Philip K. Dick: Pulp author and prophet

Hugely popular in the 20th century, pulp fiction novels and magazines were produced in massive quantities. Most were written by hack writers and enthusiastic amateurs who were willing to sign contracts that demanded an incredibly high output. Pulp publications were cheaply made, formulaic and designed to be read quickly and disposed. Often noted for their lurid cover art and titles, they satisfied an appetite for fast entertainment.

La Trobe Library is hosting an exhibition of rare pulp titles from the personal collection of Stuart Kells, Adjunct Professor, La Trobe College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce. The exhibition encompasses the genres of Romance, Crime, Western and Science Fiction from publishers such as Phantom Books, Currawong and Transport Publishing. This Opinion piece is based on Professor Kells’s second reading associated with the exhibition.

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My pulp fiction awakening – which was also an entry into the world of rare books – can be traced back to finding early Ace editions of Philip K. Dick in the 1980s.

Dick was a staple of the pulp sci-fi genre.

Many of his stories and novels were published in Australian editions – several examples are represented here – and many UK and US editions of his work were also sold in Australia.

Today, I want to outline the broad sweep of his biography, and to touch on some of his achievements and tribulations as a pulp author.

He was born in Chicago on 16 December 1928.

His twin sister, Jane, died shortly after birth.

This loss had a lasting impact on Dick. The ‘phantom twin’ is a recurring theme in his writing.

His childhood coincided with the beginning of the golden age of pulp fiction, and especially science fiction.

He read his first sci-fi magazine, Stirring Science Stories, in 1940 at the age of 12.

(It is a strange authorial coincidence that he attended Berkeley High School with Ursula Le Guin in 1947, though the two evidently didn’t know each other at the time.)

After graduation, Dick briefly attended the University of California, Berkeley, and he subsequently spent most of his adult life in California.

His own first story, ‘Beyond Lies the Wub’, was published in Planet Stories in July 1952.

From that time on, he was a full-time and prolific writer.

Between 1951 and 1982 he produced 44 novels and 121 short stories, at least two of which were published pseudonymously.

As a writer, Dick developed a unique style and a unique vision – characterised by an interest in technology, automata, false realities, altered consciousness, religion, paranoia and a pop-art existentialism.

His debut novel, Solar Lottery, was published in May 1955 as half of an Ace Double, bound back-to-back with The Big Jump by Leigh Brackett.

Dick was involved in a string of failed marriages (he married five times) and he abused legal and illegal drugs for long periods.

From around 1961 to 1971 in particular he struggled with amphetamine use, stemming in part from the pressure to churn out pulpy stories.

In the 1950s and 60s he endured stretches of poverty, in which he struggled even to pay the late fees on library books.

In the introduction to the 1980 short story collection The Golden Man, he reflected on his money troubles, and the financial help he received from Robert Heinlein.

‘He knows I'm a flipped-out freak and still he helped me and my wife when we were in trouble. That is the best in humanity, there; that is who and what I love.’

On March 23, 1972, Dick attempted suicide via an overdose of potassium bromide.

A period of writer's block followed; he published no new fiction until 1974.

Throughout February and March of that year, Dick experienced a series of hallucinations, and he came to believe he was living parallel lives, one as himself, the other as a persecuted, first-century Christian.

He described the experience as a kind of religious awakening.

It was:

‘an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind. It was almost as if I had been insane all of my life and suddenly I had become sane… On Thursdays and Saturdays I’d think it was God. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I’d think it was extra-terrestrials. Sometimes I’d think it was the Soviet Union Academy of Sciences trying out their psychotronic microwave telepathic transmissions.’

According to Seamus O'Reilly, writing in the Irish Times:

He compiled an 8,000-page journal of handwritten notes in which he documented his visionary experiences, not least the degree to which he occupied multiple planes of existence as, variously, an award-winning novelist, gnostic superman and time-travelling heretic. Twice he reported being possessed by Hellenic spirits kind enough to teach him… New Testament Greek.

Perhaps his most successful novel is the 1962 counter history, The Man in the High Castle, which won a Hugo Award in 1963.

In 2009, Time magazine named his 1969 work Ubik as one of the hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923.

Several of his books and stories have been adapted into films – with varying degrees of faithfulness and success.

PhilDickian adaptations include Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990 and 2012), Screamers (1995), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Next (2007) and The Adjustment Bureau (2011).

In 2007, he became the first sci-fi writer to be included in The Library of America series.

When Norman Spinrad compiled for The Guardian a list of the top ten novels ever written, he included Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Spinrad called Dick ‘both the best SF writer of all time and the best metaphysical novelist.’

In the 1993 edition of Joseph Connelly’s much relied upon guide to Modern First Editions, sci-fi authors Atwood, Aldiss and Asimov are included, but not Dick.

Things are very different now. His books are widely collected in all their editions, he is widely read, and he is respected as an author who predicted many of the uncertainties of the modern age.

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