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Will Philip K. Dick become the new L. Ron Hubbard?

May 3, 2010

Philip K. Dick

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….

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy Smart permalink
    May 3, 2010 3:17 pm

    Oh where to begin?

    First off, Scientology is not a religion. It has proven itself to be a dangerous UFO cult with a charismatic, hypocritical, deceitful, maniacal personality as it’s inspirational and “spiritual” leader. In most of the biographical history of L. Ron Hubbard written by non-scientologists (therefore less biased) there is more than enough proof to lead one to believe Hubbard stole the main creation story from Jack Parson. So he cannot even claim, honestly, to have even invented Xenu and thetans and all the other wonderfully wacky beliefs of $cientology.

    Second, the writings of Philip K. Dick tower over L. Ron Hubbard’s. Hubbard wrote cruddy little space-operas designed for pulp and penny-a-word publications, whereas Dick was as successful at laying his brain out on page as any science fiction writer ever, on this planet or any other. Also, if we use film adaptations as a guideline for who’s work was better, Hubbard only has the craptastic “Battlefield Earth”.

    Third, both of these writers, I use the word writer very loosely in Layfeyette’s case, had numerous mental health issues that were exacerbated by illicit drugs (mesculine, speed, LSD). In the LoA edition of “Four Novels of the 1960’s” Dick had a vision of God after taking LSD. “I perceived Him as a pulsating, furious, throbbing mass of vengeance-seeking authority, demanding an audit (like a sort of metaphysical IRS agent).” So both writers are similar in their abuse of their own brains. However, Dick, who was really not a lovely person in real life, seemed content on terrorizing only those close to him. Hubbard was much more ambitious, he wanted to subjugate the entire planet.

    Fourth, I would love a copy of “Exegesis”. I would read it, endeavoring to add any useful information into my own philosophy. I would also display it proudly on my book shelf, not like my copy of “Dianetics” that I hid behind Dan Brown and Michael Crichton novels.

    Fifth, the sci-fi geek in me says Thank you.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 3, 2010 11:46 pm


      Your indignation is charming and admirable. But I must defend Scientology on one score: It is a religion, however risible. Just ask the U.S. government, which grants it a tax deduction.

      For non-Scientologists such as ourselves, the only question is whether Hubbard believed his swill, or was a complete cynic. Or it could be he was a con artist, laughing all the way to the bank. Or it could be he meant the whole thing as a spoof, and it got out of hand. Or finally, it could be that Hubbard started as a cynic, a con artist, or a prankster, but became a drinker of his own kool aid and time went by.

      You are aware I am sure, that Hubbard’s fellow sci fi authors were mocking him by the late ’40s. See Fritz Leiber’s short story, “Poor Superman.”

      And you’re welcome.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        May 4, 2010 2:19 pm

        The I.R.S. did deem the CoS religious status. The importance of being tax-exempt had over the welfare of their followers is striking, and revealing.

        You know I have asked the same questions about LRH. I go with complete cynic. He may have believed his (Parsons) logic in the beginning. Then when the business of being “clear” proved to be really, really expensive snake-oil, he had to have been gobsmaked that others continued to follow. In the end the caboose drove the train, the tail wagged the dog, and many, many people suffered.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 3, 2010 3:24 pm

    I think I vote genuine, but I’ll have to check with my Spirit Guide.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 3, 2010 11:47 pm

      Pull out your Tarot deck. As I recall, you’re pretty good with it.

  3. rachel permalink
    May 3, 2010 3:43 pm

    How did he find time to be crazy, write so much and die at the age of 53?

    And you mean to tell me that “The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike” is not science fiction?

    I think that his midnight writings would be interesting to explore, but 700 pages of them? I don’t know, it might be enough to drive you mad. Just the bit of him I read here reminds of the dark, and beautiful, and warped mind of Daniel Johnston.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 3, 2010 11:53 pm

    Um…I believe the answer to your first question: Amphetamines. In fact, amphetamines is the answer to all three parts of your first question.

    The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike is a novel of ’50s suburban anomie, featuring racism, anti-Semitism, loveless marriages, development, and a prehistoric skull.

    I love Dick in some ways, but I do think he was mad as a hatter, at least in the early ’70s. His religious writings strike me as the work of a crank.

  5. May 4, 2010 3:36 am

    Interesting comments –

    For me, the word “crazy” or “mad” is pejorative. It’s a label that obscures and dismisses rather than illuminates. The borderline between real and unreal, paranoid and prescient, are exactly the themes that PKD explores.

    To those who dismiss PKD as mentally ill, I always offer Radio Free Albemuth as prima facie evidence of sanity – the fictional attempt to come to terms with his own visionary experiences.

    In Radio Free, we encounter the essence of a lucid mind. In what I consider a brilliant tour-de-force, PKD casts himself as a “fictional character” whose skepticism of his “friend’s” visions, resonates with humor and humanity. Even the Exegesis provides ample evidence of Phil’s infinite questioning of the Valis hypothesis.

    Just as with William Blake, we’re certainly not dealing here with the garden variety schizophrenic.

    PKD questions the voices and visions that haunted and obsessed him – He even questions his own sanity. In a lesser mind or lesser artist, the Valis experiences might have caused a permanent break from reality. PKD turned it into art – and art on a very high level of consciousness. Not the ravings of a crazy man.

    It’s partly this aspect of the novel that inspired me to write and direct the film version of Radio Free Albemuth – which in an indie (“low budget” is another ill-defined pejorative, isn’t it? and really relative, i.e. low budget compared to what other movie? Avatar? Pi?) .

    If any of this interests you, check out our website and our Facebook page – Radio Free Albemuth.

    For more, you can read an article on its making in the new Film and Festivals magazine online:—Festivals-Issue-21

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 4, 2010 11:38 am

      Your understanding of the English language is different from mine, in that I do not consider words or terms like “mad” or “crazy” or “low budget” to be pejorative or dismissive. Instead, they are merely descriptive. That Dick was, at best, mentally unstable, and at worst deranged during the early 1970s seems to me beyond dispute. But that has no bearing whatsoever on whether the work he produced in this period is any good or not. Philip K. Dick is a writer of lasting quality — another factor beyond dispute. Besides, just because a writer is a raving crazy man does not disqualify him from the attention of serious readers and critics. Check out the current issue of Harper’s magazine for an essay on the early 20th century Swiss novelist and short story writer Robert Walser, who spent the better part of his last three decades in an asylum, wrote in a microscopic hand, was certifiably insane, yet influenced Kafka and is still considered an important writer today.

      The term “low budget” is even less likely to be pejorative, merely descriptive. I’d say any film with a budget of less than $10 million qualifies as low budget, although I think a case could be made that the figure should be $30 million. Lots of very fine movies are made on the cheap. In fact, one of the current problems with Hollywood (oh, there are so man!) is too much money. Less money can equal necessity, which, as well all know, is the mother of invention.

      Thank you for pointing out that Dick himself interrogated his visions, and wondered seriously if they were the product of a diseased mind. This, as you suggest, militates mightily in his favor as a writer.

      I have to say, though, that I always distrust people who refer to dead authors by their first names. Unless, of course, you knew Dick personally while he was alive. Then it’s only annoying.

      • May 4, 2010 12:33 pm

        Chauncey – you’re right, our understanding of the English language is at some variance:

        Your sentence here I do find dismissive::

        “but I do think he was mad as a hatter, at least in the early ’70s. His religious writings strike me as the work of a crank”

        Your put down of this period of his work seems based on your possibly unqualified assessment of his mental health. Fair enough that you don’t respond to these works, but PKD was dealing with issues in these later writing that at least some readers find both important and of considerable artistic merit in the way he dealt with them.

        Some of Faulkner’s stream of consciousness writing (Abasalom, Abaslom, for example) reads like the writing of an insane person – but I never heard suggested that Faulkner was insane. Though he did have an alcohol problem, we know. But what does that have to do with the quality of his work?

        Another of your sentences that begins…..

        “I love Dick……”

        illustrates why, at least in the case of this dead writer, I sometimes revert to use of first name in my comments about him. Also the fact that the lead character in Radio Free Albemuth is Philip K. Dick himself and is referred to as “Phil.”

        I refer to him five times as PKD – only once as Phil – at a point where I was trying to emphasize the issues of the man, rather than the writer.

        I never refer to Faulkner as William.

        What you mean by “low budget” is very different than was most filmmakers consider “low budget” these days. For most of the film-going audience, “low budget” is synonymous with “cheap”. We had what I would call a “modest budget” on Radio Free Albemuth. And I think we used it well.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        May 4, 2010 3:21 pm

        I do not say Dick was “mad as a hatter” because I don’t respond to his work from the early 1970s. You’re making a lot of assumptions about me, I think. I refer to him as “mad as a hatter” because he was a longtime abuser of amphetamines, had religious visions, doubted his own sanity (as you note), etc. Of course I’m not qualified to make a clinical diagnosis, but the man was clearly around the bend — which has no bearing on whether the fiction he produced in this period was any good or not. I’m making a lay diagnosis based on the available evidence. Additional evidence might change my mind, might not. As for calling him a crank, well, I’ve known a lot of cranks in my years as a newspaper and magazine journalist, and I can tell you that writing 8,000 pages of homemade religious philosophy, whether sane or not, is the very definition of crankdom.

        And of course “low budget” equals “cheap.” But “cheap” does not equal low quality.

      • May 4, 2010 4:58 pm

        The problem might be one of “labels.”

        But in point of fact, I don’t happen to think Phil was clinically “mad as a hatter” or “clearly around the bend.” I’ve read all five volumes of his letters and there is no real noticeable change in his correspondence style or clarity between the time before and after his religious “awakening.” He had his depression and romantic problems and neuroses before and after the Valis experience.

        If you want to talk about his disorderly life – that’s fine. If you want to talk about the merits of VALIS or Radio Free Albemuth or the unreadable Exegesis, that’s fine, too. But I don’t think it illuminates anything about his work by using these labels, valid or not. What’s “mad” in one century or one culture is considered “holy” in another.

        The Exegesis was intended for his own purposes – and never for publication. So to an outside eye, it is eccentric, but so what? I’m a former journalist and editor and have read plenty of “crank” writing as well. What separates “crank” from “artist” or “prophet?” Maybe it’s content. Aesthetic awareness. PKD never considered himself a prophet in real life. He didn’t stand on street corners haranguing passers by and handing out leaflets. He continued writing novels of a high degrees of literary substance and stylistic value, in my opinion at least. You don’t need to agree with or believe in his world view to find the artistry compelling- anymore than with William Blake or other writers who evolved their own philosophy and system of belief. Like Yeats, for example. Yeats’ book “A Vision” is the closest parallel. The “spirits” gave him a cohesive philosophical system and imagery for some of his best poems.

        I hope you’ll give the movie a chance……

        Like the book Radio Free Albemuth, there’s a lot more to it than the offbeat religious ideas – politics and considerable humor – at least PKD could always laugh at himself. And if that’s not the mark of sanity, than I’m not sure there is any.

  6. May 4, 2010 7:25 am

    These guys are light weights. I needed nothing up here on PurpleUmpkin. A little planet next to Pluto. We have our own planet. Do these guys? I play cards with all the Gods on Monday night. What can these guys compare to that? We travel in a drop of rain. Where are these folks.? Did all these folks ever talk about traveling up a rain bow?

    What is special here is we do not look for money and a grouping of people. We teach children to read. All over the universe. “Reading is the gateway to your dreams”. “Everything you want to be and dream come through reading” -Mayor of PurpleUmpkin Michael John McCann
    They got nothing on us baby. Tommie get up here . See the view. Chauncey get out the pen. Candice, Rachel do you want to take a fun trip?

    • rachel permalink
      May 4, 2010 8:45 am

      “I can go anywhere, take a look, it’s in a book – reading rainbow.”

  7. May 4, 2010 9:47 am

    Lets get a going. Rachel to make much of a gain to start this trip and relation we must all gather and leave from a Rain Station. These folks do not have a Rain Station. I have one. Come meet the man that will help you hop into the Rain Drop. It just so much fun
    When you leave the station to travel up the Rainbow with all your friends and family in tow. as you near, all the faces will be a glow with a smile as there is only a mile to go.

    See we are the Reading People.

  8. May 4, 2010 9:49 am

    I am a proud, get out of my way NRA person. Yep, National Reading Association. Proud of it.

  9. Die permalink
    June 18, 2011 3:06 pm

    Nah, his ramblings about religion are not “work of a crank”. It would be the same to say that the bible is the work of a crank. I think he was filtering the reality by himself, by his own senses – it is all we have, but even our eyes don’t see all the color spectrum, our noses don’t smell all there is to smell; but in the end, all you have is what you yourself feel – while the reality is out there, all we can see of it the pale shadow capted by our sensory organs.


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