I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

by Emmanuel Carrere

Henry Holt

Philip K. Dick died in Santa Ana, California, in 1982, but he’s enjoying a long second coming in Hollywood. Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report were all based on his work, and the Web site administered by his literary estate lists ten properties either recently sold to production companies or under option for development. Director Richard Linklater (Slacker, The School of Rock) is currently adapting A Scanner Darkly, a grim novel set in an alternate reality with a strong resemblance to the California drug culture of the early 70s. Keanu Reeves will star, and Linklater will reportedly reprise the rotoscope animation treatment he used for Waking Life. Disney, meanwhile, is planning a children’s movie based on Dick’s story “King of the Elves.”

Longtime Dick fans–Dickheads–seem to be of two minds about the writer’s posthumous prominence. Although they’re pleased to see him belatedly receiving his due, there’s a lingering sense that all this popular acceptance is somehow inappropriate given his standing as a contrarian and a subversive. It was Dick, after all, who once urged an audience at a science fiction convention to “cheat, lie, evade, fake it…forge documents…pay your fines in counterfeit money or rubber checks or stolen credit cards…arrive at the courthouse in a stolen car,” and “make unnecessary long distance calls to cities on other planets” at the expense of the authorities.

In his biography, I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (originally issued in France in 1993 but recently published in translation by Henry Holt), Emmanuel Carrere points out that Dick worked hard at cultivating his image as a countercultural outlaw, but that the truth about his relationship to the American mainstream was much more complicated. Although fascinated with arcane theology and mysticism, Dick was also a devout adult convert to the definitive establishment denomination, the Episcopalian church. He hated and feared the federal government and declined to pay his taxes for several years (which got him into trouble with the IRS), but he also had enduring and not unfriendly contacts within the FBI, to whom he wrote letters denouncing science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, among others, as a dangerous communist operative. On the strength of his trippy fiction Dick was widely seen as an “acid guru” and often played up the part, but his limited experience with LSD left him terrified of the drug. His real drug of choice was speed: he was addicted to amphetamines for 20 years and used them to fuel his astounding productivity (between 1962 and ’69, his most prolific period, Dick wrote and published 17 novels and 23 short stories). But his ultimate statement on the subject of substance abuse, A Scanner Darkly, is antidrug to the point that the imaginary dope that drives the plot is called Substance D, for death. The novel’s protagonist, Bob Arctor, is both an addict and a narc–a personality as divided as his creator.

A writer attracted to double lives, Carrere gained a measure of recognition in the U.S. in 2001 with The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, the story of a man whose family and friends all believed him to be a high-ranking medical expert for the World Health Organization, but who actually spent his workdays driving aimlessly or sitting in cafes, having secretly dropped out of medical school 18 years earlier. Threatened with exposure, the pretender murdered his wife and children before they could grasp that their entire world was a lie.

Dick, of course, worried that the entire universe might be a lie. The protagonist of his 1959 novel, Time Out of Joint, is living a quiet suburban life, but gradually discovers that his all-American hometown is an elaborate set built by the government just for him. The Man in the High Castle, for which Dick won a Hugo award in 1963, is set in a richly detailed alternate reality in which the Allied powers lost World War II and the U.S. is divided into two zones, one ruled by Japan, the other by Germany. A key element of the story is a subversive science fiction novel (banned by the Reich) titled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” set in an alternate alternate reality where the Axis powers lost the war. With the help of the I Ching, some of the characters come to the conclusion that the world described in “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” is more real than the one they’re living in–knowledge that does none of them much good.

Carrere’s study of the mind behind these paranoid imaginings suffers in comparison to Lawrence Sutin’s 1989 Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (currently out of print, unfortunately). Sutin interviewed more than 100 of Dick’s intimates and associates, and provides a wealth of detail about virtually every aspect of his life, including his youthful attacks of panic and vertigo, adolescent literary efforts, relationships with editors and publishers, numerous and fleeting love affairs, and argumentative correspondence with feminist science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin. Carrere, who cites just seven interview subjects and acknowledges Sutin’s book as an “indispensable reference,” deals with some of these topics in a sentence (Dick’s earliest writings) and omits others entirely (Dick’s debates with LeGuin about the stereotyped nature of his female characters).

Sutin quotes liberally from Dick’s voluminous journals, letters, and other nonfiction writings, allowing his subject’s smart, skeptical, funny voice to permeate the biography. Carrere, on the other hand, prefers to paraphrase Dick’s voice, and it’s not always clear where he’s getting his insights. It could be the journals, letters, interviews, or none of the above: in his introduction Carrere admits to using “imaginative recreations of scenes in Dick’s life,” something that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Carrere is especially weak on the remarkable spiritual experiences Dick underwent in the spring of 1974, when he found himself in telepathic communion with a benign superintelligent being. On one occasion, Dick claimed, this entity zapped him with a beam of pink light, thus informing him that his infant son needed immediate surgery for an undiagnosed hernia. These epiphanies shaped the remaining eight years of his life–Dick wrote some 8,000 pages of exegesis exploring their religious and philosophical implications and incorporated some of this material into his subsequent fiction. Dispensing with the visions themselves in just a few paragraphs, Carrere skimps on their impact on Dick’s imagination (“I don’t have much to say about VALIS,” he writes, referring to Dick’s 1981 novel based on the encounters). Sutin’s account of this phase of Dick’s life is not only more detailed, it’s more skeptical–Dick, he notes, “seldom recounted any of the events without dropping in a new twist”–and more sensitive to Dick’s own ambivalence as to the true nature of the events.

In lieu of a conventional biography, Carrere offers an idiosyncratic mix of literary criticism and psychological analysis. His speculations about the emotional and intellectual underpinnings of Dick’s paranoid plots about fragile alternate realities are fine as far as they go, but in his efforts to pin Dick down on the couch Carrere underestimates the man’s merits as a writer. Seconding Dick’s own insecurities about his style, Carrere repeatedly refers to Dick’s “wooden” prose and “sloppy” plotting, implying throughout that the philosophical content of his fiction is its only saving grace. The criticism is grossly overstated: the quality of Dick’s prose varied wildly from book to book, but at his best he had virtues that any writer would envy. His style is chatty and fluid, he had an obliquely wicked sense of humor, knew how to create suspense, and he was an excellent observer of the absurdities of consumer society. And no matter how outre his plots got, his characters were always convincingly human, with inner lives more nuanced than the characters of most sci-fi and a lot of literary fiction too.

Carrere’s numerous plot summaries of Dick’s novels are dry, schematic, and often imperceptive, as when his analysis of the characters is limited to identifying which one is the surrogate for Dick. Missing is any sense of the particular sort of heroism embodied by Dick’s protagonists, which is not the action-oriented, he-man heroism of a Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger but a quieter, more humanistic form of valor. Dick’s main characters are usually ordinary schlubs striving against enormous odds to overcome the apparatus of deception that surrounds them. Typically they do not triumph, achieving instead the limited victory of a clearer understanding of their true situation. But even in their darkest hours they exhibit perseverance and a touching–arguably unjustified–kind of optimism. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, considered by many to be Dick’s best novel, the staff of an interplanetary pharmaceutical concern confronts a rival drug dealer whose hallucinogenic products are gradually bringing the galaxy under the control of an evil space entity. Leo Bulero, the firm’s brash but sympathetic CEO, comforts his employees with a philosophical memo that distills Dick’s quixotic hopefulness: “I mean, after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?”

Although flawed, I Am Alive and You Are Dead (the title comes from a graffito that appears in Dick’s novel Ubik) isn’t without interest. The same narrative bent that led Carrere to invent “imagined recreations” of Dick’s life has its good points: though it’s not as informative or reliable as Divine Invasions, it’s a more emotionally involving read. And for now it’s the only biography in print of an author whose cultural moment may be only just beginning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.