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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14 Responses

  1. [...] la Entropía, el escritor y científico Gregory Benford recuerda  en un reciente artículo –Philip Dick en OC- el interés que Dick manifestaba. Él (Dick) también me formulaba muchísimas preguntas sobre  [...]

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  3. Adam Crowl says:

    Thanks Greg for that insight. Reading Phil Dick got me through a rough patch in my personal life – I’m not entirely sure how, but I know I always felt more “with it” after reading him. Maybe it was the hint of the transcendent in every day life which gave the painfully mundane a bit more meaning and purpose.

  4. charles platt says:

    Phil trusted me because I quit my job as editor at Avon books when they refused to make an offer for the paperback of Flow My Tears. “I will always remember this,” he said, and he did. This I think was why he chose my interview with him in 1979 as a “test marketing” of his VALIS experience. This presented me with a terrible dilemma, because despite his masterful presentation (which I am sure he had rehearsed a lot), I didn’t believe it was an objectively real experience. So, I did something for him which I have never done for any interviewee before or since: I suppressed his more extreme claims, to protect him from himself. I decided he was too brilliant and important a writer to be discredited by his more extreme metaphysical ravings.

    However, I also went back to see him the next evening, without a tape recorder, and interrogated him much more thoroughly, to confirm my suspicion that there were not just implausibilities, but contradictions in his story. I concluded that he had narcissistic personality disorder–not so rare among science fiction writers, whose delusions of grandeur enable them to destroy and, sometimes recreate whole universes, while also feeling bitter and insecure about their lack of notoriety. He so much wanted to be recognized (as he now is, ironically, after his death). Sometimes the mind of a particularly brilliant person will oblige his needs, which I think is what happened in his case. His self-generated revelations turned him from a relatively unsuccessful writer (at that time) into a seer of higher truth. This is not to say he was cynical; he was painfully sincere. He was also too smart to become boring about it. He foresaw all the traps inherent in claiming unique status, and defused them with his humor. Also, like Timothy Leary, he had the talent of making people feel loved and important, so that no one really wanted to criticize him. And his brilliant writing also encouraged people such as myself to make excuses for him. If he were able to see the industry that has grown around his name, and the prices paid for his rarer works ($150,000 recently for a single copy of an inscribed book), I think he would be delighted and amused.

  5. Extollager says:

    Thank you for these memories — very interesting and, I think, perceptive of the man.

  6. randytravisjr says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I had actually taken for granted (and sorta forgot) how much PKD had changed my life, and I mean that in a permanent, rearranging of synapses kind of way.

    Specifically, he taught me about the giant, soft lump that resides in the middle of the collective conscious. Most people refer to it as “reality.” It is really easy to be born and subsequently stumble into this lump
    and take a nap. Probably not even waking up once the whole duration of your life. That’s how the lump grows. But if you are willing and have some guidance, it is possible to peel yourself off the lump. Once you are off, then you can see the lump for what it is and you are free to take a walk in any direction. Eventually if you walk far enough and long enough, the lump becomes but a tiny bump in the horizon.

    Reading PKD was like hearing a distress beacon emanating from a bunker at an undisclosed location, light years away from
    the lump.