work centered on the unreliability of reality and of personal identity; his stories of paranoia, shifting personas, and an unstable world made him one of the genre’s most popular writers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Dick was born in Chicago, one of a pair of twins who were born several weeks premature. His twin sister died at six weeks, and Dick said he was haunted by her absence all his life. From the age of ten, he lived in northern California, where he attended Berkeley High School. In his graduating class at Berkeley was Ursula K. Le Guin, who would also go on to be an important science fiction writer, though they did not know one another at the time.

Dick briefly attended UC Berkeley, but dropped out after a semester, later saying it was because of anxiety issues and his dislike of mandatory ROTC training. He began selling stories to science fiction magazines in the early 1950s and published his first novel, Solar Lottery, in 1955. His stories sold well, and he published two or three novels a year, but science fiction wasn’t a field that paid well, and Dick struggled financially throughout the 1950s. As he later put it, “we couldn’t even pay the late fees on a library book.”

Book cover for Solar Lottery
Solar Lottery
Dick, Philip K.

He was becoming popular within the science fiction genre, but Dick had ambitions of success in the broader literary field. He wrote several non-genre novels early in his career, but couldn’t find publishers for them. Some of them were published after his death, to general indifference on the part of both critics and readers; the strengths of his science fiction writing didn’t seem to carry over.

Dick became one of the genre’s major figures in 1962 with the publication of The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history in which the United States has lost World War II, and is partitioned into a zone of German occupation on the east coast, a Japanese zone on the west coast, and a neutral zone in between. The novel won the Hugo Award, awarded by science fiction fans to the year’s best novel.

His success continued through the 1960s. Three of his novels—Dr. Bloodmoney, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—were nominated for the Nebula Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America; and 1969’s Ubik, a story of corporate espionage and psychic powers, has become one of his most acclaimed novels.

Book cover for Dr. Bloodmoney
Dr. Bloodmoney
Dick, Philip K.

Dick had been extremely prolific in the 1960s, publishing nineteen novels and more than 20 short stories. He maintained that hectic pace in part through the abuse of amphetamines. By 1970, his drug problems had reached the point that his wife moved out. He invited several friends, most of them also serious drug users, to move in with him, and his grasp on reality was tenuous enough that when he reported that his home had been burglarized, the police suspected that he may have faked the crime.

In early 1972, while visiting Vancouver for a science fiction convention, Dick decided to stay in Canada. A few months later, a failed relationship led him to attempt suicide. He survived, and entered a cult-like rehab program; he recovered well enough to return home to California and incorporated many of these events into his 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly.

Dick was, somehow, still managing to write through all of these problems. His 1974 novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula; it’s the story of a man who finds that his identity has been erased from all official records, and that his friends no longer recognize him.

In early 1974, Dick began to have hallucinations, and to tell his friends that he was living two parallel lives, one as Philip K. Dick, and one as “Thomas,” a Roman soldier in the era of early Christianity. He wrote about these experiences in an extensive series of journals, parts of which have been published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

Book cover for The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick
The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick
Dick, Philip K.

He also incorporated them into his final three novels—VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of TImothy Archer—which are known as “the VALIS trilogy;” VALIS is an acronym for “Vast Active Living Intelligence System,” the name Dick gave to his visions of God.

Dick suffered a series of strokes in early 1982, and died on March 2, shortly before the publication of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. That novel received a posthumous Nebula nomination.

The year after his death, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society established the Philip K. Dick Award, which is given each year to the best science fiction novel published as a paperback original. Dick was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2005.

In 2007, the Library of America published a volume of Dick novels, the first time they had included a science fiction writer in their overview of the American literary canon; they published two more Dick collections in 2008 and 2009.

After his death, his stories and novels became popular in Hollywood. Dick stories became the basis for such popular films as Blade Runner (from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep??, Total Recall (from the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”), Minority Report (from the story of the same name), and A Scanner Darkly. Two Dick film adaptations are available for streaming at hoopla—Paycheck and Radio Free Albemuth.

Interviews with Dick are collected in two books, The Last Interview and Other Conversations and What If Our World Is Their Heaven? David Duffy’s How to Build an Android tells the true story of an attempt to build an android replica of Dick. AndI Am Alive and You Are Dead is Emmanuel Carrère’s self-described “very peculiar book,” in which he attempts to “depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside,” an attempt to write the autobiography he thinks Dick might have written.

The best of Dick’s short stories are gathered in Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick; much more of Dick’s writing is available at Overdrive.

Also This Week

December 14, 1911

A five-man team led by Roald Amundsen is the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen spent most of his life exploring in working in the polar regions, leading the first team to traverse the Northwest Passage in 1903. He disappeared in 1928 while flying a rescue mission in the Arctic; no wreckage or bodies from that flight have ever been found. Lynne Cox tells the story of Amundsen’s life and expeditions in South With the Sun.

December 19, 1920

Little Jimmy Dickens was born. Dickens was a popular country singer of the 1950s and 1960s, known for his colorful outfits, novelty songs, and small stature (just under five feet tall). He crossed over to the pop charts in 1965 with his biggest hit, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.” The best of Dickens’s work can be heard on The Essential Little Jimmy Dickens.

December 18, 1950

Gillian Armstrong was born. Armstrong is an Australian film director. In the United States, she’s best known as the maker of period pieces, usually centered on the lives of women; but in Australia, she’s equally well known as a documentarian. She’s made a series of documentaries following the lives of three Australian women from adolescence to adulthood; four of those movies—Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better; Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces; Not Fourteen Again; and Love, Lust & Lies—are available for streaming at Kanopy.

December 20, 1960

Nalo Hopkinson was born. Hopkinson is a Jamaican-born Canadian writer of science fiction and fantasy. Her work is strongly flavored with elements of Caribbean folklore and culture, and her recurring themes include class, sexuality, and the problems that arise when different cultures meet. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America recently announced that she would receive this year’s Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement. Her novels include Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine.