A FINAL INTERVIEW WITH SCIENCE FICTION’S BOLDEST VISIONARY,
WHO TALKS CANDIDLY ABOUT BLADE RUNNER, INNER VOICES
AND THE TEMPTATIONS OF HOLLYWOOD
by John Boonstra
[source: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3, June 1982, pp. 47-52]
Editor’s note: When John Boonstra conducted the following interview with Philip K. Dick, he never thought that it might be Dick’s last. Dick himself was in excellent spirits and was looking forward to the premiere of Blade Runner, based on one of his novels, with considerable excitement. Boonstra’s introduction – which we’ve left unaltered – reflects its subject’s optimism. In late February, however, Dick suffered a massive stroke, and now, he has died in a California hospital on the morning of March 2. His death makes the following interview all the more poignant, particularly the hopeful note on which it ends.
Philip K. Dick may be a household word – in Hollywood, at least – by year’s end. With his sf novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? filmed by Ridley Scott as Blade Runner, and with the Disney studio budgeting an equally large sum for the forthcoming Total Recall, based on his story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” fresh attention is certain to come to Dick’s thirty years of outstanding work.
Among his peers he has never been underrated. “Dick has been …casting illumination by the kleig lights of his imagination on a terra incognita of staggering dimensions,” wrote Harlan Ellison in Dangerous Visions. Brian Aldiss has favorably compared Dick’s “ghastly humor” to Dickens and Kafka. And Norman Spinrad states the case as plainly as possible in his introduction to the Gregg Press edition of Dr. Bloodmoney: “Fifty or one hundred years from now, Dick may well be recognized in retrospect as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the twentieth century.”
From his first book (Solar Lottery) through his most recent (The Divine Invasion), Philip Kendred Dick has focused on the struggle – in all walks of life, in every occupation – to see beyond the illusions that separate mankind from the possibility of authentic being; to recognize the human among the androids. His genius weds a core of memorable characters to paradoxical plots rich with philosophical inquiry, but a brief description can’t explain how entertaining this eclectic mix invariably proves to be.
In the late 1960s, Dick showed increasing interest in drug-induced altered states of consciousness, but The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, often cited as LSD-based, was completed before Dick’s minimal exposure to hallucinogens. Similarly, some of Dick’s earlier novels (The Cosmic Puppets, Eye in the Sky) presage his controversial visionary episodes of recent years – episodes which he’s described in print and which have formed the basis of his recent fiction. He holds that a higher consciousness – possibly the unleashed right hemisphere of his own brain, possibly an alien or angelic entity – seized temporary control of his body and effected lasting changes in his life. It provided him with verifiable information that, in one case, diagnosed an unsuspected birth defect in his young son.
Dick’s thirty-four published novels and six short story collections are so uniformly good that it seems a shame to single out any. But if I had to be marooned with a half-dozen, I’d take Dr. Bloodmoney, about nuclear war and the psionic abilities of a homunculus called Happy; Martian Time-Slip, where daily life on the miserable Mars colony is upended by an autistic child; Time out of Joint, featuring the marvelously named Ragle Gumm, unknowing linchpin of Western civilization; Confessions of a Crap Artist, a mainstream novel of devastating love glimpsed through the funhouse-mirror mind of one glorious fool; and VALIS and The Divine Invasion, which describe God’s return to this globe after His – and/or Hers – puzzling absence.
VALIS is set in a present-day reality identical to our own, except for its protagonist’s contention that “the Roman Empire never ended.” Such revelations send Horselover Fat, who is either mad or enlightened, after the new Messiah – a two-year-old girl. The closest this tour de force comes to conventional sf is its account of a film that contains encoded information on the Messiah’s whereabouts; the entire book grew from a draft which was that movie’s plot. The Divine Invasion brings the themes of VALIS into a recognizable sf future of spacecraft and social changes. The actual God of the Old Testament appears as a young boy who must lose his amnesia (a concept called anamnesis, crucial to Dick’s recent work) to defeat the powers that hold the earth in illusion. Along for the ride are the boy’s all-too-human “father,” Herb; the prophet Elijah; and a pop singer suspiciously similar to the author’s favorite, Linda Ronstadt.
But it seems a shame to single out just half a dozen of Dick’s novels. I can’t exclude Ubik’s world of devolving forms, or the Hugo-winning novel of the Axis victory, The Man in the High Castle, in which the eastern half of the United States is controlled by Nazi Germany and the western half by Japan. Or Clans of the Alphane Moon. Or Dick’s bitter eulogy to the drug culture, A Scanner Darkly. And as Phil Dick is only fifty-three, there is the promise of more to come. He may just be hitting his prime.
TZ: Your forthcoming novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, is essentially a non-sf literary work based on the mysterious death in the desert of your friend Bishop James Pike, and I’ve been told that you wrote it in lieu of doing a novelization of the Blade Runner screenplay. Why did you choose to write a book with openly religious themes instead of a lucrative, all-but-certain bestseller?
Dick: The amount of money involved would have been very great, and the film people offered to cut us in on the merchandising rights. But they required a suppression of the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in favor of the commercialized novelization based on the screenplay. My agency computed that I would accrue, conservatively, $400,000 if I did the novelization. In contrast, if we went the route of rereleasing the original novel, I would make about $12,500.
Blade Runner’s people were putting tremendous pressure on us to do the novelization — or to allow someone else to come in and do it, like Alan Dean Foster. But we felt that the original was a good novel. And also, I did not want to write what I call the “El Cheapo” novelization. I did want to do the Timothy Archer novel.
So we stuck to our guns, and at one point Blade Runner became so cold-blooded they threatened to withdraw the logo rights. We wouldn’t be able to say, “The novel on which Blade Runner is based.” We’d be unable to use any stills from the film.
Finally we came to an agreement with them. We are adamant about rereleasing the original novel. And I have done The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Now, the payment on that novel is very small. It’s only $7,500, which is just about minimum these days. It’s because in the mainstream field I am essentially a novice writer. I’m not known. And I’m being paid on the scale that a new writer coming into the field would be paid on. The contract is a two-book contract, and there’s a science fiction novel in it. And it pays exactly three times for the science fiction what is being paid for Timothy Archer.
TZ: Have you begun the sf novel?
Dick: I’ve done two different outlines. I’ll probably wind up laminating them together and making one book out of it, which is what I like to do, develop independent outlines and then laminate them into one book. That’s where I got my multiple plot ideas. I really enjoy doing that, a paste-up job. A synthesis, in other words.
This second novel is not due until January 1, 1983, so I’ve got time. Right now I’m just physically too tired to do the typing. It looks like it’s going to be a good book, too. It’s called The Owl in Daylight.
Simon and Schuster wanted Archer first, and I wanted to do it first. Of course, I may find that I made a very great error, because it may not turn out to be a successful book. It may be that I’ve lost the ability to write a literary novel, if indeed I ever had the ability to do so. It’s been over twenty years since I’ve written a non-science-fiction novel, and it’s very problematical whether I can write mainstream, literary-quality-type fiction. This is definitely an unproven thing, an X factor. I may find that I’ve turned down $400,000 and wound up with nothing.
TZ: I don’t consider VALIS science fiction. It could have been published as a mainstream novel and gotten who knows what kind of attention that way. I’m sure it got more response with its sf wrapping than it would have otherwise. But it is quite literary itself; marginal sf, at best.
Dick: I would call VALIS a picaresque novel, experimental science fiction. The Divine Invasion has a very conventional structure for science fiction, almost science fantasy; no experimental devices of any kind. Timothy Archer is in no way science fiction; it starts out the day John Lennon is shot and then goes into flashbacks. And yet the three do form a trilogy constellating around a basic theme. This is something that is extremely important to me in terms of the organic development of my ideas and preoccupations in my writing. So for me to derail myself and do that cheapo novelization of Blade Runner — a completely commercialized thing aimed at twelve-year-olds — would have probably been disastrous to me artistically. Although financially, as my agent explained it, I would literally be set up for life. I don’t think my agent figures I’m going to live much longer.
It’s like Dante’s Inferno. A writer sent to the Inferno is sentenced to rewrite all his novels — his best ones, at least — as cheapo, twelve-year-old hack stuff for all eternity. A terrible punishment! The fact that it would earn me a lot of money illuminates the grotesqueness of the situation. When it’s finally offered to me, I’m more or less apathetic to the megabucks. I live a rather ascetic life. I don’t have any material wants and I have no debts. My condominium is paid off, my car is paid off, my stereo is paid off.
At least, this way, I attempt the finest book I can write — and if I fail, at least I will have taken my best shot. I think a person must always take his best shot at everything, whether he repairs shoes, drives a bus, writes novels, or sells fruit. You do the best you can. And if you fail, well, you blame it on your mother, I guess.
TZ: How do you compare the VALIS trilogy to the rest of your work?
Dick: I jettisoned the first version of VALIS, which was a very conventional book. That version appears in the finished book as the movie. I cast around for a model that would bring something new into science fiction, and it occurred to me to go all the way back to the picaresque novel and have my characters be picaroons — rogues — and write it in the first person vernacular, using a rather loose plot. I feel there’s tremendous relevance in the picaresque novel at this time. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man is one; so is The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. I see this as a protest form of the novel, a repudiation of the more structured bourgeois novel that has been so popular.
I’m reprocessing my own life. I’ve had a very interesting ten years starting in 1970 when my wife Nancy left me and went off with a Black Panther, much to my surprise. As a result of which I hit bottom. I mean, I just fell into the gutter, I crashed into the streets in shock when this happened.
I was very bourgeois. I had a wife and child, I was buying a house, I drove a Buick and wore a suit and tie. All of a sudden my wife left me and I wound up in the street with street people. And after I climbed out of that — which was ultimately a death trip on my part — I thought, “Well, I’ve got some interesting first-hand material that I’d like to write about. I will recycle my own life in the terms of a novel.” Having done that in A Scanner Darkly, I was faced with what to do next. It took me a long time before I felt that I had what I wanted.
Now, prior to that I tended to view people in terms of the artisan. I worked for eight years in retail. I managed one of the largest record stores on the West Coast in the fifties, and I had worked at a radio repair shop when I was in high school. I tended to view people in terms of “the tv repairman,” “the salesman,” and so forth. Then later, as a result of my street experience, I tended to view people as essentially rogues. I don’t mean lovable rogues, I mean unscrupulous rogues out to hustle you at any moment for any reason. I found them endlessly fascinating. And I didn’t see people of this type adequately represented in fiction.
TZ: Sometimes the world at large strikes me as being an sf novel, and not necessarily a pleasant one. I often have the feeling that I am living in the future I was reading about fifteen years ago. I wonder what that’s like from your perspective, having written the stuff I was reading when I was an adolescent.
Dick: Oh, Jesus, I agree with you completely. My agent said, after he finished The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, “You know, in your science fiction they drive things called flobbles and quibbles, and in this one they drive Hondas — but it’s still essentially a science fiction novel. Although I can’t explain exactly how.”
It’s really as if the world caught up with science fiction. The years went by and the disparity, the temporal gap, began to close until finally there was no temporal gap. We were no longer writing about the future. In a sense, the very concept of projecting it ahead is meaningless, because we are there, literally, in our actual world. In 1955, when I’d write a science fiction novel, I’d set it in the year 2000. I realized around 1977 that, “My God, it’s getting exactly like those novels we used to write in the nineteen-fifties!”
Everything’s just turning out to be real. That creates within science fiction a completely fantastic type of novel which is set on the planet “Mordaria” or “Malefoozia” in another galaxy. And all the Malefoozians have eighteen heads, and sixteen of them have a sexual act together. In other words, no connections with Earth, none of the social satire and comment you get in works like Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano. Which is a perfect example; you might just as well go downtown to the big business offices and just walk in and sit down, as read Player Piano.
TZ: In earlier interviews you have described your encounter, in 1974, with “a transcendentally rational mind.” Does this “tutelary spirit” continue to guide you?
Dick: It hasn’t spoken a word to me since I wrote The Divine Invasion. The voice is identified as Ruah, which is the Old Testament word for the Spirit of God. It speaks in a feminine voice and tends to express statements regarding the messianic expectation.
It guided me for a while. It has spoken to me sporadically since I was in high school. I expect that if a crisis arises it will say something again. It’s very economical in what it says. It limits itself to a few very terse, sucinct sentences. I only hear the voice of the spirit when I’m falling asleep or waking up. I have to be very receptive to hear it. It sounds as though it’s coming from millions of miles away.
TZ: What made you into a writer? You were saying it wasn’t for the money. When did you make your first sales, and how long were you writing before that?
Dick: I started my first novel when I was thirteen years old. That’s the honet-to-God truth. I taught myself to type and started my first novel when I was in the eighth grade. It was called Return to Lilliput.
I made my first sale in November of 1951, and my first stories were published in 1952. At the time I graduated from high school I was writing regularly, one novel after another. None of which, of course, sold. I was living in Berkeley, and all the milieu-reinforcement there was for the literary stuff. I knew all kinds of people who were doing literary-type novels. And I knew some of the very fine avant-garde poets in the Bay area — Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Philip Lamantia, that whole crowd. They all encouraged me to write, but there was no encouragement to sell anything. But I wanted to sell, and I also wanted to do science fiction. My ultimate dream was to be able to do both literary stuff and science fiction.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. I was reading a lot of philosophy at that time. My wife came home one day from school and said, “What is it you’re reading again?”
I said, “Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.”
She said, “Yeah, I mentioned that to my instructor. He says you’re probably the only human being on the face of the earth who at this moment is reading Moses Maimonides.” I was just sitting there eating a ham sandwich and reading it. It didn’t strike me as odd.
TZ: You mention one of your wives. I know you’ve been through a couple of marriages…
Dick: At least. There’s more. I hate to say how many — an endless succession of divorces, all stemming from recklessly engaged-in and seized-upon marriages. I still have a good relationship with my ex-wives. In fact, my most recent ex-wife — there are so many that I have to list them numerically — and I are very, very good friends. I have three children. My youngest is seven, and she brings him over all the time.
But the reason all my marriages break up is I’m so autocratic when I’m writing. I become like Beethoven: completely bellicose and defensive in terms of guarding my privacy. It’s very hard to live with me when I’m writing.
TZ: You’ve said that many of the characters in your fiction are thinly disguised variations of people you’ve known personally.
Dick: That is correct.
TZ: What effect has this had on them?
Dick: They hate my bloody guts! They’d like to rend me to shreds! I expect that someday they’ll all fall on me and beat the crap out of me.
I find that you can only develop characters based upon actual people; there’s really no such thing as a character that springs ex nihilo from the brow of Zeus. Tendencies are extracted from actual people, but of course the people aren’t transferred intact. This is not journalism, this is fiction.
The most important thing is picking up the speech pattern, picking up the cadence of actual spoken English. That’s the main thing I look for — the little mannerisms, the word choice.
TZ: We’ve talked about your mainstream writing and your science fiction. What about fantasy writing? Did you ever write for The Twilight Zone?
Dick: No. But I would have welcomed the opportunity. I did some radio scripts for the Mutual Broadcasting system, and I wrote fantasy-type things for them.
I always lie to myself and tell myself that I never really want to do fantasy, but the record does not bear me out. The record shows that my original interest was that kind of Twilight Zone fantasy, fantasy set in the present. But you couldn’t make a living writing this kind of stuff, while you could make a living writing science fiction. In 1953 there were something like thirteen science fiction magazines, and in June of that year I had stories in seven of them simultaneously — all science fiction. I published thirty stories in 1953.
TZ: Why did you temporarily give up writing at the end of that decade?
Dick: By the year 1959 the science fiction field had totally collapsed. The readership had shrunk down to 100,000 readers total. Now, to show you how few readers that is, Solar Lottery alone had sold 300,000 copies in 1955.
Many writers had left the field. We could not make a living. I had gone to work making jewelry with my wife. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t enjoy making jewelry. I had no talent whatsoever. She had the talent. She is still a jeweler and a very fine one, making gorgeous stuff which she sells to places like Neiman-Marcus. It’s great art. But I couldn’t do anything except polish what she made.
I decided that I’d better tell her I was working on a book so I wouldn’t have to polish her jewelry all day long. We had a little cabin, and I went over there with a sixty-five-dollar portable typewriter made in Hong Kong — the “e” key was stuck on it. I started with nothing but the name “Mister Tagomi” written on a scrap of paper, no other notes. I had been reading a lot of Oriental philosophy, reading a lot of Zen Buddhism, reading the I Ching. That was the Marin County zeitgeist at that point, Zen Buddhism and the I Ching. I just started right out and kept on trucking. It was either that or go back to polishing jewelry.
When I had the manuscript finished, I showed it to her. She said, “It’s all right, but you’ll never make more than $750 off of it. I don’t even see where it’s worth your while to submit it to your agent.”
I said, “What the hell!” And The Man in the High Castle was bought by Putnam’s for $1500, which isn’t a great deal more than she had prophesied. It did get tremendous reviews. Part of that was due to the good fortune that it was picked up by the Science Fiction Book Club. Had it not been picked up by them, it would not have won the Hugo Award, because the edition would have been too small.
I must admit that I had thought for years about writing an alternate-world novel in which the Axis won World War II. I did start without written notes, but I had done seven years of research at the closed stacks in U.C.-Berkeley. And I looked at Gestapo documents, because I could read some German, marked “For the eyes of the higher police only.”
I had to structure out the decisions that the Nazis would have had to make, the changes in history that would have permitted them to win that war. It would be a very long list of things that would have had to happen, and they’re not all in Man in the High Castle. Just for example, Spain would’ve had to grant them the right to go through, you know, from France to take Gibraltar and close off the Mediterranean. That war was not really as close a call as we thought it was. I mean, it is just not that easy to defeat Russia — as certain people in history have found out. I hope we’re not about to find that out ourselves.
TZ: Let’s get back to Blade Runner. What turned you 180 degrees in your attitude toward the production?
Dick: You know, I was so turned off by Hollywood. And they were really turned off by me. That insistence on my part of bringing out the original novel and not doing the novelization — they were just furious. They finally recognized that there was a legitimate reason for reissuing the novel, even though it cost them money. It was a victory not just of contractual obligations but of theoretical principles.
And although this is speculation on my part, I think that one of the spin-offs was that they went back to the original novel. Because they knew it would be reissued, you see. So it is possible that it got fed back into the screenplay by a process of positive feedback. I was such a harsh critic of Hampton Francher’s original screenplay, and I was so outspoken, that the studio knows that my present attitude is sincere, that I’m not just hyping them. Because I was really angry and disgusted.
There were good things in Fancher’s screenplay. It’s like the story of the old lady who takes a ring into a jeweler to have the stone reset. And the jeweler scrapes all of the patina of years and years and shines it up, and she says, “My God, that was what I loved the ring for — the patina!” Okay, they had cleaned my book up of all of the subtleties and of the meaning. The meaning was gone. It had become a fight between androids and a bounty hunter.