I Am Alive and You Are Dead

Read Time:
2m 44sec


A Journey into the Mind of
Philip K. Dick.

By Emmanuel Carrère. Translated by Timothy Bent. Metropolitan Books. 315 pp. $26

What better way for an author to be honored than to have his name become an adjective for the very thing he wrote about? Among science-fiction aficionados, the term “phildickian” has come to refer to tropes and tales that turn reality inside out or upside down. And the biggest fans of such tales are proud to call themselves “Dickheads.”

More of us are fans of Philip K. Dick (1928-82) than know it. You may not have read his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but you’ve probably seen Blade Runner, the Ridley Scott movie based on it. You may not have read the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” but there’s a good chance you’ve watched Arnold Schwarzenegger brawl his way through the screen version, Total Recall. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is based on fiction by Dick, as is the upcoming A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves. In an increasingly erratic and tortured career, Dick managed to write more than 50 novels, a host of stories, and some 8,000 pages of unedited, often incomprehensible notes toward what he called his “grand Exegesis.” It’s an output that would be remarkable for any writer, but it’s all the more so for one afflicted by a legion of demons.

Agoraphobic, paranoid, possibly schizophrenic, overweight, suicidal, addicted to a raft of prescription medications (he simultaneously patronized a half-dozen doctors to keep himself supplied), a drinker, a smoker, his own worst enemy in almost every way imaginable, Dick nonetheless turned out a briskly paced and richly textured body of work. Though he spent most of his life in dismal California backwaters, he traveled mentally to other worlds, imagining places where time moved backward and the dead rose from their graves, where animals had become so rare that people bought expensive robot pets, where criminals were caught before they committed their crimes, and where eager customers bought happy memories of events they hadn’t actually experienced. Dick’s work easily places him in the company of science-fiction icons Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Robert Heinlein.

Just how he accomplished so much is, unfortunately, left obscure in this sympathetic but self-indulgent portrait. “I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside . . . with the same freedom and empathy—indeed with the same truth—with which he depicted his own characters,” explains French novelist Emmanuel Carrère. In practice, this means we get “imaginative recreations” of Dick’s actions, thoughts, and delusions, but no source notes, bibliography, or index. After dozens of pages imagining one or another hallucination or breakdown, it’s a great relief to seize on a verifiable fact, as if stumbling from a swamp onto dry land. Philip K. Dick often lost touch with reality—indeed, it became his trademark, in his life and in his art—but it’s too bad Carrère felt he had to follow suit.

—Robert Masello

More From This Issue