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"The nature of things is in the habit of concealing itself"—Heraclitus, as often quoted by Philip K. Dick
As a science-fiction writer, Philip K. Dick was—sometimes painfully—without peer. As a writer, period, Dick was as valuable and as uniquely American a part of the literary pantheon as Vonnegut or Chandler, an author whose genre machinations belied fierce technique and a brilliant, insatiable intellect. Even as a philosopher and latter-day theologian, Dick was a voice—sometimes an intensely disturbing voice.
But as a part of Orange County, a place he sometimes derided as "plastic-town, USA" but somehow never managed to escape, he was for all intents and purposes invisible. And 20 years after his death, he has yet to really reappear.
Certainly, Orange County is a long way from the Berkeley of the 1950s, where almost-native-son (he was born in Chicago in 1928 but moved to Berkeley in 1931) Dick brought home horse meat from the pet store for his second wife to cook while he struggled to sell short stories to the science-fiction pulp magazines. And the Bay Area was where he first fought and won his reputation.
But it was here in OC that he saw one of his masterpieces (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) published. It was here in OC that he wrote the landmark A Scanner Darkly, slated to be the next film; here in OC that he put together his capstone Valis trilogy (Valis, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer). It was here in OC where Hollywood discovered him: 20 years before Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg turned one of his short stories into Minority Report, Dick was catching rides up the 5 freeway to watch his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?transform into the sci-fi classic Bladerunner.
And it was here in OC that Philip K. Dick had what he called his "2-3-74 experiences"—for February and March 1974, though they would crescendo and finally end in November 1980. That's when—as best as he could figure out—he talked with God. Yes, that God. Or maybe he just went crazy. Or maybe it was one of the infinite possibilities in between.
For some reason, no one here really knows about any of it.
"In Providence, Rhode Island, if you ask people about H.P. Lovecraft, they've heard of H.P. Lovecraft," says novelist Tim Powers, a longtime friend who met Dick the day he stepped off the plane at LAX. "If you go to Sonoma and ask about Steinbeck, they know who Steinbeck was. In San Francisco, they know Dashiell Hammett. But in Santa Ana, nobody's heard of Philip K. Dick."
In the late spring of 1972, of course, Powers had only barely heard of Philip K. Dick, the same as a lot of other people. Dick had won a Hugo Award for his 1963 novel, The Man in the High Castle. He'd written Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (arguably his most famous work) in 1966.
But by 1972, he was hurting badly. His fourth marriage had collapsed, he had slid into amphetamine abuse, and he'd been shattered by the still-unsolved burglary of his Bay Area home. After delivering a landmark speech in Vancouver, he attempted suicide and ended up in a drug-treatment center called X-Kalay. When he walked out of the gate at LAX to meet Powers, he didn't exactly look like a famous science-fiction writer.
"He had a sportcoat and tie, but the sportcoat was kind of too small for him because he'd been doing a lot of manual labor at the X-Kalay place—pitching big wooden beams into the back of trucks, he said," Powers recalls. "He had a cardboard box tied up with an extension cord, and he was carrying the New World translation—that's the Jehovah's Witness translation—of the Bible. To mollify customs, he said."
Only weeks before, Dick had written Cal State Fullerton professor Willis McNelly, whom he had met at an earlier science-fiction convention. He discussed the possibility of archiving his manuscripts at the university library—McNelly was putting together a special sci-fi collection, and Dick's manuscripts had been jeopardized during the break-in—and then gingerly wondered if there was any chance of relocating to Orange County.
"Shall I tell you to come to Fullerton?" McNelly quickly responded. "It's an answer you have to give yourself. Despite its disadvantages, Orange County has many things to offer. There's love and need anywhere, even in this county-wide monument to a mouse."
And after McNelly shared Dick's letter with some of his students, there was also an offer of a place to stay. For what McNelly described as a "modest share of the expenses," two CSUF roommates were willing to cook, keep house and offer "fringe benefits." ("However that may be defined," McNelly added).
Dick got there as fast as he could. He was deeply unhappy in Canada, and there was nothing left for him in the Bay. Where else did he have to go? On the ride from LAX, Powers remembers the author as cheerful but ragged, talking all the way, trying to feel out the people he'd be living with and a place he had never even seen before.