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The late, great Philip K. Dick
New Hebrew translation aims to introduce unique science fiction writer to Israeli readers
Philip K. Dick was born as he wrote: before his time and not alone. A preemie who came into the world in 1929, with a twin sister. After six weeks the little girl died and the family broke up in divorce. But the twin sister did not leave him. He accused himself, he imagined her with all his strength, held by the only detail he knew about her – she had black hair.
Gon Ben Ari
At age 6, in his first psychological treatment, it emerged that Philip was frightened of everything – food, dirt, open spaces – but only in high school did the fear coalesce; things stopped being real. It started with the geometry teacher at Berkeley High. “I looked at her and she was chattering in a high screeching voice,” Dick said. “And suddenly I felt this, she isn’t a real person but an artificial creation. At any moment her head can fall and we will see the springs.”
The American surroundings did not help – in the 1950s capitalism finally presented a deserving alternative to reality. Counterfeit food eaten at McDonald’s,
counterfeit animals to pet in Disneyland, a counterfeit Technicolor atmosphere filled the movie screen.
These two motifs – a girl with black hair and dubious reality – will return again and again throughout Dick’s impossible career. Including more than 40 novels and more than 100 short stories. “A girl with black hair” encapsulated the formula for Dick himself, “go to the threshold of the hero and inform him – the reality you know isn’t true.”
At age 35, Dick took so much Speed that as a side effect he succeeded in living the lives of eight people. He worked at every possible job, got married four times in 15 years, and changed within a decade from a poor unknown writer who fed himself on dog food to a famous poor writer who fed himself on dog food. But at the beginning of the 1960s all the pieces fell in place.
Influences from childhood (comics, science fiction) and influences from adulthood (Proust, Joyce, religious writings) came together to create a hybrid of unlimited inventive ability together with artistic aspirations. In The Man in The High Castle, Dick succeeds in creating an internal marriage. “Suddenly” he said, “I found a way to do everything I wanted to do as a writer.”
The Man in The High Castle which will be published this week in Hebrew in a new translation by Shimon Adaf (Am Oved) is not a typical science fiction book. It does not have speculations about the future, but about the present. In the book the Second World War ends with the victory of Germany and Japan, and the US is divided between the Japanese and the Nazis.
“Their ego expanded psychotically until they did not know where divinity begins or ends,” Dick wrote about the Germans. “It isn’t hubris, not pride¸ but the expansion of the ego to its ultimate border – blurring between the class and the object of worship. Man did not swallow God – God swallowed man.”
The heroes struggle to survive in a new reality – fascist, in which slavery is creeping back, Africa was erased, and the Middle East became a giant dairy. In this reality Robert Childan sells the Japanese American collectible objects from before the war and is torn between hate and longing for his new masters.
Frank Fink manufactures forgeries of the same collectible objects and hides the fact he is Jewish; and Juliana starts a relationship with a truck driver and discovers that he has completely different plans. The people are never who they say they are, the objects are never what they seem, even history is not what it claims to be. And in order to mix up the pieces of the puzzle even more, there is also a book within the book; the characters read a book of alternate history that describes a reality that is closer to ours – a history in which the allies are victorious.
The Man in The High Castle is considered the creative climax of Dick’s writing and it immediately became the clearest example of the genre of alternate history. If until then his books were labeled as cheap science fiction, this book helped him spread outside the narrow limits of the genre, to accumulate a readership also outside the fixed cult of admirers.
But the good criticism and the feeling of accomplishment only made the poverty and the weak sales even less tolerable. Dick wrote an important book, and still no one cared. He considered leaving everything, mortgaging the house and opening a record store. Then from nowhere the book won the Hugo Prize – the highest honor possible for a science fiction writer, aside from being kidnapped by space aliens – and years of hard work started to pay off.
The high esteem poured in from all directions: rights to his books started selling for film scripts and personalities like Timothy Leary and John Lennon phoned their support. But nothing can go well forever.
In the beginning of the 1970s Dick was hospitalized with a body half extinguished from drugs, and his fourth wife took their daughter and left. Dick remained alone in the family home which slowly became a commune. He gave the four bedrooms to jobless people, hippies, motorcyclists and artists. Many prescription drugs joined less legal street drugs, and the valium of the paranoia took over. The feeling that something lays in ambush behind reality only got worse; FBI agents were following him, or so he was convinced. He bought a hand gun.
The idea of doubting palpable reality which Dick adopted acquired the perfect emissary in that period – LSD. The new drug proved that Dick was correct – indeed there is something beyond reality. As proof, already in his first trip, Dick spoke fluent Latin, even though he never learned the language.
If more justification was needed, in 1971 mysterious parties broke into his house violently. The closets were blown up, the drawers were broken into and papers vandalized. The same justification that drugs gave to his worldview, the break-in gave to his paranoia. “The theory about paranoia is gone,” said Dick, “it’s clear I was correct.”
Immediately following the house break-in, Dick was invited to take part in a science fiction conference in Canada as guest of honor. A fast rush of euphoria, which included a famous lecture on Man and Android, then a dive back into depression. “One young woman in the college in Canada asked me to define what is reality for a philosophy paper. She wanted an answer in one sentence. I thought about this and I said, “Reality is something that even when you stop believing in it, still does not disappear. That’s all I could say.”
With no place to live, with no reality to believe in and with a heavy addiction to Speed that now required some 1,000 pills a month – Dick tried for the first time to commit suicide.
After rehabilitating in an addiction cure institute in which he hospitalized himself, Dick sent a letter to one of his professors from Berkeley. “I am homeless,” he wrote there, and asked for help. The professor read the letter to his class. A couple of students suggested that the writer come live with them. Dick, a Hugo prize winning writer aged 43 packed up his things, and went to live with students in an apartment that had more posters than oxygen.
He liked the students so much he even married one – Tessa Basbi, age 18. “Reality by itself,” Dick wrote in a letter, “becomes a story by Philip K. Dick.” And so it happened – reality changed.
a place where science fiction and fantasy are still not accepted as fine literature, Philip K. Dick is far from being a household word. Eight of his books were published in Hebrew, mainly by small houses with a specialty in the genre, but the new translation of Man in the High Castle is an opportunity to present it to a new readership and perhaps to read it differently.
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