JACKI LYDEN, host:
Two writers now for one story. Celebrated novelist Jonathan Lethem recently pulled off a literary C. Yes, of course, there was his own quirky new novel this year, "You Don't Love Me Yet," it's called. He did something else as well. He introduced one of his own strongest influences to a new generation of readers. Lethem edited and republished four novels from the 1960s by the legendary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
Dick died in 1982, but his edgy every-man's stories still inspire screenwriters who have transformed his tales into such films as "Minority Report" and "Blade Runner."
In this new collection republished by the Library of America, there are "The Man in the High Castle," about an alternate reality after World War II in which Japan and Germany win the war; "Ubik," a tale of telepathy, time travel and psychic powers; the third book is called "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," it's about the inhabitants of a space station who take mind-altering drugs to stave off boredom; and finally, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," famously the novel that inspired "Blade Runner."
I spoke to Jonathan Lethem this week about Philip K. Dick's legacy.
Jonathan Lethem, welcome to our program.
Mr. JONATHAN LETHEM (Novelist): Thanks for having me,Jacki.
LYDEN: I know that there are legions of Philip K. Dick fans, but there are also legions of people who, well, might have read him and possibly - I know this is hard to imagine - not have heard of him. So tell me about the aura of Philip K. Dick, and who he was.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, he came along sort of halfway through the great story of pulp science fiction in the 1950s and became, in some ways, the official cult genius of science fiction, regarded somewhat leerily by the subgenre's establishment, and personally a very erratic dude, kind of a - you almost think of him as Lenny Bruce is to the American comedy tradition, Philip K. Dick is to science fiction. He was the hipster. He was the drug casualty and he was the dissident voice.
LYDEN: I guess I had always been aware that he was addicted to methamphetamines, but that doesn't begin to talk about his frail emotional health, his real physical problems, his horrible finances, his love of women that didn't last. I mean, he had - his life was a mess.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, yeah. It's hard to sometimes believe how much he struggled, and how also I think for any artist - and I feel this very acutely - to accept how little he satisfied his ambitions, or felt gratified. He struggled terribly and yet, the life and the art are in some sense one and I don't think he died with a lot of regrets.
LYDEN: Let's talk a little bit about where Philip K. Dick enters your life. How long have you been reading him and when did you discover him?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, I stumbled across Dick's novels when I was, I think, 13. And for whatever reason, I immediately recognized the kind of kindred spirit. There was something about his ludicrous but openhearted style of writing that completely turned me on and became, you know, it seemed necessary to me. I knew I wanted to write that way and I knew I wanted to read everything this guy had written. As a teenager…
LYDEN: And you've read everything that he's written?
Mr. LETHEM: I sought out all the books and I read them all. At this point, he was pretty much completely out of print. So it was sort of an eccentric commitment to make. This was when, I should say - you know, Dick was still alive and I sort of had this chance that I blew to rush out to California and you know, sit at the feet of my master. And I never quite managed to do it. He died in '82, just as I was starting college, and so I sort of lost my chance to go and try to become his official protege.
But I've done my best to kind of honor his memory. And what's been fascinating to watch is how, over the years, he's very slowly crept into a kind of real legitimacy. He's become essential, I think, to a lot of academics. And finally, you know - and I think this Library of America edition helps secure this or commemorate it - he's become more and more a part of the 20th century's literary canon.
LYDEN: And why is he more important - what he died in 1982, 25 years later?
Mr. LETHEM: The thing that makes his work so stirring is that, as bizarre as it can be, he often was writing about the immediate surroundings, because he was writing about the culture - corporate culture of mid-century America, and using a very kind of precise observation even as he was exaggerating things into absurdity.
But in doing so, he saw with such an acute vision that he also became a great predictive writer. And so there are many aspects of Dick's writing that do project precisely the reality that we find ourselves living in now. So his work is ever increasingly relevant.
LYDEN: For example, in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," when people are dialing in to set all these various bizarre moods from, you know, joy to grief on their mood organs, I mean, it sounds ridiculous until you think about Prozac and Ritalin and all these other things.
Mr. LETHEM: I think that's right. He can seem - and again, only because he was an instinctive satirist and such an acute satirist of the world that was immediately before him - he can seem to predict things like virtual reality and pharmaceutical psychology and invasive advertising. He grasped that we were moving into a world where our products and ourselves were becoming inextricably mingled.
LYDEN: Your first novel, "Gun, With Occasional Music," which you produced after writing lots of short stories, is compared to Philip K. Dick meets Raymond Chandler. You must have been thrilled.
Mr. LETHEM: I was pretty happy and yeah, I mean, that's funny. I was, you know, I think it would be fair to say I was aping his style the first few times I tried to write a novel. And nothing could make me happier than to have someone recognize my aping for what it was. That was good enough for me. And you know, I think it was a kind of apprenticeship that I declared to myself, even if he wasn't around to be the master, I would be the apprentice anyway.
LYDEN: Jonathan Lethem is the editor of a new anthology of four Philip K. Dick novels published by the Library of America. Jonathan Lethem, thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. LETHEM: Thank you very much for having me.