Philip K. Dick

Valis cover with portrait of Philip K. Dick
Valis cover with portrait of Philip K. Dick

“I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist,” Philip K. Dick wrote in 1981. “My novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth.” These words, written a few months before his death in 1982, sum up a quarter-century of writing about the shaky foundations of the universe—foundations which were eventually undermined, not only in his fiction, but in his life.

“Roog” (1953) was Dick’s first professional sale. It is a story told from the point of view of a dog barking at a garbage truck, because he sees—correctly, as his complacent human owners do not—that the garbage men are aliens preparing for an invasion. The early novel Eye in the Sky is a tour through the private kosmoi of a group of everyday people caught in a bizarre accident in a science lab. Their individual neuroses—from anti-communist paranoia to religious conservatism to neo-Victorian prudishness—produce a parade of universes that is at turns both hilarious and nightmarish. By the late ‘60s, the philosophical groundwork of his novels was becoming more sophisticated. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick explored a sophisticated ethical system, contrasting the detached emotional flatness of the android (and its human counterpart, the sociopath) with the authentic, definitive quality of humanity: compassion. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a parable of evil told through the lens of psychedelic substances and the doctrine of transubstantiation. Most of Ubik takes place in a hallucinatory “half-life” universe that is gradually deteriorating, succumbing to the forces of entropy.

Dick’s stories serve to undermine the readers’ faith in ontology—he is poking the universe with a pin to see if it pops.

















And, in 1974, it did—for Dick himself, at least. In February, he had surgery to remove two impacted wisdom teeth. A few days later, in intense pain, he called the pharmacy to have some pain medication delivered. When it arrived, he noticed that the delivery girl was wearing a necklace in the shape of a fish. (Tessa Dick, his wife at the time, theorizes he was using the necklace as an excuse to look down her blouse.) Touching the necklace, the girl explained that it was a symbol used by the early Christians. At this moment, Dick explains, he was hit by a sudden epiphany, almost like a recovered memory. Over the course of the next several months, Dick had a variety of strange experiences. He saw the buildings around him replaced with Roman architecture. He had a vision of abstract graphics, like expressionist paintings, that lasted an entire night. He had dreams in which he heard snatches of ancient languages—Greek and Sanskrit—and was shown enormous books that contained mysterious truths. He felt as if he were being taken over, invaded by another personality—a benevolent one, that wished to fix what was broken, both in his own life and in the universe as a whole.

Dick developed many theories about the identity of this personality: it may have been an early Christian from the period of the book of Acts; it may have been his late friend, the excommunicated Episcopalian Bishop James Pike; it may have been the Philip K. Dick of a parallel universe; it may have been the Holy Spirit itself.

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