Anyone familiar with the SF novels of Philip K. Dick and the many films inspired by his works knows that he was one strange and visionary guy. Certainly the SF genre is filled with works of bizarre worlds, aliens, characters, and slippery reality. But it’s generally accepted by authors and readers alike that these fictional creations are just that — works of the imagination by writers who are generally considered sane and share the consensus view of reality. In the case of PKD, however, the line between reality and fiction, sanity and madness, redemption and damnation, revelation and delusion is very blurred indeed. In fact, the person most likely to question such distinctions would be PKD himself, if I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (2005) is to be believed.
If you have not read any of PKD’s major works, I would stop right now and rectify that situation. In my opinion, his most iconic and important works are The Man in the High Castle (1962), Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ubik (1969), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), A Scanner Darkly (1977), and VALIS (1981). So assuming you have now read those books and been absolutely amazed by the reality-bending visions that this man has brought to bear while using some of the most hackneyed conventions of Golden Age SF, then perhaps you are ready to take the next step.
PKD was one of the most iconic, troubled, and hard-suffering 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 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. He 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.
If you are keen to understand PKD himself and what kind of life and mind would create such works, there is a wealth of resources. I would recommend starting with Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989). This is an excellent and well-structured book that takes the conventional approach of studying his childhood, early years as a writer, his messy romantic life, mysterious religious experiences, battles with depression and suicide attempts, and his final eight years pouring out thousands of pages of rambling, contradictory, deranged hard-written notes trying desperately to make sense of it all, which eventually was distilled by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem to just 944 pages as The Exegesis of Philip K Dick (2011).
Emmanuel Carrère’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (English edition 2005; original French edition published in 1993) covers the same biographical territory as Sutin’s book, and Carrère cites it as one of his resources, along with many interviews with people close to PKD and many of his at-the-time unpublished journal entries that make up the The Exegisis. Given such similar source materials, Carrère takes a different approach. Rather than a standard biography, he describes it as follows:
I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside, in other words, with the same freedom and empathy — indeed with the same truth — with which he depicted his own characters. It’s a trip into the brain of a man who regarded even his craziest books not as works of the imagination but as factual reports. This is a book about the mind, its alterations, its remotest and most dangerous territories. It’s about drugs and mystics, about the Zeitgeist of the sixties and the seventies and its legacy to our New Age.
So if you have read Sutin’s book, much of the narrative is already very familiar, but written as if we are in PKD’s head as a character in a book. This means Carrère can take some major liberties that conventional biographers might hesitate to do. Granted, he is incorporating a lot of PKD’s own journal entries, essays, and interviews with friends, journalists, ex-wives, etc. It’s the mosaic approach, and he doesn’t pretend that he has an infallible perspective. Although I didn’t find it off-putting, it does blur the lines between reality and fiction, but we’re talking about PKD here, so if that were acceptable for anyone it would be for him.
I Am Alive and You Are Dead gets into very interesting territory when PKD has his bizarre religious experience with a pink laser beam of pure info in “2-3-74” and starts to write his Exegesis journals in order to understand this experience. This is where Carrère borrows liberally from PKD’s fictional account of his own life and this seminal event, Radio Free Albemuth (written in 1976 but only published posthumously in 1985), which is essentially a self-examination by PKD of his life via two alter-egos, Nicholas Brady (who has the bizarre religious experience) and the SF writer Philip K. Dick, who is skeptical but sympathetic.
As you might expect, this was not a very commercial book and only emerged as a by-product of Dick’s all-night writing sessions for the Exegesis. So he decided to re-write it after a publisher rejected it, and ended up with a masterpiece of sorts for hard-core PKD fans, VALIS (1981). This book, to my mind, is his most accessible and moving attempt to understand all the philosophical struggles he faced throughout his life. It’s remarkably similar in structure to Radio Free Albemuth, to the point that PKD’s alter egos are named Horselover Fat (derived from the German and Latin roots of his name) and the SF author Philip K. Dick. The big difference between the two books is that VALIS has a much stronger sense of irony and self-reflection. It treats with bittersweet irony topics such as drug abuse, suicide, mysticism, religious delusions, marital problems, and essentially mirrors the duality that Gnosticism and Manichaeism represent. I think that can only really be appreciated by readers who have already read and absorbed his most famous SF books, because they are much more biographical and probably don’t make much sense as fiction. But if you have read this far into the review, I’ll assume you are such a fan.
Another thing that struck me throughout I Am Alive and You Are Dead is that Carrère wasn’t afraid to show the sad and pathetic side of PKD’s relationships with women. He really was the most sad-sack hopeless loser when it came to romance and falling willy-nilly in love with almost every woman who stepped through the door. Charming and debonair one moment, withdrawn and depressed the next, desperate for love and shamelessly lecherous, but also so transparently vulnerable, it’s hard to imagine whether most women felt more revulsion or pity. And yet PKD managed to get married five times (the first time hardly counts, though), as he could not function without a female companion to support his obsessions, and often seemed like a petulant child. It’s hard to view a man as both a brilliant writer and total sloppy emotional wreck, but it can’t be denied in his case. He was that and much more, and that’s why his life and works have inspired so much literary study and speculation. In my opinion, he is the most complicated, brilliant, deranged, and unique figure to ever grace the SF field, and though his life may not have been a happy or stable one, it was certainly unique and memorable.