Published by Gregory Benford on May 10th, 2012

I met Philip K. Dick in 1964, and it struck me how funny he was. I had just read The Man in the High Castle, and expected a rather dour sort. He had a way of comically falling out of a chair. At dinner he smoked a cigar and ate spaghetti simultaneously.

When I came by to go to dinner in the 1960s, I would at times hear something like a cheap motorbike banging inside the house. It was Phil, hammering at an Olympia typewriter like a woodpecker on meth; with one letter change, he was indeed a wordpecker on meth. Once when I arrived he said, not looking up, “I can finish this novel tonight if I go straight through to dawn.” I pointed out that the speed he was on needed dilution at least, and took him to dinner. And he finished it the next morning, he said.

My being an identical twin fascinated him, as it did Heinlein. Phil thought he’d write a novel about twins, and I suppose in some way he did in some of the more confusing novels. He also asked me lots of questions about time and quantum mechanics, especially for background for Counter Clock World. He thought entropy was a great metaphor but I could never make sense of the eventual novel. In that time he was moving from wife Ann to wife Nancy, and remarked, “You’d guess that a guy who won the novel Hugo would do better with women.” I thought it a doubtful syllogism.

Then he moved to Orange County in 1972, still steamed up about an earlier break-in at his home. He imagined the FBI was responsible. I found he didn’t much like the aspects of the county that I found best, such as the beaches and ocean. He never visited my home perched high up with a view of the town and ocean in Laguna Beach. Only slowly did I realize that he was agoraphobic, so vistas and great weather mattered little. He liked churches, he said, and questioned me closely about my being an Episcopalian. He felt the gospels were powerful messages we should all study intently. He was writing an interminable Exegesis and consulted me on it, but I never read more than a few passages. Not my thing, unlike his novels and especially the short stories that snagged my attention in the 1950s.

As success came to him, he was generous to the poor. He told me in 1981 that he had made $180,000 that year and gave most of it to charities. Even though he lived pretty close to the street himself, he knew what it was like to be down, and tried to help people. The one person who would not have believed in the prominence of Philip Dick in our culture now was Phil Dick himself.

About that time I used some connections in the CIA to inquire with the FBI about Phil, and the break-in. Word came back that there was no Dick file at all. When I told him that he said they had probably destroyed it to “cover their trail.”

He did love music and spent a lot on his FM system. With Tim Powers he often listened to major symphonic works, and mentioned that he could not quite register the nuances from the left speaker. Later, Tim told me, he went to a doctor to check and found that he was losing his hearing in the left ear. “Thank God,” he said. “I was afraid it was in my speakers!”

Somehow that sums Phil up to me.

I found him hard to quite appreciate as he became more intent on the meaning of scripture, transcendental matters, and the Bishop Pike brand of Christianity. Often Phil had, shall we say, a continuity problem. He spoke of hearing a voice from the cosmic sky but what he heard from on high tended to vary often.

I was intent on running a plasma physics lab and so saw him infrequently, though I did continue to urge him to move and enjoy the pleasant aspects of the county, instead of his strip mall neighborhood. In spring 1982 I realized we hadn’t spoken for a year, so I called and made a date for dinner. He was jazzed about the rushes of Blade Runner he’d seen and wanted to talk about it.

Days later, I heard he had died. When Tim Powers called to tell me about the memorial service, I flipped open my appointment calendar and found that the day and time were precisely when we had scheduled to have dinner.

It was what we have come to think of as a Phil Dick moment.

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