|Philip K. Dick Versus the Literary Critics
By Jeet Heer
Lingua Franca (May/June 2001) slightly revised
WHEN THE NOVELIST PHILIP K. DICK DIED IN 1982, THE INFLUENTIAL literary theorist Fredric Jameson eulogized him as "the Shakespeare of science fiction." At the time of this encomium, Dick was hardly famous. The author of more than fifty books, he had an enthusiastic following among science fiction fans. But he was rarely read by anyone else.
These days, Dick is far better known. Vintage publishes his fiction in a uniform paperback edition. Hollywood filmmakers transform his stories of imaginary worlds and conspiratorial cartels into movies like Screamers and Total Recall. Meanwhile, academic critics laud him as a postmodernist visionary, a canny prophet of virtual reality, corporate espionage, and the schizoid nature of identity in a digitized world. Indeed, beginning in the last years of his life and continuing to the present, these critics have played a key role in the canonization of Philip K. Dick.
But did Dick return the favor? Not exactly. To their considerable anguish, Dick's academic champions have had to contend with the revelation that their hero wrote letters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation denouncing them. In these letters, Dick claimed that Jameson and other literary theorists were agents of a KGB conspiracy to take over American science fiction. When he sent these messages, Dick was not in the best state of mind: He frequently heard voices and saw visions, often bathed in a mysterious pink light. Even so, the news of his surreptitious campaign against his academic admirers has left some of them deeply disturbed.
In his fiction, Dick had a genius for turning reality upside down and inside out, writing novels in which time runs backward or the Nazis win World War II. Yet the celebrated "reality breakdowns" of Dick's novels seem normality itself compared with the bizarre, unsettling missives he sent to the authorities in Washington, D.C. The laureate of radical postmodernism was, it turns out, a stool pigeon.
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DICK STARTED SELLING SF stories as early as 1951, when he was twenty-two, but he never wanted to be a genre writer. Gifted with a quicksilver imagination and lightning-fast typing fingers, he planned to earn a living churning out pulp stories until he could find a publisher for his realistic "mainstream" novels. To his dismay, Dick discovered that though he could easily sell SF stories and novels, he could not secure a buyer for his earnest and grim tales of working-class life.
Dick received a paltry fifteen hundred dollars a shot for his SF novels, which he produced at a rate of four or five a year; typically they were published as cheap paperbacks, with titles such as Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) and Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964). Considering the conditions under which the novels were written and published, it is amazing that Dick managed to find any sort of intelligent audience. Yet the best of these books -- notably, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Ubik (1969 -- presented intellectually ingenious and emotionally lacerating dislocations of reality. In Ubik, the hapless protagonist, Joe Chip, travels to Des Moines across a landscape of rapidly decaying objects that are moving backward in time: Coins and elevators, cars and airplanes become old-fashioned versions of themselves. Drawing on SF conventions to dramatize life in the postmodern age, Dick regularly explored the world of mind-altering drugs and shifting realities. Not surprisingly, John Lennon was a fan.
Dick's fiction of the 1960s resonated not only with the counterculture but also with the New Left. Dick, who came of age in Bohemian Berkeley, infused his novels with a satiric radicalism. As he noted in his diary, "I may not have been/am CP [Communist Party], but the basic Marxist sociological view of capitalism—negative—is there. Good." Dick's political imagination is evident in his recurring focus on the world of work.
Unlike most science fiction heroes, his protagonists are ordinary working folks who struggle against corporate cartels. (The novelist John Sladek once wrote a parody of Dick's work titled "Solar Shoe Salesman.")
Given Dick's countercultural themes and politics, his work naturally attracted leftists such as Jameson, Peter Fitting of the University of Toronto, and Richard Pinhas, a French critic who went on to form a punk band. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., a professor of English at DePauw University, notes that many readers in the late 1960s and 1970s thought Dick was "expressing...sly critiques of capitalism and the American bourgeois world picture." The SF novelist Thomas M. Disch praised Dick for writing "self-consistent social allegories of a more-or-less Marxist bent."
In 1975, the journal Science Fiction Studies devoted a special issue to Dick's work. The critics were exceedingly generous in their praise. Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem acclaimed Dick as the only American writer of SF with any merit, "a visionary among charlatans." Fitting lauded Ubik as a "deconstruction of bourgeois science fiction."
But could these critics trust Dick? Even before their paeans were published, Dick had begun writing a stream of letters to the FBI. In the earliest of these, written on October 28, 1972, he asserted, "Several months ago I was approached by an individual who I have reason to believe belonged to a covert organization involving politics, illegal weapons, etc., who put great pressure on me to place coded information in future novels 'to be read by the right people here and there,' as he phrased it. I refused to do it."
Dick went on to suggest that this mysterious organization (which he claimed was possibly run by neo-Nazis) had successfully recruited at least one SF writer, Thomas M. Disch. "I stress the urgency of this," he wrote, "because within the last three days I have come across a well-distributed science fiction novel which contains in essence the vital material which this individual confronted me with as the basis of encoding. That novel is camp concentration by Thomas Disch." (Disch's 1968 novel portrays a totalitarian future America where dissidents are rounded up by the government and subjected to mind-control experiments.)
Around the same time, Dick grew suspicious of Stanislaw Lem, who was starting to gain an English-speaking audience for his satiric science fiction. In November 1972, Lem had secured permission to have Ubik translated into Polish. Because of Cold War currency restrictions, Dick was unable to collect royalties from this translation. He blamed Lem for the situation, accusing the Polish novelist of embezzlement.
In February 1974, Dick first experienced his pink-light visions, which continued without interruption until his death. They revealed to him an entire cosmology. Sometimes he experienced the world as a persecuted Christian living in imperial Rome; at other times he felt he was receiving messages from some future superior intelligence, which he named VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System).
Dick was never sure whether the pink light was the voice of God, a message from a space alien, or a drug-induced hallucination (among other possibilities he entertained). Yet despite the pink light's uncertain nature, he often acted under its direction. VALIS issued cryptic theological messages but also offered Dick practical advice on how to deal with his son Christopher's hernia.
The visions also expanded his conspiratorial fantasies, which became global in scope. In March 1974, he claimed to have received two mysterious pieces of mail: a fan letter from Estonia and an anonymous clipping from a communist newspaper. Under the guidance of the pink light, Dick concluded that these letters were part of a effort to put his loyalty to the test. Connecting the letters to his dispute with Lem, he wrote to the FBI asking for assistance against the communist conspiracy.
On May 1, 1974, Dick got a phone call from Peter Fitting, who had written an article slated to run in the special Philip K. Dick issue of Science Fiction Studies. Fitting, who was spending a sabbatical year in San Francisco, wanted to visit Dick and bring along Jameson, Richard Pinhas, and Pinhas's wife, Agneta.
Writing to the FBI after this phone call, Dick connected "the Fitting group" with Lem and "the flurry of weird mail of a Soviet type." He believed that this proposed visit was a prelude to a kidnapping plot: "The Fitting group, including...most especially the foreign national [Pinhas], of whom I am most greatly afraid, in case he is not French but from behind the Iron Curtain—in fact maybe a Soviet police agent who wants to talk to me direct, or is from Poland anyhow, representing Lem...."
Despite these fears, Dick received "the Fitting group" on May 15. Again writing to the FBI, he provided a surprisingly genial picture of the visit: "You will be glad to know that in fierce debate we routed the Peter Fitting group, which consisted of four people from four different countries. Their purpose in coming to see me was to get an endorsement from me, recorded on tape, of a Marxist interpretation of my writings. With them, besides a lot of good liquor and a pretty girl, they brought at least three complex Marxist philosophical theses on my novels, one of which they translated from the French aloud, onto tape, for me to agree with. I told them this French doctoral thesis was entirely wrong. We had then a one-hour furious polemical debate in three languages, plus assorted Greek and Latin technical terms, after which they accused my tastes of being 'in favor of God' as well as 'right-wing fascist propaganda' and then departed, leaving their liquor behind (they did take the girl with them, though)."
Fitting himself provides a slightly different account of the visit in a statement prefacing volume 3 of The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick: "It was a very pleasant day. Certainly, there was discussion and even disagreement about the 'meaning' of his work, but I think it fair to say that none of us were concerned about receiving his imprimatur on our readings, or worried that our various interpretations did not agree with the author's conscious intentions. We ate and drank a fair amount; Dick flirted quite a bit with Agneta in a kind of pidgin German.... All in all, a wonderful and amusing day."
Fearful of arousing suspicion among his imagined enemies, Dick strove to please them even as he denounced them to the FBI and denigrated what he called their "weird Marxist talk."
In letters written in late 1974, Dick combined all his various fears into one elaborate scheme. Lem, he imagined, was a KGB agent orchestrating a vast conspiracy that included such pawns as Jameson, Fitting, Darko Suvin (a Canada-based critic who then edited Science Fiction Studies), and Franz Rottensteiner (an Austrian who at that time was Lem's Western literary agent). "What is involved here," he wrote, "is not that these persons are Marxists per se or even that Fitting, Rottensteiner and Suvin are foreign-based but that all of them without exception represent dedicated outlets in a chain of command from Stanislaw Lem in Krakow, Poland, himself a total Party functionary.... For an Iron Curtain Party group...to gain monopoly positions of power from which they can control opinion through criticism and pedagogic essays is a threat to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange of views and ideas." In countering this communist conspiracy, Dick again feared for his life: He believed he was in danger of being kidnapped and brainwashed by Lem and company. (To add another layer of complexity to this convoluted story, it is not certain whether all these letters reached the FBI. His wife of the time claims that Dick would occasionally write these letters and drop them in a garbage bin, sure that they would reach the proper destination if the authorities really wanted to see them).
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WHILE DICK WAS ALIVE the targets of his letters to the FBI were not aware of his duplicity. (For its part, the FBI responded with a single noncommittal thank-you note, and does not seem to have acted further on his reports.) But even without the knowledge of Dick's letters to the FBI, his critical supporters became increasingly uncomfortable with the eccentricities of his private life. As Csicsery-Ronay notes, "For the New Left critics, the whole Pink Beam episode was an embarrassment and they never talked about it. It was just another wacky, tawdry Dick thing."
Dick's admirers first confronted the issue of his letters to the FBI in 1991, when the relevant volume of his selected letters was released. The earliest response, by Robert M. Philmus of Concordia University, was also the harshest. Writing in Science Fiction Studies, Philmus described Dick's actions against Lem as "slander to an extent that is not only actionable but (legally as well as morally) indefensible."
Today, Philmus explains that he was angry because Dick's letters hit close to home. "This was not something that was remote to me," he says. "These letters involved the denunciation of friends and acquaintances." Yet even Philmus acknowledges that certain mitigating historical and biographical factors relax one's initial outrage. In particular, Philmus believes that Dick's own previous experience with security services sheds light on Dick's actions.
As it turns out, long before Dick approached the FBI, the bureau had approached him. In 1953 or 1954, Dick and his second wife, Kleo, were repeatedly approached by two FBI agents, who hoped (but failed) to recruit the young Bohemian couple to spy on students at the University of Mexico. According to Dick's biographer Lawrence Sutin, these encounters had a "lasting" impact and planted the seed for Dick's future anxieties about the national security state. (Not all these anxieties were unjustified, either. In 1958, a letter Dick wrote to a Soviet scientist was intercepted by the Central Intelligence Agency. Ten years later, Dick lent his name to an antiwar ad that ended up in his FBI file.)
Of all those named in Dick's letters, Disch has perhaps been the most forgiving. In an e-mail interview, he stresses Dick's personal agony. "At this point, early and mid-1970s," Disch notes, Dick "really was freaking out on drugs, almost the whole pharmacopoeia except heroin. The drugs didn't destroy his gift entirely, even at his nadir, but they did make it impossible for him to distinguish between self-interest and Poe's Imp of the Perverse. He loved to make trouble: Witness those letters to the FBI.... He'd follow the moment's inspiration, which would lead sometimes to only momentary mischief (the FBI, after all, didn't take him seriously, so far as I know), sometimes to an okay novel."
Disch also believes that Dick was motivated partially by "pure envy, disguised as paranoid fantasy." In a letter to Disch, written the day after his October 28, 1972, letter to the FBI, Dick extravagantly praised Camp Concentration as "not only the finest science fiction novel I've ever read but now that I've realized that, I find myself reflecting that it is the finest novel as such." Disch is "flattered" that Dick felt so threatened by Camp Concentration that he had to denounce the novel to the government.
Yet even if Dick's critics forgive his treachery as delusional, can they justifiably canonize him as a great subversive novelist? As Csicsery-Ronay noted in a 1992 survey of the history of Dick's literary reputation, "Dick's paranoid fantasy seems to retroactively undermine the whole point of the effort to apotheosize him as an icon of critical, anti-establishment SF. The historical situation is profoundly, unnervingly Dickian. Even as the earnest critics are trying to establish models of resistance and redemption, their hero is secretly undermining them. The idealism of the beatification essays is now riven with our knowledge that their object was a traitor."
Certainly Peter Fitting's views of Dick's work have changed. In 1975, Fitting had celebrated Dick's fiction for its transgressive power. In his view, most science fiction novels -- like most traditional "realist" novel -- are ideological constructs that mask the fundamental relations between social classes. They proffer a "conception of reality which mystifies the actual reality of the capitalist mode of production and the resultant repression and alienation." By contrast, he lauded Dick for "carrying subjectivity to an extreme" and thus "reminding us...that 'reality' is a mental construct which may be undermined at any time."
But speaking about Dick now, Fitting says with wary sadness that "there hasn't been anything really interesting written about him in the last decade.... People aren't so interested in him.... It is harder to find a radical vision in his work." Fitting believes that far from intentionally subverting SF, Dick was often "confused," which made his work seem more complicated than it actually was.
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DICK WAS AN ERUDITE widely read man. But nothing in his career prepared him to appreciate the methods and styles of contemporary literary criticism. In one interview, he complained that he "read a lot of...criticism in which [critics] see a lot of ideas which aren't there at all." Dick may have misread his critics, but in his view, the critics misread him. His story about being asked to plant covert neo-Nazi messages in his books can be read as a paranoid fantasy about literary criticism, which involves not just finding meanings deeply hidden in the text but sometimes also inventing meanings.
Csicsery-Ronay believes that Dick "felt intimidated by and vulnerable to the eggheads," so his letters to the FBI were an attempt "to protect his work from the interference of strange academics." This type of "anti-academic feeling" is "strong in the SF community," claims Csicsery-Ronay, who is the current editor of Science Fiction Studies. And indeed, Disch speaks for many authors in the field when he writes that he disdains "SF academics" as "Lukács-style Continental ideologues, who worshipped [Dick] -- but in turgid prose and missing half the jokes.”
In considering Dick's ill-fated relationship with his academic admirers, Disch writes, "I worry more about academe than Dick. The work has stayed in print, it's widely read, and whether it will continue to seem relevant depends more on history than the work itself. That is, he will be worth reading so long as he seems uncannily prescient."
Dick's portrayal of a media-saturated world where reality is lost among simulacra is just as timely as ever, so perhaps we should heed Disch's advice to return to Dick's splendid fiction and leave the sad life behind. Yet separating life and art is difficult with a character like Dick, whose own life and art pushed so hard at the boundaries of the normal. Philmus recently observed that in 1974 Dick "entered the world of his fiction." And as Dick himself wrote to Fitting in that same year, "It seems to me that by subtle but real degrees the world has come to resemble a PKD novel; or, put another way, subjectively I sense my actual world as resembling the kind of typical universe which I used to merely create as fiction, and which I left, often happily, when I was done with writing."