A Look at Philip K. Dick in The New Yorker

22 08 2007

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker

Of all American writers, none have got the genre-hack-to-hidden-genius treatment quite so fully as Philip K. Dick, the California-raised and based science-fiction writer who, beginning in the nineteen-fifties, wrote thirty-six speed-fuelled novels, went crazy in the early seventies, and died in 1982, only fifty-three. His reputation has risen through the two parallel operations that genre writers get when they get big. First, he has become a prime inspiration for the movies, becoming for contemporary science-fiction and fantasy movies what Raymond Chandler was for film noir: at least eight feature films, including “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “A Scanner Darkly,” and, most memorably, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” have been adapted from Dick’s books, and even more—from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” to the “Matrix” series—owe a defining debt to his mixture of mordant comedy and wild metaphysics.

But Dick has also become for our time what Edgar Allan Poe was for Gilded Age America: the doomed genius who supplies a style of horrors and frissons. (In both cases, it took the French to see it; the first good critical writing on Dick, as on Poe, came from Europe, and particularly from Paris.) Like Poe’s, Dick’s last big book was a work of cosmic explanation in which lightning bolts of brilliance flash over salty oceans of insanity. Poe’s explanation of everything was called “Eureka.” Dick’s was “VALIS.” The second, literary Dick is now in the Library of America ($35), under the excellent editorial care of Jonathan Lethem, a passionate devotee, who also provides an abbreviated chronology of Dick’s tormented life. Four of the sixties novels are neatly packed together in the handsome black covers: “The Man in the High Castle,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (the original of “Blade Runner”), and his masterpiece, “Ubik.”

More here.

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