“Who was Philip K. Dick?” by S.M. O’Connor

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was an award-winning author of science fiction novels, novellas, and short stories best known for the book that inspired Sir Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction/neo-film noir thriller Blade Runner (1982), which recently had a sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  Other adaptations of his works include the two Total Recall films (1990, 2012), Minority Report (2002), and the current streaming series The Man in the High Castle.  His tragic life was marred by the death in infancy of his twin sister, the divorce of his parents when he was five years old, five failed marriages, a house ransacked by unknown parties, drug addiction, and bouts of madness.  It was his tenuous grip on reality that allowed him to write science fiction (and also fantasy) stories about people what they take to be reality is a lie or there is a greater truth outside ostensible reality.  These stories have a resonance for readers and audiences in a time when mass media and advanced technology are enabling governments and corporations to fabricate events (i.e., create convincing hoaxes) and distract public attention from or misrepresent real events; while simultaneously many lies are being exposed.

Philip Kindred Dick and his twin sister, Jane Charlotte Dick, were born in Chicago on December 16, 1928.  The knowledge he had had a twin sister, but she had died mere six weeks after they were born would haunt him for the rest of his life.  They were the children of Joseph Edward Dick (1899-1985) and Dorothy Dick (née Kindred) (1900-1978).  When he was five years old, his parents divorced and his mother retained custody.  She raised him in Berkeley, California.  When he was in the seventh grade, he began to suffer extreme bouts of vertigo.  This eventually led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia, which horrified him, but other doctors would provide other diagnoses.  For about ten years, starting at fifteen, he worked at two shops owned by Herb Hollis, who was a father-figure for him: University Radio and Art Music. He attended college at the University of California, Berkeley, for one year.  In 1952, he became a professional author went on to write numerous science fiction and fantasy stories, which often involved characters who had good cause to question reality.  His first published story was ‘Beyond Lies the Wub.”  During the initial three-year-long period from 1952 to 1955, he was a prodigious writer of short stories, but thereafter he turned his hand to writing novels.  He was writing short stories and novellas that were completed every two weeks for publication in pulp magazines. This ended in part because in 1954 he met the author A.E. van Vogt (1912-2000) at a science fiction convention and the older author convinced him it was more profitable to write novels than short stories.  His first published novel was Solar Lottery, published in 1955.  Within his lifetime, forty-four novels, 121 short stories, and fourteen short story compilations were published.  In 1962, Dick won the Hugo Award for The Man in the High Castle, which depicted an alternative history where the Axis Powers won the Second Great World War and consequently Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire had conquered the United States of America and partitioned it (the way, in the real world, the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians partitioned the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the Second Great World War the Soviets, Americans, French, and British partitioned Germany).

First published in 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? introduces readers to protagonist Rick Deckard – the character played by Harrison Ford in the two Blade Runner films – in the year 1992 – pushed back to 2021 in later editions – as he maneuvers his way through the post-apocalyptic new order of things in the wake of World War Terminus.  To preserve the integrity of the human gene pool after a nuclear war, the U.N. wants humanity to migrate to the stars.  As an incentive to colonize other planets, people receive android[1] servants when they go off-world.  To own a real animal is a status symbol in a time when most animal species have gone extinct.  Poor people who want pets have to settle for owning animal-shaped robots.  Deckard owns a robot sheep.  He aspires to own a real animal and agrees to a police assignment that will enable him to earn enough money to acquire one: tracking down and destroying a group of six rogue Nexus-6 androids that became violent on Mars and fled to Earth.

Dick spent most of his life mired in poverty or near it, his life punctuated by drug addiction and five marriages (and divorces).  His life was strange because he had a fan base of science fiction readers spread out all over the world and yet most Americans had never heard of him.  He was wed to Jeanette Marlin from May to November of 1948, Kleo Apostolides from 1950 to 1959, to Anne William Rubinstein from 1959 to 1965, to Nancy Hackett from 1966 to 1972, and to Leslie (Tessa) Busby from 1973 to 1977.  He had three children, each by a different wife: Laura (born in 1960), Isolde Freya (now Isa Dick-Hackett) (born in 1967), and Christopher Kenneth (born in 1973).

He had spent much of his life in the San Francisco bay area, but one day in November of 1971 he came home to find the doors and windows of his house in San Rafael had been “blown out.”[2]  The floor was covered with water and shards of asbestos.[3]  His papers and stereo were gone.[4]  He blamed, variously, Black Panthers, Communists, and Neo-Nazis, and when an invitation to attend a science fiction convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada came, he disappeared for a month.[5]  In Vancouver, he fell in with a group of heroin addicts and tried to kill himself.[6]

While in Vancouver, he wrote Willis McNelly, a California State University Fullerton (C.S.U.F.) Professor of English, to inquire if Fullerton would be a suitable place for him to move.[7]  Professor McNelly was not encouraging.  Orange County was a Republican stronghold back then and it horrified the academic that his congressman was a John Birch Society member.[8]  After a failed suicide attempt while he lived in Vancouver, he wrote McNally from a rehab center, he moved to Orange County, California, where he spent the remainder of his life.[9]  Dick flew to LAX in 1972, where he landed with a Bible and a cardboard box tied shut with a cord, which he used as a suitcase, and C.S.U.F. alumnus Tim Powers picked him up.[10]

On October 28, 1972, Dick wrote the F.B.I. to claim that an “obviously anti-American organization” had approached him to plant coded information in future science fiction novels he might write.  He claimed that he had subsequently discovered Camp Concentration by Philip Disch had such coded information.

A few days later, on November 4, 1972, he wrote Inspector Shine with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office to state he had learnt his house in Santa Venetia had been robbed again and his realtor had sent him what remained of his belongings in the house.  Whole rooms of furniture were missing.  He blamed “neo-Nazis.”

Nevertheless, this was a productive period for him.  Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, published in 1974, was nominated for a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.

In 1974, Dick began to have a series of religious experiences that he sometimes felt were mystical in nature and at other times feared reflected his own insanity.[11]  He came to label it “2-3-74.”[12]  It began with an impacted wisdom tooth being pulled.[13]  The pharmacy sent round a painkiller.[14]  It was delivered by a beautiful brunette who wore a fish pendant and she commented it was an ancient Christian symbol.[15]  At one point, he believed the Roman Empire had never ended, that Orange County was 1st Century Rome, and he was a fugitive Christian.[16] Tessa, his last wife and mother of his only son, tried to humor him at first.[17]  In 1976, he suffered a heart attack.[18]  If a royalty check had not arrived from France, his utilities would have been shutoff.[19]  When Tessa left him in 1976, his friend Tim Powers later recalled, he seemed calm, but once he was alone later that night he made another suicide attempt.[20]

In 1976, Dick tried to write a book that would eventually become the VALIS trilogy, based on these experiences. The first draft was called “VALISSystem A.” His editor at Bantam Books, Mark Hurst, suggested many revisions.  [In 1985, Arbor House acquired the rights to “VALISSystem A” and published it as Radio Free Albemuth: A Newly Discovered Novel.]  Dick started over from scratch.  The result was VALIS, published in 1978; The Divine Invasion, published in 1980; and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, published in 1981.

In 1979, he wrote to Charles N. Brown of Locus that he wrote VALIS while possessed.

April 23, 1979

Dear Charles,

This is to let you know that after four years of research and work I have finally finished my new novel VALIS for Bantam.  In the writing I collaborated with the spirit of the 13th century Jewish Kabbalist Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia who seizes control of me from time to time, as circumstances require.  Hope all is well with you.




Philip K. Dick

      In 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, which is excerpted from the journals he began to keep when the experiences started in 1974.  It is 944 pages long.

Actor-turned-screenwriter Hampton Fancher wrote the first screenplay for Blade Runner (1982).  Director Ridley Scott (later knighted in 2003) brought in David Peoples to review it.  Fancher; British producer Michael Deeley; Alan Ladd, Jr. and his partners; and Sir Run Run Shaw were the producers.  The production companies were The Ladd Company (through Warner Brothers) and Shaw Brothers, Ltd. of Hong Kong.  It starred Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, M. Emmet Walsh, Edward James Olmos, and Daryl Hannah.  The title does not come from Dick’s novel but from “Blade Runner (a movie),” which was unproduced screen treatment written by William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) of the novel The Bladerunner by Alan E. Nourse (1928-1992).  Fancher had purchased the rights to the novel and the treatment in order to use the title.

Philip K. Dick lived long enough to know Blade Runner was being filmed but not to see it released in theaters.  On October 11, 1981, after he saw Harrison Ford interviewed on television, Dick wrote Jeff Walker of The Ladd Company, “My life and creative work are justified and completed by BLADE RUNNER.”

Dick died impoverished and little known outside science fiction circles on March 4, 1982 in Santa Ana, California after he suffered multiple strokes and a heart attack.  Within a few years, he had posthumously achieved the fame that had eluded him in life, but his daughter Isolde was frustrated as a teenager and young adult in the mid-to-late-1980s to find when she went to libraries and bookstores and asked if they had her father’s books in stock, his name meant nothing to them.

      Blade Runner was a box office bomb, but it built a huge worldwide cult following thanks to being broadcast on television, as with The Blues Brothers (1980) and The Terminator (1984).  The look of Los Angeles in the film, which combines film noir with the science fiction and horror European comic books published in France as Métal hurlant (and re-published in the U.S.A. as Heavy Metal) and the real cityscape of Hong Kong, was hugely influential on science fiction films that came a generation later, such as Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999).

This had led to release on VHS tape, Laser Disc, D.V.D., and Blu-ray of seven versions of the film: the 1982 domestic theatrical version, the 1982 foreign theatrical version, the 1982 workprint that was screened in Denver and Dallas, the 1982 San Diego sneak preview edit, the 1986 broadcast television edit, the 1991 “Director’s Cut,” the 2006 ‘Director’s Cut,” and the 2007 “Final Cut.” Sir Ridley Scott did not edit the “Director’s Cut” which was released in 1991, restored and re-released in 2006, but he did provide notes to the editor.  He did control “The Final Cut,” also known as the 25th-Anniversary Edition, released in 2007.

French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve directed the sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  Hampton Fancher and Michael Green wrote the screenplay.  It starred Ryan Gosling, Cuban actress Ana De Armas, Dutch model-actress Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Jared Leto, Carla Juri, and Harrison Ford.  Edward James Olmos reprises his role for one scene.  Dave Bautista has a small but important role.  Sean Young is not directly in the film, but her image was superimposed on another actress to play a Replicant duplicate in one haunting scene.

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriters John Povill, Ronald Schusett, Dan O’Bannon (1946-2009), and Gary Goldman adapted the short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” as Total Recall (1990), which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, and Sharon Stone.

“Second Variety,” published in 1953, was adapted as the science fiction-horror film Screamers (1995), which starred Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, and Jennifer Rubin.  Both stories have the premise that during a war, one side develops robotic killing machines that are self-replicating and start manufacturing androids that do not distinguish friend from foe.

      Steven Spielberg adapted “The Minority Report,” published in 1956, as Minority Report (2002), which starred Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow, and Samantha Morton.  Spielberg’s Amblin Television and the television arms of the two film studios that co-owned rights to the movie, Paramount Television and 20th Century Fox Television, produced for the FOX Network a television series sequel to the movie, Minority Report (2015), which starred Stark Sands, Meagan Good, and Wilmer Valderrama.

Gary Fleder directed Impostor (2002), which was an adaptation of “Impostor,” published in 1953.  It starred Gary Sinese, Madeleine Stowe, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Mekhi Phifer and leaves viewers feeling like they were punched in the gut.

John Woo directed Paycheck (2003), which starred Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Michael C. Hall, Joe Morton, and Colm Feore.  This was an adaptation of “Paycheck,” published in 1953.  The short story implied a future where having one’s memories erased had replaced non-disclosure agreements.

      Richard Linklater adapted A Scanner Darkly, published in 1977, as the dystopian A Scanner Darkly (2006).  This is an animated film produced with the rotoscoping technique, which is to say Linklater filmed a live-action film and then animators traced over the imagery.  This helps convey the disorientation and paranoia of the film’s subjects who are taking s mind-altering drug (Substance D) while living in a near-future Orange County in a time when the U.S.A. has become a police state.  It starred Keanu Reeves and Winona Rider, who are close friends, and Robert Downey, Junior.

New Zealander director Lee Tamahori’s Next (2007) is a loose adaptation of The Golden Man, a novella published in 1956.  It starred Nicholas Cage, Julianne Moore, and Jessica Biel.  The film kept the idea of government agents tracking down a man who can see the future but dropped the idea he was a golden-skinned mutant in a future when a nuclear war had caused some people to become mutants with dangerous powers.

      Radio Free Albemuth (2010) is an adaptation of VALIS, but uses the title of a book that was an early draft of VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, which was posthumously published in 1985.  It depicted an alternative past where the U.S.A. was a dictatorship in 1985 and heroes and heroines of the story received visions from V.A.L.I.S. (the Vast Alien Living Intelligence System).  Notably, Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) played Philip K. Dick in the film.

Director, screenwriter, and producer Len Wiseman made Total Recall (2012) with a script by writer-director Kurt Wimmer and screenwriter Mark Bomback.  Ostensibly, this was a fresh adaptation of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” that only reused the title of Paul Verhoeven’s film.  In reality, it reused many plot elements and even gags from the first film that were not in Philip K. Dick’s short story, though the characters never went to Mars like in Verhoeven’s film.  It starred Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho, and Bill Nighy.  Notably, Wiseman, was then married to English actress Kate Beckinsale (from 2004 to 2016).  He is best known for having made the Underworld dark fantasy/science fiction films in which she starred.

Dick’s children own and manage the rights to their father’s works through the Philip K. Dick Trust.  In 2005, sisters Laura and Isa commented on a “robotic portrait” of their father having been built for Wired Magazine’s NextFest.  They considered it “performance art.”  This was the Philip K. Dick Android Project.  The android was built in Dallas, Texas and Memphis, Tennessee.  It made its debut at Nextfest (January 24-26, 2005) at Chicago’s Navy Pier, where it met MythBusters.

The half-siblings produce film and television adaptations of their father’s works through Electric Shepherd Productions.  The company also collaborated with Boom! Studios when that comic book publishing house published Tony Parker’s adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was published from 2009 to 2011.[21]  In 2010, the comic book adaptation was nominated for an Eisner Award.[22]  In 2015, Boom! Studios announced the twenty-four-issue comic book would be re-published as an omnibus trade paperback with a new cover by Jay Shaw.[23]  Isa Dick-Hackett has taken an active hand in the production of The Adjustment Bureau (2011), which starred Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, and was adapted from the short story “Adjustment Team.”  [George Nolfi both wrote and directed the film.]  The Philip K. Dick Trust sued Nolfi, his business partner Michael Hackett, and Media Rights Capital alleging they had been underpaid because the producers claimed the copyright on the short story had expired and it was now in the public domain.[24]  A federal judge threw out this lawsuit, but in April of 2012, the Philip K. Dick estate lawyer Justin Goldstein, filed a second lawsuit in a California state court.[25] The Philip K. Dick Trust was seeking at least $500,000.[26]  Isa Dick-Hackett is also a producer of the Amazon streaming series The Man in the High Castle, which stars Alexa Davalos and English actor Rufus Sewell (Dark City).

The City of Santa Ana and the OC Film Fiesta named September 14, 2013 “Philip K. Dick Day.”[27]  This was in recognition of the attention Philip K. Dick’s residency in Santa Ana, California had brought to the town, which is the seat of Orange County.

The Philip K. Dick Trust and the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society sponsor the Philip K. Dick Award, which is presented annually to a science fiction novel published for the first time in paperback format in the U.S.A. the previous year.  The Northwest Science Fiction Society sponsors the award ceremony.


[1] Androids are robots built to resemble people, such as The Machine Man/False Maria (Brigette Helm) that impersonates the real Maria (Brigette Helm) in Metropolis (1927); The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) in Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976); Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien (1979), Bishop (Lance Henrikson) in Aliens (1986); Data (Brent Spiner) in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994); or David (Haley Joel Osment) and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001); or the Hosts in the H.B.O. series Westworld.  By contrast, in Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, the Replicants are synthetic people like the synthetic people in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the people inside the Matrix in The Matrix (1999), and the cyborg version of the Cylons with bodies that combined synthetic and robotic elements in the “reimagined” Battlestar Galactica miniseries (2003), series (2004-2009), and telefilms.

[2] Scott Timberg, “Philip K. Dick: A ‘plastic’ paradox,” Los Angeles Times,  24 January, 2010 (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-philip-k-dick24-2010jan24-story.html#axzz2xgoGz891) Accessed 09/27/18

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Scott Timberg, “Philip K. Dick: A ‘plastic’ paradox,” Los Angeles Times,  24 January, 2010

See also Andreas Garcia, Santa Ana pays tribute to Philip K. Dick,” Daily Titan, 17 September, 2013 (https://dailytitan.com/2013/09/santa-ana-pays-tribute-to-philip-k-dick/) Accessed 09/27/18

[8] Scott Timberg, “Philip K. Dick: A ‘plastic’ paradox,” Los Angeles Times,  24 January, 2010

[9] Andreas Garcia, Santa Ana pays tribute to Philip K. Dick,” Daily Titan, 17 September, 2013

[10] Timberg

See also Garcia

[11] Timberg

[12] Timberg

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Calvin Reid, “Boom! to Collect ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’” Publishers Weekly,  7 July, 2015 (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/67404-boom-to-collect-do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep.html) Accessed 09/26/18

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Brent Lang, “Philip K. Dick Trust sues over ‘Adjustment Bureau’ royalties,” Reuters, 28 October, 2011 (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lawsuit/philip-k-dick-trust-sues-over-adjustment-bureau-royalties-idUSTRE79R4YT20111028) Accessed 09/27/18

[25] Ben Child, “Philip K. Dick estate to revive legal battle over The Adjustment Bureau,” The Guardian, 24 April, 2012 (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/apr/24/philip-k-dick-adjustment-bureau) Accessed 09/27/18

[26] Ibid

[27] Andreas Garcia, Santa Ana pays tribute to Philip K. Dick,” Daily Titan, 17 September, 2013

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