In an attempt to raise the fortunes of BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO’s Kickstarter, Tod and I drove out to Fort Morgan, Colorado, today, to visit the grave of Philip K. Dick. Fort Morgan is a somewhat depressing town out in the flatlands, about an hour and a half from Boulder. But the graveyard is a handsome one, and the Dicks’ family plot fits perfectly.
You may already know the story – how Dick’s future parents were driving West in late 1928 when Mrs. Dick went into labour and gave birth to twins. The family stayed in Fort Morgan for several weeks, but the baby girl, Jane, was sickly and, after five weeks, she died. They buried her there and continued on to California. The surviving twin, Phil, became a noted science fiction writer, a man of many literary obsessions, one of which was the indellible absence of his sister. When he died, he was buried in Fort Morgan, beside Jane.
So out we went and lit a candle to the author of such great books as A Scanner Darkly and The Man In The High Castle, and said a prayer to the goddesses of film and science fiction that the SyFy version of The Man In The High Castle would be a decent film. On our way back to the car we met another Dick fan, looking for the grave. Our conversation touched on the SyFy adaptation. “Yeah!” said the fan, “I can’t wait to see what they do with the Castle. It had better be amazing!”
If you have read The Man in the High Castle, you may still remember that there is no High Castle. The reclusive author in Dick’s alternate reality tale lives in a ranchstyle housing development like the one Tod and I lived in, in Table Mesa. There was nothing special about the author’s house. There was no High Castle.
And now we know how the TV version of the book turned out. Rather like the movie adaptations of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly: very poor. Nor does Dick fare well in the recent documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix, where the filmmakers lengthily attempt, with the help of fan-boys clad in cartoon avatars, to link the complex alternate realities of Dick’s fiction to Hollywood sci-fi action action and the Singularity.
I hate the Singularity, just like I hate vulgarity. And I hate the expression “sci-fi” – a horrible low-life term which cements into its stupid abbreviated self the notion that speculative fiction has something to do with science. As I mentioned in my piece about SF writers and the Vietnam War, SF need have nothing to do with science, or mechanics, or rocket fuel, or how a time machine works. Good SF is about the results of these things, not the dumb-ass robot mechanisms that deliver them. The best story in Anthony Boucher’s two-volume Treasury of Great Science Fiction is Oscar Lewis’ The Lost Years. There is no science in it: it’s the story of a great American who didn’t get assassinated, and what happened next.
In other words, an alternate reality story — like the early SF of Philip K Dick. Glitch in the Matrix features some interesting footage of Dick giving a lecture in France, but cuts away before he gets into the real meat of his talk: his belief that in 1974 he experienced a “transcendental encounter” with a Vast, Alien Living Intelligence System which gave him religious insights and precognitive powers. Thereafter Dick wrote several novels with this theme, including VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth. They are not his best work. He told an interviewer, “I have almost 500,000 words of notes on all this… I tried to discuss it with Ursula Le Guin, and she just wrote and said, I think you’re crazy. She returned the material I sent her.”
Had Dick gone mad? R. Crumb didn’t think so. He wrote, drew and published an eight-page comic book depicting Dick’s narration of his experiences: The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick. It is certainly worth a read.
[Updated February 2021]