Philip K. Dick


By Adrian Mckinty


In a parallel universe, acclaimed science fiction author Philip K. Dick is not dead and buried in a bleak municipal cemetery in Fort Morgan, his grave uncomfortably close to Interstate 76 and downwind of a smoke-belching sugar beet refinery.

In that alternate universe, Philip K. Dick (PKD to his fans) is in fact very much alive and finally has made it. A hale 78, he is a frequent invitee to lavish Hollywood parties, a regular on the Charlie Rose Show and a gracious recipient of lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees.

Sadly, in our universe, Philip K. Dick died during this week in 1982 - on March 2, to be precise. The man whose books have since become Hollywood gold in films such as Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly died broke in terrible health.

Unlike the excitement generated last fall when news of a film on the author's life starring Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Dick's funeral in Fort Morgan was a small affair, the hasty obituary in The New York Times a mere 158 words replete with errors, including the title of the movie due out in May of that year.

The movie was Blade Runner (based on the 1968 Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). Although it did poorly at the time, it would begin a new interest in his work.

In his lifetime, PKD was only a cult success, living from book to book, short story to short story. The author claimed the most he ever made in one year was $12,000, and once had to resort to eating horse meat bought from the local pet store.

In death Dick has become one of the most successful writers in America. He sells a half-million titles a year, and perhaps only John Grisham and Stephen King have had more movies made of their books. Last year brought Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, and in recent years Hollywood has given us plenty more - all based on his short stories.
The critical revisionism of PKD's work has become a tidal wave. Dick has been called "our own Borges," an "American Kafka" and "a genius."

So where did this homegrown Kafka come from? Why is he buried in a lonely Colorado prairie town?
Philip Kindred Dick and his twin sister, Jane, were born in Chicago in 1928, six weeks premature. A little over a month later, Jane died and Dick's father, Edgar, took her remains to Colorado, where his family lived on a homestead in Cedarwood. Dick's mother, Dorothy Kindred, came from Greeley. So, perhaps Fort Morgan was picked as a compromise site for her burial plot.

Jane was interred in the Fort Morgan cemetery and, apart from rare visits to his grandparents, that might have been the end of PKD's Colorado connection. But Edgar had a special grave marker made up for baby Jane. Her name and dates were carved on the left side of the headstone and a space was made for Philip on the right side. Edgar wanted the children to be reunited in death.

Even after the family moved to Berkeley, Calif., the grave in Fort Morgan appeared to haunt Dick. Many of his best stories are about twins, dual personalities and being dead but surviving. And for books that take place in California or the moon or Mars there are a surprising number of references to this part of the world. Random characters often are from small towns in Colorado or on their way to Denver or the Rocky Mountains.

Dick did well in high school, but spent less than a year at UC Berkeley before quitting to work in a radio station and a record store. But what he really wanted to do was write science fiction. His first published story, Roog, was about a paranoid watchdog who becomes convinced that the friendly neighborhood garbage men are going to kill him and eat him.

Encouraged by publication, Dick began to churn out novels and short stories. He could type 100 words a minute and often would work in 14-hour shifts. In 1961-62, aided by amphetamines, he wrote a dozen novels and many short stories. His work reached a new level with his novel The Man in the High Castle. It won the prestigious Hugo Award for 1963 and is considered by many critics to be his best work.

After winning the Hugo Award, Dick had no trouble finding publishers. Writing all the time and experimenting with speed, cocaine and hallucinogens, Dick was a tempestuous serial marrier and divorcer. Believing that he was wanted by the FBI, the CIA and possibly the Hells Angels, PKD left the bohemian Bay Area in the early '70s and moved south to ultra-conservative Orange County.

It was there in February and March 1973, in an episode Dick later called 2-3-73, that he either had a mental breakdown - or an encounter with the creator of the universe. (Dick allowed for both possibilities.) Coming off wisdom teeth surgery, his pain medication was delivered by "a divine messenger" who showed him the face of God scanning the Earth from a place in the sky. Eventually dismissing it as a hallucination, Dick came to believe that the universe we inhabit is "fake."
Dick later wrote that a version of himself died in March 1973, and he spent the rest of life trying to understand the incident, becoming consumed by theological and philosophical questions. Isa Hackett, however, one of Dick's three children, notes that he did not take himself seriously all the time and right to the end "he had a fantastic sense of humor and could be very charming and charismatic."

On March 2, 1980, Dick wrote in his journal that now that he had been shown the secrets of the cosmos there was no reason for God (or whoever was running the fake universe) to keep him around. Soon, PKD reckoned, somebody would pull the plug on this version of Philip K. Dick. He was right: Following a stroke and with negative brain activity, Dick was disconnected from life support in a Santa Ana, Calif., hospital on March 2, 1982.
Perhaps it's no surprise Hollywood has now turned to the author as a character in his own story. The news broke last fall that a PKD biopic is being made with Giamatti playing the author. The film is being produced by Steve Golin, whose company, Anonymous Content, made the 2004 PKD-inspired romantic comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Somewhere, in a universe near you, Philip K. Dick is laughing about all of this.
Philip K. Dick

• Life: Born Dec. 16, 1928, in Chicago; died in Santa Ana, Calif., on March 2 1982; buried in Fort Morgan

• Family: Married five times; three children: Isa, Christopher & Laura

• Publications: At least 40 books (Several unpublished works are on the way) and more than 100 short stories.

• Movies: Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly are all based on his books. A film starring Paul Giamatti is being made about his life.

At the Movies

Five films based on books by Philip K. Dick:

• Blade Runner: Androids running amok in a grim, future Los Angeles ask themselves what it means to be a human. A box office bomb at first, the film starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, directed by Ridley Scott, is now recognized as a classic.

• Minority Report: Tom Cruise and Stephen Spielberg imagine a world where you can be arrested for crimes you are only thinking about committing. Fantastic special effects, an adrenalin-pumping story and an intense performance by a young Colin Farrell.

• A Scanner Darkly: Richard Linklater's partially animated take on Dick's anti-drug novel. Keanu Reeves does not strain his acting ability as a stoned undercover cop who is ordered to spy on himself. Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. also star.

• Total Recall: The Governator does Dick. Sharon Stone is only pretending to be his wife, his memories have been faked and his destiny lies on Mars. A slam bam action romp.

• Barjo: The French were the first to take Dick seriously. This French language adaptation of Confessions of a Crap Artist is a well made, beautifully acted drama.

By the Book

The five best Philip K. Dick books, according to Adrian McKinty:

• The Man in the High Castle: The Nazis won the war. A girl from Caρon City thinks they didn't. She travels to Denver and then Wyoming to find the truth.

• Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: In a world where animals have been all but wiped out, a Blade Runner hunting androids (who think they're humans) is desperate to buy a real sheep as a sign that he has worth and status (and he's not an android himself.)

• Ubik: Glen Runciter is dead or maybe everyone else is. Killed in an explosion, Runciter's employees begin to get urgent messages from beyond the grave telling them that time is running out for them and possibly the universe.

• A Scanner Darkly: A dystopian Orange County, rife with drug dealers, slackers, conservatives, undercover cops, religious fanatics, beautiful people, surveillance cameras and paranoia. Who says science fiction writers can't predict the future?

• Flow My Tears The Policeman Said: Uber television personality Jason Tavener wakes to find that no one has heard of him and no one believes that he exists. If only this could happen to Donald Trump.