Did Philip K Dick Dream of Electric Sheep?

15 Feb

By the time of his death in March 1982, Philip K Dick had become perhaps the most respected of modern science fiction writers. He was also, with the possible exception of H P Lovecraft, the most neurotic of major science fiction writers, obsessed by the notion that human beings were trapped in a ‘web of unreality’. His persecution mania developed to a point where he could undoubtedly have been described as a paranoid schizophrenic. Yet, towards the end of his life, Dick became convinced that he had been ‘possessed’ by a kind of super-alien or angel, who went on to reorganize his life. Whilst a number of people have cast doubts on some of Dick’s more bizarre claims, his case is perhaps too complex to be dismissed as simple self-delusion.

Philip Kindred Dick had a troubled childhood – his twin sister died soon after his birth, his parents divorced when he was five and he then remained with his mother, who was often cold and emotionally constrained towards him. Dick grew to be lonely, oversensitive and introverted; he also suffered from a number of health problems, including asthma and a pathological phobia of eating and swallowing. Perhaps as a result of his difficult early years he had a sporadic and unsatisfying social and personal life – he had five wives, no close friends and once stated: ‘I managed to become universally despised wherever I went’.

Inevitably, Dick’s many insecurities and complexes bled into his work. Identifying with the weak, he once said, led him to make many of the heroes in his stories weak. Most of Dick’s work has a morbid, not to say paranoid, streak. There is also a Kafkaesque quality to much of Dick’s writing, which often features individuals beset by endless complications that frustrate all attempts at purposeful action. Like Arthur C Clarke, Dick loved to play with the idea of computers developing their own intelligence and taking over from human beings. He was also  inclined to experiment with the idea that the word ‘reality’ is meaningless – that, instead, there are as many ‘realities’ as there are living creatures and that the notion of reality is therefore purely subjective.

In 1963 Dick achieved relatively widespread recognition with a novel entitled Man in the High Castle, which won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year. Nevertheless, his personal life lurched from crisis to crisis: nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts, divorces, novels written at top speed to stave off debt, paranoid delusions – at one point Dick thought he saw a great metal face, with slots for eyes, looking down at him from the sky. The eminent science fiction writer Harlan Ellison once called time on a prospective collaboration with Dick because Ellison felt that he was unreliable and ‘possibly loony’. But despite this, there was no doubt that Dick could pull himself together and organize his ideas.  His novels, though often pessimistic, had an irresistible pull, replete with a stifling atmosphere and bold ideas that dared to challenge the accepted milieu of literary science fiction.

But on 2 March 1974, Dick experienced a ‘vision’ that transformed his life. One night, lying awake and wrestling with ‘dread and melancholy’, he began to see whirling lights. Then he experienced the ‘Bardo Thodol journey’ (an after-death journey, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and found himself face to face with the goddess Aphrodite. Two days later, Dick felt another being inside himself; in his own words he had been ‘possessed’ by an entity that he called Valis (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), which allowed him to see into the future. Although this may sound like the typical ravings of a madman, Dick’s claims were not entirely unfounded. He once selected a letter randomly from a large batch of post, handed it to his wife unopened, and predicted its contents accurately. He also predicted that his son Christopher suffered from a potentially fatal hernia – the family then checked with a doctor, found that the information was correct and the hernia was remedied with an operation. Strangest of all, Dick’s wife verified that the radio in their home would go on at two in the morning and play music, even when it was unplugged.

Whatever the truth was about Dick’s ‘possession’, his life seemed to improve afterwards. His books sold increasingly well, his reputation increased (as did demands for interviews) and an increasing number of his novels were translated into foreign languages. Several books were optioned by Hollywood and one of them, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, became the classic movie, Blade Runner, in the year of Dick’s death – of a stroke and heart failure – in 1982. By this time, Dick had already achieved cult status among thousands of science fiction fans and had become something of a legend. His legacy remains undimmed to this day but the truth about Valis is also still a mystery.

7 Responses to “Did Philip K Dick Dream of Electric Sheep?”

  1. Tharcion February 15, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    Interesting. I thought no one could have such a “suitable for fiction” life as Lovecraft.

    I’m afraid I don’t get along well with his work. I keep meaning to try The Man in the High Castle since that is supposed to have inspired the visuals for Blade Runner. I’m afraid I appreciated the film considerably more than the book it’s supposedly based on (I think “loosely” applies here). Even without the sappy ending the original theatrical version had glued on, the characters in the film actually have some engaging qualities, you feel sympathy for the Replicants, you feel sympathy for the man forced into hunting them. The characters in the book are dead; it came across to me as an author trying to make a point about deep, dystopian themes, and all I got out of it was a desire to read a book with characters in, not cyphers.

    Ah well.

  2. Diane Tibert February 15, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Fascinating stuff. I didn’t know any of this. Thanks for the information.

  3. D. D. Syrdal February 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    I had a small inkling of his issues, but no idea about his ‘possession.’ The Man in the High Castle was fascinating, alternate history.

  4. Chazz Byron February 16, 2012 at 12:28 am #

    Interesting read, I really enjoy everything I’ve read by Philip K Dick, but I don’t know much about his life

  5. Michael Wood March 16, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    I heard a story a long time ago about how P.K. Dick had a vision about a tumor, or something wrong, I think, inside his daughter’s mouth or something, and it turned out his vision was true.

    I dunno if it was just rumor, or if I completely misremembered the whole thing, but there was something weird like that happened to the man.

    I do know for a fact, that most of our modern, common sci-fi themes are directly lifted from the man.

  6. learyslounge April 13, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    Very enjoyable read and informative for a fan of this author.

  7. wiredfiction June 22, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Another great post. Such a shame that Dick never really found true popular appreciation until after he died. Especially as a lot of his work has remained so pertinent.

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