Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick by Lawrence Sutin
[From Critical Wave #25, 1992. First published by Harmony in 1990 and by Paladin two years later, this book was released as a Gollancz paperback in 2006; the last of those is currently available via Amazon.]
Much as the birth of Max Ernst’s sister Loni (coinciding, as it did, with the death of Ernst’s beloved cockatoo, Hornebom) would create a psychological tremor which surfaced years later in his surreal portraits of half-human, half-aquiline goddesses, Dick’s knowledge of his twin’s death — entirely due, he felt, to parental neglect — planted the seed of much of his science fiction canon. Time and again, he would return to the theme of the doppelgänger, most often embodied in artificial lifeforms such as the androids in his 1958 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, filmed — after a fashion — as Blade Runner.
More than any other science fiction writer, Dick refused to accept the established view of reality and continually questioned the mechanics of self-perception. His 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, which he desperately hoped would secure a reputation in ‘mainstream’ literature, is set in an America where the Axis forces won the Second World War and “our” history (albeit modified) can be found in a samizdat sf pulp. 1959’s Time Out of Joint tackles the debate on an individual level, as quiz champion Ragle Gumm begins to realise his personal reality is a carefully mounted illusion, and includes a classic sequence where Gumm watches a soft drink vendor dissolve into non-existence, leaving behind a printed slip which reads “Soft Drink Stand”.
Gumm is, of course, quite correct in his suspicions, and Dick strove to investigate his own belief that surface reality concealed a greater truth, usually through a self-destructive cocktail of hallucinogenic drugs. As Lawrence Sutin explains in his introduction to Divine Invasions, this creates a dilemma for biographers, since Dick’s own accounts of his life frequently blur fact and fantasy, but Sutin has risen to the challenge and his intricate study of Dick’s quest for self-enlightenment captures much of the spirit of its subject’s writings.
Ironically, Dick is more famous now that he was at his death in March, 1982. Like Blade Runner, Total Recall (loosely based upon his 1966 short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’) has proven a massive hit at the box office and several other works are under option. Non-sf novels such as Confessions of a Crap Artist and The Broken Bubble are finally being published, winning him the mainstream credibility he was denied in life. In October, critics, fellow writers and fans converged on London for a two-day celebration of his work, with Lawrence Sutin himself among the guest speakers.
That Philip K Dick did not survive too see his writing receive the recognition it deserved is tragic, but, as Sutin’s thoughtful and engrossing biography observes, he lives on through his characters, many of whom were thinly-disguised reflections of his own troubled soul.