Non-Fiction Reviews

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick

(2016) Kyle Arnold, Oxford University Press, £12.99 / US$19.95, hrdbk, ix + 234pp, ISBN978-0-199-74325-4


I have been an admirer of Philip K Dick’s works for probably as long as I’ve been reading Science Fiction. When anyone’s asked I’ve always cited him as my favourite SF author, maybe because he blurred the edges of belief and reality. His work is all about identity, all delivered at pace with a manic energy and I guess that appealed very strongly when I was younger. His work is not the safe territory of galactic empires or alien invasions; it is about dark thoughts and paranoia and revelations that hat you think is real really, really is not. And Blade Runner (1982). Always Blade Runner. This was the first major screen adaptation of one of his stories, based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and it came at a particularly rich time for filmed SF. Just after Star Wars (1977), rubbing shoulders with Alien (1979) and anticipating The Terminator (1984). And you can make a case for Blade Runner being better than any of them. Because unlike the others it was about what is reality – and what is fake.

That introspection was evident throughout Dick’s works (other film adaptations include The Adjustment Bureau and Minority Report, both of which ask the question: just what the hell is reality anyway?), from his first published novel, 1955s Solar Lottery, to his last, 1982’s The Transmigration of Philip Archer. In total he published 44 novels and numerous short stories.

But, and this is a big but, The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick is not about any of that (at least only tangentially). It is not about his work (though some of his stories are referenced). It is not really about his life (though some sketchy details are present). It is really about his madness.

More specifically, it was about a revelatory episode in Dick’s life that he called 2-3-74, after the date in which it occurred, and which he wrote about expensively in his non-fiction work Exegesis (2011). During this event, an alien pink light was said to have burst upon him and filled his mind with spiritual awakening. Dick spent the next few years of his life trying to work out what that meant – and he never quite convinced himself that it was God, or aliens, or just the staggeringly large quantities of drugs he consumed that caused his visions.

It all started when he saw a pizza delivery woman, who looked like his long-dead twin appeared in his imagination, wearing the sign of the fish, which Dick took as an indication that something spiritual was about to happen. He then experienced a series of visions. He felt a ‘divine presence’ had ‘taken up residence inside him’. This is the divine madness of the book’s title.

He felt that he was channelling the thoughts of his dead friend and religious guru Jim Pike. Or the Greek philosopher Asklepios. Or the prophet Elijah. And what he was channeling was a perception that the world was fake, and reality lay somewhere else, somewhere tantalizingly out of reach. His revelations ‘seized me entirely, lifting me from the limitations of the space-time matrix’. These ideas permeated his later novels, notably the VALIS trilogy.

Divine Madness is written by a psychologist and reads like a PhD thesis, so don’t expect a light read. It does string together some factual detail – it charts the tempestuous relationship Dick had with his mother, who blamed him (in Dick’s paranoid eyes) for the death of his twin sister as an infant. The twins were born early and malnourished since Dick’s mother could not produce enough breast milk for them both, and for some reason was unable to use formula milk. Dick was made to feel guilty for drinking most of the milk and leaving his sister too weak to live. It then talks about Dick’s many wives and relationships, all of which foundered on his paranoia and prodigious drug use. He wrote most of his early novels in a frenzied period fueled by speed: at one stage he was producing 12 novels a year. As he got older, he became hooked on a variety of prescription medicines which undoubtedly led to his eccentricities and instabilities – and ultimately, his premature death at the age of 53 in 1982.

Dick’s mind must have been a very strange place. Divine Madness tells the story of how, in 1971, Dick became convinced that his house had been broken into and ransacked, even though all the evidence suggests he himself broke in and trashed the place, perhaps to justify his own paranoid beliefs that the IRS, the FBI or the Black Panthers were out to get him. But he was, apparently, a charming and witty man and some of his eccentricities sound quite endearing, like the anecdote in the book about him baptizing his child with a cup of lukewarm Ovaltine and a hot dog (minus the meat) because he feared some sort of spiritual apocalypse. Or his description of an entity he called ‘Zebra’ , which he saw as a ‘spiritual presence in his physical environment’ or a mirror to another reality.

Was he mad? This book suggests his paranoia was a result of his drug use. His mind-expanding revelations, though, have been a rich source of science fiction ideas ever since.

Divine Madness is a tough read, but it is a fascinating ramble though the mind of an insane genius. A cautious thumbs up from me, though this book will not be to everyone’s tastes.

Mark Bilsborough

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