Inside the archives — and mind — of sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick
The Philip K. Dick papers reside on the third floor of the Pollak Library at Cal State Fullerton, not far from where the science fiction writer spent his final decade. The space is nondescript: a small room with a few institutional tables and a door through which to request materials from an archive that stretches out of view. It’s a setting one imagines Dick might have loved when he was living here in Orange County in the 1970s, after his retreat from Northern California following a break-in at his Marin County home.
“I came home one evening and found rubble and ruin, my locked files blown open, papers of every sort gone, stereo gone, virtually everything gone, windows and doors smashed,” he wrote of that experience. “To this day I don’t know who did it. Robbery was not the motive; too many valueless items were taken, too much care to take correspondence and business records … the police to a certain extent favored the theory that I had done it myself. I didn’t. I to a certain extent favored the theory that they had done it.”
The account is pure Dick, with its swirls of conjecture and contradiction, its uncertainty about reality itself.
Dick, after all, was a mass of contradiction and uncertainty, as his more than 40 books attest. On the one hand, he was a pulp writer, churning out title after title: six in 1964 alone. On the other, he was a visionary (“our own homegrown Borges,” Ursula K. Le Guin once called him), whose fiction maps a territory that has become uncomfortably familiar since his death in 1982.
For Dick, the only question is what’s authentic, and how, or if, we can ever know ourselves. In his 1977 novel “A Scanner Darkly,” an Orange County cop goes undercover on a drug case, only to end up investigating himself. His best-known book, “The Man in the High Castle” — which won a Hugo Award in 1963 and inspired the TV series — posits an alternate universe where Germany and Japan won World War II, although there are hints, among them a novel within the novel envisioning an Allied victory, that such an outcome is more conditional than it appears.
Kaleidoscopic? Yes. Brain-bending? Without question. At the same time, where are we now if not in the world Dick made, a world of social media and virtual reality, screens and simulacra and avatars? Fake news, revisionist histories, internet hoaxes and deepfake videos: Ours is a society defined by its own artifice, which is what Dick was trying to tell us all along.
“The Man in the High Castle,” perhaps his most accomplished novel, is one of many works at Cal State Fullerton. The collection includes a “production manuscript” (a typescript with notes on fonts and chapter headings), as well as two sets of uncorrected galley proofs in long, loose sheets. “He was thirty-eight years old,” Dick writes of a character early on, “and he could remember the prewar days, the other times. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the World’s Fair; the former better world.”
To read those lines is like coming upon a precognition, a message to the present from the past. One of the clichés of science fiction is that it’s predictive, and yet, isn’t that the point of an archive such as this?
“We’re always collecting in the present for the future,” says Patricia Prestinary, Cal State Fullerton’s special collections librarian and archivist. “We look for connections. Philip K. Dick was a California writer, and late in his life, an Orange County writer. We’re preserving history in the making here.”
Prestinary makes an important point, especially in a culture as disposable as this one. At the same time, her comment highlights a central irony, since Dick’s work, like that of other science fiction writers, was not originally produced to last. His early books appeared as paperback originals, often in so-called “double” editions, in which novels by two authors were packaged back-to-back. The genre as a whole was long derided as juvenile, the stuff of fantasy.
When Willis McNelly came to teach at Cal State Fullerton, then known as Orange County State College, in 1961, he brought what he referred to as “hundreds of SF books [accumulated] over the years of a not-quite misspent youth.” He was something of an outlier. Within a few years, however, McNelly found other aficionados and by the mid-1960s had begun to teach a course in science fiction at the university.
Without McNelly, there would be no Dick papers at Fullerton, nor any science fiction collection at all. His personal library became a building block, and after he solicited manuscripts and papers from writers at a 1967 meeting of the Science Fiction Writers of America in Berkeley, the university became a nexus for the form.
In an essay written during the early 1990s, McNelly remembers receiving the manuscript of “Fahrenheit 451” from Ray Bradbury, as well as the Frank Herbert papers, which remain among the library’s most significant holdings. It was McNelly who brought Dick to Orange County after the author suffered a breakdown at the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention in 1972, and McNelly who persuaded him, like Herbert, to give his papers to the library on “permanent loan.”
That loan arrangement, established for tax reasons, grew problematic after Hollywood discovered Dick. Beginning with the 1982 film “Blade Runner” — based on the author’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — more than a dozen movie and television projects have been adapted from his fiction, among them “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and “A Scanner Darkly.”
In the 1990s, Dick’s estate sought to reclaim and sell his papers, although as yet no deal has been struck. Regardless, many originals have been removed from the Fullerton archives and replaced by photocopies (as is the case with a number of the novels) or donations from other sources.
That’s disappointing, Prestinary acknowledges, because during his time in Fullerton and then Santa Ana, Dick “became a fixture on campus,” visiting classes and giving occasional guest lectures. “It’s like he found a home here,” she says. Even so, plenty of gems remain in the collection, including correspondence and never-published work.
In a letter dated Feb. 4, 1973, to his mother, Dorothy, Dick sums up the dilemma of the working writer: “I feel good to be writing again, especially without chemicals. We do need the money; I have no choice.” Two days before Christmas 1974, he writes to Paul Williams, his future literary executor and biographer, “Empedocles may have correctly anticipated that he would come back but I doubt if he expected to come back and find himself living in Fullerton” — likening himself to a Greek philosopher in an unexpectedly lighthearted riff.
Dick signs the typed letter “Phil” in blue ballpoint and adds a handwritten P.P.S., and in the slant of the letters, their impressions, his presence begins to emanate. It’s less a ghost than a fingerprint: personal, private, not meant to be observed. This is the appeal of the archive, the opportunity to see a writer up close, informal, not so much choosing his confessions as revealing himself under the skin.
A different intimacy emerges from the creative work. The story “A Very Merry Unbirthday to You” — its title comes from “Alice in Wonderland” — revisits early 1960s San Francisco as a couple, in town for an illegal abortion, sees their marriage collapse. There are some deft turns (one character reads “Eye in the Sky,” Dick’s 1957 “science fictional novel”), but in the end, we understand why he never published it: The conflict is unsatisfyingly resolved.
In contrast, Dick’s unfinished novel “Earthshaker” offers a glimpse into the process of his work. Built around a soldier, a couple and their (yes) reincarnated baby, the fragments here include notes and an outline, as well as drafts of early pages. What’s compelling are the variations, the way a house razed for a freeway in one version, say, is destroyed in battle in the next.
“This is not the same world that it was fifty years ago,” Dick writes. “In one generation the entire fabric of world society has changed.” There it is again, that uncertainty, that contradiction, as if he were describing not the world but the methods of his composition. Each fluctuating scene and character feels like a shadow or a simulacrum, each revision a dispatch from its own alternate universe.
Ultimately, this has to do with accessibility, the way a writer opens up to us. The same might be said of literary archives, especially at Cal State Fullerton, which as a public university has a mandate to make information available not only to researchers, but also to readers, fans and the community.
In 2016, Special Collections put on a conference, produced by students, called “Philip K. Dick, Here and Now.” And on Aug. 24, the library will present materials at the Anaheim Public Library’s OC Zine Fest, showcasing a selection of science fiction zines.
“From the point of view of education,” Prestinary says, “I appreciate having his papers because it’s a good gateway for students to work with primary sources.
“His writing hooks them, and they want to know: What else? His work is asking what does it mean to be human? It’s a question that we all are asking, which is why interest in his work has increased.”
Ulin is a former books editor and book critic of The Times.
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