Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Philip K Dick's Useful, Profitable 'Madness'

By Darryl Mason

The Letters Of Note site has published the controversial letters that author Philip K Dick wrote to police and the FBI in the early 1970s, naming friends and colleagues as possible enemies of America.

The Letters Are Here


This is a comment I submitted to Letters Of Note, which will make more sense if you look over the Philip K Dick letters first. It didn't get published at LoN because, as you can see below, it was too long :

Philip K Dick and his second wife were approached in the mid-1950s by FBI agents who, like in films and fiction, turned up on their doorstep in suits and hats and tried to recruit them, to help save America from communists and the enemy within. They were told they could study for free on the FBI dime at a university in Mexico, they'd just have to report back on what political activities, movements and ideologies were gaining in popularity amongst the student body. They refused. Instead of being terrified and paranoid, PKD and his wife thought it was an absolutely hilarious idea that either of them would work for the FBI.

One agent continued to visit with PKD regularly, became friends of the couple and eventually taught Philip to drive. These visits continued through the late 1950s. Strangely, for someone who wrote so frequently of police states, surveillance and big brother government, PKD never went into any great detail about the discussions he had with that FBI agent during all those afternoons they spent driving together, not in his essays, speeches, letters or occasional interviews.

Philip K Dick went on to set many novels, many short stories, in future security states, police states, which are everyday familiar now to people who dwell in cities in England, the United States, Australia, China. Sometimes it seems like he wrote easy to follow blueprints for those who wanted to install modern democratic security states, using the latest tech. In his efforts to warn against the rise of such police states, did Dick actually tell intelligence agencies and authoritarian governments how to implement them? Make them seem normal?

Did American intelligence agencies, police agencies, read the novels and short stories of Philip K Dick through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s? Yes, they did. Dick was one of the thousands of writers, actors, movie directors, musicians, poets, that American intelligence agencies kept tabs on for decades. They might not have been sitting in vans outside the numerous houses or apartments he called home over the decades, but they certainly kept up on what he was writing, and what influence he might be having on American youth.

Like William Burroughs' Junky, many thousands of copies of Philip K Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly were brought by FBI agents and police agents fighting the Nixon implemented War On Drugs through the 1970s. A Scanner Darkly provided law enforcement agents with an insider look at what a house of drug-crazed freaks and refugees from the flower power generation might be getting up to.

In A Scanner Darkly, which Dick began writing shortly after he sent thoe letters to the FBI, the lead character, an undercover drug agent named Bob Arctor, narks on all his friends, including himself.

Philip K Dick said a great relief washed over him after he sent those letters to the cops and the FBI. He felt he had done what he needed to do to clear his name, so to speak, to get the heat off his back.

By the mid-1970s, though, Dick was no longer sure he'd beaten the bad guys he once believed had been trying to take control of his work, and destroy the America which he dearly loved. He once said he was told that if he were to suddenly disappear, books would continue to be published under his name.

In the mid-1970s, PKD re-read every book and short story he'd written (a massive undertaking of more than 1.5 million published words) searching through his back catalogue for curious, revealing links between novels, between characters. He re-examined every word he'd published, and then he wrote novella-length notes, dozens of pages a night across hundreds of post-midnight marathons, detailing weird or illuminating or possibly mystical connections he'd thought he'd found in his writings, what they meant, whether "encoded" signals and information might already be in print under his name, and, of course, whether or not an orbiting alien satellite really had beamed information into his head. And if so, had the satellite actually been God?

From all those thousands of pages of notes, he pulled novels like Valis. He knew how this new Mystic Phil would be perceived and summed up the reactions he expected to get as :

"Took drugs, saw God, big fucking deal."

Those who become PKD addicts, and soak up his life and his fiction, and his sometimes blatantly self-fictionalised life, know he took drugs, but did he really see God? Or did he just make up all those 'pink beam' experiences because he knew, from the success of his science fiction writing colleague Ron L Hubbard, that readers didn't want just spaceships and time travel and emotional robots, they wanted to read the work of writers who claimed they knew God, or had seen God, or even better, had talked to God, who had been enlightened, illuminated. That's what the New Age-influenced American reading audience of the second half of the 1970s wanted, and that's what Philip K Dick delivered. He did what all great pulp writers did, he fed the marketplace what he knew would sell. Hell, he'd been doing it for decades.

Whatever 'pink beam' was, hallucination or purposeful myth making, the incident marked a turning point in the last decade of Philip K Dick's life, when he became a once more productive, but far more professional, writer.

During the second half of the 1970s, after the 'pink beam' episodes, when Philip K Dick has been deemed by some to have gone truly bonkers, he rose early to get on the phone to chase back royalties owed to him from publishers on the other side of the world; he produced award winning, best selling novels; he worked hard at repairing long fractured ties to his children and former wives; he pushed and promoted the production of the movie BladeRunner; tried to get movies made of his novels Ubik and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; signed new novel deals and began the long process of getting his entire back catalogue of short stories and novels back into print.

And yet, even while all this Busy Professional Author activity was going on, Philip K Dick purposely fed stories about his claimed spiritual and mystical experiences to journalists and fanzines. He knew what they wanted to hear. And if they in turn wanted to write that Philip K Dick Spoke To God, well, that was fine by him.

He knew how to make his own legends.

Some 'madness'.


Note : I finally got my hands on a few dozen letters Philip K Dick wrote in the last years of his life, which means I can add the finishing touches to my biography of America's most fascinating writer, and one of its greatest thinkers. I'm hoping this biography will be done and published by the end of the 2012 :