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Reflection on a Cult of Ideas

Few authors have achieved the iconic, cult-like, quasi-religious status of science fiction luminary Philip K. Dick (PKD). No living author should. It’s a right that should be reserved for the brilliant, eccentric and, yes, the dead. The author, first obscure, was soon beloved by the science fiction community of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who read his paperbacks wherever they could find them. He gained a broader readership when he was embraced by Hollywood, reportedly living long enough to see a rough cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) based on his novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? shortly before his untimely death at age 54 from complications of a stroke.


The drug use probably didn’t help. But while PKD did use amphetamines to assist him in the quick production of his earlier books, he was by all accounts not a drug addict and reportedly abandoned using such substances later in his relatively short life.


The ideas contained in his novels gave rise to such films as Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and the Adjustment Bureau. More an idea man than a stylist, PKD offered one mind-blowing concept after another, in full-fledged paranoia at corporate/government conspiracies and more. Two of his central philosophical questions are “Who am I” and “What is real?” These inquiries are the subject of PKD’s famed Exegesis – a collection from over 30,000 pages of religio-philosophical writing by PKD housed in the science fiction archives at CSU Fullerton, some of which has been published in two different volumes.


But the Cult of Philip K. Dick is not simply a widely disbursed group of enthusiasts. It ranges from people who knew and loved him to those who came to know him through his writings including, increasingly, scholars.


At the Philip K. Dick Festival held this fall at San Francisco State University, scholars, scientists and others joined together calling themselves “Dickheads” after the popular PKD themed blog “Total Dick-Head” by PKD scholar David Gill (who organized the festival) to celebrate and seriously discuss the nature of PKD, his writing, and his legacy.


Dr. Charles Reid of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory explored the connection between science and science fiction. While scholar Dore Ripley looked at “neo-noir consumerism in PKD comics”. Topics ranging from Philip K. Dick and Drugs, to PKD and Corporate/Political Paranoia were up for discussion. Noted writer and PKD Scholar Erik Davis, who worked on the editing of the current edition of the Exegesis and is writing his doctoral dissertation on it, asked the central question on everyone’s mind:


“What the fuck do we do with the Exegesis?” Adding later that “We have to have the courage to risk its meaningfulness.”


It’s perhaps the most important question anyone truly interested in PKD can ask. It’s a question I’ve asked myself over the years as I’ve studied and read the published portions of the Exegesis and the novel VALIS, which came from PKD’s encounter with the Vast Active Living Intelligence System following a trip to the dentist in 1974. It was, in essence, his direct, conscious contact with God – and a series of documents sure to be studied for generations.


Fueled partially by his science fiction work, by his mystical aura and his growing legend, the cult of Dick continues to expand.


For PKD enthusiasts, there are no mere fans of his work. There are either passionate apostles or those simply uninterested in the truth of which PKD speaks. Is it a cult of personality or a cult of ideas? At some level I believe it to be both. PKD embodied the paranoia of his novels and stories and had he lived a normal lifespan, I wonder what his reaction would’ve been to “the future”. And by “the future” I mean the 21st Century – for, to all of us who were alive at the end of the 20th Century that’s indeed what the 21st was meant to be.


Would he have been caught in Millennial fever in 2000 – the false Millennium – when news anchor Peter Jennings said that despite the actual calendar date of the millennium being 2001 that the 20th Century was the People’s Century and so be it? Would he have marveled at the millennial cults and prognostications of doom? Probably not. Based on his writings, it seems he would’ve been far more interested in something like the World Wide Web and its potential for invasion of privacy by governments and corporations. 


Neuromancer (1984), famously written on a typewriter by technophobe William Gibson, followed a nightmare vision of technology much along the lines of where PKD may have been headed. It even invented the term “cyberspace” along the way. Had PKD lived long enough to see the fruition of the cyberpunk genre and the advent of the Internet he very well would have seen much of his so-called “paranoid” vision come to life. The reality, of course, is that PKD was writing about the present time that he lived in as much as he was glimpsing into the future. He was a much reporter as a prophet. The Vietnam War, government cover-ups, surveillance, assassinations – all of these were parts of the life and times of Philip K. Dick.


Would PKD have found a place on Facebook – the final knife in the body that was privacy? Would he tweet paranoid ramblings? Would he blog the way people blog about him? Had Blade Runner not been made and had Dick not been discovered to be fuel for Hollywood, would I even be having these reflections? Well, if I wanted to be worth my salt as a science fiction reader and therefore be culturally literate, then of course.


What would he have thought of the Philip K. Dick android that was built only to have its head famously go missing on a flight from Vegas to San Francisco?


What would PKD have thought of Prozac? 9/11? The War on Terror? The Patriot Act? Secret CIA prisons? Gitmo? The Department of Homeland Security? Drone attacks?


Having read the novels, his philosophical writings, the biographies and essays I strongly believe that there is a possibility that PKD would’ve retreated from the limelight to continue to write in peace. I like to think of him living comfortably off his royalties. I like to think of him finding some inner peace.


Would PKD have embraced Prozac and the Digital Age? Would he have embraced the world that he, in essence, predicted if not inadvertently created? Unfortunately, those questions can never truly be answered.


But the world has embraced him - even if some Hollywood movie fans may not even know it. The Dickheads do.


C.E. McAuley lives and writes in Sonoma County, California.

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