science fiction and fantasy book reviewsDivine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence SutinDivine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin

Philip K. Dick is certainly one of the most iconic, unusual, and hard-luck SF writers ever to grace the field. His books subvert our everyday reality, question what is human, and explore paranoia and madness, all with a uniquely unadorned and often blackly-humorous style. In classic starving artist fashion, he only gained recognition and cult-status late in life, and much of his fame came after passing away at age 53.

In his prolific career he published 44 novels and 121 short stories, and in 2014-2015 I read 10 of his novels, 7 audiobooks, and 3 short story collections. There’s something so enticing about his paranoid, darkly-comic tales of everyday working-class heroes, troubled psychics, bizarre aliens, sinister organizations, and obscure philosophical concepts. PDK was a very eclectic reader, showing intense interest a wide range of philosophies including Christian Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, anamnesis, and the dualistic nature of the ultimate divine being.

It’s hard to think of any SF writer with a larger cult following inside and outside the genre. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) served as the inspiration for what I consider the greatest SF film of all time, Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982). A number of his short stories were also adapted into feature-length films, such as “The Minority Report” (1956), which inspired the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Minority Report starring Tom Cruise, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966), which inspired the 1990 Paul Verhoeven film Total Recall starring Arnold Schawzenegger, “Second Variety” (1953), adapted in 1995 as Screamers starring Peter Weller, “Paycheck” (1953), which John Woo directed in 2003 and starred Ben Affleck, and “Adjustment Team” (1954), made into the 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. More recently, in 2015 Amazon made a big-budget original drama series based on his Hugo Award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle (1962).

Despite all this posthumous success and influence, what about the life of Philip Kindred Dick himself? There are a number PDK biographies available, including Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989), To the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: A Life, 1928-1962 (1989) by Gregg Rickman, I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (2005) by Emmanuel Carrère, Philip K. Dick: Remembering Fireblight (2009) by Tessa Dick, and The Search for Philip K. Dick (2010) by Anne Dick. The latter two books are written by his former wives. Two of his late novels are extremely biographical: Radio Free Albemuth (w. 1976) and VALIS (1981). And he spent his last eight years maniacally writing thousands of pages of journal entries trying to make sense of his “2-3-74” religious experience, which was distilled by Pamela and Jonathan Lethem to just 976 pages as The Exegesis of Philip K Dick (2011).

There is a ton of information about PKD, but I think the best place to start would be Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989). It starts, naturally, at the beginning, with Philip Kindred Dick and his fraternal-twin sister Jane born six weeks early on December 16, 1928. Sadly, due partly to very bad medical advice at the time, his twin sister died only six weeks later. Amid the mourning and grief of his parents, his father Edgar reacted by forbidding his mother Dorothy from kissing young Philip or letting him out of the crib for 11 months. He was obsessed with germs and extremely overprotective. As a result, Phil did not receive much physical affection during his infant period. He also later developed eating difficulties as a child which would persist into adulthood. As many intelligent and athletically untalented kids, he had trouble making friends and connecting with peers. His mother was also both domineering and emotionally distant by turns. Perfect conditions for a solitary boy to spend a lot of time reading books and thinking private thoughts. His parents’ divorce at age 5 also was quite traumatic, as Phil believed his father was abandoning him. However, young Phil took refuge in pulp SF magazines, and starting writing his own stories at a young age.

Later in life, the loss of his twin sibling left its mark on his psyche for the rest of his life. Strangely, it later gave rise to a keen interest in Manichaeism, a dualistic religion founded by the Iranian prophet Mani which posits a spiritual world of light and material world of darkness. This also found expression in his obsession with Gnosticism, which suggests that the material world is an imperfect creation of a demiurge (sometimes identified as Satan), and that God is the creator of the spiritual world. Therefore, we are forced to live in the imperfect material world associated with Satan, and gnosis is the moment of realization or enlightenment when this dual reality is recognized.

I won’t summarize his entire life story, but the book covers these parts of his life:

  • Premature birth, loss of his twin sister just six weeks later
  • Unstable family life, divorce of his parents at age 5
  • Love-hate relationship with his domineering mother
  • Unhappy and lonely childhood, difficulty relating to other kids
  • Early days working at a record store and TV repair shop in Berkeley
  • Anxiety attacks while attending classes at UC Berkeley
  • Brief marriage at age 20 that only lasted half a year
  • Early SF writing attempts, magazine submissions, and first publications
  • True ambition to write mainstream realistic fiction, with no success
  • Subsequent four marriages and all the emotional drama this entailed
  • Constant money troubles and impoverished lifestyle
  • Reliance on amphetamines to fuel a stream of low-paid Ace paperbacks
  • Paranoia about the FBI and IRS monitoring his daily affairs
  • Romantic infatuation with every woman he encountered
  • Suicide attempt in Canada after breaking up, getting treatment
  • Bizarre religious experience with a pink laser beam of pure info in “2-3-74”
  • Obsession with understanding “2-3-74”, starts writing his Exegesis journals
  • Starts to gain recognition and financial success, Bladerunner movie offer
  • Deteriorating health due to obsession with “2-3-74”, writing of VALIS
  • Final books, including The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer
  • Intense exhaustion and stress and the strokes that led to his death
  • Posthumous legacy, growing fame and recognition

Throughout the biography, we learn about PKD’s philosophical interests, anxiety, paranoia, chaotic love life, crushing poverty, frustration from repeated rejections of his mainstream novels, and how these things shaped the stories and characters of him most important books, particularly Solar Lottery (1955), The Man in the High Castle (1962), Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep (1968), Ubik (1969), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), A Scanner Darkly (1977), VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).

It’s interesting to know that although author Lawrence Sutin interviewed over a hundred people intimately familiar with Philip K. Dick to write this book, he never met PKD himself. His interviews include Philip’s former wives and his children. Considering this, is Divine Invasions an objective biography of this very complex, erudite, troubled, neurotic, but deeply empathic man? Can any biographer claim such objectivity? Clearly Sutin is an admirer of Dick and his work, but he certainly doesn’t hold back on including a host of unflattering details of Dick’s life. I don’t really expect a biography to be objective — I’d rather focus on whether it reveals life details that gives me a better understanding of the author’s works. This book made we want to go back and revisit all of PKD’s major books with this rich background knowledge about his life, so I strongly recommend it for any serious PKD fan.

Published in 1989. Divine Invasions is the definitive biography of one of America’s greatest novelists and science fiction’s greatest ambassador to literary audiences. Philip K. Dick loosened the bonds of the genre, ultimately making his reputation as a literary writer who happened to write speculative fiction, and profoundly influencing such writers as Pynchon, Delillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Lethem. Divine Invasions is being reissued to coincide with the fall 2005 release of “A Scanner Darkly,” a film based on Dick’s novel of the same name.