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Published: Sunday, 6/30/2002

Hollywood has fallen big-time for the paranoid world of writer Philip K. Dick

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Those people behind you, they are after you. Things are worse than you can possibly imagine. Your mind is against you. Did you know America lost World War II and the Japanese currently occupy California? No? Well, the world you thought you know does not exist, never did - or at least it doesn't exist the way you thought it did. (Hey, you probably don't exist either.) Then again, that's just what they want you to think. Who's they? Duh. The police. The government. Big business. Elves.

Welcome to the alternate reality of Philip K. Dick, the hottest paranoid writer in Hollywood.

His unsettling science-fiction novels and short stories about illusion, alienation, and dread inspired two of film's definitive visions of a future America: Minority Report, the current Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise blockbuster, and Blade Runner, the 1982 Harrison Ford classic. There are three others of lesser quality: Total Recall, Screamers, and Imposter; but then three more are in the wings, including an adaptation of A Scanner Darkly from director Richard Linklater, whose acclaimed animated film from last year, Waking Life, was heavily influenced by Dick.

Meanwhile, Vintage will reissue 18 of Dick's out-of-print novels over the next two years, and Pantheon just published an ornate hardcover edition of the short story that inspired Minority Report.

In fact, if Dick were alive now, he would be looking over his shoulder all the way to the bank.

For a man who's become the ideal icon of our Age of Anxiety, and who truly believed forces were conspiring against him - surprise! - the world apparently was out to get him. He died in 1982 at 52, after writing more than 40 novels and countless short stories in anonymity for 30 years, just as his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was about to become Blade Runner and his cult expanded into the mainstream.

Jonathan Lethem didn't care for science fiction when he discovered Philip K. Dick. But after Dick died, Lethem had become such a fan, he helped the author's estate prepare some of Dick's books for reissue.

A few years after that, Lethem became a novelist himself, with a growing cult of fans and critics saying he was the future of science fiction. His first five books, including the acclaimed Gun, With Occasional Music (1994) and Girl in Landscape (1998), show Dick's influence. His most recent novel, Motherless Brooklyn, a detective story featuring detective with Tourette's syndrome, won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction in 1999.

Last week we chatted with Lethem, 37, about Dick, the late author's importance, and how one trippy writer inspires another.

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Q: Not to be cynical, but Hollywood doesn't tend to care much for ideas, and Philip K. Dick's books were mainly about ideas. What does Hollywood possibly see in him?

A: “I think a very genuine excitement and attraction to a writer whose ideas carry a tinge of danger. Dick was also generally quite prescient about the texture of everyday life in the future. Some of the things that were incoherent or broadly satirical in his writings in the 1950s and 1960s have turned out weirdly enough - although he never meant to be a kind of predictive science fiction writer - to be pretty good predictions. They capture the flavor of our contemporary corporate reality accurately.”

Q: What do you mean by the corporate reality?

A: “What the exalting of business culture has meant to daily life. He looked around in the '50s and '60s and was frightened by Madison Avenue and frightened by the executive class and their standards and aesthetics in ways that made him seem pretty paranoid at the time. But he's been pretty much on target.” [Note the advertising posters in Minority Report that recognize and solicit pedestrians by name.]

Q: Do you think filmmakers like his work for its gimmicks: the cop hunting androids who may be an android himself in Androids; the cop tagged to kill someone he's never met in Minority Report?

A: “Sure. The craze for optioning his properties means there is a clear central idea in them. But sometimes his work is a bit overcomplicated, too. That might be one reason Hollywood makes more movies from his short stories than his novels. In novels he tends to offer one clever idea then load it up with 20 others.”

Q: Would this new Hollywood success have changed him?

A: “That's a hard game to play. The more you read his letters and his biographical material, it is hard not to speculate that he would have had a very complicated response. I don't know if he would have been the kind who would get drawn into writing for Hollywood. But his obsessiveness might have made it harder for his books to achieve the renewed life they have because he would have been writing new ones and giving strange interviews and sometimes freaking out on people for their interpretations of his work. His absence made his revival simpler.

“But it's also tragic because he was writing some of his strongest work at the end. One of the last important choices he made was to not write a novelization of Blade Runner for a tremendous amount of money. Instead he took much less money and wrote [his first realist novel] The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. That decision could stand for any guesses of where his principles were.”

Q: Do you see Dick's influence beyond movies today?

A: “I see it in lots of directions. You see it in some of the most literary writing going on right now. It's traceable in the work of George Saunders [Pastoralia] and in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Of course, the images he sort of inadvertently offered by the means of Blade Runner have become one vocabulary for pop culture right now. I see insurance ads that look like Blade Runner.”

Q: You know, when critics discuss movies like The Truman Show or Memento, ones about how reality is perceived, his name also inevitably pops up.

A: “Yeah. Dick did something that films not based on his work have handled better: Once he created a bizarre reality for his characters, he treated them as any realistic novel of psychology, characters, and emotion would treat them. David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Videodrome are not based on a Dick novel and they kind of get this, too.”

Q: As a teenager, you became interested in Dick?

A: “I was 17 [living in Brooklyn] when he died. I fantasized about going to the West Coast where he lived and looking him up. The day his obituary turned up in the paper I lost the opportunity. Dick died at a point when his literary credibility was at an all-time low and almost everything he had written was out of print. Blade Runner was the only fame attached to his name. That one book was kept in print with a movie tie-in edition with Harrison Ford on the cover.

“A music critic named Paul Williams who founded Crawdaddy! magazine was given the job of taking Dick's 40-odd published and unpublished novels and turning them into a posthumous career. He was just beginning when I first went out to California. I became a bit of sidekick to him on this project. In fact, my first apartment in Berkeley was three blocks from where Dick wrote all of his earliest novels, and I used to take little pilgrimages and gaze at his old two-story house.”

Q: What about his writing did you connect with?

A: “Well, the writers I identified with were writers like Kafka and Italo Calvino and even Lewis Carroll, people who played reality games and wrote in a way that was very conceptual, and kind of playful in some ways. Kafka is a very dark writer but his sense of invention has a deep wittiness to it.

“And then I found Dick, and he was combining conceptual inventiveness and reality twisting with a very homely, very American interest in day-to-day reality and the vulnerable emotional lives of his characters.”

Q: Did you think of his writing as science fiction?

A: “I did because that was what it was called. But that `science fiction' didn't define his work in any way accounted for his strengths. Because when I explored science fiction I didn't find other Philip K. Dicks. He seemed to me so absolutely his own writer that the label `science fiction' was kind of irrelevant.”

Q: When you wrote your first books did you imitate him?

A: “Desperately. The [unpublished] novel that came before [Lethem's first novel] Gun, With Occasional Music was mawkishly, embarrassingly indebted to him. Amnesia Moon is quite drenched in his work. Those novels are loaded with homages and references, and a yearning to be his kind of writer, which I was feeling every day when I worked back then. The most aggressive reference was in Amnesia Moon. A character explains that they just came from Marin County, and they are describing the events of Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney. A character walked out of one of Dick's novels and into mine.”

Q: You both also have a lot of drugs in your books.

A: “Absolutely. I found that using drugs as a metaphor for a certain kind of reality- transforming effect was a real gift. It was something he taught me I could use. One of the things that you do when you imitate writers you love is you examine their tool kit and figure what is useful. That was one I was able to carry a long way.”

Q: Your last novel, Motherless Brooklyn, was your biggest success, and it wasn't science fiction in any way. Does Dick's work still speak to you?

A: “I think his influence is traceable in anything I do, especially in how I love the basic freedom to combine absurdist materials and deeply realistic character studies in the same material. Look at Motherless Brooklyn. The collision of absurdist language and cartoonish criminal plot stuff with a real character is part of his legacy.”

Q: Dick wanted to break out of science fiction too.

A: “But he didn't have any opportunity to turn a corner and shape his own career. He was at the mercy of that low end of the marketplace he first fell into. As brilliant and aware and intellectual as he was, he was never able to place himself in any other literary tradition with any competence. He yearned for a more respectable career, but in ways, he thrived on his outsider status. It drove him nuts and he was very poor, but he was energized by being a marginal figure. There's that famous line from James Joyce that the key elements of a writer are `silence, exile, and cunning.' Well, science fiction became Dick's exile. The writer we now know as Philip K. Dick wouldn't have existed if he hadn't been a prisoner of this pulpy career.”

Q: You think he'll ever be considered just a good writer?

A: “That question doesn't have one answer. There isn't only one kind of good writer. But also he can't be considered [your typical, revered mainstream writer]. He couldn't have striven for that and stayed dedicated to the quality of his prose in that way. His prose is very erratic and we're all stuck with that fact.”



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