Wednesday, 4 February 2015
A Life Of Philip K. Dick - The Man Who Remembered The Future
VALIS In Wonderland
A Life Of Philip K. Dick -
The Man Who Remembered The Future
by Anthony Peake
“It is sometimes an appropriate
response to reality to go insane.”
“Reality is that which, when you
stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”
Two famous quotes from Philip K. Dick.
I’ve always had no problem with the attitude of the first statement... even before I'd ever read it I’d kinda twigged that this is as good a way as any to deal with so called life. The second quote, though, has never really been that convincing to me. Reality is really a non-starter of a term for me. It’s not something that I’ve ever really found any credible definition for and I certainly choose not to live in what my senses perceive to be some kind of reality half the time... it’s just not a nice or interesting place to live, if it exists at all, from what I can make out.
That being said, Philip K. Dick has always been my favourite writer since I first discovered him at the tender age of 14 years old. The year was 1982 and, as anyone into science fiction films would be able to tell you, this was the year the first movie of a Philip K. Dick novel had been made and released into the world (although a TV adaptation of one of his short stories had appeared twenty years prior to this). The film, of course, was Blade Runner (reviewed here) and Dick himself, never got to see more than a few excerpts from it... or so I’m informed. He died fairly young, of a heart attack, earlier the same year and there’s an “In memory” credit to him right at the end of the final credit roll of that movie.
Of course, even at that age, I was quick to recognise that Blade Runner was the greatest science fiction film ever made... and there’s nothing else in the intervening decades that have challenged the fact that it’s also the greatest movie ever made, period, for that matter. I immediately wanted to read something by the original author and, of course, the obvious thing was to read the source novel for the movie, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? One concept in that, Mercerism, is a little challenging on a first read but I persevered and then read it again. Many people will recognise that the source material and the movie are worlds apart but, saying that, I spent some time when I was doing my degree in Graphic Design writing a thesis to demonstrate that most of the ideas in the book had, in fact, made it into Ridley Scott’s 'homage' to the original material... but that’s another story. I spent the next couple of years picking up mostly second hand copies of PKDs works and ploughing through almost his entire back catalogue.
Anthony Peake’s relatively new biography of Philip K. Dick was a surprise present given to me by someone for Christmas who knows me well enough to know I loved PKD's work. I wasn’t aware of this one but I had read, many years ago, biographies of Dick by both Gregg Rickman and Lawrence Sutin, if memory serves me correctly. I can’t remember much about them but this new addition both reminded me of some stuff I’d forgotten and, also, made me aware of not just the good things about Dick but, also, the slightly worse sides of his character. Which is something I appreciate as it gives me a more rounded view of him.
Of course, there’s still no getting around the fact that, in the last ten or so years of his life, Philip K. Dick was having regular ‘astral visitations’ following visions of a pink light and talking with something which he referred to as different things throughout his experience but were maybe an expression of God or a God-like being. He wrote about these things in a 'never intended for publication' ongoing work of many thousands of pages which he called his Exegesis (which I tried to read some of decades ago and, well... all I can say about that is that I found it extremely challenging on lots of levels... I should maybe revisit it one of these days).
Or... to put all that another way and to paraphrase Brian Aldiss quoted on Dick in an interview on a documentary I saw about PKD many years ago... he went completely mad.
Now the thing is, you have to remember that, while Dick was no stranger to 'exaggeration' or the 'well decorated half truth', it seems to be quite obvious to anyone who was in his presence at the time that he 'absolutely believed' the things he said were happening to him... which runs the gamut from religious visions, off world knowledge received directly in the brain, premonitions and pre-cognitive states, altered and multiple existing timelines (what he called “orthogonal time”) and into the realm of modern alien abduction theory. Personally I don’t subscribe to this stuff until I see proof other than certain kinds of less solid evidence to back up his claims but, that’s my personal belief based on not knowing the person. I know that he did lie for certain reasons sometimes... although not maliciously, from what I can tell. I also know he took various quantities of psychedelic drugs throughout the years and once made a half hearted attempt at committing suicide.
However, I also know he’s one of the most inventive writers who ever lived and that a lot of the things he 'predicted' in his novels have come to pass in the years since his death. This is not exactly an abnormal phenomenon for science fiction writers but in Dick’s case, someone who wrote about the science of ideas, the mind, the attitudes of those in power and the society we live in... I think it’s quite exceptional as the world is fast becoming the corporate dystopia that he foresaw and it’s often in the details that these things emerge. Details which he highlighted in many of his stories.
Now, the thing is, the biographer Anthony Peake seems to be someone who is qualified to have a more open mind than me when it comes to Dick’s claims about what is sometimes called his VALIS period (Vast Active Living Intelligence System and the name of one of his novels)... which is actually unusual when it comes down to this kind of stuff because, frankly, I believe in ghosts and aliens and related phenomena a lot, as it happens. What impressed me the most about this, though, is that the author will not just push his own agendas and beliefs in his work and, frankly, that’s one of the things I look for a lot and one of the signs of a good writer. You treat everything fairly and indifferently with this kind of project and Peake certainly does that.
For example, in addition to taking Dick at this word, the writer also looks at the various other explanations which could have come into play to make Phil Dick believe these things were going on and there are various ideas around these and some of these were even educational to me personally... I now know I have to look into the fact that each hemisphere of the brain fires neurons at different rates and are unaware of the actions of the other etc. I think this kind of stuff is really fascinating, especially since it means, when certain things come into mental alignment, from what I can make out without looking into it myself, a person can hear himself talking about things which he a) wasn’t aware of knowing and b) isn’t aware of it being him saying them. So he hears voices and, perhaps, many years ago, people who had visions or said they can hear God or an angel speaking to them, may have just been listening in on a conversation they could hear from within themselves... so to speak.
Anyway, whether my interpretation of that stuff is correct or not, Peake is outstanding because he doesn’t take sides as such and presents all the evidence for and against... and there’s not a hell of a lot of it I guess... without pushing the reader into believing any one specific theory about Dick’s experiences. Experiences which came to dominate PKDs later stories and novels to the point that he was sometimes in them as a character, such as a cypher character like Horselover Fat, and sometimes even more than one character having a conversation with another version of himself, if you see what I mean. So novels like VALIS, The Transformation of Timothy Archer and Radio Free Albemuth, for example, are manifestations of the writer trying to deal with whatever he thought was happening to him at any one time... including manifestations of the same stuff which appeared in works much earlier than his actual conscious experience of this whole funny business... which fits into his theories on orthogonal time quite well, I guess, if you want to go down that path.
At the end of the biography, Peake gives an assessment of a personality test which Phil Dick took sometime in the 1950s (I think it was) and, since he is qualified to interpret such things, he does so to give as much of an indication of the man Philip Kendred Dick was as he is able. He also states why someone who may have been obviously trying to rig the test, such as Dick might have been, say as much about themselves from their answers as someone who is answering honestly... so that was quite an eye opener of an idea for me, although I would probably have worked that out myself if I’d thought about that idea for long enough.
Again, in conclusion, Peake point blank states that we will never know for 100% sure what was happening to PKD and how it affected him but, when all is said and done, I found that quite reassuring because, frankly, anybody who claimed differently would probably have lost my respect for them as a biographer. So what I can personally conclude from all this data is that Anthony Peake’s A Life Of Philip K. Dick - The Man Who Remembered The Future is a real corker of a biography and, though I don’t think it stands alone- I think I would recommend that people who are interested in PKD should read a couple of the various biographies available - it’s certainly one I would include on the list as an essential read on the life and works of Philip K. Dick. And that’s probably the finest recognition I could give to a book of this nature, to be honest. Seek it out if the subject matter interests you... you won’t find too many better than this.