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The Biographies of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick inspired more biographers than any other science fiction writer. Were they drawn to Dick’s strange life, or did they hope to learn more about his books? For anyone wanting to know Philip K. Dick, picking a biography can be hard. A definitive biography has not yet emerged, and each of the existing biographies have unique appeals. I’ve been reading books about PKD for thirty years, and find they’re revealing in two ways. First, PKD was an exceedingly complex person. Even if you’ve never read one of his novels, his personal story is as far out as his fiction. Second, if you do have a passion for PKD’s work, you’ll want to read the biographies, because Phil often weaved his own experiences into his plots and characters, making those stories deeper if you learn how and why.

But which biography to pick? The latest? The longest? PKD had five wives, two of which wrote biographies. I loved In Search of Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick (married to PKD 1959-1965) because she influenced The Man in the High Castle. And Tessa B. Dick, (married to PKD 1973-1977) has wonderful insight into Phil’s later mystical writings. I wished Kleo Apostolides (married 1950-1959) and Nancy Hackett (married 1966-1972) had also written biographies, so we’d have complete spousal coverage of Dick’s writing years.

Paul Williams and Greg Rickman’s books are out of print, yet very worthy of tracking down. Divine Invasions is excellent, but older, still a top contender. If you’re attracted to Dick’s weirdness, consider Anthony Peake’s book. However, if you only read one, a good place to start will be I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère, a French writer. Be warned though, reading one biography of PKD can draw you into the black hole of PhilKDickian madness.

About James Wallace Harris (9 Articles)
James Wallace Harris is fascinated by the concept of science fiction, its history and execution. Jim searches for science fiction where writers use scientific knowledge to explore the possibilities of what reality could exhibit beyond our current observations or extrapolates on what reality could unfold in the future. He delights in stories with original speculation that offers philosophical thought experiments which entertain our sense of wonder. Jim studies old science fiction to understand how people of the past imagined the nature of their existence.
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33 Comments on The Biographies of Philip K. Dick

  1. Richard Fahey // April 15, 2016 at 4:15 pm //

    If he were still alive today,would he have been much more famous than he was before he died?The gradual and increasing attention his work has attracted since his passing that has led to the biographies,would not have happened during his lifetime.Since then,he has become a sort of literary warrior,who has inspired his fans to want to write books about him.

    The greatness of Philip K.Dick and the literature written about him today,is due to the fact that he was an obscure figure when he was alive,whose vague recognition rested upon the fact that he was a science fiction writers’ science fiction writer and had a strong core audience abroad who read and admired him for what he was,rather than because he was a famous author.John Brunner and Michael Moorcock both penned appreciations of him and in leading SF magazines,while Brian Aldiss was probably the first person ever to write critically about him in a book,his SF history”Billion Year Spree”[that later became “Trillion Year Spree”],all in Britain.

    It’s not surprising therefore,that the first actual book about him and his work,”Philip K.Dick:Electric Shepherd”,should have been written in Australia rather than in the USA,even though it was a country perhaps better known for Fosters Lager,cork-screw hats and sheep shearing,rather than literary accomplishments!It does prove the admiration that he inspired though in his devoted readers,that eluded him in his place of birth.However,a phamplet,”Philip K.Dick and the Umbrella of Light”,was published at nearly the same time by the Canadian critic,Angus Taylor,in a country where he was once guest of honour,and I assume that even there he had a greater respect than he did at home.Once again,it showed the seeds of devotion that were growing in isolation by those who genuinely admired him.

    It is not unusual of course for authors to become suddenly famous when they die.The canonical entry of him into the LOA now however,seems to have caused as much recent hubris as important literary recognition.It is with this same fervour that his fans and authors have been inspired to write books about him.It is keeping his work and reputation alive however,and that we have to be grateful for.

  2. But Richard, that doesn’t explain all the dead science fiction writers that don’t have biographies written about them. Also, I remember when the famous article came out about PKD in The Rolling Stone Magazine and that really excited me to know more about the man. PKD was weird and fascinating.

    And there are more biographies than I listed, from other countries, or suppressed from the PKD estate.

    • Nicole Kastronis // April 18, 2016 at 11:24 am //

      It’s upsets me that the PKD society Newsletter has also been suppressed, very hard to get a hold of. I am trying to get a hold of this letter he wrote to Anthony Boucher (to find out what he said to Boucher about UBIK). It’s not even available in the SF archives at the University of Liverpool.

      Speaking of other languages there is a fascinating Encyclopedia on PKD called ‘La Machinna Della Paranoia’ an Italian reference book of sorts on him. My supervisor translated some of it for me, but not all. Hopefully one day books like these will be available in English! Google translate just doesn’t cut it when it comes to grammar most of the time. Otherwise I might have to learn Italian.

      Also one last thing Jim I really enjoyed this article, and all the comments here. I would love to collaborate with you on a piece about Dick one day. I have tons of ideas that I need to get off the ground 🙂

      • Richard Fahey // April 18, 2016 at 11:35 am //

        Dick dedicated a poem in memorandom to Tony Boucher in “Ubik”,so he was dead by the time it was published.I’m not sure what you really mean Nicole.

        • Nicole Kastronis // April 18, 2016 at 11:45 am //

          Sorry I should have been clearer, it was an essay called ‘A letter to Anthony Boucher’ published in the PKD society newsletter #30. So more of an essay.

          • Richard Fahey // April 18, 2016 at 12:03 pm //

            I see.Number #28 was the last issue of the Philip K.Dick Society that I received,so I didn’t get to read it.#30 was the final issue of the society that Paul Williams had announced he was closing down.It had something to do with this I think that I didn’t get the final two issues,as the British agent who handled my subsciption couldn’t get them.

            • Nicole Kastronis // April 18, 2016 at 12:23 pm //

              Wow you must have an amazing collection of stuff on him. And you have actual copies of the newsletter. I am jealous. I’ve only been studying/writing about him for a couple of years….there is so much out there. I only just managed to work my way through all the editions of PKD Otaku.

              On another note, can I ask you what you think about the Blade Runner sequel Richard? About Ridley Scott saying that in the film Deckard was a replicant.

            • Richard Fahey // April 18, 2016 at 1:50 pm //

              Yes,the PKDS was founded in 1983 by Paul Williams.I was really mad about his stuff back then,so I had to join.Have you read the 1975 “Rolling Stone” profile?You’ve done much better than me then in reading all those “Otaku” issues,but I did read it last year.

              I don’t think much of “Blade Runner”,so I remain cold about a sequel.There was something alluded to in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” that Deckard could be an android,but it seems to me that this will be just a cheap marketing gimmick.The’re making an industry from what began as a film inspired by a very uncommercial novel,that doesn’t do it any justice.

        • Nicole Kastronis // April 18, 2016 at 11:46 am //

          I don’t know if I am allowed to post links in the comments – but this is it.

          http://www.isfdb.org/wiki/images/e/e4/PKDSNWSLTC1992.jpg

          • Richard Fahey // April 18, 2016 at 1:05 pm //

            Yes well,he wrote “Ubik” in 1966,so he must have been discussed the initial outline and concepts with him I assume.

      • That would be fun Nicole. There are so many interesting things to explore when wondering about PKD.

  3. Richard Fahey // April 16, 2016 at 1:19 pm //

    I can see what you mean.This wasn’t meant to be the final word on the subject though.Yes,of course he did have some devoted followers in the USA,residing in isolated pockets,such as Paul Williams,who wrote the groundbreaking “Rolling Stone” article,that led to some exposure he hadn’t previously known.Following his passing,he founded the Philip K.Dick Society,that led to an increasing interest in his work by fans,and authors to write books about him,not least of all Paul,who wrote “Only Apparently Real”.Apart from the Rickman book[s],which were compiled entirely from interviews,it was exponential in being the first biography of a sort,about him.I can remember the excitement of writing to him thirty years ago this coming summer for it.I suppose like me,it had quite an amazing effect on you.

    It was more interesting than a plain biography though,in being one that combined literary criticism with his personal life and career.Paul had the benefit of having personally known him,that gave the book a sharp edge it would otherwise have lacked.I suppose that’s why it was easier from the perspective of an outside fan like Larry Sutin though,to write the first actual biography of his life,in honest and scathing detail.I’ll leave it for you to decide which book you think is the best,but Paul’s book intergrates literary criticism and his actual life in a non-linear manner.

    In fact,Paul Williams,had already written a piece about Dick nearly twenty years before OAR was published,in an underground newspaper,which was innovative,in that it was not only an article written outside of SF circles,but was,apart from some sterling reviews in SF magazines and a very few Californian newspapers,was probably the first serious profile to be published about him in the USA,even within the gated SF community.Clearly,Paul was a forward American thinker,with the vision to be able to pursue his dreams to the very end.It’s ironic though,that although he had been active in SF for many years,that he hadn’t heard of Dick until three influential authors,introduced him to his work.This proves how obscure and isolated his work and individual SF fans were back then in the USA

    What can be deduced then from the trail I’ve tried to leave above then,about why so many biographies have been written about him than other deceased SF authors?Well,for a fact,many of those authors were at least reasonably famous during their lifetimes,and had a fanbase following that attracted other SF readers because they were famous names,but I think you’ll agree,that would hardly seem to inspire devotion.Yes,but I suppose you’re thinking there’s other great SF writers who also weren’t so famous during their lifetimes,that haven’t had books written about them,and are probably largely forgotten about.I can only think that,like you and me,we think there’s nobody quite like him,that he was a genius who was incomparable.The experience of reading him was intense and unforgetable.His prose was unmistakable and riviting,as was his realistic,quirky dialogue and characterisation,while his power of invention and bleak humour were brilliant.He was also humanistic and spiritual in metaphysical matters,that gave his work a poignancy that other authors lack These same qualities drove Paul Williams,Larry Sutin and others to admire him and keep his work alive I assume.

    That isn’t a definite explaination for the quantity of books written about him since his death of course,but I can’t think of anything better at present.It seems a bit of a mystery then.

  4. The Paul Williams biography was the first I read too, long ago when it first came out. The fun of reading many biographies is seeing how our awareness of PKD has grown over time. I wish I had the time and energy to reread them all closely and compare them in detail.

    Richard, do you know why the PKD estate has blocked Anni Mini’s biography, A FAMILY DARKLY?

    • Richard Fahey // April 16, 2016 at 2:53 pm //

      I would have liked to have read the Rickman volumes,but the only other two books I read about him,were plain critical guides,which was what I wanted rather than actual biographies.They are Andrew Butler’s “Pocket Guide to PKD” and “Philip K.Dick and the World We Live In” by Evan Lampe.This last one published by Wide Books,steers clear of his metaphysical spirituality,and instead looks at Dick’s political and social concerns,that the author feels have been neglected.It’s quite a long,intense book that took some stamina to read.I have a review on Amazon if you’re interested.

      I assume that’s Kleo Mini’s daughter.I don’t know nothing about the book,but I would suppose that it probably contains material they consider offensive.I don’t know,but it seems that the reasons for their divorce was a sad turning point that led to future unhappiness that could otherwise have been very different.

  5. Anne Mini was Kleo’s daughter. When her father was dying, she would talk to PKD on the telephone. Phil remained friends with Kleo, so Anne got to meet him when she was young. Evidently he was a big help to her. She only alludes to why the estate blocked her book in this interview:

    http://www.dickien.fr/dossiers/annemini/interview_anne_mini_dick.html

    Anne Mini implies that PKD was putting people on, and let Anne in on his secret. But she doesn’t say about what. I got the slightest hint that she was saying he didn’t believe in his mystical experience.

    Her biography is for sale from used dealers, but it’s hundreds of dollars, and I assume they are review copies. It was supposed to come out ten years ago. Mini thought for years she’d settle with the estate, but evidently that hasn’t happened. I also have to wonder if the estate thinks she is lying.

    Richard, I thought since you kept up with PKD on the net, you might have heard some rumors.

    • Richard Fahey // April 17, 2016 at 8:55 am //

      I’ll have to go back to “Divine Invasions” to find out what was wrong with his marriage that he decided to divorce Kleo about the time he met Anne.I assumed they had been quite happily married,but I know he did say elsewhere,that his life became mixed-up at this time.I can only say that that it was part of what seems to have been his unavoidable bad luck.Also in DI,I remember reading that Phil’ told Anne that he had a perfectly good wive,which you can make of what you like I suppose.

      I know he wasn’t content with his writing career about this time.His mainstream efforts had totally failed him,and his latest novel,”Time Out of Joint”,did not meet with the literary success he had anticipated.It would have caused considerable angst for both of them I suppose,that didn’t help.

      Yes,he was dubious about his mystical experiences.As you know,it’s Horselover Fat who talks to “God” in “Valis”,not Dick.This should mean that he doubted the one he had in 1964 then,but didn’t seem to.

      I have a lot of sites that are sent to me on Facebook,but it’s difficult to keep up with it all.

      • Have you read In Search of Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick? She goes over the breakup with Kleo in great detail. I’m quite fond of that book, even though Anne Dick is suspect with a lot of Dick’s friends. Of all the wives, she caused Dick the most grief. Anne contacted everyone that Dick knew she could find, and many of the other biographers are dependent on her research. But she only summarizes her findings. I wish she could publish the transcripts of all the conversations she had. I wish Kleo had written a biography.

  6. Richard Fahey // April 17, 2016 at 9:43 am //

    No,but she wasn’t very sympathetic from what I remember reading about her.He was under considerable strain from taking so many amphetamines during this time to produce books,which rationally,was what manifested his sky vision.

    His first marriage lasted only six months,but he and Kleo were married for nearly ten years,which was longer than any of them.

  7. Richard, I highly recommend reading Anne’s book. There is a lot of prejudice towards her from the PKD community, but her book gives significant insights into Dick. There’s a double standard here. We don’t hold being crazy against PKD, but Dick accuses Anne as being the crazy one, and he’s convinced many to think of her that way too. The trouble is you can’t trust PKD, but he’s very convincing. PKD is like is novels — you never know what’s real. I think Anne’s biography is essential if you want to get closer to what PKD was really like.

    • Richard Fahey // April 17, 2016 at 11:52 am //

      I see.Yes well,like his novels then,the situation must be ambiguous.No definite answers can be drawn.

      His fiction and personal life seemed both separate and parallel to each other.They often split apart and diverged at the same time.

    • Richard Fahey // April 17, 2016 at 12:11 pm //

      I see.Yes well,like his novels then,the situation must be ambiguous.No definite answers can be drawn.

      His fiction and personal life seemed both separate and parallel to each other.They often split apart and converged at the same time.

  8. Nicole Kastronis // April 18, 2016 at 11:13 am //

    Tim Powers spoke about Dick in a recent podcast on Geeks Guide to the Galaxy. I love most everything the man has to say about Dick. I think there are so many biographies because Phil changed a great deal, even from day to day. Powers says he would call him up and say he was a gnostic one day, and an episcopalian the next. Powers says Dick would reply ‘What? You actually believed me?’. And of course he is critical of what he calls the ‘caricature’ of Dick. Powers version is one among many – but it’s the one I think about and ‘see’ the most in his work. I had to read the rest of his novels and short stories to write my thesis…so the biographies took the back burner. But I did very much enjoy Divine Invasions. I do wish Tim Powers would collect all his wonderful anecdotes into one book though.

  9. Nicole, it would be fun to work on something together. By the way, it drives me crazy that Ridley Scott insists that Deckard was a replicant. That ruins the story. Years ago I suggested movie makers need to take another go at the books.

    https://auxiliarymemory.com/2008/04/20/is-it-time-to-remake-bladerunner/

  10. Thanks for the overview. Personally, then, I’d probably read Divine Invasions if I should want to delve into a PKD bio.

    Dick was a phenomenon in that he both wrote efficient genre-style sf and could give it a truthful slant, a bit like Heinlen — that is, writing in a somewhat bare-bones, fast-paced style and having a serious content. And when it came to the spiritual side Dick broke the confines of the genre and became a mystic in the tradition of Swedenborg etc. I mean, Dick remained a fictioneer to the end but VALIS and The Exegesis is part of the esoteric tradition rooted in Gnosticism and Taoism.

    In the recent study Science Fiction Seen From the Right the Dick “story” is conceived thus, at the beginning of chapter 23:

    “Hereby a story about a man who met God. It’s the American SF author Philip Kendred Dick (1928-1982). He started out as a skeptic, making fun of the concept of God. Like writing about they having recently found the corpse of God, drifting in space… By this he got the mainstream of SF readers with him. How great, God is dead and now we get to hear it in an SF mode…! No God, no meaning, no higher values exist; relativism and passive nihilism is all we can adhere to, laughing ourselves to death. – This was what the early Dick signalled. But in time his basic message in this respect changed. The novels of Dick and his own biography tell us of a man touched by God.”

    More about the essay per se here, which is about science fiction and fantasy seen from a conservative point of view:

    http://lennart-svensson.blogspot.se/2016/04/book-news-science-fiction-seen-from.html

    • Richard Fahey // April 20, 2016 at 8:38 am //

      Dick’s spiritualism could be envinced from the earliest days of his writing career.In the early 1950s,he wrote the short story “Upon the Dull Earth”,that dealt with the known truth of the afterlife existing alongside “our” own,and the moral danger of resurrection.Throughout much of the stuff he wrote in the 1960s,he focused on religious experience that brought with it realised and often uncomfortable truth.

      His “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,was as you obviously know,based on an “actual” encounter with what he believed to be God,albeit one of an evil aspect,as recounted in the novel.This was his credo as to what God was at the time,at best an ambiguous mixture of both good and evil,but in “A Maze of Death”,he showed that he thought perhaps it could afterall be a power for good too.

      In the scene in “Our Friends from Frolix-8”,he didn’t mean to declare that there was no God I think.He never expected his fiction to be taken literally,and was largely speculative of course.He was rather perhaps saying,that God existed but wasn’t actually prevalent,although even this was I think some spicy ingredent to give zest to the novel.

      The main difference between the Dick of the 1960s and 70s,wasn’t I think,that he thought there was no God,as what I say above confirms,but rather that his later experiences confirmed for him that it was actually good,rather than the hostile entity he had become convinced it was.

    • svensson, this brings up several things to consider.

      1. If PKD had been an atheist and embraced the scientific world view, would he have written any of his books the way he did? I tend to think PKD was a believer of sorts, but what kind? I see nothing in Dick to think he embraced the science world view.

      2. There is a possibility that PKD made everything up for fun, just to see what he could put over. There’s always a chance that Dick had no firm beliefs at all.

      3. I’m guessing PKD was a searcher for truth that assumed there were metaphysical levels beyond this reality, and he wanted to figure them out through logic. This became his obsession. However, from my perspective, where I assume there is no metaphysical realms, this makes PKD look mentally disturbed. From reading the biographies I think PKD sometimes was a Christian, and other times, a Gnostic. He played with the I Ching, and liked some other mystical systems, but he stayed pretty close to Western thinking.

      4. We could consider PKD working in the same vein as Plato, but not Aristotle. His basic assumption was this world wasn’t real.

      5. And we have to ask if each book is meant to be a standalone conjecture about reality. In other words, PKD just like to spin off wild ideas to see what sticks.

      • Richard Fahey // April 20, 2016 at 12:55 pm //

        I think you’ve said everything that I’d have wanted to say about his theological and metaphysical concepts and viewpoint,but probably didn’t know how to say it.I don’t know if you see the Gary and Nicole Painter interview,but there he described himself as a religious anachist.His famous 1964 vision,even if just an illusion,was to my limited knowledge of the subject,morally pertinent to Gnosticism,if you think about it.

        Unlike his 1960s stuff,that was also concerned with theological musings but done in a light-headed and speculative manner,the novels inspired by his later experiences were done in a more clinical fashion that he expected his his readers to take more seriously.This seems like much more dangerous territory that doesn’t allow full creative speculation.

    • svensson, your book looks very interesting. I wish it had a Look Inside option at Amazon, so I could see the table of contents and read a sample. Do you have any control over that? It’s a little expensive for me to buy without knowing more. Your title is a bit scary though. Is the book political?

  11. Thanks for the comment, Jim Harris. I won’t go into the separate paragraphs, however, on the whole I appreciate the critical strain. I mean, PKD is now praised in all keys but was he really so great? — First, I personally belive he was sincere. He did nog make this theophany (seeing God) up. That said, the way he conceived it, was that optimal? — I’d say, his 52 clauses at the end of VALIS summing up his newly acquired, “gnostic” world view makes sense for the most. Then the VALIS novel — doesn’t! I say this in my essay and the same goes for the late period Dick whose novels lacked the allure of the mid period pieces. Dick was a novelist and he conceived his reality by writing novels, for better or worse.

    Overall, though, I’m impressed by the phenomenon of Dick who wrote Galactic Pot-Healer in 1968, about a benevolent god who reached down to a man. In 1974, the same thing — mutatis mutandum — happened to Dick IRL. This is a constant instance of fascination to a man, like me, interested in esoteric litterature.

    As for “did he mean it”, I’d say — it’s better to see the texts as such and see if they enlighten us, if they cohere based on their own premisses. In that case Galactic Pot-Healer and A Maze of Death does it but not the last novels and not even VALIS, even though VALIS overall is worth the effort.

    • Richard Fahey // April 21, 2016 at 5:15 am //

      “But was he really so great?”Well he was undoubtedly a genius,and you can’t say better than that,but even within that bubble,I suppose there’s limits.I read elsewhere,that he lacked the sophistication of Alfred Bester,the irony of Robert Sheckley,the eloquence of Harlan Ellison,and I would say he certainly couldn’t write with the lyricism of Ray Bradbury or Ursula LeGuin,as if he ever needed to or it would have suited his particular fiction.

      There’s no doubt that his prose was raw and unpolished,and couldn’t be compared to the smoother elegance of J.G.Ballard or Bob Silverberg,yet it made for a style that was unmistakable and riveting.The point is though,that all authors possess their blessed talents and are lacking in other qualities,Dick included.Despite this,he somehow managed to stand proundly above them all it seems,but afterall,as I said,he was a genius.I suppose his innate brilliance just shone through and was dazzling.I can’t of better way of putting it than that.

      “Galactic Pot-Healer” and “A Maze of Death” were works that see his power of creative invention put to it’s best,laden with speculative thought,without any didactic purpose,that could not be said of “Valis” I think,despite it’s visionary brilliance.He will be judged in the end upon his literary ability of course,where at his best he could handle any theme with ease,not the actual truth of his visions.Works like a “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” are a case in point.

  12. Richard and svensson, I can’t comment on the literary merits of PKD. I do know his books have an appeal that is growing. I’ve always been attracted to PKD because he dealt with little person. His stories focused on the personal problems of folks living in a science fiction world, rather than big plots with heroic figures saving the Earth, Galaxy or Universe. And PKD was a tragic figure himself, and that made him appealing too.

    I think PKD’s appeal to readers comes from everyday people like you and I trying to figure out a very strange and mysterious reality.

    • Richard Fahey // April 21, 2016 at 2:32 pm //

      Yes,the fact that he focused on the small scale of human life in a reality far larger and weirder than was apparent,certainly did prove very attractive to me.Unlike ourselves however,the facade of ordinary existence that protects them from the absolute truth,is revealed in it’s entirety and is often disconcerting but transformative.This balance between large and small things,was of course a very large part of his thinking that made him a genius.

  13. “Science Fiction Seen From the Right” isn’t political, page up page down. It has a traditional angle, like this: what do authors like Heinlein, Herbert, Tolkien, Lewis, Jünger, Howard, Lovecraft, Bradbury, Dick, Moorcock, Clarke and Ballard etc etc have to say about traditional values like faith, self-reliance, duty, honor, truth? This gives me the liberty to treat both right-wingers and more liberal authors for every author has some sense of values.

    The gist of the book is conservative; it’s against nihilist materialism, the scourge of our times. That said, the book is a labor of love from a long time sf-fan, having also time to delineate the development of the genre, comics and films along with looking at central authors.

    I can’t fix the “look inside” option but here’s a link to the thread on SFF World Forum where I present the book:

    http://www.sffworld.com/forum/threads/forthcoming-in-2016-science-fiction-seen-from-the-right.48895/

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