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Saturday 28 May 2011

Philip K. Dick - two early British viewpoints

The novels of Philip K. Dick are likely to be familiar to most Forteans -- not because their subject matter is particularly Fortean, but because their author was virtually a Fortean phenomenon in himself, with his convoluted lifestyle of drugs, Gnostic theology and paranoia. Between the early 1950s and the late 1970s, Dick rose from being an obscure but prolific science fiction writer to a cult icon, acclaimed by everyone from counterculture dropouts to university professors and mainstream literary critics. While looking through some old bits and pieces in search of bloggable ideas, I came across two articles -- both from British magazines -- that illustrate just how dramatic this rise was.

The earlier of the two articles (first page reproduced at left) comes from the September 1966 issue of New Worlds magazine. The article was written by John Brunner -- a first-class author himself, whose career in many ways paralleled that of PKD (Brunner could almost be described as a "British Philip K. Dick"... a theme I'm going to do a blog post on some day!). At the time the article was written, Dick had already produced the great bulk of his short fiction, while no less than twenty of his novels had seen print (most of them as cheap paperback originals or magazine serializations). Despite this, Brunner makes it clear that Dick's work was largely unknown to the majority of British science fiction readers at the time.

Throughout the eight-page article, Brunner is unstintingly complimentary about Dick (his opening phrase, "The most consistently brilliant SF writer in the world" has been requoted many times)... yet he hardly ever mentions the themes or qualities that are most strongly associated with Dick today. There is a passing reference to "the malleability of externals under psychosis or drugs", but no hint of PKD's relentless paranoia or his Gnostic philosophy -- both of which are easily discernable in his writings of the 50s and early 60s.

Eight years later, in July 1974, all this had changed. Dick had published nine more novels, four of which (Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Galactic Pot-Healer and A Maze of Death) had appeared as full-priced hardbacks in the U.K., while another hardback was on the way (Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said). On the 19th of that month, the prestigious and ultra-conservative Daily Telegraph carried a four-page article about PKD in its Friday magazine (first page reproduced below), based around an interview conducted at Dick's home in California. The final words of that article show that, by mid-1974, PKD's reputation has crystallized much more clearly than it had when John Brunner wrote the New Worlds article eight years earlier: "Maybe he doesn’t write science fiction at all, but metaphysical or even theological fiction. Whatever it is, you get this feeling that he didn’t simply make it up, he somehow underwent it."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your blog about PKD. I was reading the forward to Second Variety by John Brunner and it mentions his September 1966 article in New Worlds magazine. You wouldn't happen to have a link to that article somewhere out there on the web? I have searched a little and you come up empty. If you wouldn't mind please send me an Birmingham Alabama. USA. Thanks very much, Richard.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the delay before I saw it was awaiting moderation. I couldn't find an online version of Brunner's article -- my knowledge of it comes from the original magazine which I found in a used bookstore. I scanned the first page, but I don't want to scan any more of it because I've already been told off once for copyright violation! You may be able to find it on eBay or abebooks or somewhere like that.