There are a lot of ways to characterize a legacy.
You could start with numbers: 44 published novels, at least 121 short stories, and a dozen movie adaptations, most of them major Hollywood affairs — and then the expanding circle of influence that includes 12 Monkeys, eXistenz, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Over $1 billion in film revenue.
Or you could look to awards: three Hugo nominations and one win, a slew of Nebula nominations, a John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and a British Science Fiction Association Award.
You could try to capture something more nebulous: the way the supposedly real world has begun to feel more and more like a Philip K. Dick novel. Inanimate objects capable of speech and something like thought. Entertainers resurrected as holograms. An android head built in the image of a long-gone author, ready to answer questions in his voice. You might note that, alongside Dickensian and Kafkaesque, we now have an adjective to describe this state of affairs. Phildickian. And the world seems more phildickian every day.
"It was like we were in a conspiracy of belief."
There’s another kind of legacy, one you could find among the people gathered two weeks ago in San Francisco for the Philip K. Dick Festival. The second of its kind, it brought over 100 presenters and attendees together, from as far away as Australia, to ruminate on topics such as "Ubik vs. Kipple: Universal Themes in the Work of Philip K Dick" and "Neoplatonism and the Problem of Dick’s Christianity." It featured a screening of Radio Free Albemuth, based on Dick’s posthumously published novel, and a belly dance inspired by Blade Runner, the film that brought his ideas their widest audience and which he died just months short of seeing.
It was more than an academic seminar, though, and more than a sci-fi convention. Jonathan Lethem described it as partly a gathering of old true-believers. Lethem, the author of Chronic City and Fortress of Solitude, described a time not so long ago when Dick’s work was out of print, available only in dusty, flaking paperbacks. After his death in 1982, a community of fans led by his literary executor, Paul Williams, founded the Philip K. Dick Society and began publishing a quarterly newsletter. They were Dick evangelists, pushing for others to recognize the writer’s gifts and to return his books to print.
During that time, "to keep the flame lit was almost an act of personal communion, it was like we were in a conspiracy of belief," Lethem says. Now Dick is a name — or even an initialism, PKD. You don’t have to make arguments for reading him; his work is canonized in a three-volume, 2,800-page boxed set, edited by Lethem, from the Library of America. "You can hand him to all sorts of people and they get it," Lethem says, "Because he's really great."
That’s meant a change among the self-described "Dickheads." The secret’s out — the world has come to Philip K. Dick. Or maybe his work has spilled out into the world, remaking it in his image. Either way, the sense of inclusion, of cherishing something no one else appreciates, has dissipated as he becomes not just a mainstream author, but one taught in college literature courses. "It's not a secret tribe anymore, really," Lethem says, "But here we're re-enacting the secret tribe part of it, which is a really human and lovely thing to do."
Yet while it’s become less necessary to proselytize for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or A Scanner Darkly, today’s fans are no less enthralled by the work itself. And there’s a phenomenon you might call the Dickhead Binge: after that first book, whether it’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, there’s almost a compulsion to read all of his other work. That used to mean months or years scouring used bookstores; now it means a few clicks on Amazon or Powell’s — just another way in which it’s easier to join the tribe.
With the desire to read everything he wrote comes a yearning to understand the man himself. Among Dickheads there’s a sense of ownership you rarely see with other authors. There’s no word for obsessive Philip Roth fans (Rothheads?) or Stephen King aficionados (Kingpins?), because they don’t inspire that degree of intense concentration. Brad Schreiber, a Los Angeles author and screenwriter who’s adapted Dick’s work for radio, says, "When I talk to other PKD fans, there's a relationship there between them and a guy most of them never met, and I love seeing that. There's a proprietary quality to people who read a lot of Philip Dick. We love who he was. We love his failings. We love what he was striving to understand — himself — in addition to loving his work. That's something special for a writer."
In Dick’s worlds, people could be shits and robots could be more human than humans
In terms of enthralling fans, the closest analogue might be to J. R. R. Tolkien, suggests David Gill, a scholar who organized the festival and runs the Total Dick-Head blog. Like many, discovering PKD was for him a kind of revelation. "The first sense I got was that I'd found a Stradivarius at a garage sale," he says, "That somehow in this pile of stuff that people didn't care about, I'd found something that I not only thought was worthy, but that I thought was extraordinary."
He binged, and in doing so discovered an entirely new strain of literature. Dick’s only apparently pulp science-fiction spoke on a deeper level to the need for empathy and compassion if one is to ever become — and remain — genuinely human. In fact, the author’s preoccupation with discerning the real and the authentic often became questions of discovering the truly humane. In Dick’s worlds, people could be shits and robots could be more human than human. It all came down to whether they could find within themselves a genuine sense of fellow-feeling. This aligned him less with his sci-fi contemporaries than with authors whose work proposed a strong moral philosophy, such as Leo Tolstoy and, a generation after Dick, David Foster Wallace.
Philip K. Dick offered Gill a kind of nourishment and instruction he hadn’t found anywhere else. He credits the writer with helping him become less selfish, and empathetic enough to become a husband and father. And the novels pointed him back to other works of similar moral probity. "It's almost as if I found a Stradivarius at a garage sale," he says, "and then discovered classical music, then spent my life ingesting it."
John Alan Simon tells a similar story. He’s a director and producer who recently optioned three of Dick’s most well-known novels, VALIS, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, and Radio Free Albemuth, the last of which he’s already turned into a film and will soon be distributing. As an undergraduate student seeking a temporary escape from Great Literature, he discovered The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a reading experience he now likens to the myth that LSD use would permanently rewire your brain. Except Dick’s work genuinely did rewire his brain, which was just what he wanted. "What's the point of art, really, if it doesn't influence the way we live?" he asks.
For him, Dick seemed in the mold of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, all of them radical skeptics and, occasionally, mystical visionaries. Blake famously declared, "I must invent my own system, or be enslaved by another man's," a sentiment much in line with PKD’s desire to both challenge existing authority structures and establish his own. (Anyone who’s read much of the 8,000-page Exegesis Dick left behind after his death, as I spent a year doing, knows that his restless skepticism and humility kept him from ever settling on a single philosophical system.)
But Dick’s skepticism never became nihilism; he did have bedrock beliefs. One of those was in the moral strength of "the little guy." In his works, anyone could, quite literally, save the world, often through small gestures of simple kindness. None of his characters were outsized superheroes, but they often managed to do the right thing. As fellow sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin put it, "There are no heroes in Dick's books, but there are heroics." His sense of moral democracy — a belief that despite their flaws and failings, ordinary men and women could do noble, selfless things — aligned him with the most optimistic beliefs of the 1960’s and ‘70s.
"He was the champion of the common man in a way that very few great writers are," Simon says. "For some reason a lot of them become very conservative in their more mature work. But Philip K. Dick remained that champion of the underclass. I think that's one of the reasons I love his work." Even his robots are working class: far from the magisterial HAL 9000, they’re more likely cab drivers, salesbots, and everyday androids.
And they, like their human compatriots, are trapped in a universe indifferent to their suffering, if not outright hostile. The universe does not care what you want, and may even be actively trying to thwart your intentions. The ultimate thwarting, of course, is your cessation as a human being, whether in death or through becoming somehow inhuman. In Ubik, he foregrounds and accelerates this idea: the ordinary entropy of the universe, that inexorable force pushing us all closer to death, is visibly working to undo any human progress. More often, though, entropy is simply omnipresent, grinding slowly in the background. The end result of this breakdown was the detritus Dick called "kipple," and his worlds are, as J.R. Isidore put it in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, "moving toward a state of total, absolute kippleization."
Philip K. Dick once wrote, "I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards." Yet he didn’t write utopias; the worlds spun out of his mind rarely improved upon this one, and were more likely to be universes destined to fall apart three days later. But those harsher worlds allowed him to raise the stakes, to put the people he loved in fictional situations where they could exemplify the very best in humanity.
Jonathan Lethem notes how often, within their flawed and fallen worlds, Dick allowed his characters moments of humane grace. "There are a couple of his books that end with this uncanny expression of sudden, absurd, human connection of love — against the odds of which the entire book may seem to have been stacked." says Lethem. One example is Now Wait For Last Year. [Spoiler alert from here on out.] At the end of the novel, Dr. Eric Sweetscent finds himself in a taxi with his wife, Lethem says, "I mean, this is a wife as bad as American literature has ever presented, whether in Philip Roth or anywhere else...She's been destroyed by a drug she's taken, which is also a drug she's slipped into his drink at one point, in what is in some ways tantamount to a murder attempt. She's shattered her own and several other people's realities as well as their marriage by the end of this novel."
'I hear you saying you have no choice but to love this person.'
Now she’s falling apart, giving him the opportunity to discard her, to get away, which he’s tried to do throughout the novel. "And the cab is a mechanical cab; it's a robot," Lethem explains "so Dr. Eric Sweetscent, in the way that characters in Dick have to do, is walking this inanimate object through the terms of the human condition: 'You know, you're a cab, you're a robot, you don't really get this, but she's horrible and I'm sad and this has all been so terrible and yet here she is, she's destroyed.' And the cab is listening to him, basically functioning as Freud would claim a therapist ought to: as a kind of impassive mirror. And the cab says, 'What I hear you saying is you have no choice.' And he says, 'What do you mean? No choice but to leave her?' And the cab says, 'No, I hear you saying you have no choice but to love this person.'"
In the retelling he takes a moment here. There’s a hitch in his voice as he looks up and away, blinking a few times before continuing. "And, uh...that's as good as it gets," he says, "It's still as powerful a vision of the uncanny property of connection and love and empathy against the vortex of nihilism and despair and existential bleakness that the universe is. I don't even want to say it's hard-won, because I don't know how it's won. It's like claimed without being won. That's the essence of Dick. He claims love against a backdrop of its impossibility. He claims connection and empathy against a demonstrated nihilism. And that, for whatever reason, is the persuader for me."
Philip K. Dick android image by Rasmus Lerdorf