Philip K. Dick's Future Is Now

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Wed Jul 31 14:13:05 EDT 2002

Philip K. Dick's Future Is Now
                         Long After the Sci-Fi Writer's
Death, Hollywood
Embraces His Dark World

                         By Vincent P. Bzdek
                         Washington Post Staff Writer
                         Sunday, July 28, 2002; Page G01

                         If someone were to write a
history of the
                         future as it has been dreamed
up by
                         Hollywood over the years, the
chapter on
                         today's tomorrow would belong
in large part to
Philip K. Dick.

                         The pulp sci-fi writer's
mind-bending ideas
hold a commanding spot in popular culture. Half a
                         dozen movies have been made
from his affably
dystopian short stories and novels, including Steven
                         Spielberg's well-received
"Minority Report," in
theaters now; Ridley Scott's landmark "Blade
                         Runner" in 1982; and the
big-budget Arnold
Schwarzenegger hit "Total Recall" in 1990.

                         Three more adaptations are in
the works,
according to Variety: "A Scanner Darkly," which Richard
                         Linklater is directing for
executive producers
Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney; "Paycheck,"
                         in development at Paramount;
and "King of the
Elves," which is in the budgeting stage at Disney.
                         "Paycheck" has lived up to its
title: The short
story Dick originally sold for $195 was optioned for
                         close to $2 million, his agent
confirmed. If he
were still alive, that would make Dick, word for word,
                         one of the highest-paid
authors in Hollywood.

                         Dick's influence through
inspiration may be
even more pronounced. Several film critics have noted
                         that "The Matrix," "Dark City"
and other
alternate-reality-gone-horribly-wrong films feel a lot
                         Dick's novels, especially
"Ubik" (1969), which
envisions a world of nonstop, ubiquitous,
                         personalized advertising. (In
one of the book's
more memorable scenes, the hero, Joe Chip, is
                         threatened with a lawsuit by
his door.)

                         The central conceit of "The
Truman Show" is the
same as Dick's "Time Out of Joint" (1959): A
                         fake town has been constructed
around the hero
without his knowing it. The technological paranoia
                         at the heart of "The X-Files"
and "Enemy of the
State" are vintage Dick. Even 2000's "Memento"
                         owes something to Dick, who
played around with
similar backward-traveling narratives more than
                         30 years ago.

                         Sundance has fallen in love
with Dick, too. Art
house film director Darren Aronofsky said his
                         off-kilter 1998 hit "Pi" was
inspired by Dick's
novels, as was Linklater's animated "Waking Life"
                         last year.

                         In literature, some scholars
have given Dick
credit for godfathering the cyberpunk movement, the
                         noirish wave of sci-fi writing
in the late '80s
and early '90s that anticipated and chronicled the
                         crannies of cyberspace and
computing. "The Man
in the High Castle," which won science fiction's
                         top honor, the Hugo Award, in
1963, has been
called a classic of the genre. His novels are required
                         reading in many college lit
classes and Dick
has developed a cult following on campuses.

                         Seventeen of Dick's books are
in print, some of
them for the first time. Vintage has accelerated
                         plans to put 13 others into
circulation, hoping
to have his entire oeuvre in bookstores within two
                         years. In the United States
alone, Dick's books
sold 500,000 copies last year; worldwide, the
                         number is two to three times
that, his agent

                         And to top it off, his
autobiographical novel
"Valis" has been made into an opera.

                         "What Franz Kafka was to the
first half of the
20th Century, Philip K. Dick is to the second half,"
                         wrote "Maus" author Art

                         Alas, such reverence and its
rewards utterly
eluded Dick while he was alive. He wrote 36 novels and
                         more than 100 short stories
without making much
money or gaining much notice. He liked to tell
                         people he survived on dog food
during one hard
stretch, and he often wrote at breakneck speed,
                         while chomping amphetamines,
just to stay ahead
of bill collectors. Dick succumbed to a stroke 20
                         years ago at the age of 53,
just before the
first of the films based on his work, "Blade Runner,"

                         If you've read any of Dick's
stories, though,
you have to assume that somewhere in an alternate
                         universe he's wearing a
lopsided grin.

                         "Actually, I think he would be
amused by his
celebrity," says Isa Hackett, one of his three children.

                         A man wildly more popular
postmortem, shaping
our visions of the future from his grave, is just the
                         kind of paradox Dick would
have relished. (In
"Valis," a character named Phil Dick is told that the
                         government plans to write and
publish novels in
his name after his death.)

                         Though he wrote pulp fiction,
Dick was foremost
an intellectual puzzlemaker. Using a weird
                         algebra of shifting realities,
paranoia and slam-bang plots, he constructed wildly
                         original mind games that call
into question the
nature of reality itself. Like all good puzzles, though,
                         Dick's stories often have
gasp-inducing solutions: Think O. Henry with a zap gun.

                         His own life story, however,
may have been the
most tangled brainteaser he ever concocted, with an
                         ending as surprising as any in
his books.

                         Philip Kindred Dick and his
twin sister, Jane,
were born Dec. 16, 1928, in Chicago. Jane, however,
                         survived only 40 days. It was
a loss that
haunted Dick and his work, leaving him with a lifelong
                         sense of culpability for the
death and
surfacing in his novels repeatedly as a fixation on
                         identities and a search for

                         In 1930, Dick and his mother
settled in
Berkeley, Calif., the city that was to shape his
                         anti-authoritarian world view.
He wrote his
first novel at 14 and never stopped. In one five-year
                         period, he wrote 16 novels,
churning out as
many as 68 pages a day.

                         He briefly attended
UC-Berkeley but dropped out
rather than fulfill the ROTC requirement. During
                         the '60s, Dick became a bona
fide hippie,
immersing himself in the counterculture and in antiwar
                         activities, as well as drugs.
His house was
broken into during the period, and his belongings and
                         papers were destroyed by a
bomb planted inside,
feeding his already lush paranoia. He said Marin
                         County officials warned him to
leave the area
or he'd be shot in the back.

                         He moved to the burbs and
spent much of his
writing life exploring the rough edges of psychosis,
                         intoxication and hallucinated

                         "He wasn't remotely
schizophrenic," says Dick's
longtime friend and agent Russell Galen. "There
                         was never any diagnosis of
mental illness, no
medical evidence for that whatsoever."

                         His life was certainly
troubled, though. He
burned through five marriages, lived with street people
                         for a time, wore threadbare
clothes most of his
life, wrote to the FBI about suspected neo-Nazi plots
                         and suffered what he thought
was a nervous
breakdown. Toward the end of his life, he claimed to
                         have had a vision in which he
was contacted by
an alien being he called Valis, for Vast Active Living
                         Intelligence System. He spent
the rest of his
life writing about the experience.

                         "He was very gifted
intellectually, and yet so
emotionally fragile," says Hackett, who was a teenager
                         when her father died. "He was
often not
comfortable in his own skin, as he suffered from
                         bouts of anxiety and

                         At the same time, Hackett
says, "he had a
fantastic sense of humor, and he could be very charming
                         and charismatic. His
sensitivities gave him
great empathy for the suffering of others."

                         John Simons, professor of
literature at
Colorado College and an expert on Dick's works, says
                         what made Dick's writing
worthy made his life

                         "Dick was a strange
wonderful/terrible man,"
Simons argues. "Crazy and compassionate, violent
                         and gentle, mesmerizing and

                         He was his own puzzle, in
other words, and
remained so even in death. When his heart failed after a
                         stroke in 1982, Dick finally
fulfilled his
lifelong desire to be reunited with his twin sister. At
                         request, Dick was buried in a
cemetery plot in
Fort Morgan, Colo. -- the state where his parents
                         courted -- alongside the tiny
body of Jane.

                         Why, a rational metroplex-goer
must ask, has
mainstream Hollywood -- Spielberg and Tom Cruise,
                         no less, the mainest of
streams -- embraced
such a countercultural tributary of loopiness and
                         paranoia? It's as if Frank
Capra had teamed up
with Hunter S. Thompson for a five-pic deal.

                         "You would have to kill me and
prop me up in
the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to
                         get me to go near Hollywood,"
Dick once told an

                         "There is probably more than
one answer to this
question," Hackett says. His "wow" factor is how
                         recognizable the future he
imagined is now, she
says, because he was one of the first writers to
                         focus on the many downsides of

                         Others agree. "Dick's concerns
are in sync with
our times, with the real future we are facing, the one
                         dominated by media, computers
and virtual
reality, and by commerciality rather than by rocket
                         and ray guns and Orwellian
says Gary Goldman, who helped write the screenplay
                         for "Total Recall" and was one
of the first
writers on the "Minority Report" script, as well as the
                         movie's executive producer.

                         Dick himself wrote: "We live
in a society in
which spurious realities are manufactured by the media,
                         by governments, by big
corporations. We are
bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by
                         very sophisticated people
using very
sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust
                         motives. I distrust their

                         "Minority Report" the movie,
which actually
taps several Dickian ideas, is Exhibit A for the case.
                         Omnipresent, electronic
billboards scan your
retinas for ID so they can personalize their spiel as
                         you pass by. Think's automatic lists
of book suggestions gone nuclear.

                         And the plot is, among many
other things, an
argument about safety vs. liberty, creepily relevant at
                         the moment as Washington
debates which civil
liberties it's willing to surrender to crack down on
                         terrorism. The conundrum Dick
posits: In the
interest of a crime-free city, would you be willing to
                         arrest people before they
commit crimes if
psychics could predict accurately that they were going

                         Spielberg's ending sides with
the view of
Benjamin Franklin, who famously warned that those who
                         give up essential liberty to
obtain a little
temporary safety deserve neither.

                         The short story is more
paradoxical. The system
of arresting people who haven't done anything yet
                         remains intact in Dick's
ending. And his last
sentence suggests that the flaw in the system -- that
                         psychics are not infallible --
will probably
recur as well. In many of his stories, Dick concludes
                         new technology often creates
new problems of
its own rather than solving the ones it was designed
                         to fix.

                         But Galen doesn't buy the
argument that Dick
was ahead of his time. Dick wrote about issues that
                         were just as relevant in the
'50s and '60s, he

                         "The difference is that the
prejudice against
him during his life because he wrote science fiction
                         stories has slowly melted
away," Galen says.
"Science fiction is more accepted now."

                         Thanks, once again, to the
movies. "Star Wars,"
"Star Trek," "E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third
                         Kind," "2001: A Space Odyssey"
and "Blade
Runner" have broken through to mass audiences,
                         making the galaxy safe for
science fiction of
all sorts, even the outrageous books of Philip K. Dick.

                         Part of the reason that Dick's
work -- and
science fiction in general -- translate so well to the
                         screen is that movies
themselves are a kind of
science fiction.

                         J.P. Telotte, professor of
communication and culture at Georgia Tech, calls cinema
                         "fundamentally a kind of time
machine, a device
that effectively freed both its audience and its early
                         users from a conventional
sense of place and
time." You walk into a theater and you are essentially
                         transported, visually and
emotionally, to an
alternative reality. Such transportations are Dick's

                         Others say his appeal is
simpler, and more

                         "The Dick projects that have
become big-budget
movies all have a simple but fascinating premise
                         that gets expressed in a
chase," says Goldman.

                         Hollywood loves Dick, the
argument goes,
because he was a master at creating "high concept"
                         hooks that grab your attention
in 10 seconds,
Galen said. These one-line ideas can be fully
                         developed in the very short
space that a movie

                         For example:

                         • An android hunter starts to
wonder if he's an
android himself. ("Do Androids Dream of Electric
                         Sheep?," aka "Blade Runner")

                         • The Germans and the Japanese
have won World
War II and divided America in two. Or have
                         they? ("The Man in the High

                         • A detective whose two brain
hemispheres have
stopped talking to each other ends up spying on
                         himself. ("A Scanner Darkly")

                         "Hollywood is interested in
Dick for all the
wrong reasons," Galen says. "It's as if a brain surgeon
                         who also happens to be a
gorgeous supermodel
walked into a party and everyone said, 'Show us
                         your breasts!' "

                         "Dick is fearless in pursuing
the ramifications
of his ideas," Goldman says. Hollywood is more
                         squeamish. Movies made from
his books miss most
of his searching and philosophizing, the real
                         art he made out of pulp.

                         But movies haven't hurt Dick's
career, or his
storytelling. Dick wrote so fast, sampling so many
                         ideas, it was more like
riffing, like jazz
solos with words. Directors have taken some of these
                         riffs and added bass and
drums, developing
ideas and characters that Dick dropped before they
                         were fully realized.

                         Dick acknowledged, sort of,
that a rough cut of
"Blade Runner" he saw just before he died had its

                         "It was terrific," he wrote.
"It bore no
relation to the book. Oddly, in some ways it was
better. What
                         my story will become is one
titanic, lurid
collision of androids being blown up, androids killing
                         humans, general confusion and
murder, all very
exciting to watch.

                         "As a writer, though, I'd like
to see some of
my ideas, not just the special effects of my ideas,

                         Dick seems to be getting his

                         "Hollywood has embraced Dick's
work because the
language of cinema is changing," says Jason
                         Koornick, creator of Goldman
concurs, arguing that an era of simplification in
                         the movies is over, and now,
as in the '60s,
moviegoers are more open to unusual approaches to
                         storytelling and narrative

                         "It is no accident that a '60s
writer like Dick
is part of a revival of '60s cinema style," Goldman

                         Simons argues that Dick's
lasting appeal is
similar to Alfred Hitchcock's in that his heroes are
                         average Joes and Jolenes
confronting a
confusing, often incomprehensible world. "Dick's basic
                         question is: What's real or
not real? What is
human and what is not?" Those are questions that
                         resonate right now, Simons
says, and always

                         Dick had some answers to his
questions, too, a
method behind the madnesses he spun. What is
                         most human is empathy, he
believed, and acts of
kindness, especially in worlds in which people
                         behave more like the machines
that surround
them than humans. The test to tell the difference
                         between a replicant and a
human in "Androids"
was a test for empathy.

                         "I like to build universes
that do fall apart,"
Dick wrote, because "objects, customs, habits, and ways
                         of life must perish so that
the authentic human
being can live. And it is the authentic human being
                         who matters most, the viable,
elastic organism
that can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new."

                                                © 2002
The Washington
Post Company

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