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Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick
Lawrence Sutin
Carroll & Graf, 368 pages

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick
Lawrence Sutin
Lawrence Sutin, an award-winning memoirist and biographer, has also written Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance, A Postcard Memoir, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, and All Is Change: The Two Thousand Year Journey of Buddhism to the West. He is a full professor in the Hamline University Graduate School of Liberal Studies M.F.A. and M.A.L.S. programs. He also teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. program of Vermont College.

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A review by Tom Marcinko

Philip K. Dick's reputation has steadily grown since his death in 1982 at the age of 53. Those who were reading him in the 60s and 70s can feel vindicated by the forthcoming Library of America edition of four of his best novels.

Like its subject, Lawrence Sutin's highly entertaining and generous-spirited 1989 biography Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (reprinted in 2005 by Carroll & Graf) is more timely than ever. Given the movies, music, and books inspired by Dick, even those who have yet to read the man feel his continuing influence. That in itself is an unsettling theme since his first novel The Cosmic Puppets (1953): life is a nightmare, but who exactly is dreaming it?

Sutin's tale of Dick's life is brisk, straightforward, and refreshingly free from sensationalism. We see Phil (as Sutin calls him throughout) through his letters, diaries, and massive "Exegesis." We also get memories, opinions, and impressions via writings and interviews with colleagues, friends, family, including a fair sampling of Phil's five wives. We get to know the models for characters. His boss at a Berkeley electronics repair shop, Phil's only day job besides SF writer, inspired the earthy, working-class heroes of books like Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Sutin paints a convincing portrait of a writer haunted lifelong by the death of his twin sister in infancy and an endless emotional tug-of-war with his mother and stepfather. He suffered from agoraphobia and paranoia. He really was on the FBI's surveillance list, apparently for sporadic political activism. He comes across as an exhilarating, exasperating personality, charismatic and generous yet often harsh and unfair towards loved ones.

Sutin seems to have a good nose for what really happened and for when his subject's storytelling sense was in overdrive. It seems Dick rarely told the same anecdote twice. It's not that he loved accuracy less, but fabulation more.

That sense of story served Dick well. He averaged a novel for each year of his life, writing six, including a couple of his best, in a twelve-month period during 1964-65. And despite the chaos of his life, Dick hewed to professionalism. It's a truism among Dick-heads to say that he wrote too fast, but he showed continuing growth in craftsmanship and artistry all the way through his last works.

Divine Invasions also offers a sobering look at the economics of trying to make a living as a writer. There were many markets, but the pay was low and sometimes the boss was a cheat. The finagling of royalty statements was so common that it was somehow possible for one half of an Ace Double novel to sell more than the other half.

Sutin's also sketches the light and dark sides of the counterculture: the giddy sense that anything was possible; the devastating effects of drug abuse. Amphetamines were Dick's poison, though he enjoyed pretending he wrote on LSD. Sutin also captures Dick's off-the-wall dark humor, and the sense that he enjoyed pulling one's leg -- a familiar feeling to anyone who has read a Dick novel and one seldom captured on screen, except for Richard Linklater's impressive film of A Scanner Darkly.

Then there are the visionary experiences that Dick himself expected people to dismiss as "Took drugs, saw God." Sutin documents the remarkable, undogmatic, downright scholarly objectivity Dick used to analyze his visions. If the experiences probably had an underlying organic cause, Dick made better use of mental illness than most, at least for those of us who rate VALIS one of his finest works.

Sutin discusses many of Dick's books in the narrative, but also provides a helpful chronological guide to novels and short-story collections, including ratings on a 1-10 scale, "to ensure pointless argument."

In a too-short preface to the 2005 edition, Sutin takes stock of Dick's impact on our culture. He sees Internet pop-up ads and influence of fake-news shows as evidence that Dick was a prophet. He might go further. For a writer dismissed for much of his life as a B-list druggie whose work was sadly lacking in hard-science content, and who claimed he explored reality because he didn't know what reality was, Dick nailed the world we live in now. Many of his stories depict an official lie that barely conceals a disturbing truth. He provided a perfect metaphor for our political universe. Dick probably thought Watergate proved him right. If he could see us now.

Copyright © 2007 Tom Marcinko

Tom Marcinko is a writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. His SF has appeared in Interzone, SF Age, The Edge, and on Ellen Datlow's late lamented EventHorizon.com site.


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