What’s the Alternative

Copyright © Sirius Publishing All rights reserved. Privacy Policy | Terms of Use



Philip K. Dick

Thought D

One of the most prolific science-fiction writers of our age and in the opinion of most critics one of the very best (four highly successful films, Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report, were based on stories by him), Philip K. Dick entered an Altered State of Consciousness in his last years and became either a religious prophet, a major existentialist philosopher, or a raving nut, depending on how you want to look at it. One of Dick's psychotherapists tried to convince him that his whole experience derived from sexual abuse suffered as an infant.

In a sense, it all began on November 17, 1971 when persons unknown broke into Dick's house while he was away, stole many of his files, and did enough pointless, malicious damage to suggest that some threat was intended. Since Dick had been active in both the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, it is likely that the break-in was either part of the FBI's COINTELPRO operation—an attempt to terrorize dissidents—or one of the capers of Nixon's "plumbers" unit—later famous for the Watergate burglary. In any event, Dick felt that he had become a person of interest to powerful and unknown adversaries.

Three years later, in February 1974, Dick had a tooth extraction for which he was given sodium pentathol. He had previously used acid in the 1960s (who didn't?), frequently employed methamphetamine to finish books on deadline, and had more recently flooded his body with megadoses of vitamins in accord with 1970s' ideas of maximum health. He thought all of these might have played a role in what happened.

For over a month, February to March, Dick watched as his whole universe collapsed and was replaced not by a new universe but by a series of hypothetical or virtual universes. He was literally living in many of his own sci-fi plots and in the Gnostic theology that fascinated him. Sometimes, he thought that he was remembering a past life as a Gnostic Christian in Rome ca. 70 A.D.; sometimes, that his late friend, Bishop James Pike, had reincarnated within him; sometimes that three-eyed beings from Sirius controlled all life on Earth; sometimes that he was accidentally trapped in a telepathic transmission channel used between Russian parapsychologists and extraterrestrials; etc.

As he returned to comparative normalcy, Dick came more and more to think of the Experience as a revelation of the greatest false memory case in history, imposed on all humanity, from which he had partially awakened. That is, The Empire Never Ended (he always printed it in boldface, like that): most of the last 2,000 years of history never happened. We have been brainwashed by the Roman Empire to think he were are living in a totally false world (the Black Iron Prison, Dick called it), so we would not know we were actually living in the Messianic Age. Nixon is Nero, the assassinations we think we remember are distortions of the real memory of the Christians being thrown to the lions, and nothing inside the Black Iron Prison of ordinary perception is what it seems.

Being both a philosopher and a science-fiction poet, Dick came to doubt this theory also. In fact, the longest book he ever wrote, not yet published in full, is a 1,000 plus page Exegesis on his experience and some lingering aftermaths of altered perception, in which he tries one theory after another to understand what was happening to him and never does decide. At one point, he attributed his experiences to Zebra, a hypothetical giant intelligence that remains invisible because it looks like the environment, as some insects do—but Zebra looks like the whole environment. Often, he spoke instead of VALIS, a Vast Active Living Intelligence System, left here by the three-eyed Sirians to aid our evolution.

His last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, rejects all metaphysical interpretations of the hero's similar experiences and concludes that all we can learn from consciousness expansion is to be more tolerant, to love each other a hell of a lot more, and to do something concrete and practical about the suffering and injustice on this planet.


Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin, Underwood-Miller, Lancaster, Pa., 1989

The VALIS Trilogy, by Philip K. Dick, Quality Paperback Book Club, New York, 1990

In Search of VALIS: Selections from the Exegesis, by Philip K. Dick, Underwood-Miller, Lancaster, Pa., 1991