Writer Philip K. Dick was born on December 16, 1928. Eleven films have been based on his books, including Blade Runner and Minority Report.
Our colleague Jim Blaylock, steampunk legend and author of Homunculus and the ongoing Langdon St. Ives series, was a friend of PKD. He shares his personal reminiscence here as our guest blogger.
- Phil came up with useful or interesting “concepts” as if he had a bottomless bin of the things. On the night I was first introduced to Phil (by Tim Powers at Phil’s house in Fullerton in 1975), Phil was messing around with a trilobite fossil that he had fairly recently acquired. He insisted that items with great age picked up a sort of juju from the passing years, that they were imbued with an accreted magic—something you could sense, although there was no evidence for it. (I was carrying a magic Peruvian bean in my pocket that very evening, and so I was pre-possessed to agree utterly with the notion. And there was a bottle or so of zinfandel that was perhaps also persuasive.) I’ve used this notion of the magic of small personal objects in one way or another in maybe half of my novels and stories.
- Phil was arguably the funniest person I’ve known. On that night we first met, he convinced Powers and me that his research had led him to uncover an ages-old secret plot that had resulted in the murder of hundreds of people, including Jesus Christ and Ambrose Bierce. The KGB was on the watch for people who knew of this plot and whom, as a result, they were certain to murder. Phil lived in constant fear for his life, he told us, and now, on this dark, winter midnight, when it was almost certain that the KGB was monitoring the house, Phil was revealing the secret to us. At this point it was too late to stop him, and, for the rest of our stay, we watched for movement in the moonlit shrubbery beyond the front window. Tim imagined (for reasons he couldn’t quite explain) that an enormous copper baby’s head would at any moment rise up grinning from behind the juniper bush. Somehow this made perfect, hideous sense to me. I have a vague memory of awakening my wife Viki at around two a.m. in order to explain it to her, babbling about the death of Ambrose Bierce in the Mexican desert, the ever-watchful KGB, and the floating head of death. I remember her turning the bedside lamp off with a calm deliberation and going back to sleep. Next morning, Phil called Tim on the phone, laughing. “I really had you two going last night, didn’t I?” he said.
- Phil was immensely serious about music, keen to find the best recording of Wagner and the best equipment to play it on. He paid a premium price for something called Cobra Cables, for instance, in order to improve the quality of his stereo, and he had the speakers situated just so on either side of his favorite chair in his Santa Ana apartment, and it was a restful day when he and our pal K.W. Jeter weren’t tinkering with the tweeting woofers, chasing another half percentile of sound and clarity. Around that time, Phil discovered that he wasn’t hearing what he ought to be hearing out of the left-hand speaker, and he worried about it insistently for a few days. Coincidentally, he went off to the doctor for a physical, and the doctor told him that he was deaf in his left ear. “Thank God,” he said, “I thought it was a problem with my stereo.”
- One of Phil’s very favorite books was A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner. He considered it one of the great books of the world. I bought it and read it at his suggestion, and discovered that he was entirely correct. When I read the letters he wrote as a child from boarding school to his mother, I understood why. (The letters were published in the first volume of The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick, edited by Underwood Miller.) When my son John was going off to kindergarten, I couldn’t read the last several pages of the book without weeping. I’m not sure I can read it today without weeping. People condemn the book as merely sentimental, but I suspect that St. Peter will slap them silly when they get up to the Pearly Gates, if they make it that far. When my sister, a zoologist, read the last chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in which the toad is discovered to be a mere android toad, she burst into tears. Phil would have liked that, I think, for all the best reasons.
- Phil was a Dean Swift snuff aficionado—not the shredded sort of snuff a person crams beneath his lip in order to spit black gobbets all over the place, but finely ground aromatic tobacco that one sniffs up one’s nose to facilitate a good sneeze. Dr. Johnson was a famous snuff taker as well—very elegant wrist action, apparently, a very delicate, gentlemanly sneeze. Dean Swift offers a Dr. Johnson blend, which was one of Phil’s two favorites, the other being Wren’s Relish. I was a Wren’s Relish man myself, although I wasn’t any sort of connoisseur and mainly used it when I was hanging out with Phil. He always had a basketful of cans on his coffee table, the basket surrounded by a fine brown powder. For a time after Phil died in 1982, I looked into buying a can of Wren’s Relish, just to have some on hand (or to have some on the back of my hand). I wasn’t really in need of any vices, but I had a sentimental attachment to it. I never got around to sending in an order, however, and, after a time, I simply gave up on the idea, realizing that I was trying to hold onto something—or to someone—that had already passed away.