An Interview With America’s Most Brilliant Science-Fiction Writer (Philip K. Dick)

by Joe Vitale

[source: The Aquarian, No. 11, October 11-18, 1978; PKD OTAKU, No. 4, 2002]

AQUARIAN: When did you decide that you wanted to be a science fiction writer?

DICK: Well, I knew I wanted to be a writer of some sort very early in my life. My mother was an editor for the U.S. Department of Labor but her ambition was to write and sell stories and novels. It was from her that I got the idea that writing was a very important thing.
    I started on my first novel when I was 13 years old. It was called Return to Lilliput and was never completed.
    I got interested in science fiction, however, totally by mistake. I was interested in science when I was a boy. I wanted to be a paleontologist. One day I went to the local candy store to buy a copy of Popular Science and came across something by mistake called Stirring Science Stories. I didn’t really know what it was but it only cost 15 cents (a nickel more than a comic book). What it turned out to be, of course, was a science fiction magazine (at that time called Pseudo-Science). And, boy, there were some really great stories in there! People went back in time, other people fell over a wall that only had one side so when they fell over they were back on the first side again, others traveled to the center of the universe where there was a gigantic flat plane where you could walk around.

AQUARIAN: A point that was discussed at length in a Rolling Stone article about you in 1975 was the break-in at your house in San Rafael in November 1971. Your home was burglarized, your file cabinets blown open and many of your personal papers stolen. The crime has never really been solved and you have stated that you think it was perpetrated by people who were trying to discredit you. Has any new evidence about the burglary surfaced in the intervening years? Are you more certain now about exactly what happened and why?

DICK: That whole thing is something that fills me with a great deal of anxiety. I try not to think about it.
    No new evidence has surfaced since then. I don’t think any will. The only thing that’s happened since then is that a producer came down to visit me one time from Hollywood and said, “I’ve researched you and know you were driven out of Marin County (which is where the break-in took place).” And I said, “really?” And he said, “Yeah, you were a dope guru to high school kids and someone took a shot at you.” And I said, “Gee, that’s really interesting. I always wondered why the cops told me to get out of Marin County or I’d be shot in the back some night or worse.” Obviously that’s what the cops thought I was. It’s like in my novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974), where the cops know more about you than you know yourself. I didn’t know I was a dope guru to high school kids. I had lectured to high schools in Marin County. I had never discussed dope. But maybe they put together the fact that I’ve dealt with drugs thematically in my work and the fact that high school kids were always coming to my house and concluded that I was a pusher.

    I remember after the burglary the police questioned me as to whether I was “teaching” the kids things. I had posters on my walls from the Russian Revolution, which I thought were very beautiful aesthetically, but they did say things like, “Workers of the World Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
    I mean, it’s a very frightening thing when the head of a police department tells you that you better leave the county because you have enemies, and you don’t know who these enemies are or why you’ve incurred their wrath.
    I moved to Canada for a while and then down here to Orange County. I’ve cut my ties with just about everyone I knew in Marin County. I don’t know if I’ll ever find out what really happened. This whole thing is still very traumatic for me.

AQUARIAN: It seems that, throughout your career, you’ve always put yourself in a vulnerable position by opposing powerful forces within the country. Back in the 1950s, you published several short stories and novels that could have been labeled “subversive.” In fact, you were one of the only science fiction writers doing those kind of stories. Didn’t they get you in trouble with the authorities?

DICK: They did more than that. They got me many friendly visits from Mr. Smith and Mr. Scruggs of the FBI. They were members of the famous “Red Squad.”
    They came to my house every week for what seemed like ever and ever and ever. And they asked many questions about my life and my writings and my political philosophy.

    This, of course, made me very angry and very frightened. They asked me all about my wife, about her political philosophy, about what student groups she belonged to.
    I mean I honestly expected to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But I guess they didn’t consider science fiction writers that important.

AQUARIAN: Do you think there’s any connection between that and the break-in at your house?

DICK: I really don’t know. In the early Sixties I did write a novel about a phony war between the United States and Russia that’s carried out with the sole purpose of keeping the citizens of those countries underground while the leaders lived in palatial splendor above ground. (The Penultimate Truth, 1964) In the novel, some Americans and some Russians are able to get above ground and find out what’s really going on and they become friends.

    Now maybe certain people thought this was too close to the truth and that I had some kind of information. Maybe that’s why they wanted to get my files. I don’t know.
    At least Mr. Smith and Mr. Scruggs had the deceny to identify themselves. I wish whoever it was that broke into my house had left a note saying “We are so-and-so, and we can be reached at the following number if you have any questions.”
    Years later I wrote away for my FBI file under the “Freedom of Information Act.” Do you know what I had in it? Things like “…has a long beard and frequented the University of Vancouver.” “Frequented the University of Vancouver.” I delivered a lecture there! I was granted an honorary doctorate and was a guest of the faculty club. They made it sould like I hung out in the shadows selling dope.

AQUARIAN: Since drugs have cropped up in the discussion, it’s no secret that many of your novels have been seen as “drug-oriented” or as outgrowths of your own drug experiences. Since one of your most enduring themes has been the breakdown between illusion and reality, has drug taking been a positive influence in this regard?

DICK: No, absolutely not. There’s nothing good about drugs. Drugs kill you and they break down your head. They eat you head. In “White Rabbit,” Grace Slick says, “feed your head.” But I say, “What are you really feeding it?” You’re feeding it itself. Drugs cause the mind to feed on itself.

    Look, I’ll be honest with you. There was a time in my life when I thought drugs could be useful, that maybe if you took enough psychedelics you could see beyond the illusion of the world to the nature of ultimate reality. Now I think all you see are the patterns on the rug turning into hideous things.
    A friend of mine had a shower curtain with tigers on it. You know, one of those prints. During an LSD trip once, the tigers started moving and tried to eat him. So he ran outside into the back yard and burned the shower curtain.
    That epitmoizes drugs to me: some guy in his back yard burning his shower curtain.
    I used to think that drugs put you in touch with something. Now I know that the only thing they put you in touch with is the rubber room of a psychiatric hospital.
    My drug experiences have not manifested themselves in my work. Many critics have said that The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) was the first “LSD novel.” I wrote that after reading a magazine article on hallucinogenics by Aldous Huxley.
    Drugs have taken the lives of some very, very dear friends of mine.

AQUARIAN: Then what is the major influence on your work?

DICK: Philosophy and philosophical inquiry.
    I studied philosophy during my brief career at the University of California at Berkley. I’m what they call an “acosmic pan-enthiest,” which means that I don’t believe that the universe exists. I believe that the only thing that exists is God and he is more than the universe. The universe is an extension of God into space and time.
    That’s the premise I start from in my work, that so-called “reality” is an mass delusion that we’ve all been required to believe for reasons totally obscure.
    Bishop Berkely believed that the world doesn’t exist, that God directly impinges on our minds the sensation that the world exists. The Russian science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem poses that if there was a brain being fed a simulated world, is there any way the brain could tell it was a simulated world? the answer, of course, is no. Not unless there was a technological foul-up.
    Imagine a brain floating in a tank with millions and millions of electrodes attached to specific nerve centers. Now imagine these electrodes being selectively stimulated by a computer to cause the brain to believe that it was walking down Hollywood Boulevard chomping on a hamburger and checking out the chicks.
    Now, if there was a technological foul-up, or if the tapes got jumbled, the brain would suddenly see Jesus Christ pass by down Hollywood Boulevard on his way to Golgotha, pursued by a crowd of angry people, being whipped along by seven Roman Centurions.
    The brain would say, “Now hold on there!” And suddenly the entire image would go “pop” and disappear.

    I’ve always had this funny feeling about reality. It just seems very feeble to me sometimes. It doesn’t seem to have the substantiality that it’s suppose to have.
    I look at reality the way a rustic looks at a shell game when he comes into town to visit the fair. A little voice inside me says, “now wait just a second there…”

AQUARIAN: Religion and religious inquiry also occupy a very prominent place in your writing.

DICK: I’ve always been interested in religion. In man’s relationship with is god, what he chooses to worship. I was raised a Quaker but converted to Episcopalianism very early in my life.
    The new novel I’m currently working on for Bantam Books has its basis in theology and what I’ve had to do, in short, it to create a new religion right from scratch.
    It reminds me of something a girl said to me a couple of weeks ago. She said, “You’re really smart, too bad you’re not religious.” (Laughs) And here I am doing nothing all day but reading the Bible, the Apocrypha, the writings of Gnosticism, histories of Christianity. I’ll tell you, I could go out and get a degree in theology right now!

    It seems like a natural progression of sorts. I got badly burned in the political arena. I was hounded by Mr. Smith and Mr. Scruggs. I would literally get thrown out of Socialist and Communist Party meetings when I was in college for disagreeing with party doctrine. And so I turn to religion, and I find incredible bigotry. Two thousand years of history and the names change but the activity remains the same. Somebody was always throwing someone else into prison for his beliefs or burning him at the stake.
    I believe that the establishment churches have lost the keys to the kingdom. They don’t even know what the Kingdom of God is.
    It’s like some guy who loses the keys to his car. He knows he had them a second ago but now they’re gone. The churches, however, don’t even know what the car looks like anymore. They can’t even give a description of it to the cop.
    Organized religion is crooked, dumb, and it’s lost the keys. I mean, it’s OK to be crooked and dumb, we’re all crooked and dumb. But the tragedy is that they’ve lost the keys. They can’t even point us in the right direction much less take us there.
    The whole question of religion is very melancholic. It makes me very sad really. I mean, I’ve read so much and still, I haven’t found God. We have a “deus abscondatus,” a hidden God. As Plato says, “God exists but He is hard to find.”
    I’ve spent the majority of my life studying and reading and seeking God, but, of course, the thing is you can’t find God. God has to find you. I’ve learned that.

AQUARIAN: To abandon your themes for a moment and talk about your style, your writing has always been concerned with people rather than technology. Other science fiction writers concentrate on the nature of alien environments, methods of time and space travel, etc., but you’re more concerned with human beings, their interactions, their everyday affairs. How do you account for this?

DICK: During the time when I was first beginning to write, I was kind of experimenting with different characters. I was looking for a type of person who would express my innermost observations, ideas, desires.
    I was reading a lot of English and American literature, all the novels of Huxley, all the novels of Orwell, Maugham, Thomas Wolfe, D.H. Lawrence. And when I was reading Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit, I found my character. Babbit. You know, Babbit walks around saying things like, “My car is not gonna start today. I know it, I know it.” Everybody else just gets into their cars and turns the keys and they don’t think about it. Not Babbit. And so I said, “There’s my character. That’s him.”
    You can say I’m like the Nineteenth Century French novelists. I write about the human predicament. And it doesn’t matter if it’s centuries in the future, the predicament is still the same.
    I’m with the little man. I wouldn’t be with the “superman” characters for all the money in the world. You know, the characters in Ayn Rand and Heinlein who have such a contempt for everybody. Because one day that little man is gonna rise up and punch the superman out and I want to be there when it happens.

AQUARIAN: In terms of broad acceptance, science fiction has undergone quite a change in the last few years. Always considered a popular, inferior brand of writing, it has now been accepted, not only by the masses but by the academic community. Science fiction courses are now part of almost every English department, people are doing theses and doctoral dissertations on science fiction. What do you think of all this?

DICK: I hate it. I just hope we can survive it.
    You know, we’ve survived complete obscurity. We survived complete condescension, the “are you people really doing anything serious?” attitude. I hope we can survive acceptance. It’s really the most dangerous thing.
    You know, sometimes I think it’s all a plot, to praise you and accept you and treat you like a serious literary form. Because in that way they can guarantee your demise.
    The only thing that’s worse than being treated as “not serious” is being treated as “serious.” I’d much rather be ignored. And this “scholarly” science fiction criticism is the worst.
    You know, if they can’t destroy you by ignoring you, they can destroy you by annexing you.
    They, the literary critics, write these incredibly turgid articles which see all this “meaning” in your writing. The end rsult, I guess, is to drive all your readers away screaming.

AQUARIAN: What is the most important quality for a writer to have?

DICK: A sense of indignation. As I said, science fiction was effective for so many years because it was a rebel art form. It wasn’t accepted. The idea was to offend people. But not just with garbage. Just because something is offensive crap doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good.
    But there is nothing else, really, for a writer to do. He must offend people if he’s going to be effective. It’s like someone once said about opera. “Stab a tenor and he sings.” Stab a writer — or step on his toes — and he’ll write. It’s an automatic reflex reaction. A writer writes because it’s his response to the world. It’s a natural process, like respiration.
    But above all, a writer must have a capacity for indignation. The capacity for indignation is the most important thing for a creative person. Not the aesthetic capacity but the capacity for indignation. And especially indignation at the treatment afforded other people.
    It’s like the trials of the dissidents that are going on now in Russia, or when you see a blind and deaf baby on TV like I did last night.
    To see some of the things that are going on in the world and to feel indignant, at God, at the Soviet Union, at the United States, at the military, that is the greatest capacity in the world. To see a blind and deaf baby and to feel anger, to feel fury, at the starving of children and the arrest of political dissidents. That is the basis of the writer.

Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contibuting this article to

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