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The Man in the Little Pill: About Philip K. Dick

He would write 60 pages a day, and it took him years to realize that he could do it without amphetamines. About the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who taught us that things are not as they seem

Illustration by Philip K. Dick from Wikipedia (see link at the bottom of the article)
Illustration by Philip K. Dick from Wikipedia (see link at the bottom of the article)

Philip K. Dick is considered one of the greatest science fiction writers of the twentieth century. Several of his books won prestigious awards and became classics - but even so, his financial situation was always quite bleak. The science fiction genre is dominated by the 'big three': Asimov, Clark and Heinlein, and they are the ones who sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Everyone else lived off the crumbs. In this situation he had only one choice: write, and write fast.

And really - Dick knew how to write fast. His wife (the fifth) told about him who would sit in front of the keyboard until two in the morning, get up an hour later to write down ideas that popped into his mind before going to sleep - then wake up at seven in the morning and go back to writing all day. He wrote sixty pages a day. This is an almost superhuman pace, and on at least one occasion Dick finished such a writing marathon, got up from his chair and passed out from exhaustion. Anyone with common sense can understand that writing at such a pace is not the result of two or three cups of strong black coffee.

Amphetamine, a synthetic stimulant drug, was considered in the first decades of the XNUMXth century to be a kind of miracle drug. Amphetamine causes the brain to flood with dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that are closely related to the reward and pleasure centers. The result is euphoria, a feeling of transcendence, inexhaustible energy and increased ability to concentrate.

With such positive effects, it is no wonder that doctors have seen amphetamine as a solution to a wide variety of problems, especially mental problems. Also Philip K. Dick was given amphetamines to treat his problems, but at the time few understood the danger of this addictive drug. Dick depended on Speed ​​to meet the insane amount of writing he needed to survive financially - and also to get the inspiration and ideas for his books. He was absolutely convinced that without the drug he was simply unable to write at all.

Things are not as they seem

The central motif in all of Dick's books is the feeling that the world is not as it really seems. This feeling is so clear in Dick's books that the literary term 'Dickean' - along with 'Kafkaian' and 'Orwellian' - has come to represent any situation where things are not as they seem. A classic example of this motif can be found in the book 'The Man in the High Castle' which was published in 1962, won the famous Hugo Award and is considered a masterpiece.

The world of 'The Man in the High Castle' is an alternative history to our world. The starting point of the book is that the United States lost World War II: the great economic crisis of the XNUMXs is prolonged and deepening, President Roosevelt was assassinated by an assassin and as a result the United States is unable to raise enough resources to face Germany on the one hand and Japan on the other.

The two winners divide North America between them - Germany gets the east coast and the Japanese take over the west coast. In this alternative universe there is a book called 'The Grasshopper Stands Still' which is illegal and must not be read because it describes an alternative reality in which the United States wins World War II and becomes a world power. Confused? The book-within-a-book describes a reality very similar to our real reality.

A book-within-a-book is a very familiar literary technique, and Dick uses it to deceive his protagonists, and readers, mercilessly. He uses dreams, visions and prophecies to keep us in a constant dilemma - what is the real world? Does 'The Grasshopper Stands Still' describe the real universe and the heroes are just in some kind of collective hallucination? Or maybe the book-within-a-book is just a distraction, a joke by the author at our expense: we know that it describes a reality similar to ours, and therefore we tend to believe that it also describes the 'true' reality of the story.

Writing without drugs

In the early seventies, Dick divorced his fourth wife and remained alone in a large, empty house - but not for long. To fight loneliness he surrounded himself with dozens of young people who, like him, lived on the edge: junkies, bakers, punks and the like. They would play music and smoke drugs together.

In 1971 he was forcibly hospitalized in a mental hospital: his girlfriend thought he was exaggerating his drug use and had to stop. The doctors who examined him warned him that if he continued to use amphetamines and other drugs, his liver could be irreversibly damaged. It took him three full years from the time he weaned himself off the stimulant drugs until he was able to write again, but when he sat down in front of the keyboard he found that he was able to produce the same work output he was used to under the influence of the drug.

The book 'A Scanner Darkly' is the first book Dick wrote that was not under the influence of amphetamines - but dealt in the most profound way with the drug culture. The protagonist of the book is Bob Arctor, an undercover agent who tries to track down the source of a very dangerous drug called 'Ingredient D', also known as 'Death' or 'Slow Death'.

Prolonged use of component D causes severe psychosis: the two halves of the user's brain separate from each other, like two separate entities. When Agent Bob meets with his superiors at the police, he wears a camouflage suit: a device that prevents them from recognizing his real face to protect him from double agents who may have infiltrated the police ranks.

Since the police commanders do not know who he is, he receives the task of following himself - that is, Bob Arctor the policeman follows Bob Arctor the drug dealer. As part of his disguise, he himself uses component D, so two different identities are created in him - one half of the brain is the policeman, and the other is the drug agent - and both are unaware of each other.

Dark Scanner is an almost autobiographical record of Dick's life in the drugged youth community of the early XNUMXs. It depicts the drug culture in a way that is both entertaining and horrifying. Paranoia, disbelief, madness and psychosis combine in delusional conversations about the essence of life and desperate attempts to understand who stole some of the gears of the new sports bike.

Dick said that everything that appears in the book he saw with his own eyes. "I've seen much worse things than what I put into a dark scanner. I have seen people who have deteriorated to the point where they cannot complete a sentence, one simple sentence. And it was forever, for life. young people. Maybe 18-19 years old. A real vision from hell."

His fifth wife said that she often found him bitterly crying over the typewriter. Still, Dick's relationship to the drug was not black or white. As he wrote himself - "Drug addiction is not a disease, but a decision. Like the decision to jump in front of a moving car."

Dick's special writing style is very attractive to Hollywood. The most famous film based on his book is undoubtedly 'Blade Runner', directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford. The film is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and is considered one of the deepest and most sophisticated science fiction films ever made, although Scott and his screenwriter omitted many elements from the original story.

The book and movie are set in a future where a nuclear war has severely damaged Earth and everyone who was successful enough to emigrate left for other planets. Only those who were not good enough to earn a place on the departing spaceships remained. Those who return to Earth are actually the androids: in the space colonies they are slaves, but some try to win their freedom and hide in the semi-abandoned cities.

The hero of the book is Rick Deckard, an android hunter. Dick is chasing a group of highly sophisticated androids who are trying to assimilate into the general population and his mission is to destroy them, to 'retire them' in the language of the book. Dick examines a very basic question here: what is it to 'be human'? What differentiates between an android that looks and behaves just like a human, and a real person? This question is also part of the general Dickian motif of 'what you see is not what really is'.

Dick's solution to this question is: empathy. Only truly intelligent beings, Dick claims, are capable of empathizing with the emotions of other beings. In 'Mother Androids', humans show empathy for the extinct animals and their robotic copies (hence the 'electric sheep'), and the ruling religion in the world is the Mercerism cult, whose believers use a device called an 'empathy box' every day to connect to the feelings of other believers.

The androids, on the other hand, are unable to show true empathy - neither for humans nor for each other. But Dick, of course, does not make life easy for his readers. The androids that Dick is trying to capture and destroy accuse him of not showing empathy towards them and their aspirations for freedom, hence he is an android himself. As the plot progresses, Deckard agonizes over the question of his identity, man or machine, and we agonize along with him.

The many films made based on his books are the ones that brought Philip K. Dick into the mainstream and made him known to the general public, even though his entire life was known only among the science fiction community. Unfortunately for him, all the films were released only after Dick's death, and although some of them earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, he did not have time to enjoy this success. He died on March 2, 1982 as a result of a stroke.

[The article is taken from the program Making history!', a podcast about science, technology and history].

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More on the same topic on the Hidan website - previous articles by Ran Levy about science fiction writers

8 תגובות

  1. You are a fateful memory!

    Secret agent Mask Disguise Brain lobe split Realistic/imaginary plot - the whole Dickian package.

  2. "The androids that Dick is trying to capture and destroy accuse him of not showing empathy towards them and their aspirations for freedom, hence he is an android himself."
    It seems to me that this is a parody of the debate in which New Agers, postmodernists and religious accuse the rationalists of religiosity.

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