Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Enjoying Mainstream Dick

When I first bumped into Paul Johnston many years ago, I mentioned that Body Politic, his CWA Dagger-awarded debut, was a remarkable blend of science fiction and crime. I noticed that he blinked at my mention of science fiction, as that term can still conjure up images of rayguns and pimply faced youths discussing dilithium crystals. This is sad, as I am a reader who casts his net far and wide, often seeing it land on the shores of space.

I met up with Johnston recently as his latest novel is a mainstream, yet highly literate journey into serial killer territory: The Death List. During our chat and subsequent e-mail exchange, Johnston and I have been discussing science fiction, as he has started reading heavily in that area, which makes me feel that he may actually embark writing in this -- at times vilified -- genre. It seems that Johnston has been reading some of Philip K. Dick’s work. This may be, at least in part, because -- as I wrote a few months ago -- more than two decades after his death, Dick’s work is finally entering into the literary mainstream.

This week, The New York Times features an excellent look at the work of this late, great writer. All by itself, being featured in the NYT illustrates that Dick really has become a fixture of the mainstream.
All his life the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick yearned for what he called the mainstream. He wanted to be a serious literary writer, not a sci-fi hack whose audience consisted, he once said, of “trolls and wackos.” But Mr. Dick, who popped as many as 1,000 amphetamine pills a week, was also more than a little paranoid. In the early ’70s, when he had finally achieved some standing among academic critics and literary theorists — most notably the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem — he narced on them all, writing a letter to the F.B.I. in which he claimed they were K.G.B. agents trying to take over American science fiction.
The article is an excellent look back at Dick’s influence on mainstream culture, as well as Hollywood’s continued interest in his work.
So it’s hard to know what Mr. Dick, who died in 1982 at the age of 53, would have made of the fact that this month he has arrived at the pinnacle of literary respectability. Four of his novels from the 1960s -- “The Man in the High Castle,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “Ubik” — are being reissued by the Library of America in that now-classic Hall of Fame format: full cloth binding, tasseled bookmark, acid-free, Bible-thin paper. He might be pleased, or he might demand to know why his 40-odd other books weren’t so honored. And what about the “Exegesis,” an 8,000-page journal that derived a sort of Gnostic theology from a series of religious visions he experienced during a couple of months in 1974? A wary, hard-core Dickian might argue that the Library of America volume is just a diversion, an attempt to turn a deeply subversive writer into another canonical brand name.
Another thing that would probably amuse and annoy Mr. Dick in about equal measure are the exceptional number of movies that have been made from his work, starting with “Blade Runner” (adapted from “Do Androids Dream”), 25 years old this year and available in the fall on a special “final cut” DVD. The newest, “Next,” taken from a short story, “The Golden Man,” starring Nicolas Cage as a magician able to see into the future and Julianne Moore as an F.B.I. agent eager to enlist his help, opened just last month. In the works is a biopic starring Paul Giamatti, who bears more than a passing physical resemblance to the author, who by the end of his life had the doughy look of a guy who didn’t spend a lot of time in the daylight.
For many years when I spoke to people about Philip K. Dick, they would look puzzled, until I mention the 1982 film Blade Runner. But now when I make mention of Dick’s work, it does not leave general readers with glazed eyes and confusion, so perhaps Dick has finally escaped the SF ghetto and is a firm part of our mainstream culture. Or perhaps reality has played a trick on me? One can never tell when it appears more and more, that perhaps our reality is being transformed into the worlds Philip K. Dick created.

The New York Times piece is here.

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