I'm at a conference at San Francisco State all weekend and I'm surrounded by Dickheads. One hundred and thirty of them, to be precise — a sellout crowd.
These are not your garden-variety Dickheads. They're a serious, scholarly bunch of fans, writers, filmmakers, doctoral candidates, university professors, all passionately dedicated to the life and works of Philip K. Dick. PKD, of course, is the legendary science-fiction writer usually designated as a cult author.
But on the evidence of this gathering, that description no longer applies. Thirty years after his death Dick has gone from marginalized to mainstream, an apotheosis long desired but never achieved in his lifetime. The posthumous capstone to his career is the recent incorporation of 13 of his novels into the prestigious Library of America series under the editorship of Jonathan Lethem, himself an award-winning author and keynote speaker at this year's Philip K. Dick Festival.
It's easy to see how Dick's recent success fits the mythology of his life: the visionary artist as counterculture hero, drug-addled and touched by madness, dying prematurely like a latter-day Rimbaud. The analogy is far from perfect. Rimbaud could be terse because he wasn't getting paid by the word; Dick, on the other hand, ground out stories and novels at a prodigious, amphetamine-stoked rate to support an ever-expanding string of ex-wives and children. It is nothing short of miraculous that this pulp outpouring resulted in some indisputable masterpieces — Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and A Scanner Darkly, to name a few. These are works fraught with metaphysical anxiety, paranoia, and a deep questioning into the nature of identity and reality, leavened by black humor and a fine sense of the absurd. He died at the age of 53, not long after seeing the rushes for Blade Runner, the film based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and never saw the finished version.
Eight years before his death, Dick's brain cracked open in a moment of transcendent (some would say psychotic) awareness. Was it madness or theophany? He spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of what had been revealed, ultimately scribbling 500,000 words of what he called his Exegesis. A compendium of these notes, edited by Lethem and Pamela Jackson, was published in a massive volume last November. The book is a confusing, contradictory mess, alternatingly brilliant and deeply frustrating. There are no answers here, just a ceaseless, earnest questioning.
It's that spiritual yearning for answers that drew me to him in the first place — that and an appreciation for his wonderfully weird ideas and the occasional brilliance of his characterizations, so unlike those of other science-fiction writers of his era. I also resonated with his evident empathy and compassion toward his characters, what he called caritas, best translated from the Vulgate Bible not as charity but as caring. In 1968 I wrote him a letter telling him how much I cared about him and his writing. We met on Labor Day at the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, and he invited me to stay with him as his houseguest. We remained friends, and to some extent confidants, until his death.