Illustration © Chuck Hodi
WHEN PHILIP K. DICK DIED in 1982 of a series of strokes brought on by years of overwork and amphetamine abuse, he was seen within the science fiction genre as a cult author of idiosyncratic works treating themes of synthetic selfhood and near-future dystopia, an intriguing if essentially second-rank talent. At the time, he was more popular in France and Japan, which have always had a taste for America’s pop culture detritus, than he was in his native country. Thirty years later, Dick — known to his most avid fans simply by his initials “PKD” — has developed a reputation as, among other things: a baleful chronicler of Bay Area working-class angst, thanks to a series of previously unpublished realist works written during the 1950s and early 1960s, such as Humpty Dumpty in Oakland; a postmodernist avant la lettre, due to his delirious explorations of deliquescent mindscapes in novels like Eye in the Sky and Martian Time-Slip, which Vintage began reprinting in imposing trade paperback editions in 1991; a godfather of cyberpunk via Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, adapted from Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; and a kind of Gnostic magus gifted with quasi-divine revelations that came to inform his final novels, beginning with VALIS in 1981. During the last decade of his life, Dick produced an 8,000-page opus of theological speculation known simply as the Exegesis, which struggled to come to grips with what seemed to be mystical experiences, and which editors Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem have now culled into Houghton Mifflin’s massive doorstop of a book.
A more appropriate metaphor might be “kitchen sink of a book,” since Dick, an omnivorous autodidact, threw all of his intellectual resources at the problem of deciphering the events he referred to simply as “2-3-74” — because the sequence of hallucinatory revelations commenced in February and March of that fateful year. For those given to psycho-biographical explanations, 1974 was the culmination for Dick of a decade of counterculture paranoia spawned by a hermetic hippie lifestyle and punctuated by occasional flirtations with antiwar protest. Always suspicious of lurking authority, Dick became convinced, during the early 1970s, that he was the focus of a loose-knit, evolving conspiracy linking the IRS, the FBI, Soviet agents, left wing American academics, and the hated Nixon administration. Recovering from oral surgery in February 1974, pumped full of Darvon, lithium, and massive quantities of megavitamins, he began experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations initially sparked by a Christian girl’s fish-icon necklace but eventually taking the form of a pink laser shooting highly coded information into his opened mind during a series of hypnogogic visitations. Over time, the intrepid author developed an elaborate vocabulary to describe the transfiguring effects of these extraterrestrial dispatches. According to this private argot, on 2-3-74 Dick underwent a powerful anamnesis, stimulated by mystical contact with “VALIS” (“Vast Active Living Intelligence System,” sometimes also called “Zebra” or, more simply, “God”), that unshackled his geneti...read more