Will Philip K. Dick become the new L. Ron Hubbard?
If you can think of any writer who’s having a better afterlife than Philip K. Dick, then let me me know. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has bought up rights to 39 of the late sci-fi master’s novels, according to Publishers Weekly. What’s more, next year HMH will publish a two-volume edition of the author’s fabled religious visions entitled The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
This is the umpteenth Dick revival since his death following a stroke in 1982 at the age of 53. Although Dick was already recognized as an influential science fiction author (he won the 1963 Hugo for The Man in the High Castle), he never really got the credit he craved.
He died shortly before the premier of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s landmark movie version of Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Since then Dick, whose themes include paranoia, drug abuse, alternate realities, and the fragility of personal identity, has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for sci-fi.
Movies made from Dick novels or short stories include Total Recall, with Arnold Schwarzenegger (1990); Screamers, with Peter Weller (1995); Minority Report, with Tom Cruise (2002); Imposter, with Gary Sinise (2002); Paycheck, with Ben Affleck (2003); A Scanner Darkly, with Robert Downey Jr (2006).; Next, with Nicholas Cage (2007). Upcoming, a low budget adaptation of Radio Free Albemuth, starring Alanis Morisette, and a Disney animated version of the short story “King of the Elves.”
Dick’s many science fiction novels and short story collections have already appeared in handsome editions from publishers as varied as Citadel/Twilight, concentrating on the short stories, and The Library of America, which has released three volumes collecting a total of 13 novels, all edited by Jonathan Lethem.
Dick dreamed of mainstream literary acceptance his entire career, but succeeded in getting only one non-genre novel published in his lifetime, Confessions of a Crap Artist (1975, although written in the 1950s). Since his death, however, several of his “straight” novels have been published, including Puttering About in a Small Land, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, and The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike to generally positive reviews.
Finally, in 2005 Time magazine named Ubik, published in 1969, one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. “From the stuff of space opera, Dick spins a deeply unsettling existential horror story, a nightmare you’ll never be sure you’ve woken up from,” writes Time critic Lev Grossman.
Not bad for a guy who wrote in relative obscurity, married five times, seldom left his Oakland home, suffered from agoraphobia, depression, suicidal tendencies, and, possibly, psychosis. He lived in near poverty–I once read he never made more than $12,000 a year from his writing, although I cannot find a citation this morning. Like Elvis, he had a twin who died in infancy. Like Johnny Cash, he was addicted to amphetamines. He may or may not have wrecked his mental health with LSD.
According to Dickian legend, the author was suffering after a wisdom tooth extraction on Feb. 20, 1974 when he opened the door to a courier delivering an order of Darvon. Struck by the woman’s beauty, he asked about her fish-shape pendant, and was told it was an ancient symbol of Christianity.
Dick immediately had the first of a series of intense religious visions, telling one interviewer, “I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane.” His visions continued through March (he referred to them as “2-3-74,” for “February-March, 1974”), at times under the impression he received information directly into his mind via a “pink beam of light,” reports The New York Times.
Elements of these visions appear in later novels, such as VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, but he also wrote compulsively about his visions in a journal said to run more than 8,000 pages.
“It’s not even a single manuscript, in a sense,” says Lethem, the award-winning novelist who is editing the two Exegesis volumes for HMH. “It’s an amassing or a compilation of late-night all-night sessions of him taking on the universe, mano-a-mano, with the tools of the English language and his own paranoiac investigations.”
Each HMH Exegesis volume will run about 350 pages, but if you can’t wait, or if you want to see first hand the electrified nuttiness of Dick’s unedited journals, you can find extracts at Philip K. Dick: The Official Site.
Did Dick experience a genuine supernatural visitation that gave him factual insight into the reality behind our quotidian existence? That’s highly unlikely, don’t you think? But Dick has proven himself a genius of sorts whose sci-fi novels and stories are more relevant to the way we live now than when they were written.
At the least I expect some metaphorical value–although looking at the Exegesis pages at the official site, I can’t imagine actually reading this stuff.
But if Dick’s religious visions prove to have persuasive power, could it mean the rise of a new faith? Remember, Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a sci-fi writer….