I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?
I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.
Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.
The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter
Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan
The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson
Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle
Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka
Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman
Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney
Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin
Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick
Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden
Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger
James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips
In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.
Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and 84 are out and freely available on efanzines.com. That’s well over 200 pages of SF criticism, reviews and letters. Seriously, if you are into SF then you need to check it out. Bruce has people like Brian Aldiss writing in regularly. SF Commentary 83 also features my reviews of Philip K Dick’s novels, which runs to more then 22,000 words. Thanks to Bruce for the amazing amount of work that goes into producing this fanzine, which is now comfortably into its fourth decade.
Philip K. Dick’s mainstream novels, all but one of which remained unpublished until after his death in 1982, are normally regarded as the poor cousins of his science fiction works. To an extent this attitude is justified, but some of his mainstream novels are better than he is normally given credit for. At the time they were written, in the 50s and the early 60s, these novels were seen as too strange and too bleak to be publishable (and too poorly titled: The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike; really, Phil?) But I for one find a lot to like in some of these novels, especially the later ones. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is a fine work, even if it is very despairing, and so is The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (henceforth Teeth).
This must be the second time I’ve read Teeth and the first was a decade ago, so I didn’t remember a lot about it except that it was really depressing. Well, it’s still depressing but not poorly written despite PKD’s sometimes clunky sentence structure. What I noticed this time around was that the book is primarily about the treacherous landscape of gender politics long after WWII but long before second wave feminism. It’s a book about the anxieties of masculinity and the manifold ways that men try to subjugate women: through keeping them jobless in the home; through defining success almost exclusively in career terms; through violence and, if worst comes to worst, through rape. There are some harrowing scenes, but PKD handles this dark material far more adroitly than he had done in the earlier Voices from the Street. In short, I think Teeth is due for some rehabilitation as a serious work not entirely dissimilar to Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.
PKD almost always used a shifting third person point of view in his novels, and Teeth is no exception. Written when the young (31) PKD had had some minor publishing success in the ghetto of science fiction but none at all in the wider marketplace, the novel mirrors many aspects of PKD’s life at the time in Marin County, California, alongside third wife Anne (who would write of these years in her excellent memoir Search for Philip K. Dick 1928-1982). Here our main characters are two married (but, crucially, childless) couples by the names of Leo and Janet Runcible and Walt and Sherry Dombrosio. According to Anne, these characters are based on real people who lived in Marin County at the time of the novel’s composition. Anne and Phil’s scholarly disagreement over whether Neanderthals were meat-eaters or vegetarians (Phil contended, wrongly, that they were vegetarians) even managed to worm its way into Teeth.
PKD had this way, even in his supposedly straight-laced mainstream novels, of marrying seemingly unrelated elements into a bizarre but cohesive whole. Only PKD could produce a novel that is on one hand about the angst experienced in childless families, and on the other about a hare-brained scheme to fabricate a Neanderthal finding on US soil as a way of getting back at a hated neighbour, and have it make some kind of sense. Teeth weaves together disparate plot strands into a strange but oddly beautiful fabric, including: what it was like for a man to happily work for an advertising company until his wife gets it into her head that she wants a job there too; what it was like to be a Jew, and a relatively successful businessman, in mildly anti-Semitic America; semi-scholarly debate about the origins of the species; the problems of the water supply in Marin County and what fate might have befallen the area’s earliest White inhabitants. And it makes sense. Teeth is not a nice novel by any means, and it paints a gloomy picture of human relations on a number of levels, but it’s a fine novel all the same.
Precious: Artifiacts: A Philip K. Dick Bibliography is another worthy contribution to the world of PKD appreciation from the mind of David Hyde, a.k.a. Lord Running Clam. Hyde has a long history in the world of PKD fandom; in recent years he ran the inaugural Philip K Dick Festival in 2010, and he published the essential Pink Beam: A Philip K. Dick Companion. This time he’s teamed up with Henri Wintz, PKD collector extraordinaire and the brains behind the Philip K. Dick Bookshelf to produce the first bibliography of PKD’s novels in more than fifteen years. Not just a book for those who actually buy and sell PKD books for profit, Precious Artifacts is in fact another long love letter to that greatest and most humane of twentieth century writers: Philip K. Dick.
PKD produced a LOT of novels in his relatively brief lifetime: 37 novels that have been deemed science fiction, 9 that have been deemed mainstream (only one of these, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was published during the author’s lifetime) plus a handful of lost novels. For information on these lost novels, refer to Lawrence Sutin’s essential biography: Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. But if you’re after information on the various editions of the 46 novels published in the US and UK with the name Philip K. Dick on the cover, as well as the numerous novel collections and various versions and titles that have existed over the years, then you’ve certainly come to the right place. Wintz and Hyde know what other resources exist in the world of PKD appreciation, so they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Precious Artifacts is a worthy and worthwhile addition to your PKD collection, however large or small that might be.
This book is a labour of love, and it’s full of the kind of meticulous detail that only a true aficionado (or a pair of them) could produce. Precious Artifacts contains a number of supplementary essays, all of which are worth reading. There’s a Foreword, two Introductions, Collector’s Notes, essays on collecting signed editions of PKD novels and cover art, a brief Biography, a Guide to the Collectible Editions, a Glossary, and a Chronology of PKD’s publications. The last of these, the Chronology, I found especially useful given that it is helpfully provided in table form, although personally I’d like to see the lost novels listed here as well.
Those items are just the trimmings, however; the main course is more than 100 pages of bibliographic information on more than 50 publications. The first thing I noticed is that the layout of the pages is exquisite and, even better, the covers are reproduced in full colour. ALL of them. As mentioned before, the novels are separated into sections for Science Fiction Novels and Mainstream novels, and there are also sections dedicated to Story Collections and Non-Fiction. Personally I would have preferred to see each section organised by order of composition, rather than alphabetically, but that’s a small quibble. Rather than attempt to explain the way these pages are laid out, here’s a graphic I stole from David Gill’s Total Dick-Head blog (it’s okay; he stole it from the dickien.fr website):
What we have here is a wealth of bibliographical information on the US and UK editions, all presented in an easy to read format. Wintz and Hyde cannot be praised highly enough for producing this. I predict that in the future Precious Artifacts will be just as important a resource for the budding PKD acolyte as Sutin’s biography. Why? Because you can figure out what you want to collect in advance, dammit. When I started collecting PKD in 1999, I was limited to the three UK Millennium Masterworks editions that existed at that time, US Vintages editions of several other titles, and crusty old paperbacks of the rest. If I was starting my PKD adventure now, I’d use Precious Artifacts to decide which set of PKD novels I’d like to own, partly on the basis of cover art, but also on which publishers have complete or nearly complete lines of PKD, not to mention cost. I’ve never liked the covers of the Vintage editions (some of them, like The Man in the High Castle, are just awful) and I’ve always preferred Chris Moore’s UK covers, but maybe now I’d just collect the brand new Mariner editions, a line which even includes the one PKD novel I don’t own and have never read: Gather Yourselves Together. But that’s just me. Maybe you have tons of cash and you want to collect first editions? Precious Artifacts can help you. Maybe you’ve lucked upon what you believe to be a rare edition of a PKD novel that you’re weighing up whether to keep or sell? Precious Artifacts can help you. Incidentally, my one experience of happening upon a relatively valuable edition of a PKD novel is the Rapp and Whiting hardcover of Ubik, which I spied in a secondhand bookstore for $7 a decade or so back. I sold the book on ebay a few years ago for about $100, which Precious Artifacts tells me might not have been too bad a price. Had it been a first edition of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, however…
Virtually all of PKD’s work is in print at the present time; we are at a high water mark in his popularity. What, if anything, is out of print? Deus Irae (which was written in collaboration with Roger Zelazny) doesn’t appear to have had a UK edition in a long time. In the UK, three of PKD’s weaker novels have been relegated to Three Early Novels, although they remain individually in print in the US. PKD’s only novel for children, Nick and the Glimmung, was reissued by Subterranean Press in 2008 after its long obscurity, and the same can be said for PKD’s only published dramatic work: Ubik: A Screenplay. There’s the odd PKD novel that has undergone a name change, such as The Crack in Space, which is now known as Cantata-140 in the UK, and The Unteleported Man which now goes by the title of Lies Inc. As far as I can see, the only one of PKD’s science fiction novels to be out of print in 2012 is his collaboration with Ray Nelson, The Ganymede Takeover. I knew all of the above already, from more than a decade of ferreting around on the internet and in the pages of various volumes that include bibliographic elements but are not fully-fledged bibliographies. The point I’m trying to make here is that the budding PKD collector can save all of that time and effort by referring to this precious artifact, Precious Artifacts.
There’s more. Over the years several companies have decided, for whatever reason, to gather some of PKD’s novels together, most notably in the recent Library of America editions. All of that information is contained here. Once you’ve collected PKD’s science fiction novels, you’ll probably want to collect and read the almost-all-never-published-during-his-lifetime mainstream novels. You might decide, as I did, that Gollancz’s covers are the most handsome, but then there’s the problem of not all of the mainstream novels being available in this line. US publisher Tor can bridge the gap, but then you’ll end up as I have with some mainstream novels in Gollancz and others in Tor. That most elusive of PKD novels, Gather Yourselves Together, has just been reissued by Mariner (and I guess I’d better get myself a copy, even though it’s reputed to be virtually unreadable), and then there’s the problem of The Broken Bubble, which isn’t available in Gollancz OR Tor and would presumably be out of print at the time of this writing. In that case, the 1991 Paladin edition is probably the cheapest option. As I’ve tried to illustrate here, these are some of the problems that face the PKD collector, especially collectors like me who desire order in the form of uniform editions (but with stimulating cover art, which rules out Mariner). Here, again, Precious Artifacts will be your guide.
Then there’s the Story Collections, and it doesn’t get any less perplexing there either. You’re collecting PKD, so you might as well grab the Collected Stories, right? How complicated can it be? Well, pretty complicated. Refer to pages 116-119 for the details. But hey, Subterranean Press are bringing out several volumes of their ‘Complete Stories’, aren’t they? Unfortunately those editions aren’t without their problems either. You might end up going back to the original collections, as I have done, and there again Precious Artifacts can show you the best way to go about it.
Finally there’s Non Fiction. Item #1 is a strange and beautiful volume called The Dark Haired Girl, which I happen to own. Some of the best of that book, however, is collected in the even more useful The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, which doesn’t appear to have been reprinted since 1996. If you wanted to dip into the (in)famous Exegesis, you used to have to track down an obscure publication called In Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis, but now you can have the extended edition from Harcourt: The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. And then there’s the Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick from Underwood-Miller, in six volumes. Published over fifteen years. Most of which are now out of print. Sigh. Such is the life of the PKD collector! Imagine how we fared before Precious Artifacts: A Philip K. Dick Bibliography came along to light our path.
Umberto Rossi’s The Twisted Worlds of Philip K Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels (henceforth TW) is a welcome breath of fresh air in the world of PKD criticism, after a number of critical works that have failed to satisfy hardcore fans for various reasons. Rossi never tries to shoehorn PKD’s work into any particular theory, other than in demonstrating that the writer’s work is dominated by the condition of ‘ontological uncertainty’: that is, uncertain states of being. Rossi’s text provides fans of PKD’s work with a knowledgeable and detailed study of twenty novels, arranged thematically, not chronologically (although it is true that there is a degree of overlap anyway). I found the style of TW admirable in that it is highly readable without being fannish, and exhaustive without being tedious. Furthermore, Rossi sheds light onto a number of underappreciated PKD novels, as we shall soon see.
One of the great strengths of Rossi’s work is that he is well versed in what has gone before in the world of PKD criticism. Thus there is extensive reference to critical works by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson, Darko Suvin, Frederic Jameson and others, references to biographical texts by Lawrence Sutin and Gregg Rickman, and reference to the author’s letters. In short, Rossi knows his subject inside out, which has not always been the case in previous studies of this writer. Rossi also utilises Jonathan Lethem’s concept of ‘Finite Subjective Realities’ (FSRs) from his novel Amnesia Moon in explaining PKD’s craft. As Rossi explains in his introduction, PKD’s novels are peculiar in that they blur inner worlds (idios kosmos) with so-called reality (koinos kosmos) with often startling results. Furthermore, Rossi explains how PKD deployed what Thomas Disch dubbed ‘The Game of the Rat’, in which the author frequently changed the rules of the fictional game, not only destabilising reality but also set genre distinctions using frequent ‘shunts.’
Chapter One starts us off with two rarely discussed works by PKD, The Cosmic Puppets and The Game-Players of Titan, the former of which Rossi asserts to be an important, if early work. In part this is because here, in PKD’s earliest work, we find evidence of a dual godhead, represented by Ormazd and Ahriman, which can be seen as a reinterpretation of the Zoroastrian tradition. Rossi also shows how PKD uses a ‘shunt’ to shift the narrative from a mystery/paranoia mode to outright fantasy. Far from being unimportant, it is Rossi’s contention that the novel is a key work. The same cannot be said for The Game-Players of Titan, written during PKD’s creative burst in the early sixties, but Rossi’s discussion does shed light on PKD’s genre ’shunt’ technique, which he uses extensively in this minor novel, stacking the deck in the Game of the Rat so as to leave the reader utterly bewildered. Rossi helpfully includes the first of many tables he uses to illustrate the use of genre shunts in the novel.
Chapter Two discusses two early novels that have long been regarded as critical in PKD’s ouevre, Eye in the Sky and Time Out of Joint. The former of these, written in 1955, displays a full blown ‘ontologically uncertain’ environment in that the characters who are knocked unconscious by the Belmont Bevatron inhabit each other’s idios kosmos as though it were the koinos kosmos. Here, for the first time, PKD deployed the basic narrative strategy that he would repeat again and again over the course of his career. Rossi uses Lem’s concept of Finite Subjective Realities to explain PKD’s methodology in Eye in the Sky. Time Out of Joint is somewhat different in that it deploys a very significant genre shunt around three quarters of the way through the narrative, shifting us from paranoia/mystery to fullblown science fiction. Rossi discusses the troubling issue of the disappearing soft-drink stand at length, which can’t be explained within the framework offered in the latter part of the novel (that is, that Ragle Gumm’s environment is being physically, not virtually, simulated).
Chapter Three is devoted to The Man in the High Castle, although it does begin with a brief discussion of Confessions of a Crap Artist, the only one of PKD’s mainstream novels to be published in his lifetime. Castle deploys a somewhat different narrative strategy to that of PKD’s other SF novels, namely alternate history, as a means of creating ontological uncertainty. But as Rossi explains, PKD adds layers of complexity not normally associated with this genre in the form of the novel-within-the-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies, not the Axis, won WWII. The role that the Chinese oracle, the I Ching, plays is also discussed, especially insofar as PKD claimed that he used the oracle in plotting his novel. Lastly, the presence of a multitude of fakes in Castle creates still another layer of ontological uncertainty, as the reader is never sure who or what anyone in the novel ‘really’ is.
Chapter Four discusses three novels, Martian Time-Slip, Dr Bloodmoney and Clans of the Alphane Moon, all of which use mental illness as a way of projecting ontological uncertainty into the texts. Rossi discusses PKD’s multiple viewpoint method, which found its high point here in his novels of the early sixties. He explains that in Martian Time-Slip PKD pitted the idios kosmos of many different characters against each other, some of whom are suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia (Jack Bohlen) or autism (Manfred Steiner). The fact that PKD’s Mars seems very much like sixties California is also addressed. Time travel is used as another means of creating ontological uncertainty, but not in as full-blown a fashion as in some of PKD’s other novels. Dr Bloodmoney works in a similar fashion in that the idios kosmos of certain characters can be seen as deranged (Bruno Bluthgeld and Hoppy Harrington), and the ontological uncertainty stems from the influence these characters appear to have on the koinos kosmos of post-apocalyptic California. The third novel discussed in this chapter, Clans of the Alphane Moon (which has normally been regarded as a minor work), similarly uses categories of mental illnesses as a means of structuring the novel.
In Chapter Five, Rossi focuses on three novels ‘which have generally been considered as minor works’: The Simulacra, Now Wait for Last Year and The Penultimate Truth. The first of these, The Simulacra, seems to suffer from an overloaded narrative in which too many different story arcs compete and do not necessarily coalesce. Nevertheless, ontological uncertainty abounds, and the reader cannot be sure what is real, not even the President. The Penultimate Truth, perhaps the most political of PKD’s novels of the sixties, postulates a situation in which the poor live underground, supposedly due to a war which has ravaged the planet, while the rich cavort on the Earth’s surface. In Now Wait for Last Year, PKD uses drug-induced time travel and the historical figure of Benito Mussolini as a way of heaping uncertainty upon uncertainty as alternate futures collide. All three of these novels feature characters who are somehow ‘outside of linear time’: Bertold Goltz in The Simulacra, David Lantano in The Penultimate Truth and the many versions of Gino Molinari in Now Wait for Last Year.
Chapter Six, which discusses the novels We Can Build You and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, shows how the concept of what is or isn’t human can create ontological uncertainty, demonstrated first by PKD in his story “Impostor”. Here we have an interesting discussion of one of PKD’s underappreciated works and the highly-celebrated noir police thriller that sprung from the ashes of the unloved earlier novel (a situation similar to that regarding Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS). As Rossi explains, in these novels PKD unsettles our concept of the human, rather than the world itself, as a means of creating ontological (and narrative) uncertainty.
Chapter Seven features four of PKD’s most celebrated novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, A Maze of Death and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. In Eldritch, PKD uses the drugs Can-D and Chew-Z as a means of creating FSRs, with differing results. The increasingly-ubiquitous figure of Palmer Eldritch himself is also discussed in detail. A somewhat similar situation is found in Ubik, where the half-lifer Jory seems to be running the show, and Glen Runciter keeps trying to tell Joe Chip that he is alive while Joe and his colleagues are dead. A Maze of Death is somewhat similar to the earlier two novels, except that here PKD is on the verge of degenerating into self-parody, and the situation at the end of the novel, in which the characters discover that they are on a doomed spaceship, is possibly the bleakest ending to a PKD novel. The novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is seen as a transitional work, incorporating the reality dysfunctions of PKD’s sixties novels and the more explicitly metaphysical thinking of the novels written in PKD’s final period.
The final three chapters in TW deal with the ‘VALIS trilogy’: VALIS, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Rossi goes to some length to justify the existence of a VALIS trilogy, especially seeing as many followers of PKD (myself included) think of the unwritten The Owl in Daylight as the third in the trilogy, with Archer being a mainstream offshoot. I can’t do justice to Rossi’s argument here, except in saying that he provides an extremely stimulating and enlightening discussion on the three novels, particular in terms of the genre shunts PKD deploys in these novels (and especially in VALIS).
The Twisted Worlds of Philip K Dick: A Reading of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels should soon be seen as a key work in the world of PKD criticism. As I’ve said, it’s both highly readable and theoretically sophisticated. It helps to explain PKD’s methodology in producing his greatest works. It synthesises earlier critical discussions and addresses weaknesses in such studies. It discusses neglected works in the PKD canon and rehabilitates them (and encourages them to be re-read). And finally is it a fitting tribute to this most loved of twentieth century science fiction writers. Buy it, borrow it: serious PKD fans and scholars must read it.
A KINDRED SPIRIT by e.j. Morgan. Reviewed by David Hyde January 2011
e.j. Morgan’s recently released novel A KINDRED SPIRIT tells the story of Niki Perceval, a young newspaper reporter from Ottumwa, Iowa who, in 1982, is determined to go to Los Angeles to report on the end of the world. She wants to interview British scientist Dr. John Gribbin whose best-selling book, The Jupiter Effect, predicted the world might end on March 10th 1982. Gribbin’s prediction was based on a complex series of events triggered by a planetary alignment which would throw planet Earth out of kilter. This, in fact, did not come true, as we know. We’re still here.
While Niki was engrossed with Gribbin’s end-of-the-world speech at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles early that year (1982), famous science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was eagerly anticipating a radio interview with another kind of prophet, Benjamin Crème, who was supposedly in telepathic contact with Jesus Christ. This excited the famous writer because in the mid-70s he had himself been visited by strange beings beyond space and time and had experienced weird visions of apostolic times and the imminent return of the Savior. These experiences had such an effect on Philip K. Dick that he spent the rest of his life trying to understand and explain them. He even wrote a novel, VALIS (1978) in which these strange events were interwoven in the narrative. For some of his readers VALIS is a masterpiece that signals a major change in the structure of the modern novel, but for others it is incomprehensible and dismissed as the ravings of a writer gone mad from too many drugs and not enough sleep. But for Niki Perceval VALIS is an unknown. She is searching for it but does not know it even exists. Why, then, is she searching for something she doesn’t know exists?
This brings us to the heart of A KINDRED SPIRIT. For Philip K. Dick experienced a stroke in February 1982 and died on March 2nd of that year—a sad loss for his many fans and the world of American letters. But for our heroine, Niki, PKD’s death began a series of events that would bring her to her own cosmic revelations. For, you see, Philip K. Dick had unfinished business that he must now conduct from the Afterlife, and resolving his business will soon involve solving hers, as well.
But before we can continue with the story of Niki Perceval we must again mention Philip K. Dick because after writing VALIS he wrote two more novels before he died: THE DIVINE INVASION (1980) and THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER (1982). These three novels are known as ‘The Valis Trilogy’ and together they not only shook up the world of literature but firmly established Philip K. Dick as the pre-eminent writer of the 20th Century, beating out such greats as Orwell, Kafka, Fitzgerald and the lesser lights championed by the New York Literary Establishment throughout the century.
THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER figures prominently in e.j. Morgan’s novel since both her novel and THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER involve fictionalized versions of the late Bishop of California James A. Pike’s efforts to communicate from beyond the grave. Like PKD, Bishop Pike was a real-world figure, one whose controversial ideas about Christianity caused his censure and resignation as Bishop of the Episcopalian church. Philip K. Dick and Bishop Pike were friends in life and shared an interest in theology. During a visit to the Holy Land in 1969, Bishop Pike went in search of the historical Jesus and early gospels suppressed by the Roman Empire after the official establishment of Christianity as the state religion by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century Anno Domini. What he found is unknown because Pike got lost in the Israeli desert and died during his quest. PKD’s novel, THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER, speculates on Pike’s search and interweaves subtle fictional ideas of Pike’s discoveries in Judea with efforts by his surviving wife to contact him in the Afterlife.
In A KINDRED SPIRIT ideas about what Pike searched for and may have found are also key points. But here, Philip K. Dick, alas, now dead also, is tasked by “the Big Guy” to act as guardian angel to young Niki Perceval who, unbeknownst to herself, has a quest and a task of her own to fulfill. Success, for both, will require that her task combine with PKD’s own unfinished business.
But our heroine Niki has no knowledge of Philip K. Dick, has never read any of his stories and, in fact, has never even heard of him. She knows she must write something – a vague ‘peace treatise’ – that will greatly affect the world. Then one day in 1982 she phases out of normal reality and sees a vision of ancient Rome overlaying the commonplace buildings of Ottumwa and a voice in her head tells her the time is now! She is mightily upset. What’s going on? Is this the work of PKD as he tries to get the girl to pay attention to his ethereal self and dovetail their separate but entwined missions? Probably, because Phil in the Afterlife is excited with his new-found spiritual freedom and, despite certain “directives” (no direct contact, no sudden appearances in physical reality, no scaring the living) he is eager to try out his new wings and get on with his task.
Complications arise when PKD is joined by his friend, Bishop Pike, and together the two spirits try to influence Niki efforts. The strange auditory anomalies continue: The Empire never ended! Nag Hammadi! Tractates! Not yet but soon! She feels she must get away, get out of Ottumwa and on the road to Los Angeles. She trades in her prized Datsun Z-car for a hippie van and hits the road. But it’s a long way from Iowa to California and the road takes her to New Mexico where Niki falls under the spell of the Land of Enchantment and encounters shamans and charlatans who all in their fashion try to help her on her way. She has more strange visions and meets another spiritual guide who takes her to hidden places in the mountains where ancient Indians lived and left their own magical traces on the land. Meanwhile, from their omniscient place in the spiritual realm Dick and Pike continue their sometimes inept and hilarious efforts to gain the attention of a distracted Niki.
What is reality? This is a question Philip K. Dick asked in many of his stories and it is a central question in A KINDRED SPIRIT. Many readers of PKD are fascinated by his wonky novels and the revelations that fly from the written page and which leave us stunned at the end. His life, too, has become a part of science fiction. Michael Bishop was the first to write of PKD in the afterlife with his novel THE SECRET ASCENSION or PHILIP K. DICK IS DEAD, ALAS (1987) and this is a tradition that e.j. Morgan continues in her novel. To his fans, PKD is known as Phil and he is thought of as an absent friend, sadly now passed on, but a man whose work has changed the world. As a reviewer once wrote: “This is Philip K. Dick’s world and we just live in it.” Any writer who would write of Phil in fiction or fact has a lot of study to do before they can even begin – there is just so much to comprehend let alone understand in his life and stories. It is no easy task to produce a novel of such outstanding quality as e.j. Morgan’s A KINDRED SPIRIT; obviously, she is one of the few post-PKD writers who have made the effort to truly understand this great American writer.
As host of the Philip K. Dick Festival, Colorado 2010, I had the pleasure of meeting e.j. who goes by Jami Morgan to friends, and speaking with her over the three days of the festival. Like all dedicated fans she has a depth of knowledge of all things related to Philip K. Dick and her lucid insights into his life added greatly to the enjoyment of the hardy fans who attended the festival. I read her novel afterwards with great anticipation and was not disappointed. A KINDRED SPIRIT is a wonderful novel that personally affected me greatly. Indeed, like one of Phil’s novels A KINDRED SPIRIT opened my mind to things unconsidered before: the meaning of signs and symbols, of time itself, and what it is to be alive. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. For all fans of Philip K. Dick it is a novel that must be read and for the casual reader it is one that will give great enjoyment as they follow Niki Perceval’s quest into the sands of New Mexico in search of what is really real.
The novel A Kindred Spirit was released September, 2010, through ZiaLink Ink, a small press in New Mexico. It is a trade paperback, 350 pages, ISBN: 978-0982761908, retails for $14.95, but is often $10 – 12 on Amazon. It can be ordered through the author’s website: www.AKSbook.com. This is e.j. Morgan’s first novel, but she is no stranger to writing or to PKD. She was a news reporter and personal friend of Paul Williams, Literary Executor for PKD’s estate and Editor of The Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter, who had discussed publishing the book through Entwhistle Press before his health declined a few years ago. Morgan is anxious to donate some of the proceeds from sales of AKS to his care.
Dave Hyde, host of The Philip K. Dick Festival, Colorado 2010 is author of ‘PINK BEAM: A Philip K. Dick Companion’ (Lulu Press 2007) available here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/pink-beam-a-philip-k-dick-companion/1254787
Pink Beam: A Philip K Dick Companion is a labour of love regarding a writer who died nearly thirty years ago: Philip K Dick. Its author, “Lord Running Clam” (Dave Hyde) has produced an amazingly detailed resource that will henceforth be required reading for any serious PKD scholar. But we might as well get any misconception about the audience of this book out of the way first up: this is for PKD diehards. I doubt it will have much appeal to the casual reader. But I am a PKD diehard and there are thousands like me worldwide.
Let’s say you’ve read most if not all of PKD’s around forty published novels. Let’s say you own the original story collections (as I do) or the Collected Stories. Let’s also say that you’ve read Lawrence Sutin’s biography Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick, as well as The Shifting Realities of Philip K Dick and maybe even In Pursuit of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis. This would make you pretty knowledgeable about PKD. If this is you, what further information can Pink Beam provide? The answer: plenty.
Pink Beam is essentially a ‘gap-filler’ in the sense that it includes information not covered in these other texts. Most of this information relates to specific details concerning the composition and publication of every work in PKD’s opus. Arranged chronologically, Pink Beam includes excerpts from interviews and letters that cast light on particular texts. These letter excerpts I found particularly useful, given that many of them have not been published before (except perhaps in the pages of the six volume Selected Letters of Philip K Dick, which I’ve never read). Hyde also provides a synopsis, whether his own or a quote from someone else’s, as well as a score out of five stars, for each story and novel. Pink Beam also offers a fascinating insight into the composition of PKD’s works, given that it contains much material relating to the process PKD undertook in producing these books. This was especially notable and useful for later novels such as Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly.
Hyde himself notes that there is as yet no single, definitive source on PKD. Probably there never will be. Divine Invasions is excellent, but much too short for a writer of PKD’s stature. To The High Castle is apparently better (I’ve never read it) but it only concerns the first half of PKD’s life and might not be without problems of its own. Then there’s the author’s third wife Anne Dick’s recently republished Search for Philip K Dick, which illuminates a certain period of PKD’s life in tremendous detail. In the spaces between these works lies Pink Beam: A Philip K Dick Companion. If you are serious about PKD, off you go to order this book immediately.
I finally caved in and ordered this on Amazon. It’d been in my cart for at least six months, but the fact that the Australian dollar is approaching parity with the US made it all too tempting. Amazon also offers a 37% discount on the list price ($110) meaning that I got this for Aus $84 including postage. So if you’re interested in Philip K Dick and want to read 13 of his best novels relatively cheaply, here’s your best bet. For me, I suppose this collection will more or less sit on my shelf for the rest of my life, given that I’ve got reading copies of all of these titles. But whatever. PKD was the greatest, and this collection from the Library of America represents the pinnacle of his posthumous rise to fame.
EDIT: books arrived today, a mere 16 days after I ordered them, which is great for stuff from the U.S. A lot of people dislike America and Americans, but here’s two great American institutions at work: The Library of America and Amazon.com
And the third great American institution is this man, Philip K Dick, and his work. I don’t believe in God, Phil, but if he exists I hope he’s looking after you now. You deserve it a hundred times over.
Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary is one of the longest running science fiction fanzines in existence. Issue 80, the 40th anniversary issue, is somewhat overdue – so far overdue in fact that it might more accurately be termed the 41 ½ anniversary edition. Bruce had so much material that he wanted to published in this anniversary edition that it will spread to three volumes, including SF Commentary 81 and 82, both of which are forthcoming. As if that wasn’t enough, Bruce has still more material that can’t fit into the three volumes, so he’s released a supplementary edition, 80A, as a digital download only. This, and the rest of Bruce’s fanzines (including the excellent Steam Engine Time) can be freely downloaded at efanzines.com. Basically, this 40th anniversary edition is the culmination of more than forty years of hard work Bruce has undertaken for the love of science fiction. As these pages show, Bruce has had a whole lot of love to give.
In his editorial, Bruce discusses Damien Broderick’s suggestion that the anniversary edition be ‘filled entirely by contributors who were featured in No 1, January 1969.’ Unfortunately, only Damien and Bruce of those contributors remain in the land of the living, so a few latecomers have managed to find their way into these pages. SF Commentary 80 features guest editorials by Stephen Campbell and Damien Broderick. Both Campbell and Broderick reminisce about the great authors that piqued their own interest in the field of science fiction. Campbell has a special place in his heart for Cordwainer Smith (and amen to that), while Broderick charts the history of the New Wave from 1960-1980.
The bulk of this issue, however, is given over to discussion of the work of Philip K Dick, the writer whose work encouraged Bruce Gillespie himself to enter the world of science fiction fandom in the late sixties. Bruce’s own contribution to this section is his speech on Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which he asserts to be the bleakest book he’s ever read (for mine, that title goes to Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel The Road). This he presented at Potlatch 14 in San Francisco in 2005, and it is followed by a transcript of the discussion that followed the speech. The PKD mania continues with Rosaleen Love’s review of Christopher Palmer’s Philip K Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern, Colin Steele’s short reviews on five PKD novels recently republished as Five Great Novels, a piece by Robert Mapson on PKD as a modern shaman, plus reviews of Emmanuel Carrere’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K Dick, Gwen Lee and Doris Sauter’s book of late interviews with PKD, entitled What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K Dick, and finally Tim Train’s discussion of two of PKD’s mainstream novels, In Milton Lumky Territory and Mary and the Giant.
The rest of the issue, and we’re talking another sixty pages, is devoted firstly to a number of responses to SF Commentary 79, which focused on the life and work of Wilson ‘Bob’ Tucker, and secondly to letters in response to SF Commentary and associated issues more generally. Bruce Gillespie doesn’t get letters, he gets letters. Hundreds of them. So many that he has an entire section devoted to letter writers who have passed on between the writing and publication of said letters. Then there are the letters from living personages, of course, including science fiction no-names like Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, David Langford and Ian Watson. And all of that is before the feature letter of comment by Patrick McGuire. For those of us who weren’t old enough to be a twinkle in anyone’s eye way back in 1969, the scope of this letters section is mind-boggling.
And that’s SF Commentary 80. I remarked to Bruce recently, upon meeting him for the first time at his house in Greensborough, that I felt, reading the pages of SF Commentary and Steam Engine Time, like I was forty years late to a conversation. It’s a conversation that has been taking place for nigh on one hundred years now, and we owe it to Bruce Gillespie and those like him for recording it so that latecomers like myself might listen in.
A Scanner Darkly just about stands alone in PKD’s career–none of his other books are written quite like this–which is a strange thing given that he wrote well over 40 novels, and most of them run together into one ‘meta-novel.’ Scanner is different, at times very different. And its very successful. The theme is drug abuse, the subject a thinly-veiled description of PKD’s own experiences of the late sixties. This is as close to an overtly political novel as PKD ever wrote (Radio Free Albemuth, written directly after this, also springs to mind).
The characters in A Scanner Darkly are fascinating. We start with Jerry Fabin, a drug-addled man who believes that aphids are crawling all over his house, on his skin, and in his lungs. He buys can after can of bug spray, showers constantly, and spends his time collecting the make-believe aphids in various containers. It’s not long before he’s carted off to one of the dreaded federal clinics. Charles Freck is another stoner, and ultimately a character peripheral to the main events featured here (although he does have one amazing cameo concerning a botched suicide attempt). But our main three characters, the inhabitants of a particular house in Southern California, are the schizophrenic Bob Arctor, the sinister Jim Barris and decrepit Ernie Luckman. Donna Hawthorne is the fourth major character in the novel; she takes the role of drug dealer, love interest in Bob’s case and, later, federal narc. It’s a strong cast and one based, apparently, on actual people PKD knew during this late-sixties period.
Another interesting thing about Scanner is that it differs in tone and often in execution in comparison to practically all of PKD’s other work. For example, the novel is littered with what William Burroughs called ‘routines’ or short anecdotes that play out in the minds of the various dopers, to comic effect. In an important sense, the plot of Scanner doesn’t move forward very quickly in the first half of the novel, because PKD is focusing on the idle stoner speculations of the various characters. Much of this is hilarious and true to life, but as I said, it’s very different from PKD’s earlier work.
The plot doesn’t really get going until the second half, when Bob Arctor begins to forget that he is also Fred, the police nark who has been assigned the task of surveilling himself, i.e. Bob Arctor. His identity as a nark is protected by a nifty thing called a ‘scramble suit’ which is practically the only SF trope in the novel (in fact there’s very little that’s science fictional about this book at all – and one might argue that PKD could just as well have ditched the SF trimmings altogether). Increasingly, ‘Fred’ (Bob’s nark identity) sees Bob as a potentially dangerous character, and ends up fully participating in the machinery of ‘justice’ that would arrest or even ‘snuff’ Bob altogether.
There’s a whole host of long philosophical monologues (and occasionally dialogues) in the middle third of the book. Fascinating as these are, I have the feeling that they do somewhat bog the narrative down. On the other hand, this kind of speculation (mainly in regard to the functioning of the two sides of the brain, and the corpus calloseum that connects these hemispheres) is relevant to the events unfolding, mainly but not exclusively in Bob/Fred’s head. PKD inserts several apparently unrelated passages into the narrative mid sentence, many of these intrusions being in German, to show Bob/Fred’s increasing confusion. Here the humour goes right out of the story, and we are reminded of PKD’s central point here: that while the drug world might seem like fun and games for a while, eventually the name of the game is Death with a capital D (in this case Substance D).
The narrative gets moving again in rapid fashion in the final third. I won’t spoil the plot for those who are yet to read this most poignant and sad of PKD’s novels, but suffice to say that the old master has more than a few curve balls in store for the reader who felt him or herself to be on stable ground at last. The ending is devastating. There’s no other word for it. A Scanner Darkly will be long remembered, long read and viewed (in its film version) and represents one of the real triumphs of PKD’s career: he lived through this to tell the tale.