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Philip K. Dick | Biography

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Early Life

Philip K. Dick and his twin sister, Jane, were born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 16, 1928. Jane died around six weeks later. Dick felt his twin's absence throughout his life, feeling as if her spirit accompanied him everywhere. He repeatedly wrote about characters who had an inexplicable twin or a phantom twin. Dick's family moved to San Francisco when he was quite young. His father, Joseph, worked for the Department of Agriculture and was transferred to Reno when Dick was five. His mother, Dorothy, refused to go, and the couple divorced. Both wanted custody of their son, but the court awarded it to Dick's mother. She moved with Philip to Washington, DC, for work and then moved back to California in 1938.

From that point on, Dick grew up in California. He graduated from Berkeley High School in 1947 and, after working briefly in radio, attended the University of California at Berkeley for one year. While at UC Berkeley, Dick read widely in philosophy. He was fond of Plato, and early in his adult life, he began to develop a view that would appear in his fiction in various ways: the idea that reality is illusory or can't be fully known.

Career

In 1952 Dick published his first short story, "Beyond Lies the Wub," which marked the beginning of an extremely productive career. He often wrote a story every two weeks. Dick published his first novel, Solar Lottery, in 1955, and followed it with a string of stories, collections, and other novels. He finished 36 novels and more than 100 short stories, along with five collections, between 1952 and his death in 1982.

Dick published almost all his work in science fiction magazines. These magazines paid poorly, so the author had to write fast to make a living. As a result, some of his work was sloppy, and despite the number of works he published, Dick remained poor through much of his life. However, some of Dick's works were highly influential and earned the author great praise. His 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, won the Nebula Award (given by science fiction writers) in 1963. Other novels won the John W. Campbell Award in 1975 (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), the British Science Fiction Award in 1978 (A Scanner Darkly), and major awards for science fiction in France and Germany. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia ranks Dick as one of the most important science fiction writers of the 20th century. The Philip K. Dick Award is a juried award given annually to the best original work of science fiction in paperback form.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) was nominated for a Nebula Award and drew praise and attention. In 1998 the science fiction news magazine Locus organized a poll of the 100 greatest science fiction novels, and the book ranked 51st. However, given the high profile of some of Dick's other works and his productivity, this novel was not considered a milestone in Dick's career until director Ridley Scott used it as inspiration for his 1982 movie, Blade Runner.

Film Adaptations

The movie Blade Runner kept true to the character Rick Deckard's job as a bounty hunter and his mission of identifying and decommissioning rogue androids. However, it radically simplified many of Dick's themes to make the story accessible to a wider audience. Blade Runner won the Hugo Award and the London Critics Circle Film Award, both in 1983. Following this initial success, Dick's works inspired a series of movie adaptations, including Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and the sequel to Blade Runner, titled Blade Runner 2049.

Changing Realities

Many of Dick's works explore multilayered and changing realities. Characters often wrestle with questions of what is real, or deal with shifting realities without being given an explanation as to why reality changes as it does. Dick uses different approaches to address this theme. For example, in the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (1966), human characters have artificial memories implanted. The Man in the High Castle is an alternative history novel in which Germany has won World War II. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) includes drugs that don't just change perceptions of reality: they change reality itself. In Valis (1981), the lead character receives visions from another entity that reveal the true nature of reality.

Factors That Shaped Dick's Life

Beyond his work, Philip K. Dick lived a complicated life. He married five times and had three children. Dick himself wrote and spoke about his unhealthy attraction toward a certain type of woman he called the "dark-haired girl." Two other factors shaped much of Dick's life: his drug use and his mental health. These influences intersected with one another, and all appear in his fiction. Dick used drugs extensively and indiscriminately for decades. There are reports of his using LSD, marijuana, mescaline, and PCP. He most often used methamphetamines to enhance his productivity. Some sources say he took as many as 1,000 amphetamine pills a week. His extensive drug use did not help his mental health issues, which were varied and longstanding. Dick blamed his mother for his sister's death; his mother kept a tombstone with Dick's name carved on it while he was growing up, which colored his worldview. He suffered from eating disorders that he traced to his sister's early untimely death. He was also agoraphobic—fearing the outdoors and public places.

Illness and Death

Dick's mental health issues came to a head in 1974. In February of that year, Dick was at home after dental surgery. A woman came to his home to deliver pain medication, and Dick's reality ruptured. He had a series of visions that he claimed revealed the underlying truth of the universe to him. These visions, which can be understood either as part of a psychotic break or as divine inspiration, continued for months, distorting his relationship with reality. He saw figures from history (specifically Rome) and intuited what he saw as hidden truths. When the visions stopped, Dick tried to kill himself. He later recorded his vision of this experience in his 1981 novel Valis and in a journal of 8,000 pages. Dick died in poverty at age 53 on March 2, 1982, after suffering a series of strokes and not long after Valis was published.

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