Straight Talking With Philip K. Dick

On the Tonight Show this evening, Philip K. Dick!

Philip K. DickOnce upon a time, not all that long ago in fact, if I had been asked to name those science fiction authors I thought would be the least interesting in an interview Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard would be near the top of my list. This more than anything was based on what I knew of their public personas, both of which seemed excessively cryptic to me in their expressed opinions. Dick in particular seemed like somebody who might start off fine but at some point would start channelling his Horselover Fat persona, at which point the signal between Dick and Earth would break down.

I was forced to change my mind however after reading several issues of Terry Carr’s major fanzine of the sixties, Lighthouse. (To be fair Terry shared the editorial duties with Pete Graham early on but the later issues were his alone.) Terry Carr worked as an editor for Ace Books back in the sixties and early seventies. During that time he was best known for the Ace Science Fiction Specials, a series of novels that were intended to appeal to the discerning SF reader. The issues of Lighthouse Terry Carr published while working at Ace read to me like a non-fiction version of the Ace Science Fiction Specials. In those issues appeared authors and artists such as Thomas M. Disch, Greg Benford, Jack Gaughan, Richard Lupoff, Alexei Panshin, Samuel R, Delany, Gahan Wilson, Fritz Leiber, Damon Knight, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, and of course Philip K. Dick.

It’s in Lighthouse #14 (October 1966) that Carr published a Philip K. Dick article called Will the Atomic Bomb Ever Be Perfected, and If So, What Becomes of Robert Heinlein? This piece doesn’t read like a fully formed article in my opinion. It’s a series of unconnected paragraphs that feels more like a transcript of Dick’s responses to a series of questions that had been posed by a talk show host (Conan O’Brien most probably, I can’t imagine who else would enjoy interviewing Phil Dick). Take this line:

‘I have written and sold twenty-three novels, and all are terrible except one. But I am not sure which one.’

That so feels like the sort of thing a talk show guest might say to set the tone of the interview. Watch out audience, I’m quirky and don’t take anything too seriously.

Mostly though Dick expresses the sort of blunt and sweeping opinions I never thought he was likely to come out with. Consider the emphatic nature of the following three claims. (And yes, taken together these three opinions do contradict each other which leads me to wonder if Dick was more interested in trying to startle the reader into reconsidering accepted wisdom than being honest about his opinions. Still, even if he was encouraging the reader to reconsider some of their assumptions, he was doing so in a far more direct manner than I expected him to.)

‘No one makes any real money off good – I repeat, good – SF. This probably indicates that it has artistic worth. If Lorenzo de Medici were alive he would pick up the tab for A.E. Van Vogt, not for John Updike.’

‘The best SF novel I have read is Vonnegut’s Player Piano. Because it actually deals with men-women relationships (Paul Proteus and his bitch of a wife). In this matter the book is unique in the field. Brave New World only seems to do this, 1984 in this regard is awful.’

‘Out of all the SF which I have read, one story still means more to me than any others, it is Harry Bate’s Alas, All Thinking. It is the beginning and the end of literate science fiction. Alas.’

Then there is his brief but savage assessment of two different Robert Heinlein stories. Dave Langford once wrote that it’s always interesting to see one SF Encyclopedia subject writing about another. I would contend that in this particular case ‘interesting’ doesn’t begin to describe my curiosity. Not because Dick is negative but because he gave so little context to this negativity. Neither of these are recent stories, Gulf appeared in 1949 and Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961, so I can’t see these as immediate, shooting from the hip, type reactions. Neither am I aware of Dick and Heinlein being bitter enemies back in 1966. Yes, I’ve no doubt they had very different worldviews and moved in very different social circles but these comments read like shots being fired in an ongoing war between the two men that I’m sure was not being fought. Most curious.

‘If I were to dredge up one SF novel which, more than any other, would cause me to abandon SF entirely, it is Robert Heinlein’s Gulf. It strike me as fascism pure and simple, and – what is worse – put forth unattractively. Bleh.’

Heinlein has done more to harm SF than has any other writer, I think – with the possible exception of George O. Smith. The dialogue in Stranger in a Strange Land has to be read to be believed. “Give the little lady a box of cigars!” a character cries, meaning that the girl has said something which is correct. One wonders what the rejoinder would be if a truly inspired remark had to be answered rather than a routine statement, it would probably burst the book’s gizzard.’

Further to the above in 1972 Phil Dick dedicated his novel, We Can Build You, to Robert & Ginny Heinlein after they loaned him money to pay his IRS bill. So whatever Dick thought of Heinlein’s work it doesn’t appear that there was bad blood between the two.

Then we have the self-reflective Philip K. Dick who doesn’t seem particularly eager to blow his own horn. Of course given some of what he had to say about other authors perhaps he felt the need to downplay his own work in order to not totally look like the bad guy. Or perhaps this is him really trying to mess with the reader’s head by disagreeing with the general consensus. What? Everybody thinks The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a really great novel? (Yes they do according to Goodreads.) Well let me, the author himself, tell you that it was just a bad acid trip that should never have seen the light of day. Oh, and you liked We Can Remember It for You Wholesale in the latest F&SF? Well guess what! It’s no better than my first published story Roog, so more fool you! (Actually I could go along with this as I happen to think Roog is as good a short story as Dick ever wrote.)

By the way ‘Agnus Dei qud tellis peccata mundi’ is from the liturgical prayer known as the Agnus Dei and translates as; ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ Make of that what you will.

‘In fifteen years of professional writing I haven’t got or a tittle better. My first story, Roog. Is as good as – if not better than – the five I did last month. This seems very strange to me because certainly through all those years I’ve learned a good deal about writing… and in addition my general store of worldly wisdom has increased. Maybe there are only a given number of original ideas in each person, he uses them up and that is that. Like an old baseball player he no longer has anything to offer. I will say one thing in favour of my writing, however, which I hope is true. I am original (except where I copy my own previous work). I no longer write “like Cyril Kornbluth” or “like A.E. Van Vogt”. But in that case I can no longer blame them for my faults’

‘Religion ought never to show up in SF except from a sociological standpoint, as in Gather, Darkness. God per se, as a character, ruins a good SF story, and this is as true of my own stuff as anyone else’s. Therefore I deplore my Palmer Eldrich book in that regard. But people who are a bit mystically inclined like it. I don’t. I wish I had never written it, there are too many horrid forces loose in it. When I wrote it I had been taking certain chemicals and I could see the awful landscape which I depicted. But not now, Thank God. Agnus Dei qud tellis peccata mundi.’

So there I stand corrected, Philip K. Dick could and did express opinions in a most forthright manner. As to whether these blunt opinions were what Dick really thought. Well, this is Philip K. Dick, your guess is as good as mine.

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