The late Philip K. Dick, born 86 years ago today in Chicago, is something of a cautionary figure in American literature: brilliant, prolific, often sloppy, and woefully underappreciated during his lifetime. It was only with the 1982 release of the film "Blade Runner" (loosely based on his 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") that Dick's work truly began to saturate the mainstream; by that point, he had been dead for four months.
In the ensuing three decades, Dick's novels and stories have served as fodder for dozens of Hollywood movies; they have been reissued again and again. In 2007, he became the first (and remains the only) science fiction writer to be collected by the Library of America, although to call him a sci-fi writer is to miss at least half of the point.
It's not that Dick didn't regard himself on such terms; he won a 1963 Hugo Award for "The Man in the High Castle," and throughout the 1950s and 1960s was king of the paperback original, publishing five novels in 1964 alone. None of this, though, does him justice, either as a writer or a human being.
Dick's prolificacy was the result of a variety of factors — the restlessness of his imagination, for one thing, but also financial need. During the 1950s, he was so poor he sometimes ate cat food, and as late as the 1970s, he couldn't afford a doctor for his kids.
Writing, then, was both obsession and profession, the only means of support (emotional or fiduciary) he ever had. This became more pronounced after the events of February and March of 1974 — which Dick referred to as "2-3-74" — a series of hallucinations, or mystical revelations, that unveiled to him what he ultimately decided was a more fundamental reality beneath the illusion of the everyday world.
The experience motivates the novels of the VALIS trilogy, published in the last years of his life. During this time, he also worked on a million-word manuscript called the "Exegesis," in which he wrestled with the spiritual and philosophical implications of his vision; a substantial chunk of it was published in 2011. And yet, the questions raised by this work are the same, in many ways, as those that emerge throughout his career: questions about the nature of reality, and our ability to perceive it, about what we know and what we can never know.
Dick's work is full of androids, simulacra, existential questions, alternate realities, characters who cannot know themselves. "The Man in the High Castle," which takes place in an America divided between Germany and Japan after the Axis Powers won World War II, revolves in part around a character who has written a novel imagining an Allied victory; his 1977 novel "A Scanner Darkly" involves an undercover cop whose consciousness has been so severed by a psychotropic drug called Substance D that he has begun spying on himself.
The point, of course, is that reality is nothing but a construct, a mass hallucination, consensual or otherwise. If that no longer seems a particularly radical notion, we have Dick to thank for that — "our own homegrown Borges," in Ursula K. Le Guin's phrase, for whom existence remains elusive, if apprehensible at all.