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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What is reality? Philip K. Dick

I found this via longform.org. Much more here. Was Dick schizo?

Has anyone read The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? :-)


The God In the Trash: The Fantastic Life and Oracular Work of Philip K. Dick.

Alexander Star The New Republic Dec 6 1993

Dick grew up with his mother on the fringes of Berkeley's fledgling bohemia. A troubled student, he was often "hypochondriacal about his mental condition," as one of his wives later put it. And like many troubled boys of the time, he became a voracious reader of the science fiction pulp magazines that were then at their peak. In Confessions of a Crap Artist, a novel written in 1959, he wryly portrayed himself as an awkward kid spouting oddball ideas from Popular Mechanics and adventure stores: "Even to look at me you'd recognize that my main energies are in the mind."

... Throughout his career Dick longed for a wider audience, and sought to escape the science fiction ghetto. He envied writers such as Ursula Le Guin, who acquired a serious reputation and was even published in The New Yorker. His readers, he complained, were "trolls and wackos." In the '50s and early '60s, he wrote a series of non-science fiction novels, all of which were rejected by publishers at the time. These books were mainly somber tales of thwarted love in northern California, peopled with cranky record salesmen and bitter couples and narrated in a glumly painstaking fashion. On the whole, their vision of domestic life is an unhappy one. In Confessions of a Crap Artist, an accumulation of errant jealousies and petty insults leads to illness and insanity. The novel ridicules the newly formed UFO cults of Marin County, though years later Dick reflected that the cults "didn't seem as crazy to me now ..."

Rebuffed by "mainstream" publishers, Dick abandoned his realist writings in 1963. By then he had discovered a different way out of the Ace formula: he would transform the genre of science fiction from within. Concerned with psychic dislocation, and its moral and philosophical consequences, he began to ignore the expectations of his editors. In particular, he disregarded the most honored conventions of "hard s.f.," that science fiction should be rigorously "extrapolative" of hard science, and that it should be "prophetic" of plausible futures.

... Philip Dick's fictional worlds have a great many attributes, but sanity is not among them. Campbell, the monarch of postwar science fiction, refused to publish his stories because they were "too neurotic." In his preoccupation with abnormal psychology, collective delusions and implanted memories, Dick in part followed the path of irregular science fiction writers of the '50s such as A.E. van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. Yet he ranged further in his subversions. Dick continued to rely on the ready-made materials of science fiction, the pulp prose, the planetary conflicts, the "psionic" powers of "precogs" (who read the future) and "telepaths" (who read minds); but he employed these materials to his own extravagant ends.

... Dick's biggest literary advance came in 1962, when he published The Man in the High Castle. This study of an alternate universe in which the Axis won the Second World War was entirely devoid of the usual sci-fi devices. ("No science in it," a character observes. "Nor set in future.") Mr. Tagomi, a Japanese bureaucrat and connoisseur of American antiques, is one of Dick's most sympathetic characters. Repelled by international intrigue and devoted to the occult beauty of old bottle caps and cheap jewelry, he resists Nazi brutality with a fragile but steady will. After Bormann dies, a power struggle breaks out among the remaining Nazi leaders (Hitler has long since entered a sanitarium) and Tagomi unhappily plays one faction off against another, aware that they are all unspeakably evil. Ingeniously, the book contains its own counterfiction: in this America divided into German and Japanese zones, rumors spread of an incendiary novel speculating that the allies actually won the war. The narrative adroitly maneuvers back and forth between these two competing accounts of what is real. The Man in the High Castle was Dick's most assured and subtle work, and he hoped it would win him a wider audience. He was chagrined when reviewers treated it as just another thriller. Ironically, it was the science fiction community that celebrated the book, bestowing the Hugo Award on it in 1963.

In the early '80s Dick's hopes for renown revived, as younger writers arrived at his doorstep, royalties increased and German, French and Japanese editions of his work proliferated. Back in the early '70s he had optioned his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Hollywood; by 1980 the producers of the film promised that it would be the next Star Wars. (Dick hoped that Victoria Principal would have a starring role.) In fact, Blade Runner was a commercial disappointment in its initial release. But Dick never knew of its early unsuccess. In March 1982, he died of a stroke after proudly attending an advance screening of the movie. ...

Dick explored the problem of decency in a dead world most forcefully in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Rick Deckard is a bounty-hunter, paid to track down and destroy a party of androids that has infiltrated the planet. Deckard employs an "empathy" test that records his subjects' responses to unpalatable thoughts of cruelty and death; the test can distinguish between androids and their identical-looking human counterparts. The typical Dickian twist comes when Deckard, unlike one of his partners, begins to empathize with the androids that he kills. Does this mean that he might be an android himself, or does his powerful feeling of empathy confirm precisely that he is human? Deckard investigates incidents of empathy with the care of an experienced detective, but he cannot take anything for granted. The special horror of his work is that a sudden "flattening of affect" might occur at any time, to others or to himself. The practice of empathy is fragile, uncertain and imperative. ...

This appears to be the full text of The Man in the High Castle.

16 comments:

LondonYoung said...

Funny, I just read "The Kind of the Elves" last week, and am still under its spell of depression.

LondonYoung said...

s/Kind/King

botti said...

***In fact, Blade Runner was a commercial disappointment in its initial release. ***

I saw this for the first time a couple of years ago on a flight from the UK to NZ. I thought it was superb, I'm surprised that it averages 3 stars on amazon (although now looking it seems a lot of the griping is about the directors cut version & lack of dvd extras).

tuffy777 said...

thanx for posting this

Taufaahau_Tupou_IV said...

Was Dick schizo?

No. Why would you ask that question?

steve hsu said...

I'm not the only one... Try this query: "schizophrenia philip dick"

Taufaahau_Tupou_IV said...

You're too predictable Steve. Even though your science is theoretical physics you should be much more cynical regarding psychiatry than you are. In this case and in the case of Asperger's and g you've assumed that because there is a word there is a thing. You haven't considered that the coiners of these words have motivations other than a description of phenomena and that the criteria of their use is up to the user. It's very surprising, but maybe I credit theoretical physicists with more intelligence than they actually have.

Did he hear voices? Did he have "bizarre" delusions? Was his writing an incomprehensible word salad? No. That he could write at all something that so many others liked to read means he could not have suffered from any "severe" mental illness. He mught have been depressed, hypomanic, whatever, but nothing "serious".

David said...

That was a subtle, unexpected bit of trivia about you LY.

dabacon said...

It's always interesting to me that PKD appeals to so many scientists, and especially theoretical physicists. I mean he wrote things like this when describing the "I Ching": "several physicists use it to plot the behavior of subatomic particles - thus getting around Heisenberg's unfortunate principle." But I suppose this is because what PKD excelled at was building universes---universes that were always oddly out of whack but still very recognizable. And the job of a theoretical physicist is often to carry out a similar task (I mean, measuring the QED theta angle? Pshaw! :) )

Taufaahau_Tupou_IV said...

There are more. LY is less than 5'8" and his maternal grandmother was Mayan.

Jirka said...

When I see schizo, I think "schizoid personality", not schizophrenia - two different things (and I would guess that the first one would be more likely).

Fred said...

He did have some nutty hangups about his dead sister

steve hsu said...

I agree about Dick's appeal to physicists. The recurring question "what is real?" resonates with us :-)

steve hsu said...

I just read the summary at Wiki and it sounds interesting. Amazing how much Dick stuff I've never heard of.

I highly recommend TMITHC. Somewhere on my blog I link to The Sound of His Horn, which influenced TMITHC, and which I also recommend.

Taufaahau_Tupou_IV said...

Dick later recalled, he was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia - a label that terrified him. Other psychotherapists and psychiatrists in later years would offer other diagnoses, including the one that Dick was quite sane.

Supposing schizophrenia is a thing rather than just a word, that psychiatrists disagreed means Dick didn't "have" that thing. I remember Ted Kaczynski was diagnosed with "paranoid schizophrenia" by a court appointed psychiatrist. What a f---ing joke.

LondonYoung said...

IN DADoES I still chuckle over this scene:
"You're not Polokov, you're Kadalyi," Rick said.
"Don't you mean that the other way around? You're a bit confused."

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