Bruce Gillespie's prolog to the P14 BoH Panel

It's very satisfying to attend my first Potlatch in 2005, the year when you pay tribute to Phil Dick and one of his most challenging novels, A Scanner Darkly. And it's all Philip Dick's fault that I am here on this platform in front of you, 12,000 miles away from home.

At the end of 1967, I was twenty years old, and had just finished my Arts degree. For a year and a half I had been buying a thin, duplicated magazine called Australian Science Fiction Review from the front counter of McGill's Newsagency in the centre of Melbourne, Australia. This magazine seemed like a repository of genius to me. I reread many of its pages recently. It still reads better than any SF critical magazine being published today. In November 1967, I had just finished passing exams and writing essays. Now I wanted to redirect all that energy to something really interest to me: I wanted to write deep and meaningful long essays about science fiction for ASFR.

For me in 1967, there was only one huge body of SF writing worth exploring: that of Philip K. Dick. At that time, few people had written about him. I had heard about John Brunner’s pioneering essay. I didn't know that Brian Aldiss was also writing about him. I had never seen any of the American fanzines, so I did not know about the Dick material that had appeared in Lighthouse, Niekas and others. I felt strongly that Philip K. Dick was the best SF writer in the world, and that everybody was ignoring him.

I sat down, scribbled copious notes in the margins of my Phil Dick books, wrote the long essays, and sent them to John Bangsund, the editor of ASFR, who lived in a suburb the other side of Melbourne. One night, John rang me. We're impressed by your articles. Would you like to come over to our place for the weekend and meet the ASFR people?’ I was the shyest twenty-year-old in Melbourne at that time, but I couldn't pass up this opportunity. During that weekend at the end of 1967 I met many of the people who have had the greatest continuing influence on my life, such as John Bangsund himself, Lee Harding, George Turner, Damien Broderick, Rob Gerrand, John Foyster, Leigh Edmonds and quite a few others. Although Phil Dick didn’t realise it at the time, he was my entry to the world I've occupied ever since: that of science fiction fandom. Nearly forty years later, it is the world of SF fandom that has paid for this trip to America to attend Corflu and Potlatch.

In 1968 I became active in fandom. My articles failed to appear in ASFR. The magazine began to appear less and less often. It died in early 1969. I had my first real income at the beginning of 1969, so of course I began publishing a fanzine. I called it SF Commentary. It is still going, subject to a rather hiccupy schedule. The main initial reason for its existence was to provide a place where I could publish my Philip Dick essays. I sent SFC to Dick's American publisher in New York. My greatest moment in 1969 was receiving a letter of appreciation of Philip Dick, which led to a friendly correspondence that ended in the mid seventies when he decided that, like so many of his other friends, I was no longer his friend. None of us ever knew what we did to upset him.

Those three long essays that I wrote about Dick's work in 1969 made SF Commentary an informal centre of Philip K. Dick fandom for some years. Many of my continuing best friends are people who took the trouble to meet me because they knew I had written about Philip Dick's work.

In 1975, Carey Handfield, one of Melbourne's more famous fans, suggested we start a small publishing company. What was more natural than to gather the Philip Dick material from the pages of SF Commentary and call the book Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd? We published 1000 copies, and there are only a few file copies left.

Our timing was superb: Electric Shepherd came out about the same time as the special Philip Dick issue of Science Fiction Studies, and took its place at the front of the huge armada of Dick scholarship that would follow during the next 25 years.

I won’t claim much for Electric Shepherd itself, except that it pretty much a first. It was a slim volume, and needs to be revised and expanded. These days I would disagree with many of my own opinions. The famous Stanislaw Lem essay, ‘SF: A Hopeless Case — With Exceptions, in which he claimed that Philip Dick was the only Western SF writer worth anything, has been reprinted many times since. George Turner's rather cranky, but accurate essay about Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is there. The early letters that Phil wrote to me are there, but not the very frightening last letters, the ones I found too intimidating to publish.

That's the autobiographical bit. Now for an abject confession.

When I went back to reread A Scanner Darkly, I realised I had not read it since 1977, when it came out. When I leafed through Ubik the other night, I realised I had not read it for more than 30 years. Except Philip Dick's non-SF novels, about which I wrote in 1990, I've re-read hardly any of the great Philip Dick novels since I wrote those essays. Everybody in this room - indeed, everybody at this convention - will be able to offer opinions that are wiser and much more insightful than mine. I am going to be your ideal audience. For me, this convention represents a way to catch up on the most important author in my life.

Yet Philip Dick has never been far from my mind during those years. Once you live inside Ubik, it lives inside you. One never forgets the last page of Now Wait for Last Year or the first or last pages of Martian Time-Slip, or the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, forever hovering on the horizon, an image now replaced by the fifty-year-old face of Philip Dick, forever hovering from the back covers of the endless reprints of his books. In thirty years Philip Dick has moved from a position of being an invisible writer to becoming the SF writer.

In all that time, I've never felt that A Scanner Darkly was a part of the mainstream of Philip Dick's work. It's probably the bleakest book I've ever read. Rereading it in the last week or so, I still felt that way. Even at the end of Ubik, when Joe Chip barely exists in half-life, awaiting an inevitable end, he grasps at the possibility that the spray can of Ubik will save him, will keep him clinging onto reality. At the end of Now Wait for Last Year, Eric Sweetscent is in similar dire straits, this time condemned to death through his use of JJ-180, the time-altering drug, but he has the courage to keep on keeping on. What we remember from Philip Dick's great books is that sense of very frail people maintaining their courage, just managing to survive.

I'll make a very large generalisation: most of Philip Dick's novels about people who discover that the reality with which they are familiar is actually a fake reality — that under and simultaneous with the world of ordinary existence lie different worlds, usually horrifying and dangerous, into which the main characters are plunged. The characters are judged by the way they deal with this transformation. Dick's main characters usually find some bare trace of hope, no matter how treacherous the world in which they find themselves. The entertainment value lies in the extraordinary inventiveness with which Dick builds these worlds, combined with his cut-down, clipped prose and the way he leaves out everything but the essentials in his books. If only we could return to the 220-page SF novel!

A Scanner Darkly works quite differently from Dick’s earlier novels. For a start, although it is set some years in the future of 1977, almost no science-fictional elements are introduced. The only SF invention is the "scramble suit," worn by anti-drug agents when investigating dopers and pushers. This is a membrane made up of a surface of a million and a half electronically generated images playing over its surface, preventing the outsider from seeing the identity of the person inside the suit.

Apart from its one SF gimmick, A Scanner Darkly seems to be a realistic novel. It is based on Philip Dick's experience in 1971 and early 1972, when he had little income, but kept open house to a wide variety of drug users and other social drop-outs. Philip Dick's Epilogue to the book includes a list of a number of casualties of that drug scene. Little has changed; people rather like the people in this novel might be found scoring and selling drugs on the major streets of most cities in the world. The purpose of the novel is didactic - to warn people against getting involved in the world of hard drugs. In the novel, Substance D, the super-powerful drug that most of these people take, leads inevitably to brain death, then physical death.

Most of Phil Dick's SF novels tell of main characters who are placed in situations of despair, but keep their humanity and their perceptiveness despite the amazing roller coasters of world-shifting that we find in these novels. At the end of A Scanner Darkly, however, courage and humanity have been eliminated from the world of the main character, Bob Arctor. His personality has been destroyed; he can no longer react to the world as a human, but only as a kind of slow robot. He has become the dark scanner of the title, a mere camera who observes. He even discovers the source of Substance D, the drug that has destroyed him, but he cannot do anything about the situation.

For many insights about A Scanner Darkly I am indebted to the work of a fellow Australian, indeed a fellow Melburnian, Christopher Palmer. In 2004, he produced a brilliant critical book called Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern. When I first looked at the book I thought it a bit too academic in approach, a bit too postmodern for my taste. Reading Chapter 10, Palmer's chapter on A Scanner Darkly, I find a brilliant analysis of the complexities of the book. Palmer uses his critical tools to shed light on aspects of Scanner that I had read and noticed, but which I had not been able to put into a pattern. I'm not sure how you would buy the book. It was published by Liverpool University Press, an organisation famous equally for the quality of its books and its determination to hide them from all purchasers. Last I heard, their books were not even listed on

The many useful points that Chris Palmer makes include his observation that the world of A Scanner Darkly is not that of your ordinary California. Its action excludes "straights." It's a completely self-enclosed world, like many of the worlds of Dick's SF novels. A Scanner Darkly begins where most of the other SF novels finish "in a world in which it is difficult to survive." For some time the characters do not realise this. Much of the enjoyment of the book is Dick's ability to put on the page the endlessly wandering, loopy conversations of these people as they show their total inability to fix machines or anything else in ordinary life. Dick builds up absurdity upon absurdity; you just know he's heard one or other of his friends say every line in the book at some time or another.

There are almost no characters in the book who are not dopers, dealers or narks, the representatives of the law. Bob Arctor is one of them, but in order to do his job he infiltrates the world of the dopers. In turn, he becomes addicted to Substance D, which progressively destroys his perceptions of the world around him. He becomes two people, Fred, the man in the scramble suit, who reports to his superiors and watches tapes of his own house; and Bob, the addict, who lives in the house being watched. Fred's assignment is to report on Bob.

There are plenty of harbingers of this totally paranoid world in Dick’s earlier work, most often in the short stories. You can go back to Impostor, made into a movie a few years ago. The main character has no knowledge that he is actually the alien sent to earth. The main character of The Electric Ant, a much later story, finds out that he is actually an artifact run by a tape. When he cuts the tape, his existence ends.

Much of this aspect of Philip Dick's work has infiltrated into the movies as much as into written SF. Who could forget the image of the twins at the end of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, men whose separate identities are portrayed brilliantly by one actor, Jeremy Irons, but whose identities fuse at the end of the film? Pure Philip Dick, although I don't think Cronenberg has ever formally made a film based on a Dick story. Who could forget the revelation at the end of Fight Club about the identity of Tyler Durden? Again, pure Philip Dick, via the novelist Chuck Palahnuik, upon whose book the film is based. I can’t believe Palahnuik isn't a Phil Dick fan.

It's this shifting world of identity, of a character shifting around worlds entirely inside himself, that is new to Scanner Darkly, but this divided world is also treated very science fictionally. The story teller is himself a character both inside and outside the action, interrupting scenes with quotations from German poetry. Or is it Bob Arctor, both divided inside the novel and divided from it as its story-teller? The world of this novel divides and subdivides, until Bob, who became Fred the narc, becomes Bruce the brain-dead drone.

What makes A Scanner Darkly a major book of Dick's work is the sheer level of invention, even if often the inventions are shown in the form of the wildest fantasies of various paranoid characters. Who is watching who? Who is betraying who? All these things are worked out in little bits of business, wheels within wheels grinding away at the characters' personalities.

Why don't we dismiss this as merely a manifestation of Philip Dick's personality undergoing a very dangerous screaming set of mental gear changes in the mid seventies? We know from all the books that have been written about Dick that he did undergo such a process. At the most obvious level, we like the novel just because Phil Dick has a more interesting personality than almost any other American writer of the twentieth century. In all the books of interviews I've read, friends, wives and girlfriends tell of the speed of Phil's mind, the brilliance of his wit. He took himself totally seriously, but on another level he didn't take himself seriously at all. He was always the subject of his own mirth, especially in A Scanner Darkly, in which Bob Arctor shows many of Dick's most uncomfortable personality traits.

On another level, Dick has, from all this mad palaver and desperate series of actions, built a universal metaphor for the end of the twentieth century. That's why it’s useful to consider, say, Chris Palmer's postmodernist interpretation of the book, or any one of the number of other interpretations that have been applied to it. A Scanner Darkly is a cut-off world, yet it has multiple connections with everything that's still going on, 22 years after Philip Dick's death and 33 years after the actions it is based upon. Palmer points out that all the drugs, all the products people use in the novel are just that "manufactured and branded" products. Only one character, once, expresses an interest in a product that has independent value: a rather good bottle of wine. When these people are not swapping and taking brand-name drugs, they are eating cheap brand-name food or drinks or buying cheap products that break down. Take away the drugs from this picture, and it remains the inescapable world in which many people now live.

Inescapability is the main concept of A Scanner Darkly, but that's also the element that links it with the wide sweep of his SF novels. There, the characters cannot escape from the alternate world into which they are pitched, but they can understand their predicament and retain a spark of human hope. However, in A Scanner Darkly, the people cannot escape because this world they inhabit has robbed them of their essential humanity. That's why the last pages of the book are so extraordinarily sad and memorable: because Bob Arctor, now just a mindless worker called Bruce, has had even the concept of sadness and despair stripped from him.

So, to start the conversation, I'll ask a few of the questions I asked myself when I was re-reading A Scanner Darkly. Is it a realistic novel, or an expressionist, even postmodern novel? Was Philip Dick being entirely honest when he wrote that all he wanted to do was recall the lives of the people among whom he lived in 1971 or 1972? If it is actually as much about 2005 as it is about 1972, why? Is it quite different from Philip Dick's other work, a bridge to his last three books, or a seamless part of the great big SF novel that Dick spent his life writing? If it's so special and different, why are we discussing it this weekend instead of, say, Ubik or The Man in the High Castle or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch? Questions, questions: that's what you get when you start talking about Philip K. Dick. Let's spend the weekend entering that extraordinary world, the mind of Philip K. Dick, writer.