Blows Against the Empire

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

Philip K. Dick is best known for the films loosely based on his stories: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, etc.

Now, the Library of America has bestowed a certain amount of respectability on his work by compiling Four Novels of the 1960s, a collection including The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ubik.

In Blows Against the Empire, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik examines the troubled writer and his work:

Of all American writers, none have got the genre-hack-to-hidden-genius treatment quite so fully as Philip K. Dick, the California-raised and based science-fiction writer who, beginning in the nineteen-fifties, wrote thirty-six speed-fuelled novels, went crazy in the early seventies, and died in 1982, only fifty-three. His reputation has risen through the two parallel operations that genre writers get when they get big. First, he has become a prime inspiration for the movies, becoming for contemporary science-fiction and fantasy movies what Raymond Chandler was for film noir: at least eight feature films, including “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “A Scanner Darkly,” and, most memorably, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” have been adapted from Dick’s books, and even more — from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” to the “Matrix” series — owe a defining debt to his mixture of mordant comedy and wild metaphysics.

But Dick has also become for our time what Edgar Allan Poe was for Gilded Age America: the doomed genius who supplies a style of horrors and frissons.


Dick’s early history is at once tormented, hustling, and oddly lit by the bright California sunshine of the late fifties. Born in 1928, he had a twin, a sister named Jane, who died when she was only a month old; like Elvis Presley, who also had a twin sibling who died, Dick seems to have been haunted for the rest of his life by his missing Other. He seems to have blamed his mother, unfairly, for her death, poisoning their relations. He had one of those classic, bitter American childhoods, with warring parents, and was dragged back and forth across the country. He had loved science fiction since boyhood — he later told of how at twelve he had a dream of searching in Astounding Stories for a story called “The Empire Never Ended” that would reveal the mysteries of existence — and he began writing quickie sci-fi novels for Ace in the fifties and sixties. “I love SF,” he said once. “I love to read it; I love to write it. The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It’s not just ‘What if’ — it’s ‘My God; what if’ — in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming.” The hysteria suited him. He seems to have been a man of intellectual passion and compulsive appetite (he was married five times), the kind of guy who can’t drink one cup of coffee without drinking six, and then stays up all night to tell you what Schopenhauer really said and how it affects your understanding of Hitchcock and what that had to do with Christopher Marlowe.

By the way, Bladerunner fans will want to pick up the new five-disc ultimate collector’s edition.

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