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Philip Dick: When Sci-Fi Becomes Real : Books: Was he prescient or paranoid? A flood of releases by the man whose work inspired ‘Total Recall’ will let fans judge for themselves.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Was author Philip K. Dick a brilliant, mystical visionary whose time has finally come? Or was he a justly ignored madman whose paranoid fantasies filled an endless series of lumpily written science-fiction novels?

Nine years after his death from a stroke at age 53, the American reading public will finally have a chance to find out.

Best known as the writer whose works were filmed as “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall,” Dick wrote 43 novels and hundreds of short stories, but he never managed to earn a decent living in his profession.

Despite this obscurity (most of his material has been out of print for years), Dick’s crazed lifestyle and obsessive concerns about the nature of reality and the meaning of the universe earned him a fanatical cult following--both inside and outside the often hermetic world of science fiction.

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That audience may be about to expand exponentially: Vintage Books, the prestigious paperback house, recently released Dick’s VALIS trilogy, thematically related novels about mysticism and the search for a Higher Meaning that the author wrote at the end of his life.

This trio of books is, however, only a small part of the flood of Dickiana that has been published or is due for publication this year:

* A five-volume collection of his complete short stories.

* A collection of his letters.

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* Lawrence Sutin’s “Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick,” published last year by Harmony/Crown.

* “Welcome to Reality: The Nightmares of Philip K. Dick” (Broken Mirrors Press), an anthology of stories written in the Dick style, featuring work by such prominent science-fiction authors as Thomas Disch, Norman Spinrad and Robert Silverberg.

In addition, composer Tod Machover has written an opera based on the novel “VALIS” (the first volume of the trilogy) which has been recorded on Bridge Records and performed in Paris, Boston, New York and Tokyo, and several of Dick’s works are in development as films.

“At his best, he was a fine author and explored ground that isn’t often explored in science fiction,” adds Philadelphia-based Gardner Dozois, editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. “He speculated on the nature of reality, and what the secret behind life really is.”

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“A lot of the fascination with Dick has to do with his personality,” says Michael Bishop, an award-winning science fiction author based in Pine Mountain, Ga., who has written a novel about Dick. “He has always fascinated people as a person.”

A Chicago native who spent most of his life in California, Dick lived at warp speed. Confused and crazed, he gobbled amphetamines, married five times, had three nervous breakdowns and attempted suicide at least once.

At various times in his life he believed the IRS, FBI, Black Panthers and a local easy-listening radio station were out to get him. In the mid-1970s, he claimed to have been contacted by VALIS, a “vast active living intelligence system” which told Dick the universe was a hologram and that the past 2,000 years of human history was an illusion.

This paranoia and weird mysticism is reflected in Dick’s work, which varies wildly in tone and quality. Because he labored in the underpaid ghetto of pulp fiction, Dick wrote with mind-boggling speed: He once published nearly 60 stories in two years and estimated that at one point in his life he had written 16 novels over a five-year stretch.

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That energy is only one part of Dick’s appeal. Although often sloppily written, most of his works have a narrative drive that is irresistible. More important, his plotting and personal concerns are not as weird as they appear at first glance.

Dick was concerned with what makes people human and what the nature of reality is. He was worried about the effects of electronic technology on our everyday perceptions. His books are constantly asking the Big Questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is human? What is real?

“When these books were first published, everyone thought he was so paranoid he was out of his mind,” says Marty Asher, editor-in-chief of Vintage Books. “But you read them now, and you go ‘Wow!’ The tone is so uncannily on in terms of government and communications and mass media.”

A typical Dick plot is disarmingly simple: Joe Average discovers Things Are Not What They Seem. In “Eye In the Sky,” survivors of a technological accident realize they are living in a reality projected from the subconscious of one of their fellow victims.

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The hero of “Time Out of Joint” buys a drink at a soft drink stand, only to see the drink dissolve; in its place is a piece of paper that says “SOFT DRINK STAND.”

“Total Recall,” based on the Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” features a protagonist whose memories have been surgically implanted.

Plot lines like these may have seemed totally off-the-wall 20 or 30 years ago. But today, in an era of CIA skulduggery, political trickery and sophisticated media manipulation, they resonate with a prescient moral authority.

Marty Asher of Vintage Books, whose company plans to issue three more Dick novels in December, thinks the author’s appeal spreads well beyond the politically paranoid. He believes that a younger, college-age generation, unfamiliar with Dick’s work but grappling with the same issues of meaning and reality, will connect with his novels.

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There is also an older, more sophisticated audience that may see Dick as a mainstream writer “in the sense of a Kurt Vonnegut or Thomas Pynchon, someone who uses science fiction to a higher end. I think people are ready for that now, having read Mark Helprin or Garcia Marquez; they are more accepting of the notion of having science fiction or supernatural elements in mainstream stories.”

Science fiction editor Dozois sees one other factor in the Dick revival.

“Dick is struggling to create art out of junk, and I think there’s something in the American psyche that responds to that.”


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