This past week I finished I Am Alive and You Are Dead, a biography of Philip K. Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the inspiration for Blade Runner) and The Man in the High Castle. Dick won the Hugo Award in 1963, and ended up being the namesake of his own sci-fi award. I’d read Do Androids years ago, and it’s one of the few sci-fi novels whose ending made me cry.
With Dick’s reputation, I expected a biography soaked in the zeitgeist of the 60’s, with all the drugs, revolutionary fervor, and avant-garde intellectual chops that characterized Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, and the rest. Dick is part of the sci-fi canon, and canonical authors exist in a special limbo between our world and the Great Conversation of literature. So I expected a bloodless account of the ideas and influences of a great man.
But the book is not that.
The closest thing I can compare I Am Alive and You Are Dead to is a “walk-in,” where you are a co-inhabitant of Philip K. Dick’s mind. And the mind of Philip K. Dick is an existential and epistemological nightmare, a turbulent, labyrinthine house of mirrors where nothing is real. The most terrifying thing is that, as the book goes on, you learn that this is Dick’s normal operating procedure, from cradle to grave.
Madman or Mystic?
There have been all kinds of articles about Dick’s madness and eccentricities, hailing him as a mad mystic and visionary (including the recent follow-up article in PW for Kyle Arnold’s new 2016 biography), but the image of Dick portrayed in I Am Alive is perhaps closer to the human who lived and wrote and not the legend he became. It lays bear his self-indulgences, his immaturity, and his toxic string of relationships, where the casualties of his lust and boredom were often young women and his own children.
And as the book illustrates, Dick’s forays into “madness” and mysticism were always self-aware and self-reflexive–as he was experiencing hallucinations or alleged religious epiphanies, he was inspecting and analyzing them as someone who is aware that they might be products of chemicals or his own biases. No one was more skeptical of Dick’s legend and genius than Dick himself. While looking back on “Faith of Our Fathers,” his contribution to the self-professed cutting edge sci-fi anthology assembled by Harlan Ellison, Carrere describes his reaction as follows:
“‘Faith of Our Fathers’ is a horrific tale. While writing it, Phil felt a surge of pride. Reading it a year later, after the deaths of Jim Pike Jr. and Maren, he saw it differently. It was still horrific, but in a new and even more distressing way. All his tricks and hobbyhorses were on display: totalitarianism, the idios kosmo and the koinos kosmos, psychedelic drugs, Ultimate Reality, God. Here was the little world of Phillip K. Dick in one package.”
Dick was plagued with such Cartesian doubt that one of his chief anxieties was that he was not himself, but rather a doppleganger or someone who had replaced the real Dick, complete with false memories like Rachael in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Nothing was as it seemed. The Ultimate Reality, Dick’s ultimate object of contemplation, was always behind another layer of illusions, and there was no way to ever know if he had found it. For anyone else, these kinds of purely philosophical problems would be navel-gazing, something to ponder for an hour while looking out a window and then put aside to get down to the business to living. But according to Carrere, matters of reality, metaphysics, and perception were the operating questions of Phil’s life, forming the lens through which he viewed every aspect of his day-to-day life.
So you can see where the dueling claims of mystic and madman come from. But in truth (at least according to the book), both were stage roles that Dick played for the benefit of his observers, his ego, and his career. The “real” Dick, if there ever was such a thing, never found the inner tranquility or blissful ignorance that insanity or religious experience supposedly granted. He never transcended anything, never settled any of the questions that haunted him, and at the end of his life he realized that maybe all of his questioning and searching had led to less than nothing. Carrere characterizes Phil’s thoughts while working on one of his last projects:
“There’s nothing more pathetic than the mistrust of immediate reality by people who never stop splitting hairs over Ultimate Reality. They always think they’re getting to the bottom of things, whose surfaces they turn away from as unworthy of their attention; they end up never knowing the flesh of the world, the softness and resistance it offers to the touch. They manage to bypass their own lives.“
The dialectic conversation between Phil and his own alter ego, Horselover Fat, provides an even more (to me) horrifying image of Phil’s life: solipsism.
“Since the day you were born you’ve been confined to the labyrinth of your brain. What you’re hearing now, all you’ve ever heard, and you’ll ever hear are the magnetic tapes of your own voice being played back to you in closed-circuit transmission. Don’t kid yourself: that is exactly what you are hearing at this very moment. It’s your own voice that’s telling you this. You sometimes let yourself be fooled by it, because the voice wouldn’t have been able to stand itself all these years without learning how to fake other voices, to echo them, to ventriloquize so that you think you’re speaking with other people. The truth is that you’re alone in there, just as Palmer Eldritch is alone in the world that he has emptied of its substance whose inhabitants all bear his stigmata.”
Someone (including Kyle Arnold) might be tempted to sort through Phil’s chaotic, ouroboros-like life and attempt to relegate everything to symptoms. Dick was suffering from schizophrenia, Dick was suffering from anxiety, Dick was suffering from paranoia. From an early age he met with a psychiatrist regularly (I believe it was weekly), and one of the key drivers of his fiction was the abuse of prescription drugs. He experienced hallucinations and amnesia. All of the symptoms of any number of diagnoses are there.
But the key question for me is this: if Dick was mentally ill, where was the line between himself and his disease? Did his schizophrenia give birth to his fascination with the ideas of idios kosmos and koinos kosmos (the difference between personal reality and shared reality, which Phil delineates in stories like Time Out of Joint)? Did his paranoia cause his obsession with ultimate reality and truth? Was mental illness the unconscious wellspring for Philip K. Dick’s stories and the source of his unhappiness, or was it his own thinking? I don’t know. It’s a Phildickian question. Maybe that’s the ‘genius’ of it all, the kernel at the heart of what makes him such an interesting person to read about: the most important questions about PKD’s nature are the ones he helped to define. Selfhood, simulacra, reality, truth…it reminds me of a quote from another android: “Who are you? Who slips into my robot body and whispers to my ghost?”
I recommend I Am Alive And You Are Dead. I don’t know if it’s the truth, or even the seminal portrait of Phillip K. Dick and his writing, but I think it’s worth reading as a cautionary tale for writers who romanticize the hermit-genius and the madman, and as a window into one of the most interesting, infuriating minds in sci-fi.