NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Philip K. Dick scuffled for a living as a science fiction writer. He used to tell stories about bouncing checks at the local 7-Eleven. Most of his 45 novels were first published in paperback, and he titled one of them The Confessions of a Crap Artist.
He was married five times and struggled with an addiction to amphetamines, which contributed to his death in 1982, at the age of 53. Just a couple of months later, Blade Runner opened, the first in a now substantial series of movies based on his work.
Reissues of many of his books are available in hardback editions, and some critics now describe him as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. The latest film adaptation is A Scanner Darkly, which is in theaters now. Our main focus this hour is the work of Philip K. Dick and his growing influence and reputation.
Later in the program, putting the current Middle East crisis in an historical context. Is this a World War I Sarajevo Moment?
But first, the worlds of Philip K. Dick. We're going to talk first about the movies and the books, then later about his life. If you have questions about who he was, what he did, and why his stories continue to resonate, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Fine is familiar with Philip K. Dick's writings and the movies based on him. He's film and TV critic for Star magazine and the chairman of the Film Critics Circle and the author of Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film. He's with us from NPR's bureau in New York. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Mr. MARSHAL FINE (TV Critic, Star Magazine; Author, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film): Actually, my name is Marshal Fine.
CONAN: Oh, excuse me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I just simply reread - I misread it. It's spelled Marshal Fine there on the paper, and I apologize for that.
Mr. FINE: But it's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: Oh, in any case, we'll get it right for the remainder of the program. I'm embarrassed. Thank you. Let's start with the latest film version of the Philip K. Dick story A Scanner Darkly. What did you think of it?
Mr. FINE: I thought this was the best adaptation of one of his films - of one of his books into a film that's been - that they've done so far. I mean, it was the one that came closest to capturing what he was striving for in the book without tarting it up, as it were, for Hollywood, that it really got a sense of that what is reality kind of aspect of his books that the other movies have kind of just sort of ignored.
CONAN: What is reality aspect, this was critical to his work. His first novel, The Man in the High Castle, this was a novel about a world where Japan and Germany had won the Second World War and divided America down the middle, and the protagonist is a guy who's written this weird book about how America won the war.
Mr. FINE: Well, yeah. I mean, his - in - I mean, Blade Runner is about replicants - androids who are - maybe feel - have more feelings than human beings. Total Recall is based on a story of his about some - about implanted memories. You know, these are all books about the fact that his idea that there's another reality beneath the reality that we live in. But the movies, up until A Scanner Darkly, really have sort of focused on the action, the sci-fi part of it as opposed to the more the more intellectual part.
CONAN: A Scanner Darkly, it's - Keanu Reeves is the star. He plays an undercover cop. He ends up investigating himself. But his appearance and his voice in some of his work are impossible to trace back to a single person because of a futuristic scanning technology. Let's hear it described in this clip from the movie.
(Soundbite of movie, A Scanner Darkly)
Unidentified Man: And you'll notice that you can barely see this man because he is wearing what is called a scramble suit, the exact same suit he wears and, in fact, must wear during certain parts, in fact, most parts of his daily activities of law enforcement.
This man - whom we will call Fred because that is the codename under which he reports the information he gathers - once within the scramble suit cannot be detected by even the latest in voice and facial recognition technology. The scramble suit itself is purportedly made up of approximately a million and a half fraction representations of men, women, and children in every variance, making the wearer of a scramble suit the ultimate everyman.
CONAN: And computer technology helps a great deal here as the scramble suit appears in this semi-animated version of - through the technology that's used in this film, or the process that's used in this film. Technology, of course, Philip K. Dick was about that. But, as you point out, questions of identity and reality really are what he's about.
Mr. FINE: Well, yeah. I mean, A Scanner Darkly is about a fellow who's a drug enforcement agent who's forced to stalk a drug dealer who is also him. And as the drug dealer, he's started taking the drug that's - that they're trying to interdict, this - something called Substance D, which is in the future, which causes schizophrenia to the point where he doesn't realize that the person that he's chasing is himself and loses track of that.
CONAN: Hmm. The film - the book includes a long list of Philip K. Dick's friends whose lives were damaged or ended by their problems with drugs. I guess Philip Dick's name could have been on that list too.
Mr. FINE: Well, yeah. I mean, and this is a movie that really sort of captures that sense of losing track of reality that drugs can induce. I mean, the animation process that the director, Richard Linklater, is essentially rotoscoping - drawing over the frames of the film, but in such a way that it causes just a slightly hallucinogenic quality to it so that nothing is as firm as it would be in a photographic image.
And yet it's recognizable that, you know, this is Keanu Reeves or Woody Harrelson or Robert Downey Jr. playing these characters. It's their voices. They've acted it on live film, and yet he's drawn over in such a way that you're seeing it sort of in the way that someone who's taken this drug would be seeing it.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. We're talking today about the work of Philip K. Dick and the movies made from it. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. Alan(ph), Alan's calling from San Francisco.
ALAN (Caller): Thank you for having me on the show.
ALAN: I think one of the big issues that Dick really liked to talk about was the - kind of the disastrous effects that technology often has on our humanity. It seems to be a big concern of his. One of his books, Martian Time-Slip, the main character's job is a repairman of broken-down technology on a, you know, a forgotten colony on Mars, and the whole book seems to be a - about that very issue. And that's something I think is very important to his work that he felt that the future wasn't necessarily going to make things better for us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ALAN: So I'd love to hear your guest comment on that.
CONAN: Yeah, this was a somewhat iconoclast approach when he started writing, at least in the '50s.
Mr. FINE: Well, yeah. I mean, it's - and I think it's pretty much be borne out that technology doesn't necessarily make things better; it just sort of removes the humanity from our lives. And that was one of the issues that he dealt with, that we become more and more removed from each other the more we become involved with cell phones, with Blackberries, with e-mail, with instant messaging. It's an abstraction of our humanity that removes the humanity from the communication. Pretty soon, it's not people talking to people, it's machines talking to machines.
CONAN: Hmm. He was also highly skeptical of government you can see, an undercover cop who ends up investigating himself, right there.
Mr. FINE: Well, and it seems as though, you know, he was pretty prescient in that regard in terms of being suspicious of too much power being invested in the government, being invested in our law enforcement agencies, you know, given what's going on in Guantanamo Bay and the like.
ALAN: And, of course, the greater the technology, the greater possible level of government controls, so it seemed to go hand-in-hand in a lot of his books.
CONAN: Alan, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
ALAN: Thank you.
CONAN: The - interestingly, his books don't have heroes. I mean, the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in Total Recall is much more, you know, the standard hero. The guy - the protagonist in most of Philip Dick's books were schlubs.
Mr. FINE: Yeah, they're shmoes who are just trying to get by who get caught up in something. I mean, I guess, I - one of the films that sort of reminds me of him - I mean, there are several films that remind me of his work, I mean, The Matrix being the most obvious derivation of sort of Dickian thought. But Terry Gilliam's film Brazil about the sort of functionary who detects a flaw in the system and is punished as a result. That's really what he was sort of getting at often enough was that these people who would be heroes in other books wind up, you know, they're - no good deed goes unpunished...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FINE: ...in a Philip K. Dick novel.
CONAN: Mm hmm. There - if you look at things like The Matrix as sort the sons of Philip K. Dick, in a way, his influence - why is it these stories written some of them more than half a century ago continue to have a grip on our imaginations?
Mr. FINE: Well, he was so far ahead of his time. I mean, he was just - he was seeing things, you know, talk about being ahead of the curve. I mean, he was seeing around the corner. You know, and you look at a film like The Matrix or the David Cronenberg film eXistenZ or another sort of film that came out right about the same time - there was sort of this, you know, little burst of what is reality films - there was one called The Thirteenth Floor where nothing was what it seemed to be. And it was all, I think - it was just sort of, you know, people catching up with Philip K. Dick, sort of getting on the Dick bandwagon, as it were.
CONAN: Hmm. Let's get Jim(ph) on the line. Jim's calling us from Phoenix.
JIM (Caller): Yes, now, tell me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me I recall - and this goes along with your comment about his fear of government control and what-not - but the original concept of the book of the Blade Runner, and hence the name the Blade Runner, was doctors that were working outside of government control. In other words, they were surgeons, blade runners...
JIM: ...because anyone who was under the medical plan of the government was sterilized by these doctors. So to be treated by them, they had to go outside of government control. Again, as I said, that goes along with your idea of government control. And the replicants was sort of part of that same book.
Mr. FINE: You know, I don't remember that. I mean, it's been a while since I've read the book. It's called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? What I remember most is the fact that here were these replicants who had escaped who were, essentially questioning, you know, well, we're made by humans, we have feelings; we, you know, we don't have memories or pasts because we were created. But if we have feelings, how are we different from human beings, and how can you claim dominion over us, and why shouldn't we have the same right as people?
Mr. FINE: And it's sort of that slippery slope of cloning that, you know, that rages into today.
CONAN: And artificial intelligence. Roy is the replicant in the movie - he's played by Rutger Hauer - and he finally gets to meet the man who designed him. This is a man named Eldon Tyrell. Let's listen to this clip.
(Soundbite of movie, Blade Runner)
Mr. RUTGER HAUER (Actor): (As Roy Batty) It's not an easy thing to meet your maker. I mean, what can he do for you? Can the maker repair what he makes?
Mr. JOE TURKEL (Actor): (As Eldon Tyrell) Would you like to be modified?
Mr. HAUER: (As Roy Batty) Stay here.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Mr. HAUER: (As Roy Batty) I had in mind something a little more radical.
Mr. TURKEL: (As Eldon Tyrell) What, what seems to be the problem?
Mr. HAUER: (As Roy Batty) Death.
Mr. TURKEL: (As Eldon Tyrell) Death. Well, I'm afraid that's a little out of my jurisdiction.
Mr. HAUER: (As Roy Batty) I want more life.
CONAN: Philip K. Dick generally did not deal with small ideas. Marshal Fine. A clip...
Mr. FINE: (unintelligible)
CONAN: Pardon me?
Mr. FINE: Go ahead. I mean, implanting dreams in people's - memories in people's heads or creating artificial life that takes on a life of its own. I mean, he was a visionary, a visionary author, and I think Hollywood is just catching up with him.
CONAN: Marshal Fine, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. FINE: My pleasure.
CONAN: Marshal Fine, film and TV critic for Star magazine, chairman of the Film Critics Circle, and the author of Accidental Genius.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The movie A Scanner Darkly is out in theaters now. It's the latest adaptation from the writings of Philip K. Dick, the author of 45 novels and movies that were taken from them, like Minority Report, Total Recall, and Blade Runner. We're talking about the works and life of Philip K. Dick and why his stories continue to resonate.
Joining us now is Jonathan Lethem, the author of Fortress of Solitude, which comes out later this month in - from Vintage, and he's the author of Motherless Brooklyn. He's written a biography of Philip K. Dick. And thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. JONATHAN LETHEM (Author, Fortress of Solitude): Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm very well.
Mr. LETHEM: I've actually not ever written a biography of Philip K. Dick. I think you might have a guest coming soon who's...
CONAN: I'm getting everything wrong today.
Mr. LETHEM: That's okay. Don't worry about that.
CONAN: One thing after another.
Mr. LETHEM: But I'm a great admirer and, well, more than that. I've been a - at times a slavish imitator of Philip K. Dick (unintelligible).
CONAN: And I understand you've read everything he's written.
Mr. LETHEM: I've actually done that, yes.
CONAN: More than once?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, some of it more than once. Some of it you wouldn't need to. He, you know, when you write 45 novels in a medium-sized life and do so at pulp word rates and under the influence of amphetamines, they're not all good books, but the best ones are classics, and he wrote at least 15 or 20 that are worth rereading many times.
CONAN: And we should also point out that Philip K. Dick was a writer of great ideas, great humanity, great thought, not always the best wordsmith in the world.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, he's a very curious stylist. He actually has a voice that's distinctive and very, very engaging once you get to know it, but it often is kind of off-putting for people who come to his work for the first time. The passages can be so clumsily written.
CONAN: And his endings sometimes present a problem. It's weird. The ending of a Blade Runner, the movie, a lot of people criticized it, the director among them. It was later recut in the director's cut version of it but, in a way, it was entirely appropriate, Dickian.
Mr. LETHEM: Mm-hmm. Well, the funny thing is that the ending of that movie, I think, is still in dispute. I've heard that there's another version coming out on DVD soon that attempts to make another, you know, a more conclusive finish to it. I personally like the director's cut quite a lot, and I think it's a big improvement on the movie's release.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Salber(ph). Salber calling us from San Francisco. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly.
SALBER (Caller): Yeah, that's fine. I just had a, I guess, a comment from reading about Philip K. Dick's biography. It seemed like later in his life, he seemed to have all kinds of paranoid thoughts which a character in his own - in one of his own books would start to have.
Mr. LETHEM: Mm-hmm.
SALBER: He started to think that he was getting messages from the outside world - I mean, from the outer space and that, you know, truths were being revealed to him, and he would write, you know, books about that. He seemed to end up at end of his life as a, you know, antihero in his own book, dying in a very sad kind of way. Do you have any comments about that?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, yeah. It's very interesting. I mean, there's actually a paranoiac leaning in his work from the very beginning. There are books and stories he wrote in the 1950s that could be described as paranoid literature.
And what he did undergo in the '70s, you know, about, I guess, less than a decade before he died, was a kind of a experience that he felt was a visionary one. He thought he had a kind of mystical revelation, and he began rather frantically interpreting and reinterpreting all of his experiences and all of his own writing according to this kind of visionary flash he'd had.
And, of course, people - and I'm sure his biographer, Lawrence Sutin, and others who've written about him have, you know, guessed at and disagreed about what might have really been going on. One possibility is that he had a kind of neurological experience, you know, a version of epilepsy called temporal lobe epilepsy or possibly a very small stroke.
But being the kind of intellect he was, he took this visionary experience and he turned it about a thousand different ways in his mind and projected different interpretations for it.
What's very interesting is the continuity that this kind of experience had with the work he was doing even, you know, 15 and 20 years before that. And as you say, there's a paranoia or a kind of interpretation mania that's typical of his work where everything needs a kind of ultimate explanation.
SALBER: And then in Scanner Darkly, Keanu Reeves' character is wondering the same thing, if, you know, there is some kind of breakdown in his brain and if...
SALBER: ...if, you know, it's real, if these theories that these people are throwing at him, if they're real, or if he's just going crazy, which is what I imagine Philip K. Dick must have been wondering the whole time too.
CONAN: Well, that whole thought of reality, a lot of his books start out with people in seemingly normal kind of lives, and then, you know, a trap door opens underneath them and they find out that what they've been experiencing isn't reality at all.
Mr. LETHEM: Yes, I think that's right. It's as though he had some very, very basic almost physical intuition about the fragility of consciousness and reality. And he had it very early in his life and begins expressing this in different ways in his work, using the, you know, the medium or the metaphors that were at hand.
And, at times, those metaphors all came from science fiction, and in the late '60s, they began to be the metaphors of kind of countercultural paranoia, you know, that the government was a kind of oppressive, you know, dystopia. And then just after that, there becomes a kind of visionary, religious interpretation. But in every case, the core intuition that he's had about life itself, about what it's like to be alive - at least if you're Philip K. Dick -seems very much the same one.
CONAN: Salber, thanks for the call.
SALBER: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go to Bruce(ph). Bruce is calling us from Conway, Arkansas.
BRUCE (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, Bruce. You're on the air.
BRUCE: Hi. I was wondering, since we were just talking about his transcendental experience, especially given the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the relationship that Philip K. Dick felt about drugs and his spiritual life, if he thought that perhaps drugs exacerbated that or got in the way perhaps, and I was just wondering.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, you know, I think that he was probably capable of producing a lot of different opinions on something like that at different times. I know he's sort of famous with people who knew him for arguing one point and then turning around and arguing the opposite. But at a time when, you know, a movie like A Scanner Darkly is in the theaters, it's worth noting that, you know, Neal, your guest was absolutely right. He did include himself on that list of people who had been damaged by...
Mr. LETHEM: ...drug abuse, and he's actually one of the names on that roll during the credits. And he tended, I think, towards the end of his life, to be quite impatient with the suggestion that some of his more important visions had anything to do with taking LSD or with any other kind of drugs, which he, you know - in truth, he was more of a kind of typical, you know, 1950s-style pill-popper, you know, an abuser of amphetamines to keep himself awake and writing than he was a kind of, you know, peyote-smoking visionary searcher.
He wasn't really a Timothy Leary-type. But, of course, his work is so psychedelic in its nature it's immensely suggestive of that kind of experience, and so it was very, very easily mistaken for the kind of writing that was done under the influence of psychedelics.
CONAN: Hmm. Thanks, Bruce.
BRUCE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can talk with Mason(ph). Mason calling us from Manchester, New Hampshire.
MASON (Caller): Yes, sir. You mentioned that some of his paragraphs that he wrote, people would have a hard time, that they were messy and sort of all over the place. How did that get by the editors? And did the editors ever try to shape him and refine his work?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, again, I bet Lawrence Sutin's got some very specific stories to tell, but I'll say that what I know is that in the sort of milieu he was working the standards weren't extraordinarily high. He was often writing for editors who wanted to get a paperback novel out on schedule, and the standard in that field at that time had more to do with the ideas, the quality of the surprises and the visionary notions than it had to do with kind of high prose style. And Dick himself probably wasn't a terribly easy person to work with if you did suggest something.
I know that there's some examples in his work where, when he was asked to rewrite something, he went off on such an utterly different tangent that he produced basically a second book. And in one case, you know, a manuscript was sent back to him and he began again and the two results were so different that they were each published as separate novels.
So, I don't think by, you know - as chance had it, he didn't come of age as a writer in an environment where there were editors teaching him to look harder or to think twice or to dig deeper on the level of the prose. And it's interesting to think about what might have happened if he'd had more of an opportunity, because he was certainly capable of writing very beautifully at times. And there are passages that you couldn't improve. But there's so much else that's written in a very kind of high speed and sort of cursory way and then slapped into production.
MASON: Great answer. And I've never read him before, but I will.
CONAN: Okay, thanks for the call.
MASON: Ok, sir.
CONAN: E-mail question, I'm not sure you know the answer to this, but this from Cassandra(ph).
I was introduced to Philip Dick in college through his Man in the High Castle and fell in love with his work. Are there plans to bring this book to film?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, I don't know of any specifically, but, of course, it's a book that's very suggestive - as many of his are - of a possible film. And I think it's something that has come up and been discussed and there may have been directors who sought the rights at various times. I don't think it's - you're right that I'm not sure of my answer, but I don't think there's any production in the works.
CONAN: There are other Philip K. Dick movies, though, in the works.
Mr. LETHEM: There are many that are being, you know - he produced so many fertile ideas and there are many of his stories and many of his novels that are being talked about and some that are set up.
CONAN: Some critics - this may have to do with more of their opinion of science fiction than really of Philip K. Dick - but they say well, he's not really a science fiction writer because science fiction is often obsessed with the advancement of technology and the effects of technology, that Philip Dick was much more interested in the human condition than in technology. They may be right, but a lot of science fiction is like that if you actually read it.
Mr. LETHEM: Right. Well, you know, this gets into definitions and one of the funny things about literary definitions is that people will almost always argue that something they admire isn't part of a genre.
Mr. LETHEM: Oh, that's too good. Chandler's too good to be considered a crime writer. And, you know Philip K. Dick or Ursula LeGuin or whomever they might be praising is - you know, it's a form of praise, in fact, to say that they're not part of the genre from which they at least partly arise. And I myself have that impulse, to claim Dick, for instance, as simply one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century.
I think he is that. But as it happens, he thought of himself as a science fiction writer. Once he got comfortable with that identity, which wasn't right away, he fought against it for awhile and made periodic attempts to find a readership outside the genre, but he had very close social ties to it and he was ultimately very responsive to that, you know, that context. So, it's an interesting conversation to have. I don't think it's one you can be conclusive about.
CONAN: Jonathan Lethem thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. LETHEM: My pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: Jonathan Lethem is the author of The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn and Philip K. Dick fan extraordinaire. He joined us from his office in Blue Hill, Maine. We're talking today about the work of Philip K. Dick. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And with us now, we've previewed his arrival, is Lawrence Sutin who wrote a biography of Philip K. Dick called Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. His latest book is All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West. And he joins us now from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minnesota. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Mr. LAWRENCE SUTIN (Author, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick): Thank you, Neal. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And interestingly, we were just talking about Philip Dick and definitions that he described himself as a science fiction writer, but he started out trying to write what I guess we'd call mainstream fiction.
Mr. SUTIN: Well, he started out trying out both really. You know, he had hopes of writing mainstream fiction. He obviously, like any writer who was filled with ambition and vision, wanted as wide and accepting an audience as possible. So he started early on in his life both mainstream works and science fiction works, because he grew up loving science fiction. His dream was to have a foot in both worlds really.
And what happened was that his science fiction work sold and his mainstreams works did not. And - I was going to say - at that time, I think the boundary's still pretty fiercely guarded today, but back in the 1950s when his writing career began, the gulf between people who published their science fiction stories in the pulp magazines and the mainstream literary world was so vast that it was barely conceded that science fiction authors were truly writers, which hurt him a great deal.
CONAN: Or maybe whether they were even literate in some respects, but...
Mr. SUTIN: Right. Well, yeah. I mean, there was a lot of snobbishness, which wounded him deeply because he was aware, I think - even though he struggled and had, you know, challenges in continuing to believe in his work as all artists do - but I think he was aware that the material he was writing dealt with themes as profound and significant to human life as any mainstream fiction.
And, for example, a work like A Scanner Darkly, which has just been turned into a film, in his novel, which he published in 1977, he set it in 1994. He frequently set his science fiction in times so close to our own and with so much surrounding cultural details so similar to our own that he was, in fact, pushing the boundary between science fiction and mainstream and subtly asking the reader what do you really think is the difference between the questions I'm raising and those raised in the so-called mainstream novel.
CONAN: Tell us a little bit about his life, which was frequently unhappy.
Mr. SUTIN: Well, he was born in 1928 in Chicago. He was born one of a pair of fraternal twins. His sister Jane died some six weeks after their birth, and that was a traumatic event for him. It's a traumatic event for twins generally when one of them dies at birth. There is long-term suffering and anguish over that, even though the conscious memories may not be immediately there. That was an important aspect for him.
He also suffered through the divorce of his parents when he was quite young, approximately two years of age. He found both his mother and father at various times cold and uncaring. He felt a great deal of loneliness and bitterness about his family situation, and at the same time he experienced bouts of nervous anxiety and vertigo as a young man.
Went to see various psychiatrists and therapists, some of whom said well there's nothing much wrong. Some of which said he suffered from agoraphobia. One of them at least mentioned that it might schizophrenia, which terrified him. And so these kinds of questions as to stability of family, coldness of parents, mental stability on his own part, these moments of vertigo and deep sort of visionary blackouts when the world would seem to spin about and collide for him, these were all intensive factors behind his work.
Which, no matter what, the scientific - or science fiction premise I should say, are always exploring the nature of reality and human compassion and how we know who we are and how we know what the world about us really is.
CONAN: Because he was interested in how he knew who he was.
Mr. SUTIN: Sure. Absolutely.
CONAN: We're going to have to take a short break now. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation and we'll talk with the eldest daughter of Philip K. Dick. Plus, some of the rhetoric surrounding the current Middle East combat. Some are describing this to the runs up to the World Wars in the last century. We'll talk with an historian about that.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the U.S. wants an urgent and enduring peace in the Middle East. However, after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today, neither leader called for a ceasefire.
And President Bush has agreed to reassign more of the U.S. forces in Iraq to provide security in Baghdad. That was a key request from visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a meeting this morning with President Bush at the White House.
You can hear details on those stories and of course much more later today on ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, for years the statistics told us that violent crime was down. Now in cities like Washington, Milwaukee and Philadelphia the numbers seem to be running the other way. The making of a crime wave and how cities are fighting back. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
In a few minutes, historian Jay Winter on the events that lead the world to war. And we'll read from your e-mails. But let's continue our conversation about the work and life of Philip K. Dick.
Our guest is Lawrence Sutin, author of Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. And joining us now is Laura Leslie, the eldest daughter of Philip K. Dick, legally responsible for his estate. She's with us by phone from her home in the Bay Area in California. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. LAURA LESLIE (Daughter of Philip K. Dick): Thank you, Neal. And it's an honor to be here on my father's behalf.
CONAN: Your father has achieved enormous postmortem fame. Is that something that he wanted during his lifetime?
Ms. LESLIE: I don't think he was seeking fame and adulation, but I think he was seeking recognition from those people that didn't give that to him during his lifetime. I've heard Larry say that, you know, he had a foot in both camps of science fiction and mainstream literary writings, but my recollection is that he never really felt recognized for what he contributed in his writings. And I think he would have been very intimidated by the fame, but very pleased by the recognition.
CONAN: What do you remember of him?
Ms. LESLIE: Well, he was very funny. He was a very playful father, very joking. My older sisters, his stepdaughters, tell lots of stories where he would play games with them, monopoly and softball and all these other things. He'd wake us up on April Fools morning and say girls, girls wake up, there's a flying saucer that's landed in the field. Come and see it. And just a joy when he was there as a parent and father to be around.
CONAN: I wonder, did he share his story ideas with you? What was he like when he was working?
Ms. LESLIE: Well, he left when I was about three years old. And we, in my early teens, established a pretty intense telephone and written correspondence. And he would talk about what was happening with him at the time. And a lot of those were his writings and what he was interested in, what he was exploring, and his ideas. And he would just speak enthusiastically about what he was researching and finding out about.
He would share that, but they were huge concepts that were beyond understanding as a 13 and 14-year-old. He'd talk about Gnosticism and the (unintelligible) and I was so excited to talk to him and it was so awesome that I would say, okay dad, yeah dad, that's so cool. But it was really quite a bit over my head at the time. And I have those letters and look back now and realize that was a pretty incredible conversation for a daughter to have with a father.
CONAN: Have you read all of his books since then?
Ms. LESLIE: I have. I started reading everything when I was pretty young. I started with all his short stories and then he would send me his book and I read all his books pretty much in chronological order. But if you asked me to be a scholar for Philip K. Dick or a literary luminary like Jonathan Lethem, I couldn't do that.
CONAN: It must be extraordinary - I mean, your knowledge of him and - do you read his books, though, differently, do you think, than other people do?
Ms. LESLIE: Oh, absolutely. I think one of the most awesome things that I've had to come to terms with is his fans who haven't met him feel a very intimate relationship with him. They call him Phil and they feel like they know him and they feel a very strong sense of almost ownership or relationship that's very inspiring. And I had to really come to terms with that.
When I read his books, they're so familiar in the geography, the people - he frequently incorporated people that he knew in his characters. They're so familiar that it's a different experience for me entirely because I know too much probably when I'm reading it, and that filter never really goes away.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Lawrence Sutin, let's bring you back into the conversation. I wanted to ask you, toward the end of his life, Philip K. Dick, as we were talking about earlier, had this vision and it really did change him. It sounds that, you know, his psychological problems really did catch up to him.
Mr. SUTIN: Well, you know, it's always - I was very careful in my biography to pose possibilities rather than definitively interpret what happened to him.
Briefly, in 1974 - in February and March, 1974 - he had a series of experiences that in some way or form can be chalked up to some kind of physical condition or mental condition or a genuine kind of spiritual experience.
Philip K. Dick considered all three possibilities in his private notebook, The Exegesis. What's most important I think about those experiences, rather than trying to get to the bottom - which we can't do now - of what was the precise nature or cause, is the kind of fiction that they inspired.
And what happened was that those visions inspired some really brilliant writing on his part in terms of short stories and novels such as Valis, which is one of the finest works of his later years. A Scanner Darkly was written before those visions but was rewritten afterwards to some extent, and also reflects them.
So, you know, whatever else one can say about Philip K. Dick's visions, this much is clear: His ability to turn them into astonishing visionary literature and literature that continues to inspire films is unquestionable.
CONAN: And let me ask you before I let you both go, what do you make of the word that we've been hearing, I guess, these last several years: phildickian. What does that mean to you? Let me ask you first, Lawrence Sutin.
Mr. SUTIN: It means to me that Philip K. Dick has joined, fully, the world of popular culture. There's an adjective Kafkaesque. I think phildickian doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it is an indication that people are aware, at least subliminally, there was a great American writer who managed to get underneath our assumptions about reality and confuse us all about our beliefs.
CONAN: And, Laura Leslie, when you hear that word, what do you think?
Ms. LESLIE: It always takes me by surprise, and I think it's delightful but it's also bittersweet because he's not here to experience this, and I wish he was.
CONAN: Laura Leslie, thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Ms. LESLIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Laura Leslie, the daughter of Philip K. Dick, and legally responsible for his estate. She joined us from the Bay Area in San Francisco. Our thanks also to Lawrence Sutin. Thanks for your time today.
Mr. SUTIN: Sure. Thank you.
CONAN: Lawrence Sutin, the author Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. His latest book, All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West. When we come back, guns of July.
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