Philip K. Dick: A ‘plastic’ paradox


When, one evening in 1976, Philip K. Dick invited Tim Powers to his Fullerton apartment, the Cal State student expected the kind of night he often passed with the science-fiction titan: a wide-ranging conversation, fueled by wine and beer, about religion, philosophy and Beethoven.

The night began the usual way. But it took a strange turn as Dick’s wife, Tessa, and her brother began grabbing lamps and chairs. “She and her brother were carrying things out of the house,” recalls Powers. “I said, ‘Phil, they’re taking stuff, is this OK?’ ”

“ ‘Powers, let me give you some advice, in case you should ever find yourself in this position,’ Dick said. ‘Never oversee or criticize what they take. It’s not worth it. Just see what you’ve got left afterward, and go with that.’


“And then,” Powers recalls, “her brother said, ‘Could you guys lift your glasses? We want the table.’ ”

Dick was an old hand at marital dissolution. Tessa had reached her breaking point, and that evening marked the beginning of what would become his fifth divorce. The author could bounce in and out of love affairs, stints in rehab and drug overdoses -- all the while never losing his cool.

This time, though, the nonchalance wouldn’t last. After Powers left, Dick took 49 tablets prescribed for a heart condition, along with other pills. He slashed his wrist and sat in his car, parked in his garage, so the carbon monoxide would finish him off.

But he threw up the pills and his car stalled. The blood from his wrist clotted. After a quick stay in the hospital and two weeks in a psychiatric ward, Dick went home.

(Tessa Dick recalls the details, which come from Powers’ journals, slightly differently.)

In the years after his suicide attempt, Dick went on to publish “A Scanner Darkly,” “VALIS” and other novels since collected by the Library of America. (Dick is the only science fiction writer to be so honored.) He was able to see a reel from “Blade Runner,” the now-iconic adaptation of his 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” although he died before the film opened in 1982.

These days, Dick is widely considered the science-fiction novelist who most accurately foresaw our contemporary world. Several new film versions of his books are in the works, including “Radio Free Albemuth,” due out this year and set in Southern California, “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” and “Ubik.” His early novels are being reissued, most recently the Los Angeles and Ojai-set “Puttering About in a Small Land,” which Tor put out last month.


And yet, Dick’s time in Orange County, where he lived out his last decade, has been largely overlooked. That evening in 1976 captures the paradox of the era -- an incongruous one for a Berkeley bohemian. It was in Orange County that Dick was at his most stable marriage-wise and in regard to drugs. It was also there that he experienced some of the most disruptive and intense experiences of a disruptive and intense life.

Dick arrived in Orange County in 1972, after flying to LAX with a Bible and a cardboard box, doubling as a suitcase, tied closed with an extension cord. He was in some of the weirdest shape he’d ever known.

Born in Chicago in 1928, he grew up mostly in Berkeley, wrote several failed realist novels and worked in classical record stores. At times, he was reduced to eating horse meat. Dick -- who has been described, alternately, as paranoid, hilarious, childish and deeply empathetic -- wrote science fiction, he noted in 1969, because its “audience is not hamstrung by middle-class prejudices and will listen to genuinely new ideas.”

During the 1960s, he began to garner acclaim in the genre, winning a Hugo Award for his 1962 alternate history novel “The Man in the High Castle,” which imagines a world in which the Axis powers won the World War II. Still, the mainstream had no idea of who he was. “I used to look at his apartment,” recalls his daughter Isa, now 42, “see all the books he had there, and wonder if every copy of his books was right there in his apartment. ‘Is he really a real author?’”

Dick was a Bay Area fixture until November 1971, when he returned to his house in San Rafael to discover his doors and windows blown out, water and asbestos shards on the floor and his stereo and papers gone.

He would blame the Black Panthers, the KGB, neo-Nazis. But regardless of the perpetrators, he wanted out. When an offer came to appear at a sci-fi convention in Vancouver, Canada, Dick set out for British Columbia, and a month later had not returned. Eventually, he wrote to Willis McNelly, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, to ask whether that community might suit him.


“You must realize of course,” McNelly wrote back, “that Fullerton is in the heart of darkest Orange County. . . . O.C. is also the place where Nixon’s representative in Congress is a card-carrying member of the Birch Society.”

Dick’s next letter came from a rehab facility. “Dear Will,” he wrote. “Well it happened, I flipped out.”

Dick had been running with heroin addicts in Vancouver; he’d also tried to kill himself. John Birch Society or not, Orange County didn’t sound so bad.

Still, even after moving to Southern California, Dick often fell back on Bay Area reflexes. “He kept comparing Southern California to Disneyland,” remembers Tessa, “and said it was plastic, wasn’t real.”

Dick was aware of the cliché. In the novel “Radio Free Albemuth,” a narrator named Phil Dick speaks of Orange County, “far to the south of us, an area so reactionary to us that in Berkeley it seemed like a phantom land, made of the mists of dire nightmare. . . . Orange County, which no one in Berkeley had ever actually seen, was the fantasy at the other end of the world, Berkeley’s opposite.”

Novelist Jonathan Lethem, editor of the three Library of America Dick collections, calls this “a period where he seems less grounded in place.” The author’s work, Lethem says, reveals a “very strong alienation from any real environment -- it’s about Disneyland, about condos where you park your car under the building, where you barely get to know your neighbors. It’s about Nixon. It’s almost as if Dick was a spy in Orange County.”


Being far from any urban center or major attraction suited Dick just fine. “People came to us,” Tessa recalls. “Nearly every day we had visitors. One night for dinner we had two men from France, one from Germany and one woman from Sweden.”

During his last few years, his daughters -- Laura, and Isolde, or Isa -- visited the Santa Ana apartment, stuffed with encyclopedias, Bibles and recordings of Wagner operas, where he’d moved after his marriage imploded.

Isa recalls him trying to be a good father and struggling to overcome his limitations, with and without success.

During one visit, he got her excited about a trip to Disneyland, then open past midnight. “He said, ‘We’re gonna go and stay till it closes!’ But in my mind, we were there for only 20 or 30 minutes before he said, ‘Honey, my back’s really hurting.’ I think he was just overwhelmed by all the crowds.”

Isa learned quickly to read her father. “He could go from that really engaging personality to being withdrawn and closed off,” she remembers. “He’d say something like he had the flu. ‘The flu’ was usually his code.”

Tessa recalls more acute eccentricities, including Dick’s obsession with “The Manchurian Candidate,” the 1962 film in which a conspiracy is triggered by a queen of hearts. “I didn’t figure out until later,” she says, “why Phil wouldn’t let me get out a deck of cards to play solitaire.”


Of course, for all the activity of Dick’s Orange County years -- his marriage to Tessa, their divorce, the birth of his son, Christopher, the suicide attempt, the development of “Blade Runner” -- most signifi- cant is what the author came to call 2-3-74.

That was the period in 1974 when Dick either lost his mind completely or was visited, ravishingly, by God.

He had just had an impacted wisdom tooth pulled and was awaiting delivery of a painkiller from the pharmacy. When the doorbell rang, he was greeted by a beautiful dark-haired girl with a fish pendant on her necklace. “This is the sign used by the early Christians,” she said and took off.

Soon after, Dick began having nightmares and visions. He began to sketch out a theory that these were divine interventions. In his new cosmology, what looked like Orange County was actually 1st century Rome. “The Empire never ended,” Dick wrote, realizing he was a fugitive Christian in 70 A.D.

As with the break-in, ideas abound as to what really happened. For some, it’s proof that Dick was crazy or loaded up on more drugs than he would admit. Others see the visions as a sign of his relationship to the divine.

Dick himself went back and forth on the issue, arguing every possibility with equal earnestness. “In the grandest Dickian sense, it’s a mystery that will never be solved,” says David Gill, who runs the Total Dick-Head website. “Whether it was real or imagined, it was important to his life because it really mellowed him out.”


Tessa, for her part, isn’t sure. “He became more obsessive after that,” she recalls. “He had been obsessed with the hit on his house, and he shifted the focus of his obsessions. I tried to go along with it for a while.”

Dick’s health was another problem, as were his money woes. After a 1976 heart attack, he was saved from having his utilities shut off only by a royalty check from France.

In early 1982, as “Blade Runner” was nearing release, Dick’s health began to slip again. He had a stroke while alone in his condo. In the hospital, he regained consciousness, but more strokes and a heart attack killed him on March 2 of that year. He was 53.

Few of Dick’s early acquaintances would have imagined he’d live -- and die -- in Orange County. His decade in Southern California was as varied, contradictory and extreme as the rest of his life. And the contradictions would continue after his death.

“Blade Runner” opened in June 1982, yet despite enormous expectations, the movie bombed. The Times’ Sheila Benson called it “Blade crawler.” It seemed the kind of movie destined to be big in Japan.

But like Dick himself, “Blade Runner” rose again and is now seen as visionary for its view of Los Angeles as a post-ethnic, hyper-commercialized, Hong Kong-like urban hell; its melding of science fiction with film noir; and a visual aesthetic that has influenced everything from cyberpunk to “Battlestar Galactica.”


Seeing her father go from obscure to ubiquitous makes Isa wonder what he’d make of it. “He would either be laughing hysterically or saying, ‘This isn’t real,’ ” she says. “ ‘This is just a figment of my imagination.’ And he’d be totally paranoid about it -- ‘Something is wrong here.’ I just shake my head and say, ‘Dad, This is so amazing, I wish you could have had a glimpse of this.’ He would love to hear that other minds were sparked by what he wrote.”

Timberg blogs at