SCIENCE FICTION BOOK REVIEW: "What if Our World is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick" (2003)

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PLEASE NOTE: IT HAS COME TO MY ATTENTION THAT THERE ARE SOME FACTUAL ERRORS WITH THIS ARTICLE WHICH MISREPRESENT PHILIP K. DICK IN WAYS CONTRARY TO THE MAN HE ACTUALLY WAS. WE ARE DISCUSSING WHAT TO DO TO RECTIFY THIS PROBLEM, BUT IN THE MEAN TIME THE ARTICLE REMAINS UP. FOR A FULL EXPLANATION OF WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THIS STORY, PLEASE GO HERE It is somewhat sad that the New Agers have claimed Phil as their own, because I don’t think he’d like them. Though frequently a slave of his own loins, Phil was no fan of easy morality, nor easy spiritual answers, and he loathed fakers as servants of the lie, the black iron prison (to use his term) that enslaves us to the only-apparently real. Though he didn’t believe the truth was the same for every person, he did believe there was an objective truth. He was messianic, believing that the second coming was here, and the new Messiah was already on earth. I’ve often wondered if he had anyone in particular in mind for that roll. Phil more or less invented the subgenre of Religious Science Fiction. This is not ‘Christians in space’ propaganda, or hippiecrap ‘everything will be all right’ kind of stuff, instead he wrote tough theological questions, most of which have no answers, all cloaked in SF trappings. And frequently, because he had a…let‘s call it a ‘delicate relationship with reality‘, he actually came up with answers. I defy anyone to read “The Divine Invasion” and not be moved when the breach between God and Satan is healed and the world is redeemed in the latter part of the book. I defy you not to feel a sense of loss when things fall apart again at the end. I mean no disrespect when I say that this is stuff no sane person could really write about because, well, hell, they’re sane. His last book, “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” was published posthumously in 1983. It was his first published non-sf book, though he’d written several others early on in his career. As always, however, he had his next story in mind to follow it up; it was to be titled, “The Owl in Daylight.” A lot of rumors have circulated as to how far he got on this book, and what it was to be about. Sutin said it was about a guy who makes cheap science fiction movies, others have said it was the long-awaited sequel to The Man in the High Castle, and so forth. “What If Our World Is Their Heaven” actually answers this question. “Heaven” would be a remarkable book, even if it didn’t tell us about “Owl.” It’s a collection of transcribed audio interviews with Phil taped in two batches, the first on January 10th and the second on January 15th, 1982, just about seven weeks before he died. Undoubtedly they’re his last interviews, and they’ve been transcribed almost fetishistically, leaving in all the ‘uhms’ and ‘you knows’ and off-topic asides and suchlike. Reading it is, literally, reading an exact facsimile of a conversation between Phil and a slightly-better-than-casual acquaintance. Phil is, as his fans would expect, fast, funny, literate, rambling, and just a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. He is conversant in any number of subjects, and this is thrown into relief by the few subjects he discusses that he clearly has little knowledge of. Movies are the best example of this, and Phil goes on at length about film, as Bladerunner is in the final stages of postproduction at the time the interviews were taped. He’s clearly excited about the movie. He hasn’t seen it, but he’s seen the trailer – a 90 second one – which he goes on about, trying to describe it’s use of quick cuts and sequencing, but he lacks the technical vocabulary to really do it, so he babbles, kinda’ like I used to do when attempting to impress an artsy-fartsy girlfriend with some observation I made about el Greco the first time she dragged me to a museum. I used a lot of words because I didn’t know the one or two that would suffice, and in the end, what I attempted to describe was pretty much nothing unusual, and self evident anyway. Phil also saw a 20-minute ‘test reel’, which was just scenes from the movie in no particular order, with some of the gee-gosh-wow Douglas Trumble special effects thrown in. As with the trailer, Phil lacks the vocabulary to adequately explain his impressions, but the test reel gave him a lot more to talk about, and he goes on at some length about the sets, the crowds, the special effects, the props, the costumes, and the degree of realism, all of which greatly impressed him. Given how erudite the guy was, it’s rather charming to see him fumble over his words and scramble for something to say. It’s not cringe-inducing, this is just a new experience for him, and he’s fighting to make sense of it. You come out of it just sorta’ wanting to tossle his hair and say, ‘you whacky kid.’ In “Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick,” Lawrence Sutin says that Phil was impressed by the sets, but disliked the script and the direction the film was going. That may be true, but if so he gives no indication of it here. Here, he’s simply blown away by everything he’s seen, he’s even read “a” draft of the script (Though possibly not the finished one), and supports it; He expects the movie to be huge. It wasn’t. Costing about $22 million in 1982, the movie grossed only about $10 million during it’s initial release, which bankrupted it’s studio, the once up-and-coming Ladd Corporation. It became a minor phenomenon on home video through the 80s, but it didn’t actually turn a profit until the so-called “Directors’ Cut” (Which was not really a Directors’ Cut) re-release in 1992, a full decade later. Oh well. The Wizard of Oz didn’t turn a profit until it started turning up on TV at thanksgiving time, a full thirty-six years after it bombed at the theaters in 1939. (And in my opinion, neither Blade Runner nor Oz are particularly good films, though both of them are very stylish, used then-cutting-edge special effects, had great casts, and were extraordinarily pretty to look at.) In addition to Blade Runner, which takes up about 1/3rd of this book, Phil talks interestingly about his career, his writing, and some kind of unintentionally hilarious musical comments. “Gosh, Mick Jagger looks really good these days, doesn’t he?” Also a discussion of whether or not it was the Go-Gos who recorded “Johnny, are you Queer?” (It wasn’t.) Just hearing Phil attempting to carry on a conversation about Belinda Carlisle and co. is worth the price of admission. About 1/6th of the book is made up of talk about his visions in ’74, and his ongoing attempt to make sense out of them. There’s nothing in this that hasn’t been discussed more coherently elsewhere, either in Phil’s own writings, or in Sutins’ excellent book, but it’s nice to hear Phil talk about it in his own ‘voice.’ It’s also kind of reassuring to know that after all the crazy stories we’ve heard about him doing stuff like, say, declaring horror writer Thomas Disch to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist or what have you, we see that he could have ‘normal’ conversations about the ‘Stones as well. He moves effortlessly between topics. The impression isn’t that he’s crazy, but rather that he’s a sane man struggling to understand something forever just beyond his grasp. The centerpiece of the book , though, is his discussion of ‘the Owl in Daylight.’ This is truly remarkable. We actually get a picture of him hashing out the book., and, to my knowledge, this is the only time we’ve actually had a record of Phil doing the mental gymnastics that precede his novels. He does this intentionally, saying “Lets do this right,” and proceeds to talk about how he writes, what state of mind he has to be in, his drive to finish the book, and the toll it takes on him and his personal life. Nothing here is new or unique, and much of it is stuff that we’ve suspected before, but this is evidently the only time Phil really spoke of it. The only time that’s survived to reach us, anyway. It doesn’t appear to have been a secret methodology, judging from the emphasis with which he discusses it, rather it just seems like no one thought to ask him about it before. That’s entirely possible as Phil was buried pretty deep in the Science Fiction Ghetto at the time, barely known even amongst avid readers of the genre. For “Owl”, Phil started out with nothing more than a title. On January 10th he torturously pulls together several random interests du jour: Moviemaking, Sound, Sensory Awareness, and, of course, his staple Perceptions Of Reality varying from person to person. I have to tell you, it’s not very good. In fact, it’s crap. It’s a torturous idea with no characters of interest, an overly-broad playing field, and some claptrap science. It’s bad, sort of in the same way that being trapped in a room with some 12-year-old-boy who has heretofore only watched wrestling and Brittany Spears videos, while he attempts to explain, at length, why he didn’t like Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal. It sounded even more dull than his novel, “The Counterclock World,” and I began to think that it no great loss that didn’t write it. I was wrong, of course. By January 15th, just five days later, his genius has set in. His description of the book by this point is just abso-frigging-lutely brilliant! It still incorporates all of the stuff that was so stupid on the 10th, but now he’s refined it into a coherent picture, and it all works. Beyond this, he’s expanded it, he’s got a solid grip on the central character – a dullard who rips off the classics to compose movie soundtracks, “A real Burt Bacharach type” – and a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s funny, thought provoking, poignant, and better than anything I could have come up with in a million years. It is suffused with the holy fire that has forever evaded anything I’ve ever attempted to write. It is utterly amazing to see how he could take a pile of offal and in one work week transform it into something that I really feel cheated out of being allowed to read. This is the jewel of “What if Our World Is Their Heaven,” and it really answers a lot of fundamental questions about the man. Phil also answers the question of why he was so prodigious in the 50s and 60s, and vastly less so in the 70s: as I’ve said, his books were almost a kind of performance art for him. Once the idea and the characters were ‘living’ in his head, he sat down at his typewriter, and just wrote until he practically dropped, slept as little as possible, and then wrote until he dropped again, over and over again until the book was finished. During this process, which generally lasted several weeks, he lived off of nothing more than amphetamines, potato chips, single-malt scotch, and the occasional cigar. When he typed ‘the end’ on the last page, the book really was done, with nothing more to be added or subtracted, and, having excised the demon, he didn’t really think of it again. His rare attempts at self-editing were occasionally hysterical, as when he complied with a publishers request to edit his manuscript for “Radio Free Albemuth,” which resulted in him writing an entirely different novel, “Valis.” A young man can get away with torturing himself this way, and Phil could endure these marathons as much as five times a year. That kind of regimen was much harder on him in his 40s though, overweight and in poor health besides. Each book took more out of him, and physically it took much longer for him to recover. Since the mid-seventies, he never really fully shook off the deleterious effects of writing. Each book left him physically a bit less than he’d been before. Though “What If Our World Is Their Heaven” doesn’t actually say so, Phil must have had a sliding scale in his head, comparing how many stories he had left in him to how much each would shorten his lifespan. I have to wonder if this is why he was so emphatic about showing us the ins and outs of his creative process: Last chance to see. Last chance to show. He knew his time was short, and says so openly. He said that his last novel, “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” damn near killed him, and he has a sneaking suspicion that his next book might well be his last. In this, even if in no other way, he was truly prophetic. On February 28th, 1982, just forty-nine days after having nothing but a title, and just forty-four days after the final interview in this book, Phil sat down at his typewriter with a bottle of scotch and a fistful of pills and began “The Owl in Daylight.” He got a couple of paragraphs into it, and then was hit by the first of a massive series of strokes. The next morning, some friends found him slumped unconscious on the floor, and bleeding. He was rushed to the hospital, where the strokes continued throughout the day and into the night. He never regained consciousness, and the next morning, March 2nd, 1982, he died. He was just fifty-two. I am, of course, a huge and utterly unrepentant fan of Phil. He’s been an enormous influence in my life. This book provided me with closure; it’s a sort of farewell handshake, a displaced last goodbye. I strongly recommend reading it to anyone who liked him, even a little bit. PLEASE NOTE: IT HAS COME TO MY ATTENTION THAT THERE ARE SOME FACTUAL ERRORS WITH THIS ARTICLE WHICH MISREPRESENT PHILIP K. DICK IN WAYS CONTRARY TO THE MAN HE ACTUALLY WAS. WE ARE DISCUSSING WHAT TO DO TO RECTIFY THIS PROBLEM, BUT IN THE MEAN TIME THE ARTICLE REMAINS UP. FOR A FULL EXPLANATION OF WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THIS STORY, PLEASE GO HERE