It's almost impossible to write an obituary for someone you care about deeply without sounding maudlingly sentimental Inevitably, the first thoughts to arise are selfish, and the pain ripping at you caused by the sense of your loss. It's a personal and private thing.
Philip K. Dick died this past March 2, from a stroke he had suffered eleven days earlier. Expressing the shock and rage fired in me by Dick's untimely death has proven excruciatingly difficult, the anguish knife-twisted by the stabbing realization that my chance to meet face-to-face the person whose work most influenced my life is gone. I've blown it, and it hurts. So this won't be an obituary or eulogy. The only salve for the very tangible ache I feel is to ignore it-shut out the self-pitying selfishness and probe the special qualities of Dick's writing that so profoundly touched me and a great many people I know as well Communicating a sense of this unique power might offer a small consolation.
Dick's thirty-year body of work (forty published books, of which six collect most of the 100 short stories not adapted into novels) yields a compassionate and sensitive man's complex response to an absurd world that sometimes seems out to get you. Individually, the books are inconsistent: crankily idiosyncratic, frequently brilliant but hastily written, and occasionally so full of holes that your fingers stick through. But you can't let that matter.
The effect seeps in gradually over the course of several books, leaking through the cracked walls fortifying your worldview, taking root in your subconscious like some insidious contagion. Unaware of this steady erosion of complacency, you're jolted by the sudden-dread realization:
Reality is not what it seems.
In UBIK, common items form-devolve into their mechanistic ancestors. In Time Out of Joint, a soft drink stand in a park disappears, and a piece of paper flutters to the ground. Printed on it are the words "SOFT DRINK STAND" and the facade crumbles. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the title character's leering visage of menace, slot-eyed and iron-jawed, intrudes into every aspect of the hallucinogenic-distorted reality of the protagonist.In "Faith of Our Fathers," the hero stops taking his mandatory dose of hallucinogens and begins to perceive things as they really are. In The Penultimate Truth, the world's population labors in subterranean factory-habitats manufacturing weapons for use in the devastating, aboveground war. Until someone climbs to the surface and discovers some-thing quite different. The cumulative impact is devastating.
In Dick's universe you take nothing for granted. Not only have all authority figures lied to you, but reality has lied to you as well. Says a character in Galactic Pot Healer, "In our society. everybody is aced out." But however paranoid, Dick's vision isn't despairing. There is always hopefulness within the entropic decay, humor in the absurdity, and redemption in the superhuman abilities of ordinary humans to cope with extraordinary circumstances. We can make it. We may not triumph heroically (who the hell does. anyway?), but. goddamn it, we'll survive. Humans will survive as long as they retain their humanity, Dick says, and the measure of humanity is the capacity for caring.
In both The Zap Gun and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the characters' ability to feel empathy both marks them as human (distinguishable from near-perfect simulacra, in the latter) and assures their salvation (learning empathy from a children's toy saves them from an alien invasion, in the former). And it's all so flicking ironic. . . a writer most concerned with the power of human caring was cared for so little by the rest of us. And now just as he had achieved some measure of comfort in his life, recognition and appreciation for his value as a contemporary American writer, and seemingly imminent mass-culture success (courtesy of Blade Runner-by all accounts. including Dick s own, an accurate portrayal of his vision) he dies.
It's so maddening it's almost funny-and as Dick was driven to find the humor in even the most hopeless of circumstances. I'm sure somewhere he's getting one goddamn big laugh out of this. I hope I will at some point.