Lawrence Sutin, |
A Life of Philip K. Dick
(1989; Carroll & Graf, 2005)
PKD, as his many fans know him, does not fit into the literary world any better than he fit into the real world during his life. The film Blade Runner, based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, should have been enough to cement his reputation.
Unfortunately, that was the only film of many adaptations of his work to come close to his vision (and, yes, I am including Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, although an animated version of A Scanner Darkly due in March 2006 shows some promise).
Dick was not a great litterateur. His greatest failing might be that his characters are not totally realized or are even cardboard cutouts. He was a true pulp writer, achieving mixed results while working to survive. He always wanted to be known as a mainstream author, but his non-SF work is almost forgotten today. But he may have been the greatest of all science fiction writers. Sci-fi depends on ideas and invented worlds, and PKD had ideas like no one else. He created fantastic worlds from a one-of-a-kind imagination. There is no stable reality in his novels or short stories. He mastered the "reality is illusion" concept in ways no one had ever explored. The film The Matrix was not based on one of his novels, but it could not have been made without Dick's visions from decades earlier.
Dick was never able to enjoy the reputation he has achieved. For years he cranked out work for only a pittance a book. He suffered through many divorces and unfulfilled relationships. He died in 1982 at 53, his heart weakened by years of amphetamines (a thousand pills a week at one point) and weight fluctuation, just as he began receiving checks for Bladerunner.
Lawrence Sutin's work is more or less the "official" biography of Dick. He is also responsible for the official website approved by Dick's children. The book tends to be choppy and rambling, but so was Dick's existence.
Toward the end of his life, Dick penned a journal called the "Exegesis." Composed over an eight-year period, it grew to be 8,000 pages long. He was living in a "psychic cauldron," as Sutin describes it, developing his own gnostic vision of the world. He had dreams, visions and auditory hallucinations in which he felt he was being contacted by a higher intelligence. He included many of these ideas and experiences in his final novels.
Sutin describes much of this in the book's 312 pages, as well as a merry-go-round of romantic and platonic relationships, mental breakdowns, financial deals with publishers and, of course, the construction of his novels. There are many quoted recollections from his friends and passages from his writings, mostly from the "Exegesis." A guide at the end of the book lists all of the novels and rates them, a great help for those who do not know where to begin to explore them.
No book about Dick can be completely satisfying. He was too complex for anyone to understand. But Sutin's comprehensive and well-researched book is as close as any is likely to come to entering the mind of this science fiction legend.
by Dave Howell