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How PKD Betrayed His Admirers to the FBI

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo April 28, 2001 How Philip K. Dick betrayed his admirers to the FBI by Jeet Heer National
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 30, 2001
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      News for Anarchists & Activists:

      April 28, 2001

      How Philip K. Dick betrayed his admirers to the FBI

      by Jeet Heer
      National Post

      When the novelist Philip K. Dick died in 1982, the
      influential literary theorist Fredric Jameson eulogized him
      as "the Shakespeare of science fiction." At the time of this
      encomium, Dick was hardly famous. The author of more than
      fifty books, he had an enthusiastic following among science
      fiction fans. But he was rarely read by anyone else.

      These days, Dick is far better known. Vintage publishes his
      fiction in a uniform paperback edition. Hollywood filmmakers
      transform his stories of imaginary worlds and conspiratorial
      cartels into movies like Screamers and Total Recall.
      Meanwhile, academic critics laud him as a postmodernist
      visionary, a canny prophet of virtual reality, corporate
      espionage, and the schizoid nature of identity in a
      digitized world. Indeed, beginning in the last years of his
      life and continuing to the present, these critics have
      played a key role in the canonization of Philip K. Dick.

      But did Dick return the favour? Not exactly. To their
      considerable anguish, Dick's academic champions have had to
      contend with the revelation that their hero wrote letters to
      the Federal Bureau of Investigation denouncing them. In
      these letters, Dick claimed Jameson and other literary
      theorists were agents of a KGB conspiracy to take over
      American science fiction. When he sent these messages, Dick
      was not in the best state of mind: He frequently heard
      voices and saw visions, often bathed in a mysterious pink
      light. Even so, the news of his surreptitious campaign
      against his academic admirers has left some of them deeply

      Dick started selling science fiction stories as early as
      1951, when he was 22. He received a paltry US$1,500 a shot
      for them, produced at a rate of four or five a year.
      Typically, they were published as cheap paperbacks, with
      titles such as Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) and Clans of the
      Alphane Moon (1964). Considering the conditions under which
      the novels were written and published, it is amazing that
      Dick managed to find any sort of intelligent audience. Yet
      the best of these books -- notably, The Three Stigmata of
      Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Ubik (1969) -- presented
      intellectually ingenious and emotionally lacerating
      dislocations of reality.

      Dick's fiction of the 1960s resonated not only with the
      counterculture but also with the New Left. His work
      attracted leftists such as Jameson, Peter Fitting of the
      University of Toronto, and Richard Pinhas, a French critic
      who went on to form a punk band. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.,
      a professor of English at DePauw University, notes that many
      readers in the late 1960s and 1970s thought Dick was
      "expressing ... sly critiques of capitalism and the American
      bourgeois world picture." The science fiction novelist
      Thomas M. Disch praised Dick for writing "self-consistent
      social allegories of a more-or-less Marxist bent."

      In 1975, the journal Science Fiction Studies devoted a
      special issue to Dick's work. The critics were exceedingly
      generous in their praise. Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem
      acclaimed Dick as the only American writer of science
      fiction with any merit, "a visionary among charlatans."
      Fitting lauded Ubik as a "deconstruction of bourgeois
      science fiction."

      But could these critics trust Dick? Even before their paeans
      were published, Dick had begun writing a stream of letters
      to the FBI. In the earliest of these, written on Oct. 28,
      1972, he asserted, "Several months ago I was approached by
      an individual who I have reason to believe belonged to a
      covert organization involving politics, illegal weapons,
      etc., who put great pressure on me to place coded
      information in future novels 'to be read by the right people
      here and there,' as he phrased it. I refused to do it."

      Dick went on to suggest that this mysterious organization
      (which he claimed was possibly run by neo-Nazis) had
      successfully recruited at least one science fiction writer,
      Thomas M. Disch. "I stress the urgency of this," he wrote,
      "because within the last three days I have come across a
      well distributed science fiction novel which contains in
      essence the vital material which this individual confronted
      me with as the basis of encoding.

      "That novel is CAMP CONCENTRATION by Thomas Disch." Around
      the same time, Dick grew suspicious of Stanislaw Lem, who
      was starting to gain an English-speaking audience for his
      satiric science fiction. In November 1972, Lem had secured
      permission to have Ubik translated into Polish. Because of
      Cold War currency restrictions, Dick was unable to collect
      royalties from this translation. He blamed Lem for the
      situation -- accusing the Polish novelist of embezzlement.

      In February, 1974, Dick first experienced his pink-light
      visions, which continued without interruption until his

      They revealed to him an entire cosmology. Sometimes he
      experienced the world as a persecuted Christian living in
      imperial Rome; at other times he felt he was receiving
      messages from some future superior intelligence, which he
      named VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) and he
      often acted under its direction.

      The visions also expanded his conspiratorial fantasies,
      which became global in scope. In March, 1974, he claimed to
      have received two mysterious pieces of mail: a fan letter
      from Esroma and an anonymous clipping from a Communist
      newspaper. Under the guidance of the pink light, Dick
      concluded that these letters were part of an effort to put
      his loyalty to the test. Connecting the letters to his
      dispute with Lem, he wrote to the FBI asking for assistance
      against the Communist conspiracy.

      In letters written in late 1974, Dick combined all his
      various fears into one elaborate scheme. Lem, he imagined,
      was a KGB agent orchestrating a vast conspiracy that
      included such pawns as Jameson, Fitting, Darko Suvin (a
      Canada-based critic who then edited Science Fiction
      Studies), and Franz Rottensteiner (an Austrian who at that
      time was Lem's Western literary agent). "What is involved
      here," he wrote, "is not that these persons are Marxists per
      se or even that Fitting, Rottensteiner and Suvin are
      foreign-based but that all of them without exception
      represent dedicated outlets in a chain of command from
      Stanislaw Lem in Krakow, Poland, himself a total Party
      functionary. ... For an Iron Curtain Party group ... to gain
      monopoly positions of power from which they can control
      opinion through criticism and pedagogic essays is a threat
      to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange
      of views and ideas." In countering this Communist
      conspiracy, Dick again feared for his life: He believed he
      was in danger of being kidnapped and brainwashed by Lem and

      While Dick was alive, the targets of his letters to the FBI
      were not aware of his duplicity. (For its part, the FBI
      responded with a single noncommittal thank-you note, and
      does not seem to have acted further on his reports.) But
      even without the knowledge of Dick's letters to the FBI, his
      critical supporters became increasingly uncomfortable with
      the eccentricities of his private life. As Csicsery-Ronay
      notes, "For the New Left critics, the whole Pink Beam
      episode was an embarrassment and they never talked about it.
      It was just another wacky, tawdry Dick thing."

      Dick's admirers first confronted the issue of his letters to
      the FBI in 1991, when the relevant volume of his selected
      letters was released. The earliest response, by Robert M.
      Philmus of Concordia University, was also the harshest.
      Writing in Science Fiction Studies, Philmus described Dick's
      actions against Lem as "slander to an extent that is not
      only actionable but (legally as well as morally)

      As it turns out, long before Dick approached the FBI, the
      bureau had approached him. In 1953 or 1954, Dick and his
      second wife, Kleo, were repeatedly approached by two FBI
      agents, who hoped (but failed) to recruit the young Bohemian
      couple to spy on students at the University of Mexico.
      According to Dick's biographer Lawrence Sutin, these
      encounters had a "lasting" impact and planted the seed for
      Dick's future anxieties about the national security state.
      (Not all these anxieties were unjustified, either. In 1958,
      a letter Dick wrote to a Soviet scientist was intercepted by
      the Central Intelligence Agency. Ten years later, Dick lent
      his name to an anti-war ad that ended up in his FBI file.)

      Of all those named in Dick's letters, Disch has perhaps been
      the most forgiving. In an e-mail interview, he stresses
      Dick's personal agony. "At this point, early and mid-1970s,"
      Disch notes, Dick "really was freaking out on drugs, almost
      the whole pharmacopoeia except heroin. The drugs didn't
      destroy his gift entirely, even at his nadir, but they did
      make it impossible for him to distinguish between
      self-interest and Poe's Imp of the Perverse. He loved to
      make trouble: Witness those letters to the FBI. ... He'd
      follow the moment's inspiration, which would lead sometimes
      to only momentary mischief (the FBI, after all, didn't take
      him seriously, so far as I know), sometimes to an okay

      Yet even if Dick's critics forgive his treachery as
      delusional, can they justifiably canonize him as a great
      subversive novelist? Certainly Peter Fitting's views of
      Dick's work have changed. In 1975, Fitting had celebrated
      Dick's fiction for its transgressive power. But speaking
      about Dick now, Fitting says with wary sadness that "there
      hasn't been anything really interesting written about him in
      the last decade. ... People aren't so interested in him. ...
      It is harder to find a radical vision in his work." Fitting
      believes that far from intentionally subverting science
      fiction, Dick was often "confused," which made his work seem
      more complicated than it actually was.

      Dick was an erudite, widely read man. But nothing in his
      career prepared him to appreciate the methods and styles of
      contemporary literary criticism. In one interview, he
      complained that he "read a lot of ... criticism in which
      [critics] see a lot of ideas which aren't there at all."
      Dick may have misread his critics, but in his view, the
      critics misread him. His story about being asked to plant
      covert neo-Nazi messages in his books can be read as a
      paranoid fantasy about literary criticism, which involves
      not just finding meanings deeply hidden in the text but
      sometimes also inventing meanings.

      Dick's portrayal of a media-saturated world where reality is
      lost among simulacra is just as timely as ever, Disch
      advises we should return to Dick's splendid fiction and
      leave the sad life behind. Yet separating life and art is
      difficult with a character like Dick, whose own life and art
      pushed so hard at the boundaries of the normal. Philmus
      recently observed that, in 1974, Dick "entered the world of
      his fiction." And as Dick himself wrote to Fitting in that
      same year, "It seems to me that by subtle but real degrees
      the world has come to resemble a PKD novel; or, put another
      way, subjectively I sense my actual world as resembling the
      kind of typical universe which I used to merely create as
      fiction, and which I left, often happily, when I was done
      with writing."

      Jeet Heer is a graduate student in history at York
      University and a co-editor of Left History.; Reprinted by
      permission from Lingua Franca: the Review of Academic Life
      (New York).


      Dan Clore

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