by Robert WeibezahlMarch 2012
Philip K. Dick and his legacy, 30 years later
Philip K. Dick. who died 30 years ago on March 2, 1982, is one of those writers whose readership and reputation have grown steadily after death. He is generally categorized as a science fiction writer, and his work, often featuring futuristic settings, speculative technology and mind-bending realities, for the most part slots into that genre. Yet Dick could be categorized more precisely as a visionary, and that vision was a singular one, steeped in prescient paranoia and distrust.
What continues to draw readers to Dick’s dark, unusual novels and stories? (And not just readers—Dick’s work consistently inspires filmmakers and most recently is the basis for last year’s The Adjustment Bureau and remakes of Blade Runner and Total Recall, both due to be released in 2012.) Dick certainly was the master of twisted, unexpected plots, and many of his 45 novels and 121 stories are written with an underlying quirky humor that both belies and amplifies their message.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem, who edited the Library of America editions of Dick’s novels, suggests that the work speaks to us because it captures the way we live now. “When we say he was ‘ahead of his time’ what’s meant is that he sensed the implications of the postwar American world—the global triumph of American commercial capitalism, the growth of our present corporate technocratic culture, the dissociative power of technological media,” Lethem has said. “But it wasn’t the future he was seeing, it was the present, already manifesting itself around him in the ’50s and ’60s. We live in the world he saw and described, because it was already being born, but few had his ability to glimpse it so early.”
As a central part of the 30th-anniversary commemoration of Philip K. Dick, Mariner Books has begun reissuing many of his novels in handsome, uniform trade paperback editions, and they will continue to bring out additional titles throughout the year. These include well-known works such as A Scanner Darkly and Ubik—which was named one of Time’s 100 best English-language novels—but also lesser-known novels such as Gather Yourself Together, written when Dick was 24.
True aficionados will revel in the recently published The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, a single volume edited by Lethem and Pamela Jackson from more than 8,000 pages of notes, mostly handwritten, that Dick took down in a frantic obsession between 1974 and his death. It is a massive, elliptical work of philosophical musings that shares a revelation that came to him in early 1974. Dick suffered from depression and perhaps other undiagnosed mental issues (“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane,” he wrote in Valis, published the year before his death), and this chaotic document offers a unique window into a unique writer’s consciousness.
As a curious addendum to this 30th-anniversary publishing activity, David F. Dufty’s How to Build an Android will appear in June from Henry Holt. Billed as popular science, it recounts the true story of the fully functional head of an android replica of Philip K. Dick that was lost in 2006 and has never been recovered. It would be marvelous to know what fiction the master himself might have made of that strange scenario.