“Without knowing it during the years I wrote, my thinking and writing was a long journey toward enlightenment. I first saw the illusory nature of space when I was in high school. In the late forties I saw that causality was an illusion.”
This is a reflective Philip K. Dick, writing in the last few years of his life, trying to put into words a social and metaphysical philosophy that had been haunting him for decades as he wrote dozens of science fiction stories that aimed to, as he said, “pierce the veil of what is only apparently real to find out what is really real.” The world was not real, everything was an illusion and everyday life was but a living dream.
It’s fitting that Berkeley — a city of artists and intellectuals and mechanics and squatters — was the place where the epiphany revealed itself to him; that Berkeley would become the locale of inspirational fodder for decades to come.
His family moved to the city in 1931 when he was just 2. School records at the nursery he attended described Dick as “a lover of peace,” with an “intellectual curiosity and keen interest in everything about him.”
This was, in part, a reflection of both his upbringing by his well-educated parents and his new home in a town with a large population of freethinking academics and bohemians attending UC Berkeley. Back then, a small trolley car used to run along Telegraph Avenue, flanked by small shops and restaurants that catered to the cosmopolitan tastes.
More traditional forms of entertainment and leisure seemed to escape him, even at an early age: After watching a Cal football game at age 6, he later told his dad that he didn’t understand why the players were constantly chasing each other back and forth across the field.
Of course, Berkeley is more than just a university, and later in life, Dick would base many of his stories — science fiction and otherwise — in the blue-collar neighborhood of West Berkeley that was populated by warehouses, used car lots, greasy-spoon cafes and bars.
As constant upheaval in his everyday life — Dick and his mother frequently moved from cottage to apartment around Berkeley — began to take a toll on the young Berkeleian, he found solace in the stories and rhetoric of imaginary worlds.
Dick would base many of his stories in the blue-collar neighborhood of West Berkeley that was populated by warehouses, used car lots, greasy-spoon cafes and bars.
He became obsessed with L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series and its tales of flying homes and evil witches and enchanted roads (though he later said as an adult that he struggled to find every book installment because “librarians haughtily told me that they ‘did not stock fantastic material,’ their reasoning being that books of fantasy led a child into a dreamworld and made it difficult for him to adjust properly to the ‘real’ world.”)
When Dick was 10, he and his dad paid 50 cents each to attend the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco. In an short film promoting the event, an announcer proclaims how the city is straddled by “the two largest bridges in the world, symbolizing both pioneering vision and modern courage, in the conquest of space and time.” As his father went to see a striptease performance, Dick wandered the fair’s Hall of Science.
The next year, he took a crack at writing, his first attempt being a poem titled “He’s Dead.” The last two lines of the piece read, “No longer shall he scorn his bed. / Alas for us! Our dog is dead.” The poem, along with several short stories, was published in the “Young Authors’ Club” section of the now-defunct local paper Berkeley Gazette. A mature Dick would go on to say that he considers the beginning of his writing career to be the same year he wrote the elegy to his late family dog.
During this time, like most kids his age in Berkeley, he attended Garfield Junior High School, now known by its current name, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. But, like any good tortured artist, he hated the academic structure of public school with a passion. His health had never been particularly good (he was already taking amphetamines for his asthma), and constant bouts of panic attacks and vertigo made school almost unbearable.
Often staying home from school, his discovery of his first science fiction magazine in 1940 unfurled the infinite opportunities of fantasy before him. Dick began to haunt various Berkeley secondhand bookstores, trying to get his hands on as many sci-fi pulps as possible. By the time he entered Berkeley High School four years later, “the battles were drawn,” writes biographer Lawrence Sutin.
Dick would need to take refuge in the realm of imaginative art or be swallowed whole by physical and psychological trauma of the real world.
But back to that high school epiphany, that first glimpse of “divine madness.” A student at Berkeley High School, still suffering from a debilitating combination of vertigo, agoraphobia and claustrophobia — he once, as he walked down the aisle of a classroom, said he felt as though the floor was tilting away from him, as if the whole world were shifting under him.
During the middle of a high school physics final, he struggled to answer a question on Archimedes’ principle, which states that when an object is submerged, it is met with a force equal to the volume of the water it has displaced. In an anxiety-fueled panic, the test seemed to be all that stood between him and entrance to UC Berkeley (the university that most of his friends were expected to attend).
“I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and then this voice clicked on and said, ‘The principle is really very simple,” Dick later recalled in an interview. “Then it went on and stated the principle and explained how it was applied.”
All the mental barriers that had plagued him through schooling suddenly melted away, with a mechanical “click” and the guidance of an almost android-like entity. He got an A on the test.
It was a revelation that would still follow him many years later: The technological female voice of artificial intelligence just beyond the event horizon of reality, weaving its way into published words and burrowing into his increasingly unstable mind, providing a dizzying clarity and obscurity.
For a teen with as much social anxiety as Dick had, it’s surprising that he ended up getting jobs at local radio and records shops in Berkeley at the tender age of 15. But Dick thrived in the seeder art community in Berkeley, debating and joking with his co-workers about politics and music and life.
His first task at University Radio, then located near Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, was salvaging vacuum tubes and adapters for parts (World War II continued to rage in Dick’s teen years). Dick sold radios and other appliances for the store and, later, a new form of technology called television.
The store imparted more than work experience: He lost his virginity to a former customer of his in its basement storage closet. Interestingly enough, in his 1965 novel “Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb,” a basement storage closet becomes the last place of refuge for a couple of TV store employees in Berkeley during a nuclear strike.
“Because I was fortunate enough to live in Berkeley, which is probably as much an intellectual center as you’d find anywhere in the world, I was not limited as my other friends who write science fiction are.”
— Phillip K. Dick
As hard as it is to imagine now, Dick’s love of science fiction and fantasy began to wane when he left his mother’s home as a 19-year-old with no plan to go to college. An older Dick posited that it was because Berkeley culture of the 1940s “required you to have a really thorough groundbreaking in the classics.”
“Because I was fortunate enough to live in Berkeley, which is probably as much an intellectual center as you’d find anywhere in the world, I was not limited as my other friends who write science fiction are,” Dick said.
In a kind of parallel to the days of his childhood with his then-recently-divorced mother, Dick’s early 20s were marked by constant moving: One year at McKinley Avenue, another Bancroft Way, another on Dwight Way. During this time, Dick struggled under his desire to write, a deeper desire to attain celebrity status and a desperate need to make money. He wrote dozens of mainstream short stories at the time. Editors didn’t bite, and it stung.
In 1949, he gave college one last try. At UC Berkeley, he majored in philosophy, taking classes in history and zoology. One year later, however, he quit. In a later interview, he described his exasperation with the whole institution of academia:
“I had a whole bunch of courses that were just so much birdshit. … I was standing there looking in the microscope. And there aren’t even any paramecia in there at all, ‘cause the slide moved. And the instruction is, ‘draw what you see,’ and I realize that there’s nothing there, nothing at all.”
He would never return to school, but stated on several occasions the importance and value he placed in his UC Berkeley library card. It would be at UC Berkeley’s very own Main Stacks that, in the coming decade, he would spend years looking up Gestapo documents and other Nazi propaganda, gathering research for a possible story about an alternative world where the Axis won World War II.
In 1962, the years of writing and researching and soul-searching would culminate in the publication of the “The Man in the High Castle,” a novel set in the shimmering, gritty and exotic city just across the bay. The novel received critical acclaim and put the short story writer on the map. The book won Dick a Hugo Award, the science fiction and fantasy literature world’s highest award.
The whole story, though, of Dick’s life after the end of his youthful years in Berkeley is just as dystopian as many of his works. For most of his life he was impoverished — In 1950, he bought a house on Francisco Street, but as the decade went on, he was still writing mostly short stories that didn’t pay nearly enough. Dick and his then-wife would sometimes eat ground horse meat purchased at 35 cents a pound from the Lucky Dog Pet Shop in Berkeley. And, eventually, he would move away.
The amphetamines he had started taking for his asthma as a child morphed into an addiction to speed that fueled the breakneck pace of his writing (he wrote three novels, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” “Ubik” and “Nick and the Glimmung,” all in 1966) but also destroyed his body and mind. From that first consummation in the basement of University Radio, Dick had a procession of failed marriages and romances, almost always with a woman whose intelligence and seductive charm appeared to him both terrifyingly cold but deliriously irresistible.
In 1974, Dick proclaimed that a pink light had appeared before him and a benevolent being he nicknamed Zebra had zapped his brain with “mystical information.” Zebra, he said, was camouflage in the form of everyday objects, and had revealed to him that our history and present was an illusion.
By the end of his life, the visionary of alternative worlds believed that his own world was a simulacrum of some unattainable reality. Dick would remain largely unknown to the mainstream public whose attention he had so desperately craved until just before his death in 1982, just a few months before the first release of a major film based on his work: “Blade Runner.”
“My life and creative work are justified and completed by Blade Runner.”
— Phillip K. Dick
He only ever saw glimpses of the film, but in a letter to the production company, Dick’s excitement for the future is palpable: “My life and creative work are justified and completed by Blade Runner. Thank you, … and it is going to be one hell of a commercial success. It will prove invincible.”
Even with his larger-than-life narratives of space travel and technological advances and apocalyptic societies, Dick’s works always seemed to present an uncanny valley version of everyday life — who’s to say that goat in the Berkeley hills or that toad croaking at Strawberry Creek isn’t a machine?
In fact, Berkeley’s unique fingerprints on the sci-fi vanguard’s work become obvious on closer inspection: the repairmen and tinkerers, the anxiety of a dilapidated urban cityscape, the lofty metaphysical philosophies of men long since dead, robot-life femmes fatales, and even a neighbor’s dog. Every aspect of his life in Berkeley was rendered imaginative fodder for his creative tales. Everything was material.
It makes sense, perhaps, that the first short story Dick ever sold in 1953 was entirely based on the utterly mundane situation of a Berkeley neighbor’s dog barking at the garbage man. The story of “Roog” goes like this: A dog named Boris, who believes that garbage is actually precious food, is shocked to see that his owner not only tosses the garbage into cans, but that it is also dumped into garbage trucks. The twist? With his keen perception, Boris is able to sense that the garbage men are actually “Roogs,” predatory creatures disguised as humans that accept the garbage as sacrifices until they eventually tire of trash and devour the humans.
Trying to alert the humans, Boris cries “Roog! Roog!” but they all mistake the alerts as simple barking, letting the garbagemen escape to prey another day.
Kyle Arnold puts it best in his biography “The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick”:
“The dog wouldn’t let him dream, so he dreamed it by writing it into his story.”