Sutin, L. Divine Invasions – A Life of Philip K. Dick

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, Sutin, L. London, Paladin

Phillip K. Dick’s life was a long-running tragedy. From the early death of his twin sister and a difficult relationship with his parents to the last of his five marriages he experienced nearly every variety of human suffering. His view of the world was offbeat, strange, even paranoid. He was bowled over by visions, scared of the Inland Revenue Service, loved and, at times, hated by many people. Yet out of it all he produced works of stunning imagination that continue to appeal to readers and filmmakers alike.

One of the sad ironies of genre fiction is that it inhabits a kind of ghetto that the literati affect to ignore. Throughout his long and productive career, Dick felt this isolation and yearned to be accepted as a mainstream writer. Yet it was only after his death that a stream of unpublished mainstream novels finally saw the light. He is still best known for masterful works of the imagination such as The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Martian Timeslip (1964), Ubik (1969), and Valis (1981), as well as for a vast corpus of short stories, now recently re-issued in five volumes. (Yet Dick would have hated the overblown space hardware on the covers of these books – he was never a writer of space fiction per se.) Some of the short stories, such as Autofac and The Tales of Perky Pat hold up exceptionally well decades later and must be counted among the minor classics of science fiction.

Dick was a complex and driven man. His late successes – particularly the adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the Ridley Scot film Blade Runner – could not compensate for the long and tangled disappointments of his life. So to provide an accurate account of that life was no easy matter. Yet Lawrence Sutin has achieved that task with skill and restraint. He opens up much of Dick’s inner world and shows, as well as anyone could, how the man’s experience and inner drives powered his life and his work. A major reason for this depth of insight is that Sutin draws upon the results of the first study of Dick’s monumental Exegesis, or private journal. A quotation, one of Dick’s many attempts at a summary, provides a flavour:

‘… one dozen novels & too many stories to count narrate a message of one world obscuring or replacing another (real) one, spurious memories, & hallucinated (irreal) worlds. The message reads “Don’t believe what you see; it’s an enthralling-& destructive, evil snare. Under it is a totally different world, even placed differently along the linear time axis. & your memories are faked to jibe with the fake world (inner & outer congruency)’. (sic) – Divine Invasions, p. 244.

The problem of what is real and what is not preoccupied Dick for many years. But these metaphysical uncertainties never drove him over the edge or, it must be said, provided satisfactory solutions. However, in his attempt to resolve the irresolvable, Dick produced some of the best imaginative fiction of his time. He was certainly hell to live with, by turns dependent and yet acutely demanding. But write he certainly could. Dick achieved a sharp-edged realism even in the oddest circumstances. His works are illuminated, and lightened, by a keen sense of ironic humour. While his characters may live at the margins, they resonate with our own inner knowledge. The act of writing clearly provided him with a sense of mastery and integration that was unattainable in everyday life.

Divine Invasions is thus an excellent title for the book. It could have easily fallen into one of at least two traps: dry academic criticism or fannish over-indulgence. So it is to his credit that Sutin catches the detail of Dick’s life and conveys it with sympathy, yet never goes overboard into sentimentality or uncritical admiration. Divine Invasions comes complete with a fascinating chronological survey and guide to Dick’s work, along with the more usual sources and notes. At first sight, the book looks dense. But this is not the case. Anyone who is familiar with Dick’s writing, or who enjoys an insight into the nature of the creative life will also enjoy the book. It shows clearly how fiction can not only lay some of the author’s own ghosts, but also articulate collective angst, common nightmares, without descending into despair.

Divine Invasions is a book to savour. It obviously provides many insights into specific works and will certainly appeal to all PKD enthusiasts. It sits comfortably alongside Ketterer’s masterly opus on Blish: Imprisoned in a Tesseract (1987) and works like Pringle’s monograph on J.G. Ballard, Earth is the Alien Planet. As such, it should satisfy both the PKD specialist as well as a general readership.

Published in 21C, Melbourne, Winter 1992, p. 28.