Category Archives: Philip K Dick

The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, by Philip K. Dick

2011. When time stops, “the substrate is revealed.” So begins this edition of PKD’s end-of-life compulsion to understand the revelation he experienced in February 1974 then again in March. He may have seen through to the underlying reality of, well, our perception of reality. Or he may have had a small stroke. Or he may have had an acid flashback. Or he may have been visited by a superior intelligence.

PKD explores every possible angle for his sudden insight by writing mostly by hand nearly every night for the remaining eight and a half years of his life. He analyzed himself and his own work especially ten novels he felt to form a meta novel. He continued to produce novels and was working on still another when he died. He had reached a point in his career where money began to flow a bit more freely, a fan base had begun, international markets were bestowing more praise than his home country, and SF conventions were inviting him to keynote and paying for his trips. His overriding ambition throughout everything was to understand the above revelation. He wrote; he debated with himself; he called his friends in the middle of the night with further insights; he figured it all out only to dismiss his findings in the cold harsh light of the next morning when he’d start the process all over again.

It’s not clear to me if PKD ever meant for any of this work to be published, but I’d guess from my layman’s distance that he probably did. He wrote mostly by hand and didn’t bother to keep the material in an orderly fashion, but he had enough faith in his reputation to expect future biographers to come in after his death and sort through the mess he left behind. Friends even spotted him carting stacks of handwritten material to the incinerator at times, meaning he did dispose of something, which meant he did allow the rest of his pages to survive.

I spent months reading The Exegesis. The material was too dense for me to read more than ten to twenty pages at a time. This edition runs to 900 pages. I didn’t want to race through it. I wanted to think about it. Let the ideas linger, maybe fester, maybe germinate. And unusual for me, I expect to return to the book from time to time just to jump in for a blast of PKDickiana. I like how he challenges everything, every idea and solution he conjures, how he takes the BUT WHAT IF opposite side of every auto-debate.

It’s his process of exploration that I find most intriguing. How he hammers unrelentingly at a problem to see just how malleable are the assumptions upon which we base our worldview.

If you like PKD, and if you like digging into a writer’s journals for insight into how and why he wrote what he did, you’ll like Exegesis. If you aren’t familiar with PKD, this is still a violently good read. And if you stick with it, you’ll end up reading his novels which is exactly what you should do after you finally make his intimate acquaintance.


Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin

1989. There are several ways to go about your discovery of PKD. You can read his best novels; you can read his best stories; you can scrounge around garage sales and on-line for old magazines with his earliest works; you can read essays and interviews by and about him in those old mags, and increasingly in the “mainstream” periodicals as his work caught on and the “mainstream” caught up; you can rent the movies made from his novels and stories then you can read the underlying works and compare them to the Hollyversions; and if you really want to go deep, you can read Exegesis, PKD’s eight-year, eight-thousand page hand-written quest to answer his two BIG QUESTIONS: WHY ARE WE HERE? and WHAT IS REAL?

Or you can read Lawrence Sutin’s excellent biography. Written within seven years of PKD’s death, this bio is smart, thorough, and close to the subject. Sutin read it all – over forty novels and two hundred stories, the then unpublished Exegesis, and a lifetime’s correspendence – no small feat. He interviewed Phil’s surviving family and friends and fellow writers.  Through it all, he exhibits honest respect for his subject, hairy warts and all.

NOTE: I just found this comment on Amazon from Tessa Dick and add it for perspective:

I have mixed feelings about this book. Sutin gives the impression that he interviewed me extensively, but he actually used quotes from other interviews and never met me, although I did briefly answer three of his questions by letter. Furthermore, I must disagree with most of his conclusions. Since I spent ten years with Phil, and those were the last ten years of his life, I believe that I know more about him than a biographer who never met him and simply read about him.”

Wherever you start, PKD is a literary journey worth taking.

Then there is PKD the man: an only son whose twin sister died at one month and who by his own admission spent the rest of his life looking for her replacement. PKD married five times, fathered a son and two daughters, fought money troubles most of his life, attempted suicide at least once, and abused pharmaceuticals to sustain his energy and alleviate his phobias and anxieties. He loved cats, loved his children, fell in love at the drop of a hat – especially with dark-haired girls half his age – and was often generous with his friends and family.

Coming of age in the SciFi boom of the 50’s when success accrued to the writer who could crank it out the fastest, PKD learned to write – and type – at break-neck speed, at one stretch composing on average fifty pages a day for weeks at a time. As he aged, the drugs which helpd him sustain that pace took their toll, and he learned as did everyone who enjoyed the synthetic highs of the 60’s, that drugs had their dark side. He called Through a Scanner Darkly his anti-drug statement, even writing to the FBI to volunteer as a spokesman for anti-drug PR efforts.

As successful as PKD was at SciFi, his first and abiding ambition was to break into “mainstream” literary fiction. His only such breakthrough during his life was Confessions of a Crap Artist, published in 1975 to modest success. My intro to PKD happened to be that book which I found in a dime store on a rotating book rack. I was a lit major and had suckled on serious stuff, ya’know, but I often supplemented my diet and fattened up on richer fare. Crap was rich, and I was blown away by its energy, its humor, and its honesty. Who knew reading could be that much fun? It’s like it wasn’t even work; the words flew off the page and the pages turned themselves. Who was that guy?

I’ve since read some of his better books, some of his better stories, and plowed through all of Exegesis. None of it has disappointed. Of course, I’m a fan. And at this stage anything with his initials is going to interest me.

PKD was a man of ideas rather than a man of action. He wrote himself into physical and emotional hell, or he wrote himself out of physical and emotional hell. You could look at it either way. However you choose, he left us with a body of work that is as unique and powerful as anything from the second half of the twentieth century.

After a visionary experience in Feb/March 1974, PKD spent the last eight-and-a-half years of his life writing to try to understand the two BIG QUESTIONS. Exegesis is interesting because of PKD’s fiction. Exegesis is an exploration that doesn’t arrive at any conclusions. It asks THE QUESTIONS and discards every answer to further test corollaries and opposites and take unexplored paths. He read deeply and widely, dreamed constantly, thought and argued with himself consistently, and talked for hours to friends who would listen. Who knows, he may have understood THE BIG QUESTIONS a little better at the end, and as only he knows, he may have been ready for death when it came.

PKD left us with a body of work that is entertaining, provocative, funny, and capable of skewing your view of reality just enough to perhaps help you perceive it a bit more clearly. If that’s not mainstream fiction, PKD, I don’t know what is.

Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

1969. Written five years before PKD experienced his 2-3-74 vision which he then spent the rest of his life exploring, researching, recording, challenging, buttressing, re-examining, and relating to his body of work.

Ubik–you’ll have to read the book to get the meaning of the term–unspools in a future (1992)Dickian world where corporations are interplanetary, the government is global, communication is by fixed-line vidphones, and telepaths, inertials, and precogs read telepathic aura. Oh, and time is fungible.

When Glen Runciter of the Runciter organization is wakened in the middle of the night due to the sudden disappearance of yet another of his telepaths, he is concerned enough to “consult his dead wife” in Switzerland. And we enter PKD-land.

A ruthless competitor prompts Runciter to assemble a team of inertials for a project on Luna, and then….

But I don’t want to lay out the plot. Too much is going on in Dick’s world. The story is enjoyable and you need to read carefully, flip back and forth sometimes to keep it all straight. Life and death, time and space, forward and backward, energy and entropy are slippery concepts in Dick’s hands. Of course no one is what they seem, but neither is the entire tale what it seems. That’s what I like and admire about Dick’s novels and stories: they take up residence in my pea brain and bug me long after I’ve finished them.

And trying to explain what Ubik is about I feel is only a subjective retelling of the bones of the story, a retelling which can’t do justice to the reading/thinking/puzzling experience. A retelling which reduces a story to just a story. Or more likely, I’m just not up to the task. I can’t tell you with great confidence what the story is about because I believe the story is so expertly told that it will have a different meaning for a different reader.

In Exegesis by PKD, he talks alot about Ubik, (Ubik the book and Ubik the term). He talks alot about Runciter. The novel is one of the several works which figures prominently in his exegetical exercise. In a way, he seems to believe that his body of work, of which Ubik is an important waystation, presaged his 2-3-74 vision. His work became clearer to him after he saw through to the informational underpinning of the universe. That sound crazy to you? Well Dick wasn’t crazy and he wrote more than a half million published words (who knows how many unpublished) after 2-3-74 in pursuit of an understanding of that vision.

Ubik by itself stands as an entertaining read, a sci-fi tale that challenges our concepts of reality, life, death, and the big one: why are we here? Serious topics explored in a whimsical, playful, smart narrative with oddball characters at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.  Misfits like Dick up against the man, trying like hell to make some sense out of this life down here on earth.

Ubik is more than a fun sojourn into PKD-land. But if that’s all you get out of it, it’ll work that way too. Me: I can’t get it out of my mind.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K Dick

1974. Take one genetically-perfected global entertainer adored by a weekly audience in the millions, then subtract every evidence of his  existence. So Dick starts the tale of a man in search of himself.

Jason Taverner, 42, gives his last color 3D TV show in LA on October 11, 1988, hops in his skyfly with Heather, his beautiful genetically-perfected girlfriend, and they decompress by talking about marriage, about their home in Zurich, about their future. Then the skyfly’s phone rings.

It’s Marilyn, an old protegee turned girlfriend. The girl’s hysterical. Is she pregnant? Jason diverts the skyfly to Marilyn’s apartment to do damage control. Heather fumes, “Does she have nice boobs?” “Actually, yes,” Jason says. He enjoys millions of female admirers.

Marilyn is out of her mind. She attacks Jason with some Dickian object comprised of fifty feeding tubes that attach to Jason’s chest, sending him to a hospital ER.

Later, Jason wakes alone in a seedy hotel room, a wad of cash and his tailored silk suit his only possessions. There starts his quest to convince the world he exists beyond his physical presence, that he actually has a career, wealth, and a fan base of millions. No one has heard of him; he’s taken for just another delusional denizen of the sad part of town, and what’s worse he has no ID in a police state. Only terrorists and criminals lack IDs.

Jason goes underground and burns through his wad of cash quickly buying false ID’s from a police informant. Now he’s on the run and none of his friends have heard of him. Heather takes him for just another stalking nobody who somehow got her private number.

Dick explores identity, fame, self-worth, humanity, the individual v the state. Jason’s journey takes us through a near-future with a united world, settlements on Mars and elsewhere, a global identity data base, but oddly with phones still tethered and music still vinyl.

Dick is always spare enough in his narration that you (I do, at any rate) want to spend time in his world for how it questions you. Not many authors can consistently deliver that sort of magic.