Dick On Dick

by Arthur B

The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick finds the author of Blade Runner seeing things you people wouldn't believe.
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Ever since I was a teenager, I've loved Dick. Like many of my generation, my first exposure to Dick was through a film, which made me curious enough to seek to experience Dick first-hand for myself. Having sampled my first few Dicks, I was soon hooked; my Dick collection, though not complete (a lot of the lesser mainstream Dicks have yet to grace my shelves) is still expansive, and I would say that it features the best Dicks available to the public.

But here, thanks to the efforts of Pamela Jackson, Jonathan Lethem and a team of assistants, is a Dick which is a bit much for me to cope with. It is a monster Dick. In sheer girth it's about seven or eight times larger than most Dicks, and three times larger even than most omnibus Dicks. As far as the actual experience of it goes, it's a little bit of an ordeal; Dicks are known for being an acquired taste to begin with, but there is much about this one which is quite hard to swallow. As it goes through its repetitive motions, there's no building to a satisfying thematic climax; you just slog on and on, taking more and more in until you have to take a break. Only those with a ravenous appetite for Dick should even think about taking this on; it speaks a lot for the editors' love of Dick that they were able to derive this Dick from its source, which is apparently around ten times as long.

A little context is necessary. In February and March of 1974, counterculturally-inclined SF author Philip K. Dick underwent some sort of unusual experience. Sceptics would characterise it as a psychological phenomenon or some sort of neurological event; Dick himself would agree, in his more sceptical moments. When he wasn't feeling so sceptical, he'd spend an awful lot of thinking about whatever-it-was that happened to him and cook up various theories to explain the piercing pink light, the apparent dissolution of reality about him to be replaced on the one hand by a dystopian Black Iron Prison and on the other hand by a heavenly Palm Tree Garden, and the haunting "AI Voice" which gave him advice and consolation (and would check in on him periodically after the fact).

It was most likely God. Unless it was a KGB experiment in telepathy gone haywire, or a US government mind control program called "Pigspurt" let loose in California. Well, if it were either of those it was God working through them. Or possibly the Holy Spirit. Or possibly St. Sophia. Or possibly Dick's dead friend Bishop Jim Pike. Or maybe another dead friend of Dick's who had possessed his cat. Or maybe a secret underground Christian from the first century A.D., that'd explain all the Greek stuff the voices were saying. Or maybe Dick really was in Rome in the first century A.D. and 1974 California was a clever fake designed to keep the divine Gnosis from him. Or maybe all worlds are fake and God was using Dick to give people hints about this via his writing. Or maybe Dick came to the attention of the secret Christians undermining reality through the publication of Ubik, which got too close to the truth. Or maybe the visions Dick had and the AI voice were all rewards for doing his job and putting encoded messages about the Book of Acts into Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said without realising he was doing it, allowing the computer god word virus VALIS designed by the three-eyed lobster-clawed aliens from Sirius to infiltrate the minds of Dick's readers like the reverse Eucharist of the alien god in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, much as David Bowie had slipped similar occult messages on behalf of VALIS into The Man Who Fell To Earth.

So, as you might have gathered, when PKD got thinking about this stuff things rapidly got out of hand and his speculations tended to zoom off on wild tangents. During the last eight years of his life Dick produced a small number of short stories and one novel (A Scanner Darkly) obliquely referring to these ideas and a thematic trilogy (VALIS, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer) directly addressing these matters - sometimes from an apparently sceptical "clearly I am completely insane, please be patient with me" angle, sometimes from a wide-eyed believer's angle, and sometimes from a mixture of both perspectives. But his most substantial writing effort was what he referred to as his Exegesis, an ongoing effort to analyse and explain what had happened to him by assembling his different theories on paper.

I had to be careful there not to say that the Exegesis was an attempt by Dick to "organise his thoughts", because based on the offering here it really isn't organised at all. Rather, it seems to be a scattershot attempt at stream-of-consciousness philosophy, with PKD jotting down more or less every thought that occurred to him in his late night writing sessions more or less as they came to him; he'll regularly begin a paragraph convinced of one idea, get to the middle and find himself lost in a vortex of doubt, and finish the paragraph having latched onto a new theory. The full beast consists of eight to nine thousand pages crammed into various folders, not necessarily in chronological order. No surprise, then, that there have been few attempts to bring that great bulk before the public before now. Dick himself included a brief summary of one interpretation of the Exegesis in VALIS as Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura, but that piece, based as it is on one set of axioms alone, doesn't get across the sheer panorama of contradictory theories cooked up here; Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin put out a book of selections from the Exegesis but at less than two hundred pages long it could only ever be the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

Now Jackson and Lethem have presented the world with 900 pages of the stuff. This clearly represents a mammoth task of editing, both in terms of putting the thing into some semblance of chronological order so that the reader can track how Dick's ideas and theories develop and evolve over time and in terms of choosing what to leave out. Fortunately, it seems that the Exegesis is actually, in its raw form, incredibly repetitive, since by and large what is presented here is enough for the Dick scholar to follow the arguments therein and is still fairly repetitive even boiled down to a tenth of the original length. The thing could probably have been abridged yet further, but then again the editors do say that their intent was to produce something which gives the flavour of wading through the whole beast, and feel that it wouldn't be the Exegesis if there weren't too much of it.

The text we are presented with therefore needs to be taken with several pinches of salt. Firstly, it's important for the reader themselves not to fall into the same trap as Dick and ascribing excess importance to 2-3-74. You could be fooled, the way he talks about it, into thinking Dick was living a perfectly normal life free of visions and voices before the incident. Nothing could be further from the truth: Dick talks here and elsewhere about seeing the evil metal face of God blotting out the sky in the 1960s, only going away when he wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as a means of exorcising it, and the AI Voice first spoke to Dick during a high school physics exam in response to a prayer for help with the answers. 2-3-74, at most, represents a particularly intense incident of a sort which appears to have affected Dick for most of his life, and the point where Dick decided to take all this stuff super seriously and write everything down.

Secondly, it needs to be remembered that this is an edit and not the full shebang, so there's still plenty we are missing - and moreover, they've made editorial choices intended to create a picture of the Exegesis as they collectively see it. The microcosm they have made of it might have the same general outline as the macrocosm, or they may have completely bent it out of shape - we have no way of knowing.

Thirdly, there's the fact that, except for a few moments where he declares himself a lunatic and laments all the time and energy he's sunk into this, the Exegesis represents Dick at points in time where he is convinced that the experiences of 2-3-74 (as he dubs it) were some sort of real and legitimate insight into something. In the semi-autobiographical VALIS Dick appears to take a somewhat more ambivalent stance and generally pulls back from wide-eyed belief, to the point where he generates an alter ego (the infamous Horselover Fat) that he can delegate all of this wild theological frothing to so he himself can take a more objective perspective. In the Exegesis Dick seems to suggest that this was a bit of a sham, and that his sympathies are much more with Fat's viewpoint than those he ascribes his self-insert; but then again, that's precisely what he would say if he were having a Fat moment. It is not possible to say, based on what we have here, whether Dick was being more truthful in the Exegesis or in VALIS. In the former case, it would seem he was more or less wholly committed to believing that 2-3-74 was real, but in the latter case it'd seem his enthusiasm for the thing waxed and waned - and of course, when he was in a sceptical mood he wouldn't be writing in the Exegesis. In the Exegesis itself he occasionally alludes to having moments of unbelief, but he claims that when he doesn't believe he is incredibly depressed; there's one point where he actually stops believing in all this stuff midway through an entry and declares the whole effort to have been a waste of time, before zooming off down another blind alley in the next paragraph. For the majority of the text, though, it's Dick the believer we're getting, and Dick the doubter remains silent.

Although it feels different from the voice in which he wrote his novels, at the same time the tone of Dick's writing in the Exegesis often gets quite performative, to the point where it does seem as though Dick hoped that the material would get to the public one way or another. Of course, his final three novels (plus The Owl In Daylight which was left unfinished at his death) are intended to convey the 2-3-74 wisdom to the public - this has long been known and is explicitly stated here - but there's also parts of the Exegesis where Dick laments over the possibility that he might never share what he's come up with with anyone, and some parts show signs of being organised for publication. At points Dick starts writing little parables or fictionalised sections which seem intended to convey his ideas to us rather than to note them them for his own benefit. Some of the Exegesis material consists of letters Dick wrote to various people - some of it is personal correspondence with friends, but one letter detailing a vision he had in 1981 of the messiah promised by 2-3-74 being incarnated in Sri Lanka and dying of radiation burns reflective of the damage human beings are doing to the biosphere was posted to 85 people, which is getting into spam territory. One notable piece here is an obituary which is clearly intended for publication (a letter to the editor of the Sufi magazine it was written for accompanies it) talks about how this dead friend of Dick's came back as a spirit and possessed Dick's cat before it too died. But even the parts which were never sent off to other people for them to look at are written out in longhand, with much less in the way of abbreviations and contractions than you'd expect for someone taking notes purely for their own purposes - even someone as apparently distrusting of their own memory as Dick is in some stretches. Although the concepts Dick deals with are theologically and philosophically complex (this is only a euphemism for "batshit" as applied to, say, 75% of the stuff here), the way he actually explains these ideas is entirely lucid. The Exegesis is many things but it is not Timecube-like word salad.

A particularly interesting section comes about in late 1980, where the editors note Dick seems to have been assembling a condensed and finalised version of his speculations, perhaps for publication. It even has a title page - "THE DIALECTIC: God Against Satan, and God's final victory foretold and shown" - and culminates in a little story in which Dick has a chat with God and God is like "lol, I trolled you, I just like watching you theorising endlessly about this shit" and Dick is like "zomg, is this trolling a punishment for sins or a reward for good works?!?!?" and God is like "lol not telling". Then Dick writes "THE END" in a fairly final manner. Then he starts thinking about what he's written. Then he starts theorising about it. Then he rejects some of it and complicates more of it and soon enough the whole process begins again. It's a recurring situation in the book: almost like clockwork, Dick will regularly declare that he's cracked the case, he's done, he's finished, it's over, he can stop, he's totally stopping now, look everyone he's putting his pen down, wait, except there's just one last loose end to sort out... at which point he finds himself trapped in his speculations yet again.

It's kind of ironic that a lot of the Exegesis relates to fallen mankind's state being trapped within the Black Iron Prison when it seems clear from the text that the main thing imprisoning Dick was the Exegesis itself. The thing resembles a runaway train of thought, with a driver (Dick) who very occasionally tries to slam on the brakes but is usually happy to go along for the ride. In one part, Dick notes that the novel he's currently writing has hit the point where he doesn't feel like he's writing it any more - "the material is in control", as he puts it, and all he can do now is follow the course set until it reaches a conclusion. The difference with the Exegesis is that it's not the sort of thing which can ever have a conclusion, so Dick seems to find himself stuck in the mode where he's following all these chains of thought but can't bring himself to just break them off and walk away.

Although it is readable, at the same time there's no denying that it probably isn't worth your time trying to read it unless you already have a particular interest in Dick. Dick thrived in SF, of course, because it's a genre whose readers prize evocative ideas over fine prose and detailed characterisation, and as far as really exciting concepts go Dick was a powerhouse. Whilst other authors were sat around cranking out innumerable variations on pet themes such as "what if a space ship got into trouble X miles from a black hole?" or "if we program robots with these axioms, how can we trick them into committing murder?" or "how do we exterminate all those beastly Commies brown people aliens?", Dick would burst in wild-eyed and short of breath and yell "What if God was disguised as a Communist dictator and was out to conquer the world and eat us all? What if the only difference between being human and being a robot was giving a fuck about your fellow creatures? What if salvation were sold in a spray can? What if the world were taken apart every night while you slept and rebuilt very slightly differently? If the Nazis and Japanese won World War II, what sort of souvenirs would they buy from America? If the cops knew you were going to murder someone in the future would it be right for them to arrest you now? What if we're all police informers but we don't know it? If aliens caught you murdering a cat, how would they punish you? What if autistic people can travel in time? HOW DO DOGS PERCEIVE GARBAGE DAY?!?!?!?" Often you'd get a whole heap of such ideas in the same novel. If SF is the genre which asks "what if?", Dick was asking "what ifs" which were simultaneously too brilliant and too goofy for anyone else to consider.

If you're a "literature of ideas" sort who wants a treasury of Dick's philosophical or theological concepts, or a sucker for eccentric cosmological models, or find it amusing to read people's indulgences of their maybe-delusions, then there's a lot to like here. If you are interested in Dick analysing his own body of work (admittedly through a lens of working out which of his dozens of novels contains the answer to the riddle 2-3-74 posed) and working out how to put together the VALIS trilogy, and analysing the books in the trilogy in turn, again there's some interest to be had. If you want to glean biographical details about Dick himself, again, it's more than possible to do so. And yet, at the same time, you can get all that without the hard slog of going through this text.

As far as the metaphysical and ethical ideas Dick plays with here are concerned, yes, there's a lot of them here, but I actually think they're developed and presented better in the novels he wrote around this time. It helps, of course, that in writing a novel Dick has to force himself to choose a particular metaphysical stance and stick with it for two hundred pages; the discipline this imposes on him allows him to think his ideas through more thoroughly and present them more interestingly than in his wild and disordered hopping from concept to concept in the Exegesis allows. On top of that, the better late-period Dicks (VALIS and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer) offer a broader perspective than the Exegesis does. Although the Exegesis incorporates a staggering variety of ideas, at the same time whenever Dick latches onto one he becomes absolutely certain that this, right here, is the key, and any other interpretation can go hang... until he changes his mind yet again, that is. Conversely, in the better 2-3-74-inspired books Dick portrays (and indeed seems to show sympathy for) a wide variety of different perspectives on the theory expounded by the novel in question; VALIS is narrated by a bemused Phil wondering what the hell his nutty alter ego is going to do next, whilst Archer's protagonist, Angel Archer, is a confirmed sceptic who ultimately chooses to concern herself with more tangible and immediate problems than whether Timothy has come back from the dead. In the Exegesis Dick holds firm views about both stances and seems convinced that they are incorrect they are, but in the novels he steps back and allows ample interpretative space for the reader to decide who (if anyone) they are going to side with. (Sane-Phil and Angel Archer all the way, for my part.)

Furthermore, the ideas here teeter wildly between theological and philosophical speculation of a sort which might form the basis of some interesting thought experiments on the one hand, and wild paranoid fantasies and delusions of grandeur on the other. One of the editorial team hits the nail on the head in a footnote where they say "Dick was in many ways a genius and visionary, but this Rome business is just plain screwy." If you're here for rubbernecking purposes, out to see Dick gabble like a madman, you're going to be disappointed: though there are a lot of "just plain screwy" ideas in here, they're embedded in so much dry metaphysical conjecture. Likewise, if you're here for the metaphysical conjecture then the less credible ideas strewn across the conceptual landscape here are going to trip you up a lot.

In terms of Dick's thoughts on his fiction, most of the time the analysis he offers is tightly focused on one thing and one thing alone: figuring out where he has subconsciously slipped secret messages into a novel, or accidentally stumbled across genuine mystical insights in his work. He perpetually, for instance, comes back to Ubik but more or less says the same thing about it each time: that the metaphysical ideas expressed in it constitute some sort of divine revelation. Similarly, his thoughts on common themes in his stories degenerate into drawing conspiracy diagrams showing how the the volumes of what he calls his "meta-novel" - the components of which seem to change each time he lists them - are all linked together by VALIS. Dick has produced better and more informative pieces on his own fiction in essays published elsewhere - I remember The Android and the Human being particularly good.

On top of that, Dick on occasion has wildly grandiose estimations of the importance of his work. This is profoundly irritating; there's nothing more smug than the declarations of someone who is absolutely convinced that they are a genius and visionary, even if you personally happen to agree with them. Dick has a very specific idea of his place in the fictional world; he believes he has given a voice to people who didn't have anyone else to speak to them. This is kind of presumptuous in the case of a lot of his work because there's plenty of groupings he writes about he doesn't have the standing to speak for, and the two groups he identifies himself as speaking for which he was arguably a part of - the 60s drug culture in A Scanner Darkly and the "adolescent loner intellectual" in VALIS - arguably don't have Dick alone to speak for them. Then again, his egomaniacal assessment of the value of his work seems to be fed in part by his tendency to believe his fan mail - apparently after publishing VALIS he got a lot of mail from people with similar issues to him who praised the novel and seemed to feel themselves that it spoke for them in a way others hadn't, so arguably Dick did do something valuable there - but it's not enough to make me forgive him for claims like "only someone knowing about modern nonobjective protest art - especially that of Weimar! - would know what VALIS really is. [...] It is dada out of antifascist Weimar. [...] It is true modern art - that of the refuse stratum of the computer hacker and Dungeons & Dragons era."

That said, what insights there are here which aren't mired in Dick's endless theological ponderings or declarations of his own genius are pretty interesting. I was fascinated by the part where Dick expresses his relief that he chose to take a $7,500 advance to write The Transmigration of Timothy Archer instead of a $50,000 advance to rewrite Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to better fit the plot of Blade Runner - a deal which would have seen the original version of the novel pulled from the market. This would have both been a grotesque act of vandalism against Dick's own body of work and an absolutely horrendous precedent for future film adaptations of genre novels, so it's hard not to agree with Dick that he made the right call there. (On the subject of Blade Runner itself, he considers the plot to be a fascistic Hollywood power fantasy but also depicts the movie as a sacred thing and the culmination of his work - its aesthetic showing clearly the Black Iron Prison and the overall package acting as a gateway drug for the Gnostic truths expressed in the rest of Dick's work.) But, as always with the Exegesis, you have to work to get these nuggets of information, and you can't just rely on what Dick gives you - a lot of the details are filled in by Jackson and Lethem's editorial team in their footnotes, which provide the details which Dick glosses over.

This is even more true when it comes to biographical information. For what is in theory Dick's personal spiritual diary, the Exegesis for the most part avoids any direct and in-depth discussion of anything in Dick's life aside from his visionary experiences, beyond noting that the events of 2-3-74 seemed to effect a positive change in his circumstances. Dick claimed that under the influence of the alternate personality VALIS invested him with via a pink laser he became more effective and shrewd in his business negotiations and was generally able to get his life stabilised and get some semblance of financial security for the first time; he offers this as evidence that whatever happened to him during 2-3-74 couldn't have been a psychotic episode or anything like that because generally people in the grip of psychotic episodes get markedly worse at looking after themselves, not better.

However, there's a lot you can pick up by reading between the lines, not all of it complementary to Dick. For instance, take his interactions with Ursula LeGuin: the two were, apparently, pen pals, and had in fact attended the same high school and graduated in the same year as each other (though they hadn't met in school because Dick was home a lot with his crippling agoraphobia). LeGuin is, in fact, one of the confidantes who he spams with letters about his divine revelations early on in the Exegesis. This all changes after VALIS comes out, and word got back to Dick that LeGuin had both suggested that his treatment of female characters, never exactly brilliant, had hit a nadir, and also she was worried that he was going around and around with his preoccupations with unanswerable questions and making himself ill. This prompted Dick to write a letter to an SF fanzine extensively addressing LeGuin's suggestions that he was going nuts and blithely ignoring the whole misogyny angle entirely (if you are curious the letter is the first missive reproduced in in this Dick themed e-zine).

Comparing this letter to the Exegesis, it becomes apparent that Dick was an utterly two-faced little sneak. In the letter for publication, Dick claims that LeGuin was misinterpreting VALIS, and although he presented Horselover Fat as an alter ego of his in the book that does not mean that he actually is Horselover Fat, or that he believes any of this weird stuff, and even though he declares as much in the novel that was simply for the purpose of the fiction he was presenting. If you look at VALIS and compare it to the letter already cracks begin to appear: for instance, Dick asserts that the Phil Dick in VALIS and Horselover Fat are two different people, when actually the crux of the climax of VALIS is Phil and Fat realising that they're two personalities belonging to the same person. If Dick is really saying that he isn't really Horselover Fat, then I've got 900 pages of pure Fattery on my bookshelf in the form of the Exegesis which says otherwise. Within the Exegesis itself, Dick clearly identifies to Fat far more than he does the sceptic-Phil he creates as his narrator character - to the point where at points he claims that the value of VALIS is as a means of getting Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura - written by Fat in the novel - into the hands of the general public.

What irks me about this, though, isn't the way Dick is misrepresenting what he really thinks in order to defend his reputation from a perceived slight - though I do question how long Dick intended to maintain the pretense when a few months after writing this defence he'd be spamming SF fanzines with his "Tagore letter" concerning his radiation-scorched Sri Lankan messiah. It's the way he arrogantly declares that LeGuin just doesn't get it - that she's reading the novel wrong and hasn't cracked the secret at the centre of it. This is pretty rich considering that he's talking about the one author who shows perhaps the best understanding of anyone of how Dick's fiction is constructed: as well as consistently and enthusiastically promoting his work despite the flaws she found in it, LeGuin wrote The Lathe of Heaven, which is perhaps the finest Philip K. Dick novel which PKD himself didn't actually write as a deliberate piece of peerfic. (Dick actually mentions it in the Exegesis, so he can't have been unaware of it.)

The way Dick high-handedly declares LeGuin's interpretation of VALIS to be incorrect in the letter, and the way he grouses about how wrong and poo-headed she is in the Exegesis (to the point where he declares that he based Angel Archer on LeGuin - and in particular decries both LeGuin's and Angel Archer's scepticism as a fatal character flaw, despite the fact that both in real life and in Transmigration it's nothing of the sort) makes me want to pick the guy up, give him a shake, and yell at him "SHE'S YOUR BIGGEST SUPPORTER IN THE WORLD, SHOW SOME FUCKING GRATITUDE". In one entry he has the gall to declare that LeGuin's scepticism of his revelations proves that she would rather have the safety and security of the Black Iron Prison, with all of its monstrous injustice, than set out for the Palm Tree Garden; to say this about the author of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is horrendous and makes me wonder whether Dick ever read LeGuin at all. At the very least, he'd have found the stuff in A Wizard of Earthsea about confronting and overcoming your own shadow-twin relevant to his interests.

Oh, and note how in the letter Dick only glancingly acknowledges LeGuin's other complaint - namely, that his handling of female characters is terrible and always has been. (I was able to figure that one out even before I started educating myself on the whole Minority Warrior front.) One likes to think that he didn't address it in detail because he knew she was in the right, but there's no statement to that effect in the Exegesis. The editors suggest that Angel Archer was Dick's attempt to create a well-rounded female protagonist in order to rise to LeGuin's challenge; fair enough if she was, but he doesn't actually say that here, and you'd think at least some public acknowledgement that maybe he went off half-cocked about the whole "You can't write women for shit" thing would be the polite thing to do. (Speculation time: could LeGuin's portrayal of Virgil in Lavinia have drawn on her interactions with Dick? You've got a mildly incoherent author who's all unstuck in time and entangled in his own fiction, having premonitions of his own death, preoccupied with the centrality of Rome in the universe and being confronted with how amazingly bad he is at writing women just when it's too late for him to do much about it...)

This isn't the only instance where Dick seems extremely self-obsessed and indifferent to the thoughts and opinions of others. There's long stretches of the book where it almost seem as though the universe consists of Dick, God, and nobody else at all. Most of the time when other flesh and blood people in Dick's life are mentioned it is only to discuss any input they had on Dick's theorising which he considered helpful. The exceptions are those individuals he considered directly involved with his religious experiences - such as Bishop Jim Pike, a dead buddy of Dick's and the model for Timothy Archer in Transmigration who Dick thought might have been possessing him, and Chrisopher Dick, Phil's son who supposedly had a life threatening and undetected birth defect that the AI Voice gave a timely warning about.

And then, of course, there's Jane, Dick's twin sister who died in infancy and whose loss haunted Dick up until his death and cast a long shadow over his fiction. At points towards the end of the book Dick's thoughts seem to be turning to her; he seems to feel her presence approaching, at at one stage appears to suggest that Angel Archer, his only serious attempt at presenting a well-rounded female protagonist in one of his novels, was Jane as she would have been had she survived. I do wonder whether here at the last stages of the book the editors hadn't cherry-picked extracts to present some closure to the reader; between the somewhat more tranquil tone the writing takes on, Dick's philosophical acceptance that his exegeting is never going to arrive at any answers (and his admission that he doesn't actually mind because it's the process of speculation he finds rewarding anyway), the resurgence of Jane and Dick's premonitions of death it seems a bit neat, as though the editors are reading something into the text because they knew that Dick would be dead within weeks of writing the bits in question. After all, Dick seems to have regularly had premonitions of his death and/or the end of the world over the course of the preceding eight years (and before), so whilst on one level it is nice to know that he had finally made some sort of peace with himself shortly before he died to even jokingly suggest that he foresaw his death (and some of the editors do seem to believe some of Dick's supernatural claims) is a bit of a stretch.

It is, admittedly, rather telling that the most transcendentally important human being in Dick's worldview is his dead sister. But then again, this has been common knowledge for a long, long time. Like with the metaphysical ideas and the analysis of Dick's work, if biographical detail on Dick is really your main concern then there's plenty of easier alternative avenues of research (I hear Divine Invasions by Sutin is considered a fairly key biography), not least because Dick is decidedly prone to self-mythologise. If 2-3-74 represents Dick's life beginning to resemble one of his own novels, then Dick himself in the Exegesis represents the most unreliable narrator he ever wrote.

At the end of the day, I suspect that the people most likely to be able to sit down and make their way through the whole book are those who, like Dick, consider the process of sitting down and working their way through a puzzle with no real solutions a stimulating exercise in its own right. Dick sits there exegeting his mystical visions. The editors exegete Dick to try and put this nightmarish mountain of material in context. The reader, in turn, is tasked with puzzling both Dick in terms of trying to find a few nuggets of what interests them in the text, and the editors in terms of working out where their biases might be manifesting. If Dick's lonely sessions of Exegesis scribbling were a sort of theologically-themed mental masturbation, then what Jackson and Lethem are doing is asking us to participate in a mental circle jerk with a corpse.

And apparently they are not done yet. Intent on getting the entire text available to the subject, the editorial team are going on to work on what they call "Zebrapedia" - a transcription of the entire Exegesis, not just the extracts presented here, complete with Wikipedia-like hypertext interlinking and user commentary and so on. After that's complete, I suppose there's only one logical direction to take the project: build a Time Laser and beam the entire Zebrapedia into Dick's brain, way back there in 1974, for the lulz.
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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 03:07 on 2012-07-22
Top three SFF authors with unfortunate names:

3. Philip K. Dick
2. Michael Moorcock
1. Harry Turtledove

Ahem.

I was always tickled by the fact that Philip K. Dick didn't believe Stanislaw Lem existed and that Lem's stories were the product of a communist committee.
Arthur B at 03:11 on 2012-07-22
That's one theory which doesn't actually appear here - I guess by 1974 Dick had decided Lem was real, possibly because he'd said nice things about Ubik.

Then again he was convinced that the literature professors who wanted to talk to him about his books were Marxist agents so there's a long-standing theory there of the Soviet bloc having some sort of interest in his work.
I hear Divine Invasions by Sutin is considered a fairly key biography

And here I was just about to ask if there's a good biography of Dick I could check out.

Everything I've read about his life (and beliefs and problems and so on) makes me think he's one of those writers who becomes more interesting than his fiction in the long run. Don't get me wrong, I like his books, but I find reading about him more compelling than reading what he wrote. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for stories of creative geniuses with problems - I am, after all, eagerly awaiting that biography of David Foster Wallace despite having almost no interest in his fiction.
Arthur B at 12:48 on 2012-07-22
And here I was just about to ask if there's a good biography of Dick I could check out.

What If Our World Was Their Heaven? is also quite good as a selection of interviews from very late in his life.

Everything I've read about his life (and beliefs and problems and so on) makes me think he's one of those writers who becomes more interesting than his fiction in the long run.

I dunno, considering he put so much of himself in his fiction (especially his last books) I'm not sure where you'd join the line.
FelicityGS at 00:35 on 2012-07-23
This sounds absolutely fascinating through the filter of not needing to read it. I think if I did try to read it I would go nuts; I hate sorting through that sort of plodding no answer to the puzzle stuff.

It does bring up a good question: I hear about Dick quite a bit from my friends, but I haven't the faintest what to even start with. Any suggestions?
Michal at 00:59 on 2012-07-23
I believe the default answer to that question is to start with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Arthur B at 01:40 on 2012-07-23
It really depends what you want out of a starting point. Recommendations, based on it being years since I've actually read any of this stuff. (Would people be interested in me having a go at reviewing it all once I'm done with Moorcock?)

If you want short, digestible bite-sized chunks then his short stories are generally quite good with only a few clunkers (and one absolutely terrible one in the form of The Pre-Persons). Try the fifth volume of the collected short stories set (whose title irritatingly varies a lot - in my edition it's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Dick wrote a crapton of shorts early on in his career and then scaled back on them drastically as his novels (and, later, the Exegesis) ate up the time he would otherwise have used in cranking out stories. The earlier volumes in the collected shorts are therefore cover only a fairly short span of time - to give you an idea, the first three and a half volumes of the collected stories were written between 1951 and 1954, whilst Wholesale spans 1963 to 1981 and so gives you a decent cross-section of the guy's stuff at the point when his talent matured. (It's also got the story Total Recall was based on and Faith of Our Fathers, one of the most terrifying things Dick wrote... and The Pre-Persons, but you can skip that.) Alternately you could start at the other end of the set, the early stories are much more straightforwsrd and haven't dated quite as appallingly as most other 50s SF has.

If you want novels, I could recommend a heap but I'll try to restrain myself:

- The Man In the High Castle won an award and for good reason. It may not be the most rigorous or hyper-realistic "what if Hitler won?" novel but the real draw is the shuffling of various parallel universes, all of which find WWII concluding with a Cold War between two superpowers with the technology to wipe out life on Earth. Cheery!

- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is the trippiest thing ever if you want to throw yourself in at the deep end. I know people say that about a lot of stuff but seriously, it's the most illucid novel I've ever read whose prose hasn't degenerated into Burroughsian cut-ups and word salad. It also features a refreshingly pessimistic vision of how off-world colonisation would work.

- Androids is lovely but I sneakily think the film is better. Ubik from around the same period I actually think has a better dystopia, better characters, and a better plot.

- VALIS is excellent; believer-Dick might claim all sorts of things about it in the Exegesis but I still think doubter-Dick did a really good job of sneaking in a first-hand portrayal of himself in the grip of a mental health crisis without believer-Dick noticing. On the other hand, LeGuin is correct that its depiction of women is terrible. On the other other hand, Dick's women had more or less always been unattainable fantasy figures or beautiful wreckages on a death spiral so same caveat applies to more or less everything.*

- If you want to start out with a Dick where he is at least trying to not be completely terrible in that regard, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is perhaps his best stab at a mainstream novel (if you assume all the supernatural stuff isn't actually happening - and hurray, doubter-Dick saves the day again by forcing believer-Dick to let us make that decision for ourselves).

*In more or less the opposite of my opinion on Howard, I actually think Dick is still worth reading despite his really severe women issues because the actual basis of his stories often doesn't hinge on them (except in a few cases... hello, The Pre-Persons), whereas Howard's racism works its way into the very axioms of his stories. But of course people have the right to draw the line where they draw it and I completely respect anyone's right to say "no Dick for me".
Arthur B at 01:44 on 2012-07-23
Oh, silly me, forgot the other caveat: according to the Exegesis Dick's writing contains a word virus which transforms its readers into nodes in the computer mind of God. So, you know, buyer beware. Side effects may include immortality, visions, membership of secret conspiracy of three-eyed Christian space Communists.
Michal at 02:29 on 2012-07-23
(Would people be interested in me having a go at reviewing it all once I'm done with Moorcock?)

No, your next reading project is to read and review the entirety of John Norman's Gor series. I thought we already agreed on this!
I completely respect anyone's right to say "no Dick for me".

Ironically, all this talk of Dick is making me want to try some out.
Arthur B at 13:48 on 2012-07-23
No, your next reading project is to read and review the entirety of John Norman's Gor series.

Sigh, OK. Review of the entire Gor series, based solely on the titles and Wikipedia info:

Tarnsman of Gor
"Wait, you'll publish my Edgar Rice Burroughs-themed porn?"

Outlaw of Gor
Notable only because MST3K devoted an episode to the film version.

Priest-Kings of Gor
Spoiler: according to Wikipedia they're space bugs.

Nomads of Gor
I guess this time the sex scenes happen in tents more than in dungeons or something.

Assassin of Gor
Doesn't matter if we're talking a studly assassin dude who abuses slave girls on the side or a hot assassin chick who really wants to be an abused slave girl, either way we've hit genuine grimdark here.

Raiders of Gor
Insert joke about guys opening up some old box and having their faces melted off here.

Captive of Gor
Golly, might this captivity involve flogging and sex?

Hunters of Gor
Oh gosh are they going to end up hunting THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME? Almost certainly.

Marauders of Gor
Raiders, captives, hunters, marauders... Jesus, it's like Norman's running through a whole series of utterly generic and uninformative fantasy setting job titles.

Tribesmen of Gor
Presumably spend a lot of time lovingly flogging tribeswomen of Gor.

Slave Girl of Gor
The Platonic form of Gor novel titles?

Beasts of Gor
Because what Gor readers really care about is the detailed ecology of the planet.

Explorers of Gor
Seeking out new and exotic locales to tie up and flog slave girls in.

Fighting Slave of Gor
I guess in all the previous books we were concentrating on the Fucking Slaves of Gor.

Rogue of Gor
Picks your pocket whilst you're flogging your slave girl.

Guardsman of Gor
Decent odds that said guardsman ends up tying up his employer and flogging her.

Savages of Gor
Because of course the cities full of feuding, warlike, slave-trading rapists are so civilised. Thank you, Robert E. Howard's ghost.

Blood Brothers of Gor
Brothers! No more than that. No room for the gay on Gor.

Kajira of Gor
Looked up "Kajira". It means "Slave Girl". So this is basically a repeat title (a bit like Raiders of Gor and Marauders of Gor are more or less the same, and how Savages of Gor is a tactless way of saying Tribesmen of Gor).

Players of Gor
Goreans don't play. They fuck. Hard.

Mercenaries of Gor
For when you need to outsource your flogging.

Dancer of Gor
Are we talking ballet, perhaps? Interpretive dance? Maybe a nice waltz? Oh, who am I kidding - there's no way you can pull off any of those dances whilst tied up.

Renegades of Gor
The Rogue of Gor found some friends! Look out!

Vagabonds of Gor
Aw shit, they're out of control! Hide all your slaves before they swipe them!

Magicians of Gor
The real magic is getting people to read this far.

Witness of Gor
What, did the entire slave-using population of the planet get brought up on rape charges or something?

Prize of Gor
What's the prize for? "Most spankable bottom?" "Best whip technique?"

Kur of Gor
Norman ceases to even try to be informative.

Swordsmen of Gor
Odds of someone's butt getting slapped with the flat of a blade: 99%.

Mariners of Gor
Like Nomads of Gor except replace "tents" with "ship cabins". Hey, at least there's plenty of rope around.

Conspirators of Gor
Hey, I'm all for wacky bedroom adventures but when your sex games require an elaborate conspiracy to pull off I think you're making them a bit too complicated.

Imaginative Sex
When there's no more room in Gor the Goreans will walk the Earth.

Can I have my Dick now please?
Dan H at 18:51 on 2012-07-23
I have no particular commentary to add to this article, except to say that I thought Arthur showed admirable restraint in only making fourteen Dick jokes in the first two paragraphs.
Wardog at 21:24 on 2012-07-23
Mariners of Gor
Like Nomads of Gor except replace "tents" with "ship cabins". Hey, at least there's plenty of rope around.

Can't believe you missed a seamen pun...

I once went to a job interview - (at which I thought I'd performed quite well ) and at the end of it for the "ask a question to show we give a damn about you as a person" bit they glanced down at my CV and noticed that I'd said I liked reading sci-fi and fantasy.

"Oh," says geeky interviewer #1 (they are all men incidentally - sigh), "I enjoy sci-fi too. Who is your favourite author?"

"Well," quoth I, "I really love Dick."

I did not get the job.
Arthur B at 23:34 on 2012-07-23
Can't believe you missed a seamen pun...

I almost went with a rum, sodomy and the lash joke but then again: no gay in Gor.

"Well," quoth I, "I really love Dick."

I did not get the job.

Could be worse, you might have got the job only to discover that the interviewer was a John Norman fan.

I'd actually be really interested to hear about your favoured Dicks, partially because we've never actually sat down and compared our Dicks and partially because Felicity might appreciate a second opinion/I don't want to set myself up as sole assessor of Dicks.
James D at 23:46 on 2012-07-23
This sounds absolutely fascinating through the filter of not needing to read it. I think if I did try to read it I would go nuts; I hate sorting through that sort of plodding no answer to the puzzle stuff.

Same here. As with Moorcock, I'm glad Arthur has OCD has no life is generous with his time and will read/review the bad ones for us. There's no way in hell I'm going to slog through 900 pages of Dick, but I'll gladly listen to Arthur analyze and make fun of it. I like Dick in general and I find a lot of his ideas interesting, but at the end of the day, some Dicks are just too long.
Arthur B at 00:41 on 2012-07-24
So Ridley Scott is doing this rather daft series called Prophets of Science Fiction which leads me to believe he doesn't quite understand the genre and was only able to make Alien or Blade Runner by accident (science fiction authors can't be rated by how well they predict stuff, SF writers who aren't just churning out trash are really writing about the present instead of the future, etc.). But the episode of Dick is stupidly fun, not least because of the hilarious fake beard on the guy in their reconstructions (and, indeed, the way the guy doesn't even resemble Dick).

I'm also glad they included the theory that Dick blew up his own safe in the 1971 break-in incident so that he'd have something to be paranoid about.
FelicityGS at 03:52 on 2012-07-24
(Would people be interested in me having a go at reviewing it all once I'm done with Moorcock?)


I would totally 100% dig this. That's actually what got me to finally go and read Moorcock in the first place; I'd only heard of him in passing otherwise and hadn't the faintest what to even read that would be good.

Plus I like reading those sort of look overs, I like seeing what you didn't notice the first time through.

That Gor summary looks about right. I wouldn't wish anyone to have to try and read those ever; I think I made it part of the way through the first one out of sheer curiosity and fascinated horror.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 00:20 on 2012-08-02
So I suppose the obvious question is how L. Ron Hubbard ending up creating a sci-fi religion and not PKD. All I've got so far is that LRH was way more of a salesman than Dick could ever be, the fact that Dick's cosmology is probably way too arcane for a mass audience (there's an old quote running through my head saying to the effect that Americans are a people who love religion but hate metaphysics, which certainly explains Scientology's appeal), as well as the fact that PKD actually did doubt some of his visions, while LRH's identity seems to have been so wrapped up in his tall tales that he probably would never believe the truth, even if someone gave it to him.

Yes, I'm reading a book about Scientology right now. From what it told me about LRH's early life, he seems less like a real person and more like an archetype out of the American folk tradition. The Eternal Travelling Salesman, the Charming Liar, something like that.
Arthur B at 01:00 on 2012-08-02
So I suppose the obvious question is how L. Ron Hubbard ending up creating a sci-fi religion and not PKD.

Give it time (and maybe a nuclear war or two). Simon Magus gave a flashier show than the desert fathers back in the day but in terms of long-term influence he wasn't so hot. ;)
Robinson L at 20:02 on 2012-09-12
You know Arthur, for some strange reason I can't shake the feeling that there is some sort of mysterious, arcane double-meaning to the first two paragraphs of your article, though I haven't the foggiest notion what they may be.

Beyond that, I'm going to join a couple of other commenters here and say that I think I'll take reading what you have to say about Dick's Exegesis over reading the actual book itself.

Dick thrived in SF, of course, because it's a genre whose readers prize evocative ideas over fine prose and detailed characterisation, and as far as really exciting concepts go Dick was a powerhouse ... If SF is the genre which asks "what if?", Dick was asking "what ifs" which were simultaneously too brilliant and too goofy for anyone else to consider.

I love really mind-blowing “what ifs” and don't get nearly enough of them – these two facts have carried me through most of the few Philip K Dick short stories I've read so far (including the ones which formed the bases for “Minority Report,” “Total Recall,” and “Paycheck”) but at the same time I was thoroughly burned by the appallingly bad characterization. I mean, in the “Total Recall” and “Paycheck” short stories they're just horribly bland, but in “Minority Report” the characters' motivation often appears to be – cribbing shamelessly from Dan here – to create the plot of an action-thriller.

The Man in the High Castle didn't grate me, but it didn't thrill me either (in fairness, this may be because I missed the point of the book – but that's partially because I wasn't sufficiently invested in the story to figure that out).

whilst on one level it is nice to know that he had finally made some sort of peace with himself shortly before he died to even jokingly suggest that he foresaw his death (and some of the editors do seem to believe some of Dick's supernatural claims) is a bit of a stretch.

I'm not at all familiar with the circumstances of Dick's death, but depending on what they were, I think it could be entirely reasonable that he could have foreseen it's likelihood without any recourse to supernatural premonition.

If 2-3-74 represents Dick's life beginning to resemble one of his own novels, then Dick himself in the Exegesis represents the most unreliable narrator he ever wrote.

Probably the best line of this article.

After that's complete, I suppose there's only one logical direction to take the project: build a Time Laser and beam the entire Zebrapedia into Dick's brain, way back there in 1974, for the lulz.

Second best, and a suggestion worthy of one of Dick's own stories, I've no doubt.

Arthur: (Would people be interested in me having a go at reviewing it all once I'm done with Moorcock?)

Count me as another "yay" vote.

Felicity: That's actually what got me to finally go and read Moorcock in the first place; I'd only heard of him in passing otherwise and hadn't the faintest what to even read that would be good.

That was pretty much my experience, too.
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