Philip K. Dick Biography

Philip K. Dick was the master of reality-bending sci-fi in which life often turns out to be an illusion. His strung-out antiheroes inhabit worlds where anything is possible but nothing is what it appears to be. Big-Brother-esque paranoia fuels many of his best-known works, including The Minority Report and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (the basis of what would become the film Total Recall). The psychedelic, seemingly nonsensical question "Do androids dream of electric sheep?" captures the author's essence, and it also happens to be the title of one of his most famous short stories, later adapted into the 1982 film Blade Runner. For Philip K. Dick, nothing was trustworthy, least of all the human mind.

Facts and Trivia

  • Paranoia is a recurring theme throughout Dick’s works and paralleled the author’s own emotional struggles. Dick himself believed he might have suffered from schizophrenia.
  • Drugs are also prominently featured in Dick’s stories, particularly in A Scanner Darkly. Dick himself was a drug addict for much of his life.
  • The 2006 film version of A Scanner Darkly featured rotoscoping, a technique in which live actors are filmed and then the images are painted over to create a kind of surreal animation.
  • Although he never reaped large financial rewards for his work, Dick built up a cult—and eventually a mainstream—following for his prodigious output. In fact, Hollywood has been one of Dick’s biggest fans. Many of his stories have been adapted into films. Some, like 1990’s Total Recall, have been successful. Others, like 2007’s Next, were not.
  • Dick was a fraternal twin, but his sister died when she was just five weeks old. After his death in 1982, his ashes were interred next to hers. The "phantom twin" is a recurring motif in his stories.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1037

Philip Kindred Dick was born in Chicago on December 16, 1928, the son of Edgar and Dorothy Kindred Dick. He and his fraternal twin sister, Jane, were six weeks premature; Jane, the smaller and more frail of the two, died on January 26, 1929. When Dick was still a small boy, his mother told him about his sister’s death. As a surviving twin, he felt a mixture of guilt and anger; in later years, he sometimes attributed Jane’s death to his mother’s negligence, probably unfairly so.

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Some months after Jane’s death, the Dick family moved to Berkeley, California, and Edgar took a job in the United States Department of Agriculture’s San Francisco office. In 1933, when Edgar was transferred to Reno, Nevada, Dorothy refused to go. A strongly independent woman (she was a feminist and a pacifist at a time when those convictions placed her in a distinct minority), she chose to remain in Berkeley with Philip. A custody battle ensued, as a result of which, in 1935, Dorothy and Philip moved to Washington, D.C., where she wrote pamphlets on child care for the Federal Children’s Bureau. In 1938, they returned to Berkeley, where Philip attended high school and, very briefly, the University of California. Except for a period of a few weeks in 1972 spent in Vancouver, British Columbia, he lived in California for the rest of his life.

In Dick’s own account, he began his career as a writer at the age of twelve. That was when he learned to type—a skill at which he had to become extremely proficient in order to keep up with the pell-mell flow of his imagination. It was at age twelve that he discovered his first science-fiction magazine, inaugurating a lifelong attachment. By that time, too, he suffered from a variety of phobias and other emotional problems, connected, in part at least, to childhood traumas. As an adult, he seemed to move from one emotional crisis to another—he was married five times, attempted suicide several times, and experienced several breakdowns—but through it all he remained an immensely productive writer.

Anthony Boucher (the pen name of William Anthony Parker White), critic and writer of mysteries and science fiction and cofounding editor (1949) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, played an important role in the development of Dick’s career. Though unimpressed by Dick’s attempts at mainstream fiction, Boucher saw great promise in the young writer’s more speculative fiction and encouraged him to develop his talent in that direction. In October, 1951, Boucher accepted Dick’s story “Roog” for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; it was Dick’s first sale. In 1952, Dick sold four more stories. Soon he had established himself as one of the most prolific writers in the genre; in 1953 and 1954 he sold more than fifty stories.

In the early 1950’s, there were many outlets for science-fiction short stories, as new magazines were appearing in abundance. By the mid-1950’s, however, the boom was over; only a few magazines in the science-fiction field survived. At this time, Dick began to shift primarily to writing novels, though he continued to produce stories throughout his career. Commercial considerations aside, the novel form offered much greater scope. Solar Lottery, Dick’s first science-fiction novel, was published in 1955. By the end of the decade, he had published five more. During the 1950’s, Dick also completed a dozen mainstream novels, but publishers were not interested in his mainstream work. One of these novels, Confessions of a Crap Artist, written in 1959, was published in 1975, and several others were published posthumously.

Dick continued to write at a feverish pace through the 1960’s. His novel The Man in the High Castle, published in 1962, received the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious accolade. In the following two years, he wrote eleven novels, all of them readable, several outstanding. He was acknowledged as one of the leading figures in science fiction. Most of his books, however, earned only small advances and minimal royalties. Dick’s sustained productivity came at a high cost. By the early 1960’s, he had become a heavy user of amphetamines and a whole pharmacopoeia of medications; his dependence on amphetamines increased as the decade passed. While Dick also experimented occasionally with other drugs, he was never the LSD-inspired writer of legend. Later, he would describe the destructive impact of drugs on many of his friends and on his own life.

By the end of the 1960’s, Dick was in poor health both physically and mentally, and his output of fiction decreased considerably. In February and March, 1974, he had a series of mystical experiences that preoccupied him for the remainder of his life. He devoted some two million words to a running commentary which he called “An Exegesis,” a philosophical and autobiographical journal in which he reflected on his life and works, on problems such as the nature of good and evil, and particularly on his firsthand encounter with the divine (which, according to his mood, he was inclined to interpret in various, often contradictory, ways, sometimes debunking it altogether). He also published several novels influenced by the experiences of 1974, including Valis (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), and the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth (1985).

Only in his last years did Dick begin to enjoy financial security. An impulsively generous man, he gave without ostentation to charitable organizations and to individuals in need. Foreign rights—his books were particularly popular in France, Great Britain, and Japan—and reprints brought significant income, as did the 1982 film Blade Runner, an adaptation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The film also attracted new readers to his work, but Dick did not live to see its premiere; he died in Santa Ana, California, on March 2, 1982, after a series of strokes.

While perhaps best known today to wide audiences through film adaptations of his work—including Total Recall (1990, from “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”), Paycheck (2003), and Minority Report (2002)—Dick’s contribution to the literary form of science fiction is officially commemorated by The Philip K. Dick Award. The PKD Award is given every year for original paperback science fiction and was inaugurated after his death by fellow science-fiction novelist Thomas M. Disch.

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