The author of 44 published novels and approximately 121 short stories, visionary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick is the prolific mind behind the stories that inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Richard Linklater’s visually stunning A Scanner Darkly, Steven Spielberg’s Tom Cruise starring Minority Report and Paul Verhoeven’s gory actioner Total Recall. But who is the man whose name is uttered in the same reverence as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert, and why did he go to sleep dreaming of electric sheep?
Born Philip Kindred Dick in Chicago, Illinois in 1928, the young Dick had to deal with death early in his life when his twin sister died at 6 weeks of age. His parents also split when he was five, resulting in a bitter custody battle that resulted in Dick living with his mother in California after she moved there for work. It was here that the author first appreciated science fiction, reading his first science fiction magazine, Stirring Science Stories, in 1940 at the tender age of twelve. Dick often posited his life experiences in his work, none more so than in the first-person perspective of Radio Free Albemuth, published posthumously, where he cast himself as one of the major players.
It was 1955 when Dick published his first novel Solar Lottery when his idol, A. E. Vogt (author of The Voyage Of The Space Beagle and Slan) , convinced him there was more money to be made writing novels than spewing out short stories. What followed was a career that garnered accolades galore, including a Hugo award for his 1962 dystopian nightmare The Man In The High Castle, but little mainstream cut through.
In a life plagued by financial worries (not helped by drug addiction and five marriages), often bailed out by fellow celebrated sci-fi author Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, The Puppet Masters), alcoholism and numerous suicide attempts; Dick channelled his demons to help predict the future in a series of genre defining novels, his paranoia fuelling a career, that while never reaching the heights of many of his contemporaries during his lifetime, has seen his profile grow, largely thanks to Hollywood’s obsession with his writings. Now, with Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited Blade Runner 2049, the second season of The Man In The High Castle and Stan’s hotly-anticipated anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, his legend will surely grow. Not that he lived to witness any of his cinematic success.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, released in 1968, is arguably one of Dick’s most famous novels. More so thanks to Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 adaptation starring Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a cop on the trail of five “skin jobs”. Sadly Dick passed away before Blade Runner was finished but having witnessed a few select special FX scenes screened to him by Scott and a television preview, the author felt the need to write a letter to Jack Walker of The Ladd Company about his opinion of the film.
“This indeed is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison said: futurism. The impact of Blade Runner is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people — and, I believe, on science fiction as a field. … Nothing we have done, individually or collectively, matches Blade Runner.”
Blade Runner was, saving two television adaptations of his short story Imposter, the first major on-screen version of Dick’s work. During his lifetime Dick was often combative towards filmmakers. Deeply protective of his intellectual property, the author was suspicious of how filmmakers would change his visions thematically. The works themselves also proved problematic. His novels and short stories covering themes and technologies most Hollywood movies wouldn’t dare touch. The industry also had to catch up in terms of realising the visuals that made Dick’s work so immersive.
These visions came to an increasingly fraught Dick who really did believe himself to be blessed with a second sight. From February to March of 1974, he reportedly experienced a series of spiritual visions, in the form of an “information-rich pink ray” which Dick named VALIS that downloaded the author cosmic knowledge. Many of these close encounters informed his books VALIS, the aforementioned Radio Free Albemuth, and an 8,000 page journal entitled Exegesis.
Whether the visions were drug fuelled hallucinations or the results of Dick’s increasingly fractured mental stability, there was one instance that many couldn’t explain. While listening to The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”, he had a profound religious experience, hearing the lyrics change to “Your son has undiagnosed right inguinal hernia.” The writer took his son to hospital, the diagnosis was correct and the doctors reacted accordingly, saving his life.
Whether seen as a prophet, a visionary or a writer with an exceedingly vivid imagination, Philip K. Dick is, at last, receiving the sort of mainstream response that would have filled his coffers and given him the career and acknowledgement he strove for. How that would have affected his addictive mental state, and in turn, his breathtaking body of work, who knows. Could the work have existed if Dick hadn’t struggled with his very existence? Those answers are, with his untimely passing, lost, forever, like tears in rain.
What we do know, however, is that Philip K. Dick remains the master of the heady concept. Although written many years ago, his formidable body of work is even more relevant today than it was the moment the idea fired up a synapse in Dick’s often misfiring brain. Or maybe when he last had a visit from VALIS.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is streaming on Stan.